Revisiting Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 23 years after its debut, there's nothing like Joss Whedon's pioneering TV series
From our #RewindToUnwind series, an ode to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a look at what made it special when it released in 1997, and why it remains relevant, nearly two-and-a-half decades later.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a huge part of why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my pick for the #RewindToUnwind series is down to how much I loved it growing up. This March was the 23rd anniversary of the show’s premiere and I’d missed the deadline to write about it. So when the chance to review a classic came up, I knew I had a second, precious opportunity.
Beyond my fangirl motivations, Buffy deserves to be written about for its indelible impact on the pop culture we consume today. It changed creators’ ideas about what was possible in television. Buffy put a female superhero — flawed and fallible, strong and inspiring — front and centre. It inspired reams of academic dissertation, changing the way we think of, discuss, write about, and approach popular culture.
This essay is neither academic nor analytical. It is simply an ode to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a look at what made it special when it released in 1997, and why it remains relevant, nearly two-and-a-half decades later.
Few experiences feel as lonely as nursing a desperate, one-sided love, and not having even the catharsis of talking to someone about it.
It was 1997, I was 12, and surfing television when I fell into my grand, unrequited passion.
It was the debut episode of a TV show, just a few minutes past its opening: A teenager walks into high school; it’s her first day there. A boy zooms by on his skateboard and takes a tumble near her. His name’s Xander, hers is Buffy. Buffy also meets Xander's best friend Willow. They’re clearly not the “cool kids” of Sunnydale High, but Buffy seems to prefer their company to that of Cordelia — the school’s Queen Bee, who tries to take the new girl under her wing.
When Buffy heads to the library to pick up her schoolbooks, the librarian Rupert Giles hands her an ancient tome titled “Vampyres” instead. She freaks out.
You see, she’s moved to Sunnydale to escape her secret identity as a Slayer: a young woman chosen to fight the forces of evil, imbued with supernatural strength and agility. Giles isn’t just a librarian, but her Watcher — an expert designated by an organisation known as the Council, to guide every Slayer in her work.
Buffy initially wants no part of it. But Sunnydale, despite its cheery name, is actually situated on the “Hellmouth”, a veritable fount for all kinds of evil, and before her first day is up, Buffy is already dealing with a vampire victim stuffed into one of the lockers at school, a missing classmate, and Willow being in danger.
By the end of an hour (actual episode runtime: 45 minutes, with the rest for commercials), I was hooked.
For the next six years, until Buffy the Vampire Slayer bowed out with its seventh season in 2003, I was among its devoted acolytes. As the gang around Buffy, Giles, Xander and Willow (aka the Scoobies or Slayerettes) morphed, new villains came on the scene and were vanquished, and the characters traded in teen angst for its adult version, I was with them every step of the way.
Why do we love the things we do? What alchemy allows a certain piece of art to make its way inside you, burrowing within until, like the radioactive spider that bit Peter Parker, its DNA splices with yours and changes you in ways both superficial and profound?
I’ve tried to answer that question with Buffy the Vampire Slayer over the years.
When I look back on the time that it became part of my life, what I remember is the loneliness. I wasn’t a “misfit” at school, but I didn’t quite fit in either. There were “friends”, but they were part of a shifting cast of characters. In moments that were supposed to spark happiness or solidarity, I’d experience what I later learnt was depersonalisation: an awareness of being outside my body, a floating observer of my physical self.
My home life was sedate and banal. There was some domestic strife because ours was a blended family, but my world couldn’t have been any further from Buffy’s had it been deliberately designed to be its polar opposite.
I was vicariously living Buffy’s life, this fantasy existence that was leagues and miles and realities away from my own. Buffy was everything I was not: strong, brave, beautiful, funny, adored. Watching Buffy and her friends was electric.
Fandoms have existed since the time of Sherlock Holmes, but modern fan culture — marked by relatively low barriers to participating and engaging in various ways, as well as forming social connections — is traced to the 1960s, with Star Trek. Modern fandoms have been called the “new secular religions of the world”, uniting vast communities across geographies.
Part of being in a fandom means that you share a communication shorthand with millions of strangers — in-jokes and allusions that require minimal explanation — that make you feel connected to each other.
