How do producers combine vampires, demons, witches, and time travel to create a hit television series without being accused of ripping off Dark Shadows? Throw in a teenage girl and sunny California, of course! Specifically, a blonde vampire hunter and the small, fictional town of Sunnydale, California, which happens to be a vortex for all things evil. Much more brightly lit than the Gothic estates of the hit 70s soap opera, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, a teen horror drama based on 1992’s teen horror comedy flick of the same name, was the unexpected breakout hit of the 1997. With an experienced but thus far less than famous cast, and a former soap actress in the lead role, the show could have been cancelled soon after the pilot episode. Instead, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer became and remains an icon of late 90s American pop culture. This was absolutely not a fluke, either.
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an oddly-named, petite girl who weighs about 95 pounds soaking wet, is the “chosen one” with the supernatural ability to slay vampires and other demons, moves to Sunnydale, the Hellmouth, with her single mother after burning down her former school’s gym and not being arrested for it (can you say “White privilege”?) in order to fulfill her destiny while remaining under the close tutelage of her Watcher/school librarian, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). Though she resists at first, Buffy soon takes up the mantle of average student by day and Van Helsing’s dream girl by night. Because high school can be hell even if you’re not fighting to save the world, Buffy still had many of the same problems as most teenagers, and the bulk of those issues revolved around the opposite sex. The men in Buffy’s life were thoroughly complex in myriad ways, but let’s start with the most uncomplicated of the bunch: Xander.
Alexander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) was the quintessential Nice Guy™, who has sexual feelings for a girl and allows this to be his primary motivation for being in her life. Now, I’m not saying you can’t have feelings for someone and still be a good friend to them, far from it, but doing so would demand that you place that person’s wellbeing and emotional health over your own ego and desire to be with them. While Xander could do the former with ease, he failed at the latter. Xander was notoriously possessive of Buffy, even when he was dating Cordelia, who he cheated on with his best friend, Willow, and only after Willow had finally given up on him and gotten herself a boyfriend, Oz (Seth Green). Xander felt neglected and missed getting his ego stroked. Like other Nice Guys™ , he felt that enough acts of “nice” behaviour entitled him to a relationship with Buffy and saw her complete lack of interest in him as proof that he was simply too “nice” and she wanted “bad boys”. Though declaring himself to be “friend zoned”, Xander had no problem doing the same thing to Willow what he imagined Buffy was doing to him. Xander could barely contain his animosity toward’s Buffy’s love interests and glee when those relationships failed. Never was his entitlement on display as largely as when Buffy was dating Angel.
In my review of The Vampire Diaries, I pointed out that romanticizing the relationships of very young women and exponentially older but young looking men was a fixture of the vampire genre and though Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was groundbreaking in many ways, it clung to this trope as the primary storyline and central focus of the series for the first three seasons. Angelus, better known as Angel (David Boreanaz), is a centuries old vampire whose soul has been restored as a punishment, so that he may feel pain and grief for the lives he’s taken. Though we learn that Angel was an asshole even while still human and only became more of a savage upon turning, we’re supposed to accept that the restoration of his soul somehow made him a better person. Whatevs. Angel was tall, strong, handsome, and brooding, and that’s like the exact opposite of what a young girl would find attractive, right? Angel and Buffy meet in season one and have an incredibly dramatic and sexually tense relationship that everyone around them, especially his old friends, Spike and Drusilla, Giles, and Xander, absolutely loathes. Angel hurt Buffy in a variety of ways after their relationship was consummated and he lost his soul, but these events were “not his fault” and were later forgiven, as the two parted still very much in love when Angel left town, his adventures chronicled in the spin-off series Angel.
Then there was Riley (Marc Blucas). Remember him? Riley was only slightly older than Buffy, human, kind, open, and gentle. Riley was also in a secret special-ops unit and could kick all kinds of vampire ass. Riley was Buffy’s healthiest relationship and most compatible partner, but because television shows live for drama, this relationship didn’t last, and it was killed when Riley’s kinky secret, of letting vampires feed on him for an adrenaline rush, came to light and Buffy left him. Ironically, it is in the aftermath of this breakup when Xander is most likable. It is he who encourages Buffy to go to Riley before he leaves town, to fight for him. Though Buffy realized too late that she loved Riley far too little, this is the first and only time when Xander places Buffy’s relationship with someone else over his own desire to be with her. Riley does appear again later in the series, and we’re here for it, but Buffy was too far gone, after Angel, to be able to have anything resembling a stable relationship. Which might explain Spike.
