As I told my fanboy-at-heart co-blogger some time ago, I thought a piece on Buffy was inevitable but I just didn’t know what I could say about it that hasn’t been said, countered, dissected, blogged, reviewed and forumed all over the web over the past 15 years, since throwing people and more importantly, the internet, into a tizzy when it first aired in 1997. But here it goes.
Buffy was a ‘progenitor’ TV series in some ways. The genre is definitely nothing new but it was one of the first modern TV shows that inspired the mushrooming of genre shows that have now firmly established themselves into a mainstream space. A small show about a tiny blonde sucked into the supernatural, it gradually became a cult phenomenon, but was firmly ensconced within the ‘cult’ space for most of its run. People would snicker and mock you if you admitted to being a Buffy fan, it was mostly a ‘weirdo nerd’ thing. But Buffy is largely responsible for the cult genres basically becoming mainstream and accepted as such today. It contributed to people worshipping at the altar of Battlestar Galactica, True Blood being nominated for Golden Globes and Emmys and adults on the wrong side of the 50′s making office water cooler chit chat about Game of Thrones. Buffy transformed the ‘cult’ into the ‘mainstream’, so much so that every other TV show being made, conceived, developed or pitched today comes with one of those genre twists. It removed the shame from being a nerd and made fandom cool. Although the space has become very crowded now, the phenomenon of wider acceptance of the weird, which is mostly a good thing, can be traced back to Buffy. It was also one of the first shows which made the internet explode, largely due to the timing of its first broadcast. For once, nerds across continents could talk about how awesome Buffy was, which made them feel less nerdy, even though it may not have made them any less so.
The series was first conceived as a small 1992 action comedy horror film written by Whedon, with which he attempted to turn the “little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed” trope (yes, Certain Commentators, I used the word Trope. SHUT UP!) on its head. Whedon, who was disappointed with the final product, developed the original concept into a TV series. The short first season aired as a midseason replacement series, but quickly found fandom and critical acclaim. It is probably also one of the few TV shows that has gained more fan following and popularity as time has gone by. It was largely ignored for mainstream awards while it aired, the Emmy academy decided to pacify the outrage by holding a special honor ceremony for the series after it finished its run in 2003.
While converting a film idea into a full-fledged TV series, Joss and Co. take the concept further as “high school is hell”. Only in this case, literally. It follows a group of high school students, dealing with the general hell of their day-to-day existence, while also fighting the forces of evil, since their school is located on the Hellmouth in the fictional town of Sunnydale, California. At the center of the group is a ditzy, shallow, blonde valley girl from LA, an only child of divorced parents, whose main concerns in life are shopping and cheerleading. Until she is called to her duty as a Slayer. The series picks up after the events of the movie which happened in LA, she has been thrown out of school due to being “troublesome” and moves to the small town of Sunnydale with her mother. The delusion of starting fresh cannot last long though, especially if you live on the Hellmouth, so Buffy cannot ignore her calling even if she’d like to. She has to fight growing pains and the demons of adolescence, all the while fighting real demons. Not that she doesn’t resist it in the beginning, sometimes she has to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. One of the most emotionally affecting sequences comes at end of Season 1 when Buffy learns that she is destined to die fighting the Master; she breaks down and tells her Watcher she doesn’t want to die; her struggle to come to terms with her own mortality at the age of 16 is one of the most honest moments of the series. Owning her destiny comes a little later.
The biggest underlying theme is probably the sense of ‘otherness’ that pervades the narrative. The popular cheerleader from LA promptly becomes an outsider once she responds to a higher calling. Somewhat difficult to lead a normal life when you spend your evenings patrolling the cemetery to hunt vampires, have to skip class to avert apocalypses and your school principal gets eaten by zombie hyenas or is swallowed by giant reptiles at Graduation (that last one is not necessarily a bad thing, Principal Snyder was mean). This is probably why her high school nemesis is mean girl Cordelia, who is basically just what Buffy used to be, before being forced to protect humanity. This sense of otherness gets deeper and darker as the series progresses. Dating vampires gets tricky when you are supposed to be hunting them. And when you die and get pulled out of heaven by well-meaning friends, it can cause you to have a downward spiral. Viewers and critics complained about the series getting too dark and depressing as it went on, the last two seasons were especially widely criticized as the show lost a lot of that sense of light-footedness and humor even in the midst of death and destruction that made it tick. Nevertheless, it was somewhat important in the trajectory of a show that was all about finding the gray areas in the world of black-and-white morality, so Buffy discovering her dark nature and coming to terms with it was part of the package. Although the feminist theme of the show was always a subtle undercurrent, the last season may have gone a little too obvious with that one too. Overall, the transition into adulthood and college didn’t go down as smoothly as earlier seasons would have suggested, but then maybe, that was the point.
One of the reasons that dark depressing tone didn’t gel well with the rest of the series is that the thing that made it such a cult favorite when it initially started airing was its trademark humor. Buffy had some of the smoothest writing with a finely balanced mix of quirky wit, gut wrenching melodrama, romance and supernatural thriller blended together with razor sharp dialogue cherry topped with zingy one-liners. It was peppered with literary references, pop-culture jokes and meta commentary. Way before all of those things became cool and crowded the template of our network television and movie line-up. ‘Buffyspeak’ not only slowly crept up into the American lexicon, it has majorly influenced the language of TV and Film since then. Personally, when watching an uninteresting show or movie, feeling uninvolved with work or study or just faced with a particularly ineffective conversationalist at the dinner table, I still find myself channeling my inner Willow – “Bored Now”. Though I haven’t bothered with the comic book continuation of the series, a particularly funny sequence therein that someone told me about, apparently involves Buffy traveling to the future and finding out that she is singlehandedly responsible for the destruction of the English language! The crackling dialogue and the repartee between characters kept the audience on its toes, even when the narrative material itself may not have worked as well. Not just the language but the themes in Buffy have been used and reused all over popular television since then, most fans can spot a Buffy rip-off a mile away. But it is hard to avoid the repetitive nature of these themes in follow-up shows when Buffy did practically every one of them out there. Here’s an episode about sense of adolescent invisibility going from metaphorical to literal, here’s one about stage fright, another one about our worst nightmares coming true, there’s an episode with no dialogue while here’s a musical one. Buffy covered the entire gamut in its seven year run, so the frustration of fans with the recycling of themes by others, as well as the unavoidable nature of such recycling, is understandable. It’s all the more inevitable when most writers working in the medium today openly admit to being Joss worshippers and to being highly influenced by Buffy and Angel (It was particularly and hilariously evident when another show “The Vampire Diaries” locked its male protagonist in a metal box and threw him under water in the most recent season finale. The fans gasped in collective shock, not because it was a cool twist; a wave of outrage had washed over the internet because it was a direct rip-off from Angel!)
The biggest triumph of the show is its ability to rise above its own humble beginnings – overcome its chessiness and shoddy production values, defy its flawed teen dramedy with supernatural backdrop origins, milk the monster-of-the-week format and become more than oh-it’s-the-end-of-the-world-again storytelling. It used its innocent charm and fresh writing to grow out of its own painful adolescence and became a shining example of the underdog with a heart that came out on top. Its overarching themes of moral ambiguity, honor, duty, friendship, love, loss, redemption and above all humanity and grace even when surrounded by overwhelming evil and tragedy, is what made it shine like a beacon. One that’s still showing the way to others.
Buffy: If the apocalypse comes, beep me.