In the 25 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on The WB, its influence has been a constant source of conversation in both critic and fan circles. It arrived at exactly the right time to be a signature show for a nascent network while also planting a flag for young women in action roles. Rather than hold its geekier inspirations at arm’s length, the show dove headfirst into a kind of self-aware pop culture referentialism that was rare at the time. While behind-the-scenes events surrounding creator Joss Whedon have given his name a well-deserved beating in the past few years, the accomplishments of the show and the rest of its creative personnel remain undiminished. Here are five reasons why Buffy made a difference.
Spoiler Warning: This article reveals significant plot and character details
1. Not Much with the Damseling
Whedon created the character of Buffy as a reaction to the trope of the blonde girl who tends to die first in horror films. Buffy’s a reversal, a blonde girl with supernatural gifts that make her a champion, rather than a victim. The character first appeared in a 1992 film that didn’t follow the spirit that the creator had planned. A few years later, he got the chance to deliver a new take to the then-recently launched WB Network. When the show debuted in 1997, the only other major title female action hero on TV was Xena. Buffy used a conceit of “high school is hell,” with Sunnydale High School located atop a literal Hellmouth (gate to Hell) that drew monsters and other threats to it. Buffy’s role, as dictated by the original opening narration, was defined thusly: “In every generation there is a chosen one… she alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.” So Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) juggled her efforts at leading a regular teen life with her weighty responsibilities as a protector of humanity. The success of the show directly led to a spate of other young-women-in-action series including Charmed, Alias, and Veronica Mars while also paving the way for characters like the Winchester brothers of Supernatural.
2. The Season-Long Big Bad and Other Phrases
Other shows had recurring villains before Buffy. Burgess Meredith played The Penguin in 20 episodes of Batman. Michael Dunn was Dr. Miguelito Loveless across 10 episodes of The Wild, Wild West. And while still other series had ongoing antagonists, Buffy employed a different notion of how the villain should work. While there were certainly episodic threats, Buffy pulled more inspiration from the “story arc” approach of shows like Wiseguy that was pioneered in comic books. The notion is that there is one villain looming in the background while other threats arise, and that all action ultimately leads to a climactic confrontation at the end of that season. By the third season of the show, characters were referencing the major villain of the year as the “Big Bad.” The phrase leaped to other series and into the vernacular of other TV writers and showrunners. The season-long arc (Big Bad or not) became standard with the advent of “prestige” or “peak TV” shows like The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999.
In the larger estimation, Buffy’s writers approached language as a whole differently than other shows. While it was definitely titled in the direction of teenspeak, the show operated with a deep level of pop culture woven into its dialogue. “Google” was used a verb for the first time on the show (thanks, Willow) and Xander invoked the Avengers’ comic book battle cry of “Avengers Assemble!” in the Season 4 opener, nearly 20 years before Avengers Endgame opened. Characters often referenced the horror films and fiction on a meta level, never more so than when they actually met Dracula in the fifth season.
3. Still a Better Love Story Than Twilight
Doomed romances between humans and vampires are a pretty standard part of the vampire fiction package these days, but Buffy took it in a different direction. The central romance of the show’s early years (which continued to echo across two series) was the one between Buffy and Angel, a centuries-old vampire who had recently regained his soul through a curse. Apart from the whole slayer/vampire conflict, Angel’s curse meant that if he ever had a moment of true happiness (like, say, consummating his love for Buffy), then he would lose his soul and revert to his evil self, Angelus. That tension became a story engine, and the consequences were fairly operatic in the second season. Angel, of course, departed for his own five-season spin off, Angel, after season three, but Buffy was forever his girl. The success of both shows on The WB paved the way for the WB adaptation of The Vampire Diaries and HBO’s True Blood, among others. Stephanie Meyer’s first installment of the Twilight series was published in 2005, the year that Angel signed off the air.
4. Breaking Boundaries
More than having young people talk like (really smart, hyperverbal) young people and accentuating its lead as a rare teen female action hero on TV, the series represented breakthroughs in other departments. Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) weren’t the first lesbian couple on American TV, but their relationship lasted several seasons. Their relationship enabled other conversations about identity, along with tacit acknowledgement that the two were sexually active, something was barely referenced on broadcast TV across many previous shows with similar couples. After Tara’s death, Willow struggles mightily, but eventually begins a new relationship with potential slayer Kennedy.
That overall storyline was frank in its depiction of grief, a topic that was also explored in what critics widely regard as one of the best episodes of the series, “The Body.” In that episode, marked by its near total lack of background music, Buffy arrives home to find that her mother, Joyce, has died suddenly of an aneurysm. No monsters here, just a regular, brutal human death. The episode tracks the reactions of all the major characters trying (and occasionally failing) to come to terms with her passing. Silence also plays a huge role in “Hush,” an Emmy-nominated episode that happens with almost no dialogue as demonic villains have stolen the voices of the town.
Perhaps no discussion of Buffy’s mark on television is complete without mentioning its musical episode, the sixth season installment “Once More with Feeling.” It wasn’t the first musical episode in TV history, but it’s the high-water mark. TVLine, The Wrap, and Entertainment Weekly consider it the best of its type, and Indiewire calls it “the gold standard.” The episode turns on the conceit of a supernatural presence forcing the town to burst into song, revealing truths that range from hilarious to heartbreaking, but also causing some people to dance until they combust. The songs, written by Whedon, actually advance the plot and encompass a shocking variety of genres. Installments like this lifted the entire series.
5. Are You Ready to Be Strong?
Putting all the flowery words, clever episodes, and horror metaphors aside, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is ultimately a show about finding your inner power. That notion is overtly expressed by Buffy, Willow, and others growing in skills and supernatural abilities over time, but the subtext deals mostly with women finding their own channels of power in a world where monsters can literally be the person next door. Bad break-ups, psychotic exes, terrible bosses, verbally abusive principals, and government agencies are just some of the threats that Buffy and friends have to deal with on both supernatural and everyday levels. In the series finale, when Buffy makes the choice to share her power with all of the other young women that might one day be called to be the Slayer, it’s a perfect capstone to seven years of the title character’s underlying message: none of us have to be the victim. Even the blonde girl in the horror movie.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel stream on Hulu and Prime Video in the U.S.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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