I came very late to Buffy. I watched the original movie, and thought it was vaguely fun but brainless, so that put me off. I now know that Joss Whedon hated what they had done with his script. After many positive comments on io9.com, I thought I would give the series a shot.
On the face of it, Buffy is a pretty silly show. A high school girl has a destiny. She is the latest in a long line of “Vampire Slayers” who keep the world safe from evil. Vampires and demons are real. All the classic tropes like wooden stakes, drinking blood, burning up in sunlight, crosses are also real. Very silly. But delving a bit deeper, one notices that Buffy isn’t just a copy of countless late night TV horror movies. It is an unexpectedly intelligent show with strong themes such as love lost, death, the danger of absolute power, hate and fear but despite all that is not afraid at poking fun at itself or the characters.
Buffy’s greatness comes from several factors. First is the subersion of classic tropes. In the typical horror movie scenario, the dumb but pretty blond is being chased by vampires, or demons, or zombies. She shrieks and dies a horrible death. In Buffy, the blond is pretty but certainly not dumb (granted, not very academically minded either). She turns around and kills the vampire. The series is full of this reversal of the accepted order of things, often done in a humorous ways. It thrives on our knowledge of pop culture, offering up recognition moments without just copying old ideas.
Second, The Slayer (capital T, capital S) starts out is a high school girl with a head full of boys, make-up and clothes shopping. She is not an aloof superhero, but an approachable teenager saddled with way more responsibility than she could ever want. Buffy is an action hero, but not like a man at all. She isn’t a strong woman who acts like a man. She is strong but still feminine. She is also strong because she must; becoming a hero very much against her will. She realizes that she must save the world regardless of the personal price to herself, since no one else can or will.
Third, it is an ensemble show with strong characters. The “Scoobies”, as Buffy’s friends call themselves, are not just sidekicks. They drive the show as much as she does. Buffy is protagonist but not lone gunman. In fact, the Scoobies often have more interesting character development than Buffy does. The interaction between the characters and the wonderfully witty dialogue makes scenes spring to life in an uncanny way.
Fourth, it is easy to identify with the characters and really feel for them. Empathy for the characters unfortunately seems to be an underrated quality in television. I tried to watch the pilot of Lost but after an hour I really thought everyone did deserve to die in the crash. On the other hand, shows like Friends, Firefly (Whedon again), Farscape, Babylon 5, Warehouse 13 and The West Wing get to me. The creators make me care about what happens to these people, despite the shows sometimes being weak in other areas.
Fifth is character development. Identification with the characters is not enough. There must be a real sense of character development. After watching all seven season of Buffy, I went back to episode one just for fun. I was shocked to see how the characters seemed so young and naive, so different from what they would become. It was like imagining I was a teenager again and looking forward to who I am now. Just like real people, Buffy and the Scoobies had changed, and their environment had changed around them. I had been dragged along in this process, watching the kids grow up and the adults watching them, frequently in despair.
Sixth, the creators aren’t afraid to make awful things happen to the characters. The fact that they make us care for them makes it poignant, even heartbreaking at times. At the same time, the love between the main protagonists becomes all the more beautiful because of the adversity they must face.
Seventh are the all-important story arcs. Shows that press the reset button after each episode (e.g. The Mentalist) can be fine, but will never be great. The story arcs that flow through Buffy are nothing short of astounding, with foreshadowing of themes and events sometimes three of four seasons before they happen. Despite that, this isn’t a show that requires note-taking or obsessive attention. It does not make the mistake of being only about the arc, and most of the episodes are just fine as standalones.
The eighth and final element is the dialog. It is snappy, witty, intelligent, and frequently interspersed with unexpected and clever little jokes. There is rarely boring exposition. The words feel as if they mean something, and go deeper than just moving the scene along.
The first season has its fair share of corniness, but right from the start, the characters and their interactions feel “real”. The dialog is witty and incisive, very often crossing over into brilliant. Most importantly, I started caring for Buffy and her friends in the very first episode. The first season certainly has weaknesses, including a couple of pretty crappy episodes, but there is enough fun to keep things going, as well as a strong feeling that this is a diamond in the rough. By the middle of the second season the show has hit its stride, evolving from its initial “Monster of the Week” format towards ever greater awesomeness.
I recommend Buffy to anyone who loves television. Yes, the subject matter is silly, but this show is both fun and engaging. If you give Buffy a chance she will amaze you.
If you are really skeptical I recommend getting a taste with one of the best episodes of television of all time: Season 4 episode 10 – “Hush”. In this one, the town of Sunnydale (where Buffy is set) is invaded by strange evil men who take away everyone’s ability to speak. For about half the episode, there is no dialogue at all! Despite this, the acting is stellar and the story gripping. The fact that the characters cannot speak, but it is perfectly clear what they are trying to say. Most shows can’t accomplish such clarity even with dialogue.
Good-bye Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Spike, Faith, Anya, Angel, Joyce, Tara, Dawn, Riley, Kennedy, Andrew, Principal Wood and the rest. But not farewell. I’ll come back to visit soon.