As a product of the late ‘90s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer emerged on the cusp of a new decade and world. In the show’s first season, you see characters learning programming on clunky desktop computers. They use pay phones and landlines (later, pagers for emergencies). When the Scoobies need to research a new threat or phenomenon, they have to comb through piles of books, with occasional computer wizardry courtesy Willow.
Just as the characters were coming to grips with technology, so too were Buffy’s fans.
Twenty three years after its debut, there are a plethora of podcasts, YouTube reaction reviews, news articles, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest pages and subreddits, all dedicated to the show. Back when it first aired though, the "internet" wasn't this accessible thing that everyone went on. There were message boards and chat forums, but by the time My Space came into being in August 2003, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had already ended its run.
And with limited access to our home PC, complete with its dodgy dial-up connection, I was effectively excluded from what online chatter there might have been.
There was so much happening on Buffy and no one to talk to about it! That big Angel twist in season 2! Spike!! That heartbreaking season 5 finale, when Buffy sacrifices herself to save her sister Dawn: I walked around in a daze after ‘The Gift’, feeling like I’d explode if I didn’t get to discuss Buffy’s death with someone. But there never was anyone.
Around the time the last two seasons were broadcast, my circumstances changed. I was in Class 11, I’d found a real friend — the kind I could talk to about books and music and TV shows and everything we wanted from our lives and the future. My new friend didn’t watch Buffy though, so it remained a private obsession.
When Buffy ended in 2003 (and its spin-off Angel the next year), I was ready to move on. The finale — ‘Chosen’ — was bittersweet but epic. I was 18, not living quite so vicariously through the show anymore. I was out having experiences of my own, and there was so much to do. Buffy was still treasured and cherished, but it didn’t have too much bearing on my present.
Most of our lives have befores and afters — a moment that cuts you off from who you were and who you become, from where you thought you were going and where you head instead. Sometimes that cut-off can seem so brutal and takes so long to come to terms with, that you cannot — even once you’re in safer depths — revisit the “before” because it hurts too much to.
I think of these schisms as “Thelma and Louise moments”, based on Thelma telling Louise, “Something’s like crossed over in me and I can’t go back”.
The year 2004 had a Thelma and Louise moment for me. What I had been before was lost, and the things I loved, those became part of territory that was too painful to revisit.
Buffy was part of “before”, and I was in the “after”.
Buffy had its own Thelma and Louise moment: the season 2 episode ‘Surprise’. Buffy sleeps with Angel for the first time, which triggers a curse, and he transforms into a soulless monster — a plot development that changed the show from a campy and fun romp with monsters of various kinds, all of whom our heroine could best with some help from the Scoobies, into something darker and more twisted.
Many fans comment on how seasons 1-3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer feel like an entirely different show from seasons 5-7, with 4 serving as the transition point, and that is true for a number of reasons:
One, David Boreanaz (Angel) and Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia) left to front the Angel spin-off at the end of Buffy season 3. There would be crossovers on occasion (creator Joss Whedon made the Buffyverse, like the Marvel Universe, a single entity) but the S3 finale was the last time those characters appeared as main ones on Buffy itself.
Two, the setting for the story so far — Sunnydale High — was destroyed in the S3 finale, and the Scoobies graduated to college (or at least Buffy and Willow did).
Three, and most importantly, the demons they’d fought were changing too. Seasons 1 and 2 had followed a monster-of-the-week arc, with each episode focusing on a villain who was usually a spin on some classic horror staple like Frankenstein, Chucky, the Creature from Black Lagoon, Der Kindestod, and so on. Often these monsters were very obvious metaphors: an Invisible Girl haunting her classmates after she literally fades away because of not being seen and heard; a predatory teacher who is actually an insect that mates with and feeds on her students; a phallic-seeming reptile worshipped in the basement of a fraternity house who young women are sacrificed to. Apart from these sundry creatures, Buffy would also face off against one major “big bad” every season. Beyond season 2 though, the show gradually shed its monster of the week arc to focus more and more on these big fights.
Like its featured “arch-nemesises...ses”, Buffy’s personality was shifting too: it became more sophisticated, less goofy; less prone to "make it all better" at the end of its 45-minute run. Characters suffered tragedies they didn’t entirely recover from. Vanquishing the villains didn’t seem as all-in-a-day’s-work as it once had. But the switch had happened much before the end of S3; it had happened in that Thelma and Louise moment, when Angel turned on Buffy.
I came back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer this June.
