Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a revelation.
A clever, dark and funny TV show, which captured the imagination of a generation.
The show was preceded by a film of the same name, but that is where the similarities begin and end.
The film was hampered by changes to Joss Whedon’s script and vision. Changes which resulted in a film that was neither one thing nor the other.
When the opportunity came to revisit his concept for television, under his complete creative control, he jumped at the chance.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer charts the adventures of Buffy Summers, a teenage girl from California, chosen by fate to save the world from evil.
We join Buffy as she moves to Sunnydale, a town built on a mystical “Hellmouth” that acts as a magnet, attracting all manner of weird and horrible creatures.
Aided by her Watcher, Giles and a group of close friends (affectionately known as The Scooby Gang), Buffy fights the forces of darkness, the tribulations of high school and the occasional evil boyfriend for seven wonderous seasons.
She also saves the world.
Coming at the start of a golden age of TV, where shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire lapped up critical plaudits and awards, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is often forgotten when it comes to ‘Best of’ lists.
But Buffy’s legacy of clever storytelling, strong writing, terrific concepts and wonderful performances endure to this day.
And here are the five reasons why I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
1 – THE WRITING
Buffy very quickly established itself as a “writers” show.
Joss Whedon, the creative force behind the scenes, had cut his teeth as a television writer in the nineties before getting his opportunity to executive produce on Buffy.
As the show progressed, Whedon oversaw the main arc of the season, often writing and directing the more pivotal episodes.
The show is littered with the kind of hilarious one-liners that you associate with successful sitcoms of the time.
The humour is one of the main reasons the show is accessible to everyone.
The characters are as pop-culture savvy as the audience, helping us to relate to them when they’re put through the emotional wringer.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is arguably the show that popularised the ‘season arc’ and introduced it as a staple in modern TV.
From the very first episode, the show introduced a central villain who would reappear throughout the year.
We would return to the central threat of the year frequently before we reached the finale.
Buffy tackles topics as diverse as the dangers of online relationships (well ahead of its time), dealing with suicide and coping with death.
The show was able to deftly deal with controversial topics other shows of its era were unable to touch due to the supernatural camouflage these topics wear.
The writing continuously creates shocking and heart-breaking moments.
Never afraid to kill off or write out beloved characters to suit the story, Buffy was often fearless.
Plot twists that, although surprising, were painstakingly plotted through the course of a season are a joy to witness.
Over the years, Whedon assembled an astounding team of writers who went on to further successes, both small screen and Hollywood.
If you’re a fan of any of the biggest shows of the last decade (Lost, 24, Fringe, Battlestar Gallactica, Daredevil, Game of Thrones, etc.) then the chances are you’ve seen an episode written by an alumnus of Sunnydale High.
2 – FANTASTIC VILLAINS
One of the show’s strengths is its cast of nightmarish villains, ranging from terrifying vampires to Chaos Gods.
Buffy is a show that revels in creating truly memorable villains who get under our skin in a variety of ways.
Season one features The Master. A generic horror staple who is elevated above the stereotype by a deliciously camp performance by Mark Metcalf.
Season two, by comparison, took a beloved character of the show and sent him to the dark side.
Buffy’s vampire boyfriend, Angel was cursed by gypsies to be robbed of his soul should he ever experience a single moment of perfect happiness (that’s a long story in itself, folks).
This became the secret weapon of the show.
In most television shows, Angel would have been back to his old self by the end of the episode, but Buffy doubled down.
In so doing, they created one of the most memorable television monsters of all time.
The boyfriend who turns into an uncaring monster as soon as he has his way with our heroine was the perfect metaphor for Buffy. And David Boreanaz proved to be a revelation as Angelus, the cruel and sadistic alter ego of fan favourite, Angel.
The weekly monsters were fantastic in their variety: haunted dummies, witches, mummies, demons, killer robots (one memorably played by John Ritter, undercutting his wholesome sitcom Dad reputation) and Gollum-like creatures all make an appearance.
3 – THE CHARACTERS GROW
I think one of the things that tie so many people to Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the development of our central characters.
This isn’t a show in which the status quo is established and adhered to, but rather one in which change, and development are paramount.
The first three seasons are set in Sunnydale High, a school literally built on the mouth of hell.
We follow our core characters through to graduation, during which we see them struggle with unrequited love, pressures of exams, bullying and the general struggle to fit in.
