‘Buffy’ Celebrates 20 Years of Slaying
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a series that was a critical part of “The Golden Age of Television” that took place in the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s. The show particularly transformed the role of teenage girls in television.
Since its end in 2003, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has attained cult classic status. To this day, it remains relevant in modern television with a lasting and recognizable influence.
The show premiered on March 10, 1997, on The WB, now The CW, a network known for shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Gossip Girl,” all of which star teenage girls or young women.
Affordable streaming services have made “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” readily available to younger viewers, which has given the series a new relevance. But what many streamers don’t understand is that, without “Buffy,” none of the beloved aforementioned shows would have come into existence.
By taking the blonde teenage girl who typically would die at the hands of the monster or killer and giving the girl the power to kill the monster, the series turned the horror genre on its head.
But Buffy’s future didn’t always seem so promising.
The show was based on a critically-panned and largely unseen 1992 movie from writer Joss Whedon (“Firefly,” “The Avengers”). The screenwriter doubted whether people would take the show seriously because of its title, but he was determined to bring a meaningful story to life.
The series opens with Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a seemingly average teenage girl, struggling with her recent move to Sunnydale, California.
Amid other brands of teenage angst, Buffy is also dealing with the fact that she’s The Chosen One – the one girl given the power to defend the world against demonic creatures of the underworld.
Under the guidance of her Watcher Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Buffy makes friends in schoolmates Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander (Nicholas Brendon), who help the Slayer in her mission.
By night, Buffy begrudgingly fights demons, who really serve as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of being a young adult. By day, she is a normal teenage girl who struggles with acne and boy troubles.
What made this duality so revolutionary was that the writers did not make fun of or belittle Buffy for her femininity. Prior to this time, many television writers used teenage girls as a punchline.
This series used Buffy to convey the idea that femininity does not equate to weakness or stupidity.
Other elements of the show had a hand in shaping its stellar reputation. The series innovated drama shows structurally, particularly with its use of micro and macro storylines.
While Buffy battled a smaller monster in every episode, she and the gang struggled with a new “Big Bad” villain every season.
Ironically, Buffy finds herself drawn to the creatures she must slay: vampires. Angel, Buffy’s first love in the series, scorns her and, shortly after, moves to his own eponymous spin-off show.
She later falls in love with Spike, the fan-favorite bleached-haired “villain.” He eventually develops into a lovable, sardonic and compassionate character.
Fans remain divided over whether Buffy belonged with Angel or Spike. By the finale, Buffy ends up with neither suitor.
With this choice, the writers made a powerful statement about how young women’s strength is found within themselves rather than romantically with a man.
In the fourth season, the series successfully transitioned the characters from high school to college – a difficult task given that many high school friends typically separate when entering college.
Although the friends branch out and are not as tightly-knit as they once were, they remain Buffy’s faithful confidants.
Willow’s college experimentation with her sexuality and eventual coming out as a lesbian provided television with the first representation of a major lesbian character in a fully-developed lesbian relationship.
Critics even cite specific episodes when discussing the show’s impact.
After a strong, poignant season five finale that many fans thought the show should’ve ended with, the writers proved the show was stronger than ever with “Once More With Feeling,” the classic season six musical episode.
In “The Body,” Buffy comes home to find her mother dead and spends the remainder of the episode accepting the tragedy. The culprit behind her mother’s death was not a demon or monster from which Buffy could have protected her, but a brain aneurysm.
For the first time, she faces forces out of her control. A numb Buffy fights no monsters, and the episode uses no music to further the feeling of emptiness, making the viewer feel Buffy’s emotions.
The highly realistic portrayal of the shock and grief death brings marked a turning point in the series and developed a new standard for the television portrayal of this very universal but equally unpleasant occurrence.
When fairy tale monsters steal voices from all Sunnydale residents in “Hush,” viewers watch an episode with almost no talking – an incredible feat considering most shows propel the storyline primarily through dialogue.
However, the series is not without flaws. Critics and viewers alike universally acknowledge that weak, campy storylines made the first season difficult to watch, citing its numerous “Scooby-Doo,” “monster-of-the-week”-type villains.
But with only twelve episodes, the first season is worth drudging through because it introduces the characters and establishes the series’ larger storyline. This background rewards viewers in later great episodes with a greater understanding of the series.
Whether a viewer is revisiting the series or watching it for the first time, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will provide television fans with a new perspective.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime.