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MUST BINGE TV: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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With Serenity, Joss Whedon took a television series that had not succeeded, at least commercially speaking, and managed to turn it into a feature film. Amazingly, Whedon became famous in the first place for taking a feature film that he had written that had not succeeded, for reasons that were not his fault at all, and turned it into a television series. It’s a funny world we live in.

Now, confession time, I remember renting Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a kid and loving that movie so when a television series was announced I was excited as I was in a population of about three people who actually enjoyed the film. Watching it as an older viewer one can see why its writer was very unhappy with it and why the subsequent television series was a marked improvement.

It goes without saying but Buffy the Vampire Slayer may in fact be one of the greatest teen dramas ever crafted for television. Oh sure, it has a lot of fight sequences, monsters and, of course, vampires, not to mention most seasons ending with a finale centred around a potential apocalypse, but on an emotional level, with its handling of teen angst and the pains of going from a young adult to an actual adult, no other television series has managed to handle the hardships of that time in a way that Joss Whedon’s television series did.

Not only is it one of the greatest supernatural television shows ever, it can also legitimately lay claim to being one of the most honest depictions on the hardships, but also small joys, of getting older.

Debuting on The WB network, Buffy would go on to become a flagship series for the fledgling television channel and would help carve it an identity that would then pave the way for shows such as Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill and Supernatural. One could say Veronica Mars fits in there too, but it debuted on UPN, but would end up joining ranks with some of those shows in a story that I’ll get to when I come to write about the adventures of a character who could very much be said to be Buffy’s spiritual television sister.

The plotline of the show…well we all know it. Into every generation there is a chosen one…etc, etc, etc. At its peak, Buffy was one of the most perfectly crafted television shows and although it fell into the trap that a lot of teen dramas do when the characters grew up and went to college, becoming a little bit darker and tortured (even more so than usual), it still could be endlessly watchable thanks to its combination of emotionally intelligent plotting, wonderful characters and ability to experiment within itself yielding such classic pieces of television like Hush, Restless, The Body, Once More, With Feeling and Conversations With Dead People.

Many of the show’s most imaginative and experimental episodes were written and directed by Joss himself, but like The X-Files, Buffy, and its spin-off Angel, was surrounded by some of the best writers at the time on television; David Greenwalt, Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, Drew Goddard, David Fury and Steven S DeKnight amongst others, all of whom have gone on to great success afterwards, either writing for other great shows, or creating and showrunning their own, from Grimm, to Daredevil, to Once Upon a Time and 24.

At the heart of Buffy was its wonderful cast. Holding it together was Sarah Michelle Gellar who gave heart, soul and very raw complexities to a character who could make mistakes and feel very real in a way that one might have thought unreachable for a show with such a silly title (The WB wanted to change it to simply Slayer, which Whedon, thankfully, disagreed with). Gellar could play the role charmingly and lovingly but could also channel flaws and more unsympathetic qualities superbly when called to do so. It is a genuinely iconic performance, but one with many layers.

She was also surrounded by one of the best ensembles to ever appear on television; Nicholas Brendan, Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, Emma Caulfield, Amber Benson and James Marsters all put in brilliant performances as characters who truly got to develop. One of the best things about not only Buffy, but Angel as well, was that no character was ever the same by the end of the show as they were when they first appeared. On Buffy that was no more apparent when one looks at Willow and Spike, who developed and changed in wonderful, beautifully crafted ways as the series continued and had turned into naturally different characters by the time the end credits rolled for the final time.

Best of all, or not depending on how you look at it, the series wasn’t afraid to hurt its characters in honest, raw and real ways. Relationships that we were invested in could fall apart, characters who were good could go bad (and vice versa) and characters that worked their way into our hearts could exit the show in ways that could genuinely make you bleed. I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to watch it, but one death at the end of season six is truly unbearable.

Growing up with the show, Buffy was one of the most important shows for any teenager growing up. It never spoke down to its audience, it felt real and it used its supernatural elements beautifully in a metaphorical way that made for some of the best scripting on television.

Buffy…she saved the world a lot you know.

AIRDATE: March 1997-May 2003

NUMBER OF SEASONS: Seven (making it the longest running Joss Whedon created series…so far.)

NOTABLE WRITERS: David Greenwalt, Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, Drew Goddard, Steven S DeKnight, Douglas Petrie.  Like The X-Files, Buffy’s writersroom was full of amazing talent who would go on to influence, write for and create many shows in the years after.

NOTABLE DIRECTORS: James Contner, Marita Grabiak and many other talents called the shots, but really Joss is the stand out here. Any episode he directed on top of writing was frequently something special and would re-write a lot of rules about what could be done on television.

BEST SEASON: I’m gonna go for season three. The show didn’t really start being more experimental with episodes such as Hush until season four, but in terms of consistency in quality, best villains and number of best individual episodes, it has to be the third season. Following on from the cataclysmic events of season two fantastically and giving us not one but two great antagonists, it’s a wickedly entertaining year of television.

WORST SEASON: Not to jump on any bandwagon, but it really has to be the sixth. Whilst Once More, With Feeling is a masterpiece and Tabula Rasa is a lovely mini-classic in itself, this was the year where the angst levels were pushed up way too much, the metaphors were beaten over the audience’s head, and the darker tone was a bit off-putting to the extreme.

BEST EPISODE: So many to name, and whilst The Body is a beautifully crafted hour of television and unremittingly honest on the nature of death and bereavement, I have to go for Hush. Vividly imaginative, it’s a risk for a wonderful wordsmith like Joss Whedon to strip away his trademark witty dialogue for a whole episode, but he truly made up for it in atmosphere, storytelling and wonderful set pieces, while Christophe Beck’s score is a brilliant stand out.

Possibly the geekiest man in all of Ireland, I have consumed too many television shows, movies, books and comics to know the difference any more between being geeky and not geeky. Very proud of my geekdom, it brought me together with my one true love, and if that’s not a great reason to be geeky, I don’t know what is. Could also beat anybody in an X Files trivia contest. True scientific fact.