Buffy Summers, she saved the world a lot you know, and, in a way, she also saved me.
Alright, don’t worry, this is not some sort of crazy piece where I’m going to start telling you some story about how I was walking home one night, past a creepy graveyard and I got attacked by a vampire and Buffy came out and rescued me. Although that would have been so amazing if it did.
No, what Buffy did, along with her ex-boyfriend when he got his own show as well, was save me from some tough times as a teenager, especially when I was at college doing my A-Levels, a British educational requirement in order to gain admittance to University, kind of like a UK equivalent of the SAT, and I experienced a not-very-good-time in my life.
Back then there was no streaming services like Netflix, and DVD box sets were a little more expensive, so I relied on good old-fashioned sitting down when the television schedulers’ decided to put the show on, or through the mini VHS box sets that FOX Video would release in the UK, a mini collection usually made up in half season blocks, usually with eleven episodes per set.
Many of the video cassettes that I owned that had forty-five minute television episodes which ended with a “Grr, Aargh” were frequently re-watched and played out in a very short space of time.
Growing up as a teenager in a small town, Buffy was one of the greatest pieces of escapism ever, but the fact that it also amounted to some of the best scripted television of all time that still stands up today as it celebrates twenty years, a fact that makes me feel more older than I really want to admit, as well as inspiring a copious amount of analysis and philosophical overviews and, for a show with a silly title, is regarded as one of the greatest works of television cannot be understated.
It is, truly, the greatest teen drama ever made.
Greatest teen drama ever made, I hear you ask? Yep, I’m going there.
There were a plethora of teen dramas on the air for me growing up, most of them American and nearly all of them very popular, with most of them stemming from The WB Network; Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Party of Five, some too many to name and I dipped in and out of them frequently (Dawson’s Creek was a mini-obsession of mine for at least the first three seasons, but the increasingly convoluted, psychoanalytical dialogue frequently found me with a discombobulated emotional reaction that was frequently hard to decipher or even comprehend in the various stages of my well-being and important emotional stability).
Yes, they may have been on the surface more realistic, but Buffy, even with all the vampires, always found a way to speak to me beyond that.
As a teen growing up and loving horror and mystery (I was a child of a generation that gave us Buffy and The X- Files after all) to have a teen show that was in many ways a little bit like The X-Files, albeit with more martial arts and kung fu, was eye-opening. THIS was what I wanted from a teen drama. I mean, it wasn’t technically a TEEN DRAMA, or at least regarded as such in the way that the trials and tribulations of Dawson and Joey were, but in other ways it was every bit as real, raw and powerful.
The show was just as preoccupied with the characters and their lives and it conveyed the horrors sometimes of growing up in a way that seemed more real than shows without vampires or demons. The characters on Buffy could hurt and bleed emotionally as well as physically, the dialogue was sharp and witty and the way it offered romance and horror and mystery and suspense and action and humour and slapstick comedy and tragedy made it a show that wasn’t just a show. It felt like life.
It also wasn’t afraid to turn to its young audience and say “high school was hell”, which it sometimes felt like it really was.
Dismayed by how his attempt at a feminist action-horror-comedy had been taken away from him and turned into a somewhat middling film, Joss Whedon got his second attempt at doing the concept right when he was made an overture by 20th Century Fox Television and this time he wasn’t going to let anyone else take it off his hands and do it wrong.
As the series continued over the course of seven seasons, many of the episodes that Joss himself was involved in would also bear his name as director and, in some respects, he became television’s first true auteur, his episodes works of genius that pushed the limits of what television could do, becoming the work of a master storyteller and filmmaker.
There are many who try to put a “year zero” on to when quality television became a thing; many will point to Buffy, others will point to Twin Peaks, or some may even go back a back to Hill Street Blues, but the point is almost irrelevant. As long as there is quality television, then it’s all good and Buffy is more than worthy of being named alongside the best shows in modern history.
It’s part of a heritage of shows, like the ones I’ve mentioned, as well as The X-Files and The Sopranos, that saw an opening and used the format of an ongoing show to use a standard television show set up to push the norms and break through barriers, both in terms of production values, story telling and, in Buffy’s case, gender equality.
Buffy was a quintessentially feminist show, look at many of the cast photos for the show, especially in its later seasons, and frequently you would see that the majority of the show’s performers were made up of a female cast, whilst the show was keenly developing its female characters in a way that seemed as if others shows were shying away from somewhat.
Buffy took up much of the screen time, but there was also a lot importance placed to the thoughts and feelings of characters like Willow, Dawn, Cordelia and Anya. Willow’s journey to learning her sexuality was, also, a key important part of the show, and was delicately handled with very little sensationalism.
