1992 saw the release of the summer comedy-action flick, Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Kristy Swanson in the title role, Luke Perry as bad boy/romantic interest Pike, and Donald Sutherland as her mentor, Merrick. Rounding out the villains were Rutger Hauer as the vampire lord Lothos and his comedic sidekick Amilyn played by Paul "Pee-Wee" Reubens. It was a spectacular failure.
The concept, at its core, was fairly simple. It was rooted in the horror film trope of having a cheerleader sacrificed to the monster. This particular cliche had been subject to overwhelming feminist critique due to both the patronizing representation of the ditsy cheerleader and the voyeuristic pleasure derived by her death. Writer Joss Whedon, a self-attributed feminist, sought to turn this stereotype on its ear by placing the cheerleader in the role of the action hero.
In 1997, the concept returned as a TV series for The WB, a new network that was trying to brand itself for a teenage audience. It was here that the concept really became popular. The name "Buffy" conveyed the valley girl image that Whedon wanted to dispel the negative connotations of. While it made sense from the position of Whedon's ideological objective, I believe that it deeply hurt and continues to hurt the marketability of this series. It certainly kept me from watching it.
I have known my fair share of ditsy girls and had no interest in watching a series filled with phrases like "oh my god," "like," and "for sure." To top it all off, something about Sarah Michelle Gellar just bugged me. And it's not like I didn't try to watch it, but every episode felt like watching R.L. Stein's Goosebumps on Nickelodeon. They were contrived, watered down horror stories in a high school setting.
But the problem with watching nearly every TV show is that the reruns focus on the early episodes which tend to have smaller budgets and worse stories since the actors and writers have not gotten use to their characters. And in this particular genre, shows like Goosebumps were the closest comparison. So in addition to the problems of title and genre, the show had to contend with its own low production values.
It took me a long time to finally watch this show. I had dismissed it for years, but repeatedly I heard people of taste and intelligence recommending it (as well as people of not so much taste and intelligence). Finally, I traded my DS9 season one with a friend's Buffy season one and sat down to see what the fuss was all about.
So let me tell you what the fuss is about. In two words: Joss Whedon. It's his style and intelligence that sells this series based around three primary talents:
1) Humor - Joss Whedon has a fantastic sense of humor. He was formerly a staff writer on Roseanne and while I never cared for that show, you can see it in his focus on humor and female strength.
2) Structure - Whedon has fantastic sense of dramatic structure so acute that he can usually lead the audience without them realizing it and then the moment it starts to feel contrived, turns things completely around, and makes an entirely logical plot twist. His ability to both lead and surprise the audience without relying on cheap tricks is truly unparalleled.
3) Metaphor - The thematic device central to the series is "high school as Hell" and the show expresses its plots in allegorical stories about growing up. Some of these are blatant like the girl who turns invisible when no one notices her or the use of magic to get girls, but they all strike at universal themes that keep the viewer thinking. Additionally, the show has a distinctly feminist bent with the focus on an exploration of female power.
The premise of the show follows the events of the movie. Once per generation, a girl is chosen to receive great power so that she may become the vampire slayer. Usually these girls have a very brief lifespan and as one dies, another is chosen. Each slayer is assigned a Watcher from the Watcher's Council to train and guide the slayer in her quest.
As the story begins, Buffy's recently divorced mom moves to Sunnydale, a fictional town in Southern California. Upon attending the local high school, Buffy comes to discover that the school librarian is actually her new Watcher. Although she immediately rejects her calling, she soon discovers that she can't avoid it. Why? Because Sunnydale was built on a Hellmouth... which is exactly what it sounds like, a freakin' huge portal to Hell that attracts all manner of demonic creatures and mystical circumstance.
But if you are anything like I was, you've seen enough bad episodes of Buffy to know you don't want to see it. Besides, the title sounds like it will turn you gay. So if you don't want people to think you're gay, you definitely shouldn't see some of the episodes listed below or before you know it, you might become a Buffy fan.
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar)
It is said that Buffy was largely inspired (or at least influenced) by the X-Men and the primary inspiration for the character herself was Kitty Pryde, however the character's name and much of her conflict may come from her namesake: Scott "Cyclops" Summers. Like Scott, Buffy is conflicted with the responsibility of her powers... so much so that she sounds like another Marvel mainstay, Spider-Man. Buffy's role as the Slayer is a responsibility to constantly be on call to fight the forces of evil which is hard, of course, when you really just want to have fun and enjoy your youth.
Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendan)
One of Buffy's best friend is the comic relief dork, Xander. I think this character is often a stand-in for Whedon himself, or at least his teenage self. He is often given the comedic lines which are peppered with references ranging from Star Wars to Stooges. In fact, the dialog of Joss Whedon shows often reflect a particularly skewed perspective when references to geek pop culture and classic cinema show up in the mouths of stuck-up society types, but that's part of the charm and you have to let the realism go.
Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan)
Buffy also has a smart friend in Willow who initially starts off as a bookish geek and eventually becomes more confident, facing her problems head on. I have heard her compared to Jean Grey in that both have an "ultimate power corrupts absolutely" story arc and I'd be forced to agree. This character was certainly one of the most likable in the series' run. Over time, she becomes a Wiccan and an extremely powerful mage.
Rupert Giles (Anthony Head)
Every Slayer has a Watcher assigned to her from the Watcher's Council, an organization of uptight British occult experts who have taken it upon themselves to train new slayers. Anthony serves the role well, somewhere between Professor Xavier and Obi-Wan Kenobi in terms of patriarchal mentor. He brings a stuffiness to the role that suits it well, but is often shown as more of a complex human being with a spotty personal history. If Xander represents Whedon at Buffy's age, Giles represents the older, wiser, and more easily frustrated Whedon.
Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter)
If Buffy breaks the valley girl stereotype, Cordelia reinforces it with all of the unfounded attitude and sense of self-importance. Cordelia is a reminder of the clique Buffy used to be in before she was chosen, but now only serves to remind her that she is no longer one of them. As best friends with Xander and Willow, Buffy has officially moved into high school geek clique which Cordelia often reminds her.
Angel (David Boreanaz)
The vampire with a soul, Angel represented the awkward love interested for Buffy in the first three seasons. To put it again in X-Men terms, Angel falls somewhere between Wolverine and Colossus. Like Wolverine, he has a dark past that he is trying to atone for, but like Colossus, he has a sensitive, artistic side that he keeps to himself. For the most part, Angel began as a humorless character who was famous for his solipcistic brooding, but for the most part, his development occurred in his self-titled spin-off.
Oz (Seth Green)
In the third season, indy favorite Seth Green joined the cast as the quiet, quirky, and unreasonably cool Oz who we eventually learn is a werewolf. The character is a genius slacker whose only real interest is in his band, Dingos Ate My Baby (which even he thinks is mediocre at best), and Willow. Unfortunately, half way through the fourth season, they started having trouble writing Oz and he was written out of the show. Fans mourned and the Nielson's dropped.
Spike (James Marsters)
First appearing in the beginning of the second season, Spike joined the regular cast in the fourth season as a replacement (of sorts) to Angel. With a character type loosely based on Billy Idol, I've always felt that his corrolary X-Men character is Sabretooth, the psychopath who has a history with Wolverine. You see, Angel was sired by Darla. In turn, he sired Drusilla who, in turn, sired Spike. Together, they form a dark family who ravaged villagers throughout the generations. Spike is arguably the most dangerous and merciless. Having killed two slayers before, he initially comes to Sunnydale to kill the newest one.
Faith (Eliza Dushku)
In the beginning of the third season, Buffy meets a new slayer named Faith. Normally only one slayer is called at a time, but due to Buffy having briefly died, a second was chosen. Eliza Dushku delivers a fantastic performance as a dark reflection of the slayer and she displays strong acting chops as the character is constantly struggling with the darkness inside of her.
Unlike Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is only semi-episodic, so I cannot just recommend a handful of episodes. Instead, I'll give you an overview of each season and my personal favorite from each.
Season 1 - The Master
Season one follows the events of the Buffy movie. Buffy has left Los Angeles to the outlying fictional city of Sunnydale because she accidentally lit the school's gym on fire. She soon meets her new friends, Willow and Xander, along with her new Watcher, Giles. In short order, Buffy is trained to fight "The Master," an ancient vampire who is trapped in an old church, abandoned beneath the city in an old earthquake. When she learns that her death at his hands has been prophesied, she has to choose whether or not to face her destiny.
Standout Episode: Angel - In this episode, Buffy learns the secret of her mysterious handsome stranger and hears the story of how a vampire came to have a soul after receiving a curse for killing a gypsy princess. The soul came to torment him for the evil that he had done as a vampire, leaving him wallowing in guilt for a hundred years. The episode features his sire, Darla, and Buffy on opposite sides of his ever present moral dilemma.
Season 2 - Angelus
After defeating The Master in the first season, the series takes a sharp left turn by abandoning the old fashioned vampires of antiquity with new vampires more in the realm of Lost Boys or other modern vampire films. Leading the new villainy are Spike and Drusilla, old companions of Angel who act like the vampire equivalent of Bonny and Clyde, but when Angel loses his soul, he reverts to his old ways as a brilliant sadist. His number one target: Buffy, of course.
Standout Episode: Surprise/Innocence - This two-part episode completely changed the series as Angel loses his soul and Buffy her innocence. Until this episode, the show was good, but nothing particularly impressive, but the events herein (which I will yet again attempt not to spoil more than I already have) give weight and direction to the series. Fantastic performances by both Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz.
Season 3 - The Mayor
It's senior year at Sunnydale High and the Scoobies (as they have now taken to calling themselves) are now facing a fully open the Hellmouth ready to drag Sunnydale straight to Hell. To stop it, they need to resolve the tensions that have built up within them and fight the corny, hypochondriac mayor (well played by Harry Groener) who happens to be an immortal demon worshipper.
Standout Episode: The Zeppo - For me, the highlight of season 3 was the Xander-centric episode in which Xander reflects on his relative uselessness amongst the Scoobies. The story focuses on a bid for attention that gets Xander into problems with a local gang as he wanders in and out through a generic, but dramatic B-story that the viewer only gets glimpses of. It's a tongue-in-cheek self-parody that demonstrates some of the best strengths of the series.
Season 4 - The Initiative
As Buffy and Willow attend UC Sunnydale, a government-run team of soldiers appears in town to do Buffy's job for her, capturing, imprisoning, and testing demons in a state-of-the-art underground bunker. But are they able to handle a threat that they don't understand and are unwilling to truly believe in? Meanwhile, the Scoobies drift apart and Spike, on the run from the Initiative, becomes an reluctant member of the team.
Standout Episode: Hush - Season four's standout episode was entitled Hush. The episode featured a group of monsters known as "the Gentlemen" who traveled around town at night stealing everyone's voice. As a result, the majority of the episode is told without dialog, using music and gestures to impart the necessary information. This is one of the few directed by Joss Whedon who really demonstrates directoral creativity.
Season 5 - Glory
One day, Buffy gets home to discover that she has (and has always had) a little sister named Dawn. Soon later, she finds that she also has a new enemy by the name of Glory, but Glory isn't just another demon, she's a god... and Dawn may be the key to stopping her.
Standout Episode: The Body - Similar to Hush, The Body is written and directed by Joss Whedon and features no music. I won't spoil it by talking too much about the plot, but the lack of music when complimented with long takes creates an eerily disconcerting mood that fits the story perfectly. This might make my top ten best single episode list.
Season 6 - The Trio
Following the dramatic events of the previous season, season six makes an effort to lower the bar and focus on more personal storylines rather than constantly raising the threat level. This season follows three geeks who formerly appeared as a demon summoner, a magician, and a cybernetic mastermind as they attempt to take down Buffy for reasons that aren't entirely memorable. What is memorable is how they do it and by this point, it is an interesting deviation from the status quo.
Standout Episode: Once More, With Feeling - Continuing the tradition of one innovative episode per season, this episode is a musical based around a musical demon who grants singing and dancing fun with the occasional spontaneous combustion. It sounds silly, and it most definitely is, but Whedon uses the situation to expose the inner feelings of his characters in ways that could not possibly be more entertaining.
Season 7 - The First
The final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer begins with the title character's return to high school as a guidance councellor just as the world's first evil has declared war not only on the Slayer, but on all potential slayers. In order to save the world, Buffy needs to organize the potentials into an army. In order to carry out its will, The First uses his disciple, Caleb, a misogynistic preacher whose stronger than a slayer.
Standout Episode: Help - Unlike the previous three season, season seven doesn't have an obvious standout episode, so I have to go with this story about Buffy's first day as a high school councilor. When she confronts a girl with a serious Cassandra complex, Buffy tries to challenge fate.
Four years after the cancellation of the series, Joss Whedon began Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight as an ongoing comic series published by Dark Horse Comics. Like the TV show, the series is led by Joss Whedon who is credited as "Executive Producer" but features a team of writers handpicked and guided by Joss Whedon's overall script. The writing staff includes show writers like Drew Goddard and Jane Espenson along with comic book professionals like Brian K. Vaughn and Jeph Loeb. It is an excellent continuation of the series that makes great use of the strengths of the comic book medium to do the kinds of stories that would never be possible on a television budget.
It would be an insult if I didn't mention the pencil work of Georges Jeanty. His simple, but expressive style captures the actors from the series without distracting from his personal art style. Also, while the writers may change from issue to issue, the consistancy of Jeanty's art makes for a seemless reading experience lacking from most comic books today.
Earlier comics of Buffy adventures can be found in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, currently available in seven reasonably priced additions, but I haven't read any of these so I can't recommend them. What I do recommend is Fray, a mini-series about a slayer from the distant future, written by Whedon with art by Jeanty. This, of course, is in addition to the previously mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight.
In 2002, shortly before the series was canceled, plans were made for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Animated Series. The show featured all of the original voices (with the notable exception of Sarah Michelle Gellar) and was set in the first season of the regular series. Unfortunately, it wasn't picked up, so the only thing we have to show for it is this three-minute pilot.
On May 25, 2009 it was reported that the Buffy film was being remade without Joss Whedon or any link to the TV series. Fans are currently outraged.
David Boreanaz spins off into his own series entitled Angel.