It had been 17 years since I’d last seen an episode of the show in its entirety. I hadn’t forgotten it: I still recollected the storylines, specific episodes, the characters’ quirks. In the last decade, it had crept back into my life: a 2013 chat with Buffy’s co-producer Marti Noxon who was in town for a screenwriting lab, news stories, fan pages, the actors’ social media updates. In 2017, on its 20th anniversary, EW did a massive photo-spread with the cast and Joss Whedon.
But the turning point for me, the one that marked Buffy’s return into my consciousness, was sometime in early 2016, when after experiencing another Thelma and Louise schism, the lyrics for a song from Buffy’s iconic season 6 musical episode, ‘Once More With Feeling’, popped into my head — the climactic track where Buffy asks the demon du jour to give her “something to sing about”. I played the OST of the episode on loop, watched clips on YouTube, but held back from returning to the show itself. What if it wasn’t as good as I remembered? What if I wouldn't relate to it anymore?
Then, nearly four years later, and amid a lockdown that was slowly chipping away at my sanity, I began a rewatch.
Season 1, episode 1, ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’: Buffy walks into Sunnydale High. Xander zooms by on a skateboard. And I was hooked.
Far from my apprehensions about “regressing”, on rewatching Buffy now I can see the genius of Joss Whedon in a way I simply couldn't as a 12-year-old. (I can also see Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head, in a whole new ogle-worthy light.)
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired, I was so absorbed in its drama: the idealised and tortured love Buffy and Angel shared, the Xander-Cordelia and Willow-Oz-(and later) Tara pairings, Spike’s swagger and love-hate relationship with Buffy. The action and showdowns were thrilling, as much as the evolving group dynamics among the Scoobies, and the music that was performed at “The Bronze” (the club that served as their hangout).
I set certain rules for my rewatch: My endpoint would be season 6, episode 7, ‘Once More With Feeling’, widely acknowledged as not just the greatest Buffy episode of all time, but among the greatest television episodes ever. (The full seven-season run for Buffy the Vampire clocks in at 144 episodes, and there was no way I could fit that into the timeline I had for this essay.) I wouldn’t cheat by skipping ahead, I wouldn't skim watch. Stopping in the first half of S6 meant I wouldn't be able to discuss one of the most contentious developments on the show (the episode ‘Seeing Red’), or the pivotal “Dark Willow” arc, or even for that matter the series’ finale, ‘Chosen’.
But the thing is, squeezing an overview of Buffy into a single essay is a really, really difficult task anyway [which hopefully explains, gentle reader, why this one is so lengthy]. Not just because of the sheer volume of content, but also how many layers each episode packed in. There were the storytelling devices: visual cues, foreshadowing, metaphors, mirroring narratives, foils. There were the big themes: destiny, fate, redemption, sacrifice. There were the show’s takes on gender, sexuality, consent, misogyny, patriarchy and feminism, and numerous takeaways from each of those aspects: there's a reason people choose to do their PhD dissertations on Buffy and why it's taught as part of college courses.
Buffy shaped television and pop culture in many ways, and some of it at least had to do with how much the show itself revered the latter. Allusions to mythology, Shakespeare and the Hunchback of Notre Dame would jostle alongside references to the Marx Brothers, Harry Potter, The Untouchables, This Is Spinal Tap. Long before performative geekdom became part of mainstream culture, Buffy was made to reward its geekiest fans, who could dedicate the necessary time and attention to uncovering its many clues.
Watching the show as an adult, I can understand and appreciate its references and metaphors. Buffy had always been cool, now I could see that it was also very clever.
Buffy rarely dropped a beat: its timing was always impeccable, be it the comic delivery or the action. That’s the one thing I’ve probably been surprised by during this rewatch: I’d remembered the big beats and the emotion, but I’d forgotten how laugh-out-loud a show this could be, how hilarious and sharp the banter. The humour is nearly always wry, deadpan — and unexpected considering the context (the Scoobies staving off yet another apocalypse).
But Buffy's conceit was the unexpected. It took situations in which you were coded to feel fear and subverted them. Buffy herself, as Whedon has noted, was the archetype of the young blonde woman who inevitably gets murdered at the start of every horror movie (Sarah Michelle Gellar, in a meta move, played just such a character in Scream 2). But here, the woman had the monsters running scared.
In that same vein, the monsters were never the scariest part of Buffy (the poor VFX of the early seasons notwithstanding, the show counts a terrifying few in its pantheon, a list headed by The Gentlemen from ‘Hush’, who stole their victims’ voices before cutting out their hearts). You knew that Buffy could handle them.
Real life, however, was a different matter and a whole lot scarier: when Buffy passes out after drinking at a frat house and is carried to a bedroom upstairs (‘Reptile Boy’); or when her mother Joyce is dating a man who turns her against Buffy (‘Ted’); when Buffy briefly loses her superpowers (‘Helpless’); when she has to defuse a school shooting (‘Earshot’, which had to be postponed after the Columbine Massacre took place one week before the episode was scheduled to air); dealing with the fall-out of her relationship with Angel (seasons 2, 3); struggling to adjust to university (early episodes of season 4); Joyce’s illness (season 5) and loss (‘The Body’); her own death (‘The Gift’) and subsequent resurrection (season 6).
The resurrection arc in season 6 would come to a head in ‘Once More With Feeling’, which has a fairly bizarre premise — a demon’s spell ensures everyone in Sunnydale bursts into song and dance, which doesn’t seem all that dreadful, except they’re forced to sing the truth, and their frenzied dancing escalates to a point where the person self-combusts. The episode was masterful, with strong performances (especially from Anthony Stewart Head, James Marsters and Amber Benson), memorable music and lyrics by Whedon that covered everything from Buffy's mental state ("she came from the grave much graver"), to oral sex, to breaking the fourth wall, to long-running series jokes, to the crises within their relationships that had brought them to this point. What made it incomparable was the way it packaged a narrative about dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts into a chipper musical:
“Going Through the Motions” (about being numb and performing as an automaton), "Walk Through the Fire” (about being numb and wanting to feel something, anything), “Something to Sing About” (about being numb and wanting to die) — why the songs from that episode had come back into my head when they had was really not so surprising after all.
I wonder how Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have fared had it released a decade later than it did.
Surely, some elements of Buffy’s storylines wouldn’t have made it to the screen: the age gap between Buffy and Angel, ‘Seeing Red’, some of the depictions of sex. It certainly wouldn't have got 22 episodes in each season to play around with. It would be more representative. The VFX would be much, much better. And its fandom too would be different: fan culture has changed in the 2010s, the internet has transformed, as have the spaces in which we interact with each other and the ways in which we do so.
Ironically, as I've rekindled my love for Buffy during this pandemic and lockdown, I've felt far less lonely than I did watching it the first time round. I can laugh at “Angel/Riley: My Plans/2020” memes on Reddit and know that I share this communication shorthand with thousands of other people. I can listen to an episode of Buffering the Vampire Slayer if I want a queer/feminist perspective on a specific episode. I can discuss the mirroring between a Faith-Buffy scene and a Buffy-Spike sequence in the middle of the night with a bunch of enthused strangers. Just like she did all those years ago, Buffy has drawn me back into her world.
I think of Thelma telling Louise, “Something’s crossed over in me and I can’t go back”, and know that I have gone back. And Buffy has always been here, waiting for me.
Ten unmissable Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes:
‘Once More With Feeling’, S6 — A new demon comes to Sunnydale and the Scoobies can’t seem to stop singing some very painful truths
‘The Body’, S5 — Buffy deals with the loss of Joyce in a sombre, stripped down episode of television that is among the most nerve-wracking depictions of grief you’re likely to see
‘Hush’, S4 — Sunnydale’s residents lose their voices; Buffy must stop the monsters who’re now cutting the hearts out of their mute victims
‘Fool for Love’, S5 — The spotlight is on Spike’s past, and a truth he gets Buffy to confront, with some of the best action sequences of the series’ seven-season run
‘Passion’, S2 — Angel, now returned to his evil/soulless form Angelus, targets the Scoobies, and Giles
‘Becoming’ parts 1 and 2, S2 — The two-part finale that captured Buffy’s Angel-sized world-ending dilemma
‘The Gift’, S5 — Buffy faces off against the hell god Glory, and takes a drastic measure to save her sister Dawn
‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’, S1 — Where it all begins
‘Something Blue’, S4 — Willow, nursing her heartbreak over Oz, casts a spell that has (unintentionally hilarious) consequences
’Bad Girls’/’Consequences’, S3 — A story arc that brought out the ways in which Buffy and Faith were alike and different
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