The impact it had on a young female audience cannot be underestimated, particularly in the show’s inspiring conclusion, Chosen.
The show’s mixture of horror, mystery, comedy and action was second to none and always makes for some of the most entertaining television ever produced. Episodes such as Halloween, Band Candy, Something Blue and Tabula Rasa were works of wonderful high concept, character driven comedy that could be hilarious but also get you in the gut with their poignant character interactions.
Then there was the show’s brilliant ability to experiment with the medium of television itself, episodes like Hush, where twenty-eight minutes of screen time has no dialogue, Once More, With Feeling which features musical numbers and Restless which is a cornucopia of visual experimentation.
Incredibly witty, incorporating long form story telling with many ongoing story arcs and character relationships, believable, complex and flawed characters and some of the best writing on network television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have had a title that seemed as if the show could be easy to make fun off, but it became one of the most respectable and acclaimed shows of its time.
Best of all, the characters in Buffy, Angel also, were allowed to change and develop. No character was the same when the show finished, or if they left, as they were when they first appeared in the show; Willow went from a geeky computer nerd to a kick ass, albeit very complicated, Witch, whilst Spike became more complicated due to his feelings for Buffy and his protective nature towards Dawn, thus facilitating his journey to getting his soul back in season seven. Buffy characters who made the jump to Angel were Cordelia and Wesley; Cordelia matured and became a wonderful, sympathetic young woman (until shoddy writing destroyed that) and Wesley actually became a cool, action hero with the best stubble on television.
To this day the series inspires academic exploration in a way that might have seemed impossible upon the film’s debut in 1992, but just one look at Amazon and one can see many books looking at the series in philosophical and intelligent ways.
Its high school setting was angel dust for me growing up. I worked hard and did very well (not to brag or anything) but when I wasn’t imagining up crazy stories of my own and jotting them down on to paper I was probably day dreaming one of two scenarios; Mulder and Scully investigating a murder in my school and me being the only one who could help, or going to my school library and finding myself embroiled in a crazy mini-horror movie and having to help the “Scooby Gang” in their latest adventure.
Yes, my daydreams were incredibly nerdy even back then, get over it.
Okay, yes there were vampires and demons and the forces of darkness in the show, but the characters always seemed real to me in a way that they didn’t on other teen shows. They were flawed in ways that seemed more real, they talked in a way I wished I could, dropping in pop culture references with merry abandon, and for a show that had supernatural elements, the emotion and drama at the heart of it felt more plausible than shows that didn’t have vampires and monsters in them.
It portrayals of first loves, first break ups, the fear of coming out about ones sexuality, the first time…you know…it all seemed more tangible than other shows were attempting and whilst the supernatural was usually thrown in, it was amazingly used as a metaphor or applied in ways that kind of blew my teen mind.
Even its portrayal of grief and loss in The Body would put other “realistic” dramas to shame.
Re-watching the show today is never an embarrassment, and one does not go away from Buffy thinking that the show has aged terribly. Like the best of John Hughes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is both of its time and ahead of it, transcending the 90’s fashions and music and making an impact through its powerful use of stories, words, characters and imagination.
Just looking at an episode of it today takes me back to the hallways of my own high school, thinking about an adventure beyond those walls and endless corridors. The show was one of the most important for me growing up, its lead character was easy to love and admire, and I’ll admit to being very smitten. It was a show whose stories made me want to put pen to paper as well. It is one of the about four shows that had a considerable impact on me, an impact that I can never underestimate.
There were very little HUGE movie franchises growing up in the 90’s, at least in the way there were in the 80’s and subsequently into the 2000’s, were Hollywood had yet to learn the meaning of the words “shared cinematic universe”. Sure, there were big movies; Titanic was mega successful and The Matrix too, but the best on-going stories where you could keep up with characters you loved and hurt with them and laugh with them and bleed with them were to be found at home, in the magic box in the corner. Buffy, along with The X-Files, Millennium and subsequently Angel, were works of supreme importance to me. Buffy offered a magic dose of forty-five minutes escapism every week, and you never knew what was around the corner every time Nerf Herder’s epic theme music kicked in.
The show will never get old in my eyes, it will always stand strong as one of television’s true classics, a show with a silly title which represented the absolute best of not only everyone involved in it, but the medium as well.
Buffy Summers, she saved the world…a lot…but she also saved me, and, above all else, she starred in one of the greatest works of popular culture, because to simply call it a great television show, somehow doesn’t seem enough.
Now, if the apocalypse comes, beep me.