Sunday, 24 November 2019

She Saved the World...a Lot: A BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Retrospective

Originally airing between 1997 and 2003 (and loosely based on a 1992 movie), Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the most popular genre TV shows of the 1990s. Created and produced by Joss Whedon, the show spawned a larger franchise – the “Buffyverse” – which came to incorporate novels, video and board games and a canonical, eleven-year comic series which continued the story from the TV show. It also spawned a spin-off show, Angel, which ran from 1999 to 2004. Almost every book, TV show and movie featuring supernatural creatures in a modern setting published since 1997, from The Dresden Files to Sookie Stackhouse (itself adapted to TV as True Blood) to the Twilight series, lives in Buffy’s shadow.

Buffy started as a joke: Joss Whedon getting annoyed at yet another helpless young woman going down the wrong alley or trusting the wrong guy and getting killed by a (usually male) monster or serial killer. Working as a scriptwriter on the mega-hit sitcom Roseanne gave the very young Whedon some pull in Hollywood, so he wrote a spec script which started with the same scene, but this time the young woman defeats the monster and kills it in hand-to-hand combat. The resulting movie made some noise on release for its casting of the then-hot Luke Perry (from Beverly Hills 90210) and Kristy Swanson (seen as a potential up-and-comer) in the title role, and did okay at the box office. Whedon was unhappy with the final film, which had dramatically cut his script, removed most of the best lines and exorcised the final set-piece battle in which the school gym is spectacularly blown up. He was also extremely unhappy with Donald Sutherland’s performance and felt his vision for the film had been butchered, turned more into a comedy than the comedy-horror hybrid he’d envisaged. He moved on, becoming a script doctor working on films such as Twister, Speed and Toy Story, and tried to forget about the experience.

Unexpectedly, 20th Century Fox didn’t forget about it. The movie had performed perfunctorily at the box office but picked up a long tail on home video and rental, making a pleasing amount of money and working as a kitsch cult favourite, although not enough to justify a film sequel. Along with the film’s producers they worked on the idea of turning the film into an ongoing TV series instead and invited Joss back to write for the show and run it. Whedon agreed, surprising many in the business as he turned his back on the lucrative world of movies for TV, where he had much greater creative control instead. Whedon’s last film script at this time was the first draft of Alien: Resurrection, which was also butchered by the director and in rewrites, causing him to later remake the same idea (of a disparate crew of reluctant allies working on a transport ship in the future) as a TV show…but that’s another story.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was produced by Fox but aired on the WB network, where it picked up very strong audience figures for the young channel. The show was a near-instant success, propelling its young and photogenic cast onto the covers of magazines worldwide. More startlingly, it attracted a degree of critical acclaim. After a few ropy opening episodes, the Season 1 finale and then most of Season 2 saw a huge uptick in the show’s critical reception, as Whedon took the show in unexpectedly dark directions.

The doomed relatonship between Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Angel (David Boreanaz) provided the main dramatic thrust for the first three seasons of the show.

The show’s premise is broadly similar to the movie’s (which, confusingly, in the show canon is referenced only in the form of Whedon’s original script, not the final product). Into every generation is born a Slayer, one teenage girl in all the world who has the strength, speed and stamina to fight against the vampires, demons and other forces of darkness. When one Slayer dies another is called. An organisation known as the Watchers’ Council identifies potential Slayers before they are called and helps train and prepare them for the role, but in the case of Buffy Summers they completely miss the signs. Buffy thus has to train and learn how to be a Slayer at the same time as dealing with ordinary teenage concerns: dating, studying and family trauma (her parents have recently divorced).

For the show, Buffy relocates to Sunnydale, California, a fictional town which just happens to be built on top of the Hellmouth, a portal leading to a myriad of unpleasant hell dimensions. The Hellmouth has been relatively quiet for seventy years (although there’s still more supernatural activity than normal there) but has recently become more active due to the presence of the Master, a vampire lord who has been imprisoned nearby. As the Master’s prison weakens, so the Hellmouth gets more active and more weird stuff starts happening.

Buffy is aided in her task of guarding the Hellmouth by a new Watcher, Rupert Giles, and two friends who discover Buffy’s secret in her first week in her new high school: Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg. This foursome forms the core of the “Scooby Gang.” Over the course of the seven seasons, there are numerous additions to and departures from the Gang, but this core group remains (mostly) constant. The presence of the Hellmouth helps the writers explain why Buffy is constantly coming up against weird creatures in the same location, the show lacking the budget to have her constantly on the road travelling to trouble spots (as is suggested is the normal life of a Slayer); the WB’s later supernatural, demon-hunting series (now on the CW), Supernatural, actually employs this idea instead.

The show’s initial focus is on action, with Buffy fighting a new “monster of the week” each episode, including crazed Inca mummies, a giant praying mantis (probably the nadir of the show’s episodes) and – apparently – a serial-killing sentient puppet. However, she also has a recurring problem in the form of the Master’s plan to break free and open the Hellmouth, thus ending the world (or flooding it with demons). The show also gives Buffy a potential love interest, Angel, a “reformed” vampire who has had his soul restored by a gypsy curse. The twelve-episode first season culminates in a final battle where the Master is defeated.

Although the later seasons are much longer (22 episodes apiece), the first season establishes the show’s basic format: a threat – the “Big Bad” – is established in the opening episodes, which at first is in the background and vague and then grows more powerful, usually becoming prominent by mid-season, where there is usually a twist or reversal which ups the stakes and drives the back half of the season. Buffy also has personal challenges to face at the same time, involving romance, her academic career or her family life. With some variations, each season of the show broadly follows this arc, with occasional moderate changes in format driven by events such as Buffy and her friends graduating from high school to college at the end of Season 3. Whedon chose this format over the “one big story unfolding across the entire series” approach favoured by one of his favourite shows, Babylon 5, because it gave greater closure to each season (making it less problematic if the show was unexpectedly cancelled). However, he later acknowledged this was somewhat contrived – a new threat showing up in September that was normally defeated by May, with there being no threat at all over the summer – and seeded in more long-running story arcs into the later seasons, whilst also including a series-long, ongoing threat in the spin-off show Angel (that of evil law firm Wolfram & Hart).

Spike (James Marsters) was an early-series villain who returned later on as a friend and ally.

The reasons for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s commercial and popular success were obvious: the young and photogenic cast and the stories mixing action, drama, soap opera elements and romance. The reasons for its critical success were initially less clear; contemporary young dramas such as Charmed, Roswell and Dawson’s Creek seemed to be somewhat more risibly received by adult critics whilst Buffy was wowing them as early as the end of Season 1. The reasons for this are numerous. The first is that Buffy is the rare show that completely masters tonal variation, a hallmark of Joss Whedon’s work (who also does the same thing in Angel, Firefly and the two Avengers movies he worked on). Buffy is an intense teenage character drama one minute, an all-out action show the next and then a comedy. During and after Season 4 it also developed a nice line in unexpected experimentation, with one episode taking place almost completely without dialogue and another being a musical filled with original songs referencing and pushing forwards the plot.

The second is that the show has pretty good dialogue. Whedon – 32 when the first season aired – knew he wasn’t “down with the kids” so developed his own language cadence and lexicon for the show which both felt real (the weird teenager in-references and jokes feel genuine) but weren’t based on real contemporary slang, also preventing the show from dating. More cleverly, he was also able to make Giles sound like a genuine English guy (thanks to Whedon spending three years in the UK as a teenager) and developed more elaborate and flowery dialogue for the vampire characters who had lived for centuries.

The third is that Buffy is self-aware, and usually the first to poke fun at itself. Its premise and even the name of the show are batty and weird, and it leans into it. The fact that all vampires seem to inexplicably learn kickboxing in the time between dying and raising from the grave is noted, and Buffy’s tendency to give wonderfully uplifting speeches but which then can get a bit repetitive becomes a recurring gag in the final season. Giles’s tendency to get immediately knocked out by whatever threat has arisen is also noted, with the other characters starting to worry he’ll “wake up in a coma.” For those who think metacommentary in a TV show is a new thing, watching twenty-three-year-old episodes where characters mock the dramatic angst and doomed tragedy of the Angel/Buffy relationship can be amusing.

