Twenty years ago, the landscape of television, drama and popular culture changed with the debut of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon. Looking back at the first shaky season of what was then a summer replacement series of only 12 episodes, the show’s influence and lasting impact isn’t exactly readily apparent. Buffy season one is very much a 1990s youth show, complete with grunge music, lots of plaid and girls in denim overalls. The makeup was cheesy, the catchphrases were sometimes painfully forced and the show seemed to be struggling to rise above genre schlock. But there was something there, something that promised great things. The show’s creators learned from that first tentative run and when the second season arrived the following year, Buffy was fully on its feet and started to truly shine. Some shows take multiple seasons to get going — this one took 12 episodes.
I include that proviso about season one for anyone who hasn’t watched the show and is tempted to start now in honour of the 20th anniversary. Because I’ve seen far too many people turned off by the first few episodes and who chose not to stick with the program. Those people are missing out, because, besides any lasting cultural or critical impact, Buffy was great television. The characters matured over the years, learned from their mistakes, suffered setbacks, celebrated birthdays, graduations, and other rites of passage. There were deaths and there were victories. The show established a new way of considering continuity in television, previously seen only on Babylon 5, which deserves credit for pioneering long-form story arcs on network TV. Buffy presumed a level of intelligence and cultural awareness on the part of its audience. It trusted the audience to come with it on a years-long journey through the formative years of one girl and her group of friends. And along the way, it changed the way we thought about what comic book-inspired stories could be.
Buffy, for those who need reminding, was set in the fictional town of Sunnydale, California, where high school student and stereotypical blonde California girl Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) had just moved with her recently-divorced mother. At school, she soon meets future friends Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), a well-meaning, awkward boy who can never quite seem to close the deal with a girl, and Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), a shy and awkward computer nerd with a unique style of dress. The three, along with the snooty rich-girl Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) form the nucleus of what would become known as the “Scooby Gang”, as it is revealed that Buffy herself is actually The Chosen One, a Slayer — literally a super-being who rises once every generation to do battle with “the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness”. Her mentor and guide in this work is a member of the ancient order of Watchers, men who throughout history have trained and supervised the Slayers, who are always young girls. Buffy’s watcher is her school librarian Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head. As the first season goes on, we are introduced to the basic rules of the universe, such as the notion that vampires are essentially humans without souls, who resemble the humans they used to be, except that they have no capacity for empathy. Except for one vampire, a haunted and brooding figure named Angel (David Boreanaz), a 200-year-old who was once the scourge of Europe until he was cursed by a band of gypsies to have a soul, so he could feel guilty for all the crimes he committed. Buffy and Angel become a couple, and their love story forms the basis of season two and beyond, where we follow Buffy and all the character through high school, their graduation, College and eventually into the working world.
Buffy, for all its cheese (and as Joss Whedon freely admits, “I loves me some cheese”), was never less than 100% emotionally honest. The masks might have been fake, but the heart was always there. It’s interesting that the 20th anniversary rolls around just as we’re getting the first deadly serious adult drama set in a comics universe: Logan. What the two properties share is their emotionality. The situation might be ridiculous, but the characters are always heartbreakingly real.
Buffy also informed culture, and was informed by it. The characters lived in an admittedly heightened but still recognizable version of the real world. They referenced popular culture directly, and world events, but obviously the plots took the characters into situations unique to their reality.
The conceit of the show was that vampires and magic exist, in this world, and have always existed. It did the vampire mythos the honour of taking it seriously as well, with stakes to the heart or sunlight or decapitation being the only way to kill a vampire. Buffy’s vampires are also repulsed by crosses, which is why the emphatically non-religious Buffy Summers herself always wore one around her neck. Demons also exist in Buffy, giving the show’s creators the chance to indulge in all manner of extravagant makeup and costumes. That very matter-of-fact acceptance of a demon-infested world is straight from the world of comics, and while it’s sometimes played for laughs (Buffy could be very light on its feet and had a wonderfully irreverent sense of humour), for the most part the characters and the audience simply accepted the world for what it was and responded to its challenges seriously. Following in the footsteps of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5, it put real people in the middle of fantasy situations and allowed the drama to follow logically from it.
Today, we have so many great TV shows that invest in their genre, tell long story arcs in a serialized fashion and aren’t afraid to reference popular culture that it’s easy to forget where it all started. Obviously The X-Files and Babylon 5 deserve credit, as do the pioneering British series of the 1980s such as Traffik, but Buffy made the breakthrough. It became a cultural phenomenon in its day, and raised the bar high for future shows. Over the course of seven seasons, it allowed its characters to grow and change, but remain essentially true to their core personalities. When it finally went off the air in 2003, the world of television was forever changed.
Buffy spawned a sister series, Angel, featuring the titular character from Buffy, who left the show at the end of its third season. Angel ran for five seasons, ending on a very high note in 2004. If Buffy was about the challenges of growing up and coming of age, Angel was about the challenges and compromises of living in the adult world, and finding one’s true mission in life. Angel, at times, was even stronger than Buffy in terms of drama, and just as bold in its innovation. (The fifth season even featured an episode in which Angel was transformed into a Muppet.) But again — it all started with Buffy.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Buffy was a refreshingly third-wave feminist show. Whedon understood modern feminism better than most, and soaked his show (actually, all of his creations) in the unforced equality that feminism offers. Take the title character’s attitude towards sex, for example. In most shows like this with a female lead, the story is always about some guy wanting to get into her proverbial pants and her holding out, pushing him away and finally relenting. Then, they are either bonded forever or things take a tragic twist. Buffy, on the other hand, has agency. She has sex because she likes sex. And no, it doesn’t always turn out well for her, and no, she doesn’t always make the right choices. The notion that women have to serve as the moral goalkeepers of the sexual world is deeply patriarchal, and essentially lets men off the hook for their choices. Buffy takes a much more liberated approach, and allows its title character to be fully human in that respect. It would be easy to write off the show as “Oh, a girl kicks butt, so it’s feminist” exercise, but it’s what Buffy does when she isn’t kicking butt (which she does – and does well) that makes the show the feminist masterpiece it is.
In fact, along with my feminist film studies professor at grad school, Buffy helped me to understand what feminism was, and to embrace it fully as a man. It showed me how many of the assumptions I had made about feminism were wrong, and how inclusive it could be. But it never lectured — the shows were never less than entertaining. It always delivered the genre thrills and spills. And along the way, changed the world. A lot.
Happy Birthday, Buffy, and thank you for all you taught me, and the rest of the world.