By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published April 1, 2012
I was trying to put this column off for as long as possible, but all signs seem to be pointing toward now being the right time. Maybe it’s because we’re nearing the final countdown to Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” movie, maybe it’s because the show just celebrated its 15th anniversary — whatever the reason, I think it’s definitely the right time for me to write about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
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If you’ve somehow managed to completely avoid “Buffy,” you’re probably wondering what could be so special about it. In a time when people have become entirely disillusioned with anything about vampires, it might be hard to imagine a show that incorporates the fanged beasts and simultaneously manages to be the gold standard for supernatural and “normal” dramas alike.
But once upon a time, that show existed, and anyone familiar with the Buffyverse knows that it’s a world consisting of much more than vampires, demons, witches and Slayers. “Buffy” was drama and genre at its best, and it set the bar for innovative television.
Take, for example, the cleverness and unconventionality of some of the show’s best episodes. There was “Hush,” a terrifying interpretation of show creator Joss Whedon’s recurring childhood nightmare. Beyond simply succeeding as a bone-chilling thriller, “Hush” also took a huge risk: There was no dialogue for approximately 30 minutes of the episode, only a musical score.
Then there was “Once More, with Feeling,” the acclaimed and beloved musical episode that replaced conventional dialogue with song and dance. This wasn’t “Buffy” meets “Glee.” It wasn’t gimmicky or trite, either. The episode was unabashedly silly at times, but it’s hardly the upbeat, swinging, good ol’ time you might expect from a musical. Whedon’s lyrics reveal and explore the struggles and tensions that have been building up for several episodes. An incredible amount of work went into making “Once More, with Feeling,” a spellbinding, slick episode. The result? It remains one of the best television moments of all time.
And then there was that time the show killed off its heroine, the Chosen One herself. Season five’s finale “The Gift” views like a series finale, rife with suspense, payoff and life-or-death urgency. To defeat Glory — one of the show’s very best Big Bads — Buffy sacrifices herself. Killing off a main character in such a glorious fashion takes guts, but the “Buffy” writers are as fearless as their superhuman Slayer.
Speaking of death, Whedon seems to love driving a stake through his viewers’ hearts and doesn’t hesitate to rack up the body count. Buffy may have been able to come back from the dead, but that hardly means the show doesn’t take death very seriously. There’s camp and there’s humor, but “Buffy” is undoubtedly a heart-wrenching show. Lovers leave, lovers die, friends drift and every single character has to face evil in the corporeal demon/monster form as well as the everyday, “that’s just life” form. And every main actor nails every emotion. Gore and vulgarity don’t faze me, but the second Willow Rosenberg starts crying, I almost have to look away to avoid an emotional breakdown.
And of course, I can’t give “Buffy” the credit it’s due without noting that it’s home to the best-written female characters in television history. Whedon said he conceptualized the show as a debunking of the Hollywood cliché of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie,” and he remains a champion of strong female characters (which I’m hoping will be evident in “Avengers,” since comic-book-based movies notoriously mistreat women).
Buffy is the obvious example of a strong (literally!) woman on the show, but there’s also Willow, who we get to see as a technology-savvy, awkward teen in love with her best friend, a new witch whose heart is broken by a werewolf, a dangerously powerful witch who loses control, a recovering addict, and a loving friend. There’s also Faith — who is inextricably bound to Buffy and yet completely mirrors her — and the ever-hilarious, cynical Anya, whose breakdown in “The Body” is strikingly honest. She has lived for more than 1,000 years, has seen countless deaths, and yet still can’t cope with the loss of someone she knew.
Then there’s my beloved Cordelia Chase, who proves you don’t necessarily have to have magic or super strength on your side to be a champion. She’s so much more than the queen bee she appears to be in the first few episodes, though most of the character’s most compelling moments come in the “Buffy” companion series “Angel.”
The multi-faceted world “Buffy” creates is something current dramas have sought to accomplish. In an episode of “Parks and Recreation” earlier this season, Ben Wyatt remarked that HBO would never cancel “Game of Thrones”: “It’s a crossover hit. It’s not just for fantasy enthusiasts, they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world.” Ben’s observation is spot on, and it has been made by countless other TV critics. “Game of Thrones” perfectly fuses compelling narrative with exciting genre television. But that’s nothing novel. It may have been operating on a significantly smaller budget, but “Buffy” was capturing human stories in a fantasy world long before Robb Stark and his beautiful chiseled face graced our televisions. And “Game of Thrones” has certainly been influenced by at least one of the “Buffy” masterminds — writer Jane Epenson penned “A Golden Crown.”
“Game of Thrones” is not the only present show with obvious “Buffy” influences. Look no further than the numerous showrunners and writers who cite “Buffy” as a direct influence on their work — including Phil Collinson of “Doctor Who,” Russell T. Davies of “Torchwood” and Jamie Brittain of “Skins" — and the even longer list of shows that pay homage to the series. “Buffy” has made a profound and lasting impact on the television landscape.
Awards and ratings be damned — a true measure of a show’s value is its legacy, and there are few shows that don’t owe thanks to Joss Whedon and his original team of superheroes. There are also few television critics who come to mind that don’t consider “Buffy” one of their all-time favorite shows or the reason they fell in love with television in the first place. Even when the show wasn’t at its best (ahem, most of seasons six and seven), it was still taking chances with bold storytelling and ever-changing character dynamics.
I feel like I’ve been beating around the bush a bit, so I might as well just say it: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was one of the best things to ever happen to television. One of my favorite television critics, Emily Nussbaum, once argued TV didn’t become art until the current decade, and I respectfully disagree. Television became art when Joss Whedon’s brainchild came to life. Television became art the second Buffy Summers moved to Sunnydale and her adventure began.