Note: This editorial contains massive spoilers for the entire series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so if you’re just now discovering the show on DVD, read at your own peril.
It’s hard for me to write about the tenth anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – whose first episode aired on March 10, 1997 — for a number of reasons.
It’s because Joss Whedon is one of the reasons why I fell in love with the medium of television and why I want to make a career out of writing for or about it.
It’s because like many of the show’s fans, the series means more to me than just a television show – my memories are very much rooted in the time and place when I first discovered the series.
It’s because the characters of the series have so closely paralleled my own life at times that writing about them is like writing about myself.
It’s because, along with The West Wing, Buffy is my favorite show of all time.
And growing up, I wasn’t even allowed to watch it.
I’ve mentioned before that my father is a television critic and historian, which you think would be cool. He got all the new shows before they came out, which meant that I would have the inside track on what was hip and what was lame, right? Wrong. The downside of being a TV critic’s kid is that your father has watched everything on television, which means he knows exactly what a show is about and he knows exactly the kind of content I’d be exposed to. So when he decided Buffy Summers’s affinity for solving all her problems with violence was not appropriate for his then impressionable thirteen-year-old son, so began the enforced ban on Buffy in our house until the series finale. That final episode remains the only episode of Buffy I watched in its original run in its original timeslot.
This ban on Buffy, however, did not apply to the number of tie-in books that appeared around the time of its third season, including The Watcher’s Guide, an official summary of the first and second years of Buffy. Which I checked out of the library, read/memorized, and decided I had to check this very cool sounding show out.
Luckily, when I went back to high school for my sophomore year, I found a kindred spirit in Walsh Jesuit’s Number One Buffy fan, Natalie Morrison. Even though I was a nerd who liked Star Wars and who could rattle off Best Picture winners and she was a popular, wealthy cheerleader, we bonded over Buffy. This was before television on DVD, so she lent me the first couple episodes of Buffy she’d taped off the WB’s summer reruns. Even though I only made it through the first two episodes before losing that tape, Natalie remains one of my best friends.
After that brief flirtation with Whedon’s show during high school, I didn’t really start to watch Buffy seriously until the summer before I went to college. The first two seasons had come out on DVD at that point, and for my dad, what had been banned in high school was okay on DVD – as long as I didn’t spend all my free time watching the show. Or so he thought – I utilized every moment I had, up in my bedroom, because I knew that college was going to be full of Buffy fans and I had to play catch-up, and besides, I wanted to keep up with the conversation on this website called CHUD I had joined.
I still think the first two seasons of Buffy are very uneven, and suffer from a lack of decent pacing, particularly in season two. There are some gems in the first half of year two. The introduction of James Marsters’s Spike in “School Hard” is pretty iconic and classic. “Halloween” and “The Dark Age,” which introduced the first hints that Buffy’s Watcher, Giles, wasn’t infallible, begin the running theme that even adults are human, just like teens. But for me, the season — and the show with it — doesn’t really pick up until Buffy’s vampiric lover, Angel, goes evil, and the shit hits the fan in “Passion.”
“Passion,” which is the episode where Angel kills one of the show’s main recurring characters and Giles’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Jenny Calendar, was the episode that elevated Buffy for me from a pretty good show to a great one. It was the first time I can remember seeing a character I liked (read: thought was hot) get killed off so suddenly, so violently, especially a character who’d been such a fundamental part of the series thus far. It was the first time that I knew all bets were off when it came to this show – as Joe Bob Briggs says, it meant that anyone could die at anytime. And it was the first time that I remember almost standing up and cheering for one of the characters on a show when Giles prepared for his roaring rampage of revenge against Angel.