It’s a show which helps generations of teens to deal with their own struggles; to look to these characters and see ourselves.
Upon graduation, we follow the gang to college, work and for Xander and Giles, to obscurity.
Season four separates them and changes the format.
Buffy and Willow go to university, while Xander and Giles lose their way.
And Angel and Cordelia head to LA for their celebrated spin-off show, Angel.
Part of the joy is in watching Xander and Giles find their place in the world, as many people who are made redundant or who aren’t suited to university or college often struggle to do.
In amongst the supernatural are the very real problems we empathise with.
The characters fundamentally change. And the fact that you can track these changes through key events give Buffy a depth and life that many other shows struggle to show.
Buffy, transforming from cheerleading valley girl to a powerful warrior and general of her own army, earns that change through years of continuity and growth.
The show enriches its characters and deepens our connection to them.
Not a single character remained as they began.
4 – EVENT EPISODES
In the first three seasons, the show always felt like it was building to its finale episodes.
The last two episodes would wrap up the ongoing arc, often leaving us on a cliffhanger.
Season four sees the show push its boundaries and experiment with its own format, resulting in one of the creepiest television episodes ever made.
We are treated to the episode “Hush”, a haunting modern fairy tale, which plays out mostly in silence.
The episode’s central villains, The Gentlemen, appear to have glided from the pages of a Brothers Grimm tale, as they steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale and silently hunt for human hearts.
The episode is crammed with atmosphere, slowly building to bone-chilling scares and surprising belly laughs.
This is a must watch for all fans of horror!
Following this success, the show presents a season finale that takes place entirely within the dreams of our main characters, full of symbolism and light on plot.
It’s an odd, risky and low-key way to end a season of television, but as a fanbase we are so invested in our central four characters that an opportunity to see their subconscious at work is a welcome one.
Buffy takes this subdued tact again when dealing with the natural death of Buffy’s mum in season five – the haunting and devastating episode, “The Body”.
Not an episode that anyone could describe as enjoyable, but rarely has there been an hour of television that so perfectly encapsulates the tragedy of losing a loved one.
It’s a hard watch, but an earned ordeal after building our characters so well.
And finally, the event episode that regularly hits the top spot when fans are asked for their favourite: “Once More With Feeling”
It’s a musical episode that feels as natural and necessary as any other.
The episode is crammed with catchy songs, revelatory singing performances, and a plot that ties directly into the themes of the season.
Ending on some powerful revelations that change the season going forward, it never feels like a shoe-horned gimmick. It’s more like a necessary cleansing after season six’s relative doom and gloom.
5 – IT’S INSPIRATIONAL
There are few shows that inspire and validate its audience the way Buffy the Vampire Slayer does.
It’s a show about us.
The cool kids have their place (and, going against convention, were shown to be as deep, well rounded and sympathetic as anyone else). But, at its heart, it’s about a group of misfits who hang out in the (rather magnificent) school library with the stuffy librarian.
The characters are more than the lazy stereotypes that often populate teen shows.
The class-clown and generally hopeless student, Xander reveals his hidden bravery and loyalty to his friends.
Willow, the shy and nerdy bookworm, blossoms into a powerful and courageous witch who proves to be just as necessary in the fight against evil as our beloved slayer.
The characters who begin as recognisable tropes develop into more than the cliché and, in doing so, help a generation of teens to believe in themselves.
The show is also one of the first to portray a loving and healthy gay relationship, with Willow and Tara.
Their relationship is both sweet and loving, the show crucially treating their relationship as it does any other.
Buffy helped to reinforce to a generation that there is nothing abnormal or wrong with being gay.
And Buffy Summers herself?
Here is a girl who embodies the strength within us all.
An important figure in pop culture who embodied the feminist spirit, Buffy taught us all to keep going no matter what life throws at us.
Sarah Michelle Gellar gives a career best performance, portraying a hero as flawed as the rest of us.
A hero who always gets back up after being knocked down, who makes the difficult choices when no one else can and who stays true to her sense of right and wrong, no matter the cost.
Earlier this year, it was quietly announced that Monica Owusu-Breen is working on a sequel series with Joss Whedon.
The show will be set within the world established in season seven, with a new slayer being called to arms.
I don’t know about you guys but given the state of the larger world in which we all live right now, I could really use another hero like Buffy Summers.
By Hugh McStay
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