No, I’m not talking about the Buffybot (BuffyBot? Buffy-bot?). I’m talking about the mega-campy 1992 movie “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that predated the hit TV show.
This month marks the twentieth anniversary of Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking teen drama — 20 years of stakes and butterfly clips and refreshingly enlightened portrayals of teen and young adult life. But before Sarah Michelle Gellar breathed life into the chosen one, Buffy was a cheerleader from L.A. played by Kristy Swanson.
The film — for which Joss Whedon is also responsible — is pure camp, a visually stylized horror comedy. It’s hard to compare the movie to the TV show, but looking at this movie as source material helps make sense of what made “Buffy” the TV series stand out from other teen dramas.
Little details stick out — Pike became Spike, Seth Green has a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it role as a vampire — that tie the two together. The film serves, in its own way, as the backstory the show never gives us, of Buffy’s discovering her slayerdom as a shallow, popular girl in L.A.
The movie also points out why the story excels on television. It lacks the depth of character or story that “Buffy” the TV show so benefitted from. Over 144 episodes, we saw Buffy struggle and falter in ways that only solidified her status as a hero. The format of the TV show gives Buffy room to move around inside her character, something that makes her all the more real and all the more compelling. It’s important to see a heroine — especially one on a show targeting young people — make mistakes and feel real pain.
On the small screen, “Buffy” upended the expectations for TV storytelling. Recently, IndieWire compiled a list of the best “concept” episodes of all time, and, to no surprise, “Buffy” was among the most referenced shows. The three standout episodes “Hush,” “The Body” and, my personal favorite, “Once Again With Feeling” share something beyond their status as “concept” episodes. They can stand alone. As episodes, they can be plucked from the show’s seven-season long arc and hold their own.
The show’s first season does this same sort of thing to noticeably weaker effect — focusing on individual episodes as contained stories (find a monster, kill a monster, end episode). But in the later seasons these concept episodes not only play with what we expect from TV, but also blur — way before Netflix — the line between television and the movies.
That’s how the assertion that Buffy has to be a TV show gets more complicated. It does and it doesn’t. “The Body” could stand alone as a sharp, poignant portrait of the specific grief young people grieve. Perhaps one of the show’s most cinematic episodes, it shows Whedon’s directorial chops in a way unique from most episodes. Really, it could be a movie. Any of these so-called concept episodes could.
So, yet again “Buffy” straddled the line between film and TV.
Good TV is made every day. But “Buffy” was good TV — beautiful, complicated, smart TV — for teens. It was teen TV in a way completely unlike “Gossip Girl” or “Riverdale” because it didn’t exploit or mock — it listened and saw. I’m having a hard time thinking of a show specifically targeted at that demographic that held its audience in such high esteem.
That’s why the show’s ending works as well as it does. Buffy spreading her power to every potential slayer — which, if you’re me, can be taken to mean every girl in the world (heck yeah!) — is a powerful celebration of not only female capability, but also of girlhood itself. It’s recognition that to be a woman — but especially to be a girl — is its own kind of fight. Sometimes, in fact, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. And “Buffy” knew that.
While that sort of thing is hard (nearly impossible) to find on TV, it’s all over teen movies. Especially recent genre additions like “The Edge of Seventeen” understand the everyday tragedies of adolescence as well as they do the milestones. “Buffy” operated with a type of empathy usually reserved for the big screen.
So even if narratively they couldn’t really be movies (and as Netflix makes this piece less and less relevant by the minute, blurring the lines between the two mediums), they felt like them. The way an episode of “Mad Men” does.
The supernatural helps make sense of the inexplicable. Boys, bras and biology homework are easily compartmentalized in a world of vampires and demons. That’s why so many teen TV shows, like “The Vampire Diaries” or “Teen Wolf,” lean on it. What Buffy did, though, was marry the successes of both, the supernatural teen show and the rich, emotional teen movie.
One isn’t better than the other — that’s not the point. But, together they demonstrate the two ways teen media can excel. One as a richly realistic TV show and the other as an unabashedly kitschy horror comedy.
Buffy saved the world a lot. And “Buffy,” both “Buffy”s, saved TV a whole hell of a lot.