I know I’ve written in this column and elsewhere about how I’m a big weeping sissy when it comes to television – you can blame the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for that. I watched that season on the big screen television in my college dorm over freshman year winter break, where I did little more than eat Subway and watch Buffy. While I thought it was a great show already, the episode “The Prom” elevated it to all-time status. That’s the episode where Buffy is given the award of “Class Protector” by her classmates, letting her know that she will not be forgotten. Even though I had gotten into the show a little late for the “high school as hell” metaphor to really hit home, I still found myself getting pretty choked up as Buffy looked out over her classmates, who let her know that her lonely existence as a defender against all that is evil had not gone unnoticed. Coupled with the earlier third season episode “Amends”, Buffy remains the first television show to make me cry, and it’s the first television show to move me like that.
My experience with each season of Buffy is tied to memories like that one, but my memories of the later seasons blend together much more than the earlier ones. That’s because those seasons – four through seven – were the years when Buffy became more than a television show to me – it became a guide and a comfort. I left college after my sophomore year, and in the months that followed, I felt pretty lost. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life now that I didn’t have a degree, and I felt abandoned by my family – who’d cut me off just as I was figuring out that maybe television was something I wanted to dedicate my life to. So even though they were fictional characters living fictional lives, I saw elements of my own life reflected in Buffy and her Scooby Gang as they struggled to find their own place in the world.
Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has said time and time again that he designed Buffy to be a feminist icon and a hero, a character to be idolized and obsessed over. He’s succeeded, and while Buffy remains a positive, flawed, and all-too-human role model for young girls, I find Whedon’s made other, more lasting, more powerful statements on life.
Whedon put his characters through the wringer over the course of seven seasons. There were humiliations, break-ups, deaths, resurrections, addictions, eye gouging, transformations, and fast-food horrors – but through it all, Buffy and her Scooby Gang went on. They got up in the morning. They lived their lives the best they could. They did the job. They went to work, and it was through that that they became heroic. Soldering on despite great loss, despite great pain, doing the job when it feels like you can’t do the job any longer – that’s how you become great, said Whedon. Heroes aren’t the person who’s the biggest or the strongest or the prettiest – heroes are people who can do that.
But even more than that lesson about heroism, what I gained from Buffy the Vampire Slayer about the nature of family is something I’ll always owe Whedon for. I think by now, you’ve picked up on the fact that I do not have the best relationship with people to whom I am related by blood. So more often than not, the people who I’ve come to rely on are not blood relatives, but my friends, friends like Natalie, Antonella, Matt and Jenni, Jon, Jason, Elizabeth, Emily, Samantha, Dave and Amy, people who I am forever grateful to, people I rely on as much as they rely on me.
If it weren’t for an admittedly not-great fifth season episode of Buffy called just that – “Family” – I don’t know if I’d have come to that conclusion. I may have called them my close friends, my best friends even, but if it weren’t for that episode, where Buffy stands alongside Giles, Willow, Xander, Anya, Dawn, and Spike to defiantly declare themselves Tara’s family, I might never have learned that doing that was all right. I might not have ever learned real family is people who stick by you through your darkest times and family is something you create rather than something you’re born into.
This same concept of a created family are one of the reasons why I’m a fan of the final season of Buffy, which gets criticized as being uneven, but I feel combines the two themes of feminism and family better than almost any other season of the show. Those last couple of episodes, which have men and women of all ages, sexual orientations, and races making one final stand against the forces of evil, are still incredibly powerful.
There’s been quite a bit written in the media lately – with both the anniversary and the upcoming Buffy “season eight” comic – about the reach and influence of Buffy. While you can certainly see elements of Buffy in shows like Alias, Lost, Veronica Mars, or Supernatural, and while creators like Shonda Rhimes have cited Buffy as an influence, I believe the true impact of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still a good five to ten years down the line, when the people who grew up watching Buffy are the show runners calling the shots. I know I’m not the only nerdy kid who was inspired to start writing by Joss Whedon’s show, and I know I won’t be the last.
It’s been a great ten years, Joss, and television’s a little lonely without you around. Come back soon, okay?
Thanks for everything.