The fourth reason is that Buffy is a metaphor, and a successful one. The show uses the vampires, werewolves and supernatural creatures as reflections and stand-ins for the traumas of life, at first applied to teenagers and later to life in general. An unpopular girl is so fed up at being ignored and lonely that she literally fades out of view and becomes completely invisible. The most popular girl in the year, Cordelia, is constantly being complimented and having sycophants hang on her every word, but is lonely and unhappy until joining Buffy’s crew gives her a sense of purpose and fulfilment (despite Buffy’s group being considered weird rejects and outcasts at school) because they are actually achieving something. In Season 2, Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, inadvertently breaking his curse and turning him back into a vicious, amoral killer, a nod at the “nice guys” who turn into arseholes the second they get what they want from the girl. More controversially, numerous young, lonely and male students are shown dabbling with various dark arts to kill or hurt their fellow students, often after being rejected by female crushes. One even pulls out a gun in school, although this is to kill himself rather than his classmates, but this was so problematic in the wake of the Columbine massacre that the episode was delayed by several months.

The metaphors are usually reasonably elegant, but occasionally get preachy: Willow’s addiction to using magic in Season 6 is a worthwhile storyline, but is clumsily presented, with Willow visiting “magic dens” where people get off on doing spells like they’re 1960s acid-trippers. This wasn’t so much “on the nose” as “snapping the nose clean off.” Faith’s third season descent into being a “bad girl” is also pretty clichéd, saved only by Eliza Dushku’s performance and her later redemptive arc on Angel (which then feeds back into Buffy’s final season).

The relationship between Tara (Amber Benson) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) was extremely popular with viewers, and the resolution to it remains controversial.

As Buffy went on it matured, and the audience matured with it. The final three seasons (the sixth, in particular) are sometimes criticised for going “too dark,” with Buffy embarking on an inappropriate, creepy and mutually destructive relationship with the vampire Spike (who, unlike Angel, doesn’t have a soul) and several popular supporting characters being killed off. In the case of Buffy’s mother, this felt necessary to drive a new wave of storylines about Buffy’s independence and making her stand alone, but in the case of the extremely popular Tara it felt less justified and more gratuitous (and problematic, with Tara being a then-rare example of a lesbian character in a happy relationship). 

The addition of Buffy’s “sister” (actually a magical construct) Dawn to the show also upset some fans, who felt it added an element of soap opera to the show and also contributed to the ever-expanding cast, which added some story variety but also dissipated the tight focus on the core foursome. Whedon certainly seemed to have issues jettisoning actors he’d befriended once their main contribution to the story was done, having the likes of Oz, Anya and even Spike hanging around for maybe a season too long apiece as he tried to work out what to do with them. The final season, which has about a dozen new recurring characters (between multiple villains, new allies and the “potential Slayers” Buffy takes under her wing) showing up, is particularly guilty of this. Another element which has aged poorly is Xander’s borderline sexism towards girls in the first season which thankfully improves dramatically in the second.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t perfect, but it’s one of those shows where the imperfections make it more interesting. It’s a show that tried to wear several hats simultaneously – action, comedy, romance, horror – and actually succeeded in doing so. It could be funny, scary and thought-provoking, and occasionally (in the case of the harrowing Season 5 episode The Body, comfortably one of the best episodes of television ever made) genuinely tear-jerking. It was also a show way ahead of its time in many respects, with the series doing metacommentary, genre savviness and social commentary arguably better than most shows attempting the same today.

Buffy has aged like a fine wine (apart from some of the dodgier effects and a half-arsed HD remaster which should be avoided like the plague) and is still richly compelling and entertaining television, the forerunner of so many modern shows, books and movies which have never quite managed to hit all the same notes simultaneously. If you’ve never seen it, I recommend giving it a whirl, and if it’s been a while since you last visited Sunnydale, you might be surprised at how welcoming the Hellmouth can be on a return trip.

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