William, better known as Spike (James Masters), was gaunt, blond, and unapologetically bad. Basically everything that Angel and Riley were not. But Spike did have something in common with Buffy’s other love interests: He was loyal. First to Drusilla (Juliet Landau), his sire and great love over several centuries, and then to Buffy. Spike and Buffy never did have a full-blown relationship, but they did have sex so vigorous that it demolished a entire house. Spike, like nearly all of the auxiliary characters on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was much more layered and complex than initially met the eyes. The former poet was far more sensitive than he let on for the bulk of the series. Straddling the line between good and evil at his best, and giving in to his demonic side at worst (and often), Spike was a character we hated to love, but managed to endear himself to viewers none the less. Reverting back to classic Xander form, her “friend” had a lot of unsolicited opinions and advice about her sexual relationship with Spike as well.
But it wasn’t all relationship drama for Buffy. Giles was like a father figure to her. Her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), was incredibly permissive of her absences and later, warily supportive of her role as slayer. Later in the series, Buffy had a sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) who materialized out of thin air and was probably the cause of their mother’s aneurysm, but was nonetheless an unexpected source of comfort during Buffy’s darkest days. There was Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who started off as a royal pain in the ass, but became a helpful friend and ally. And there was also Willow.
Willow (Alyson Hannigan) was timid, sweet, and though painfully and obviously in love with Xander at the series’ opening, doesn’t allow her feelings to stop her from cultivating a sincere, lasting friendship with Buffy outside of him. Willow isn’t just thoughtful, kind, smart, and surprisingly brave, she is the person ultimately responsible for keeping Buffy grounded, considerate, and human in the face of the evil that she confronts daily and the constant heartache which she experiences. Buffy and Willow’s friendship was revolutionary because it threw out the dated notion that girls from different social circles can’t or shouldn’t be close friends unless one changes the other. Buffy and Willow never criticized one another’s appearances, makeup (or lack thereof), hair, or clothing and accepted the other as they were, not as they would want them to be.
When the show needed a token Black person, we were introduced to Kendra Young (Bianca Lawson). The other vampire slayer, who was activated when Buffy temporarily died, made her appearance on the series with amazing hair, great lipstick, and a horrible Jamaican accent that is seared into my memory . Offering little more than a much-needed burst of colour on a show that had literally hundreds of guest characters but was still blindingly White, Kendra was soon killed off by Drusilla, the quota for people of colour had been filled, and though we had gone Black, viewers were forced to go back in the form of Faith.
Faith Lehane (Eliza Dushku) is activated upon Kendra’s death and while she starts off good but damaged, quickly spirals into violent and completely unhinged. Faith was a fan favourite and the character was set to receive a spin-off series as well, which Dushku declined. Her portrayal of Faith, a character who was clearly here to stay and thus much more well developed than Kendra, was quite powerful, especially when Faith decides to rejoin the forces of good and redeem herself for her past crimes.
Though following in the footsteps of nearly every teen series which came before it and casting adults in their 20s and early 30s in the roles of teenagers, the core cast of the series had a dynamic and believable chemistry, despite all of the unbelievable events taking place in their characters’ lives. The show also cycled through a plethora of short-long term guest and recurring characters who were just as interesting as aforementioned core cast, if not more so. In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the little blonde girl doesn’t just get killed in an ally and a library isn’t were people go for a bit of light reading. The girl throws punches and takes names, and the library is abandoned, save by those who hold the fate of all humanity in their hands. Clearly, the series could have been done a lot better by creator Joss Whedon, but Buffy was redeemable in the way that it portrayed young women as simultaneously strong and vulnerable, able to stand on their own, but taking help when offered. The series didn’t seek to perpetuate the victim motif, but rather inspired a new generation of young women to ditch the damsel in distress and discover than strong could also be sexy.
I give this one 4.5 stars.