What’s behind the continued popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Eimear Dodd goes hunting for answers (and the undead)
Last weekend marked the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS) in the United States on the WB network. Based on the 1992 film of the same name, BTVS’s first series of 12 episodes was short by the standards of most US television dramas. Its final season aired in 2003 and it garnered new audiences on DVD and more recently streaming services like Netflix.
At one level, this milestone is fuelled by a nostalgia for the show. The event is as much about the merchandising opportunities. However, this isn’t simply a rose-tinted look back at a favourite TV show.
In many ways, BTVS was a fore-runner for the shows that form part of the television golden age of recent years.
Welcome to Sunnydale
Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) was a smart teenage character. She had the usual anxieties about fitting in to a new school and making friends in a new town. However, Buffy has a secret identify that makes this ordinary life difficult to achieve.
She isn’t an average teenage girl. Buffy is also the Chosen One. It is her destiny as the vampire slayer to defend the world against the forces of evil. She might have the support of a core group of friends – sweet nerd Willow (Alyson Hannigan), guy-friend Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and a mentor Giles (Anthony Head).
Buffy’s position is unique. She possesses super-strength but she must live with the knowledge that her powers may not save her. The lifespan of most slayers is short. Ultimately, Buffy must carry the responsibility alone. Her duty requires sacrifice.
‘I’m the thing that monsters have nightmares about. And right now, you and me are gonna show ’em why.’
It didn’t help matters that her new school, Sunnydale High, sits on the “Hellmouth”. The place is a magnet for all kinds of evil including vampires, ghosts and demons.
Taking the phrase ‘high school is hell’ literally, BTVS ran for seven series with a total of 144 episodes. Anxieties about friendship, first love and outfits were as important as preventing the apocalypse and saving the world. The teenage experience was onscreen in all its messy and glorious complexities.
Initially shown in the UK and Ireland on BBC Two and Sky One, BTVS was required weekly viewing for its devoted fans throughout its run. The show developed a cult following before becoming a mainstream phenomenon. Even though its ratings fell during the final seasons, BTVS had a devoted core audience.
The show has aged surprisingly well. Unfortunately, some of the CGI and special effects have dated significantly. Its strengths were in other areas.
Pop culture storytelling
BTVS followed the standard adventure of the week format. Yet, it was also had Big Bads who would plot evil schemes across longer story arcs. Horror, comedy, drama and soppy romance mingled together in unconventional ways.
It also benefitted from dialogue that was full of wit and humour. The scripts have become sources of quotes for memes and social media lists.
“If the apocalypse comes, beep me.”
The show’s themes matured as the characters moved from high school to college and into adult life.There were controversial storylines. “Earshot” from season three featured a potential high school spree shooter.
Season six developed a complex and abusive relationship between Buffy and her vampire lover Spike which leads to sexual assault in “Seeing Red”. While some prefer to pretend the events of this episode did not happen, it can’t be ignored.
And it’s right that it shouldn’t be. Consent and respect within relationships were major themes throughout its entire run. BTVS also looked at feminism, addiction, gender relations and identity.
However, Buffy’s dysfunctional relationship with Spike does not imply that the show was anti-feminism. It just makes the conversation more complicated.
Buffy was a nuanced character among many complex women. She was surrounded by women who were interesting and diverse. They possessed physical strength, moral courage and deep flaws. They messed up. They made horrible choices. They lived with the consequences of their decisions. In essence, they were recognisably human.
The show’s afterlife has included becoming a topic of research for academics. The first conferences devoted to the show were held in 2002. The Whedon Studies Association was founded in 2009 and publishes the scholarly journal Slayage. Recent issues have included papers on notions of masculinities, consumerism, agency and identity.
Many of those who worked in its writers’ room have been involved as writers and producers on other shows including Lost, Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, 24, Battlestar Galactica and Once Upon a Time.
As one example, consider the career of its creator Joss Whedon. A writer, producer and director, he was tasked with merging the narrative threads of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the Avengers movie and its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Perhaps, BTVS’s continued popularity lies in its relatability. Life might be hell. But, it can also be argued that power can be shared. By the finale, Buffy didn’t bear the responsibility for saving the world alone. That remains its most enduring message.