Revisiting: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 - 6:08pm

Cast of "Buffy"

Cast of "Buffy" Buy this photo
The WB

The last “Revisiting” piece I wrote covered “Mad Men,” a show that many deem to have ushered in the “Golden Age” of television, along with classics such as “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and “Deadwood.” In a similar vein, Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has occupied a space where its mixture of cult status and critical acclaim has elevated it into the pantheon of legendary TV.

And yet, I spent the first 18 years of my life never watching it — not due to my ignorance of its existence, but rather because I thought it had a “silly name.” Over its nearly 150-episode span, “Buffy” somehow traversed nearly every sociological and philosophical quandary you could think of. Its basic premise is that the protagonist Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar, “The Crazy Ones”) is a special teenager endowed with superhuman strength and other attributes to help defeat the demonic presence in her hometown of Sunnydale, California. Her group of friends, known as the “Scooby Gang,” help her throughout the process. 

It still took me embarrassingly long to stop dismissing the fantastical, supernatural elements of the show, even though it is these very elements that make the show so intriguing. Academics, in particular, seem to have an affinity towards the show, creating (perhaps facetiously) a new academic field called Buffy-ology to analyze the social dynamics it portrays. To them, the demons and monsters can be compared to anything from terrorists to sexual predators. It is possible, due to its influence, that popular culture is becoming a  more respectable subject of study. 

I still maintain that the show took entirely too long (nearly two seasons) to find its groove. But when it did, it really did. It features some of the best portrayals of young adult life I have seen on TV, both acknowledging but not belittling the drama and emotions that pervade it. It handles high school life especially well, leading to a slight dropoff in quality after many main characters eventually graduate. 

The “Buffyverse” has remained so popular through the years that it has permeated nearly every form of media. For starters, the series “Angel,” a spinoff centering on the vampire of the same name (David Boreanz, “Bones”), received similar amounts of acclaim. There have been (frankly not very good) novels, six video games and recently, an in-development sequel. 

“Buffy” may not have the prestige drama veneer of “Mad Men” or “The Sopranos” or the gritty realism of “The Wire,” but that does not mean it is necessarily any less complex. “Buffy” is fantastical and surreal, but it uses those elements to make as valuable a social commentary as the former, all while dismantling TV tropes and norms that were all too prevalent in the era. 

“Innocence” (Season 2, Episode 14)

This is the episode that firmly convinced me the show was on a path towards greatness. It starts as a touching portrayal of young love and sexual awakening, but the turn it takes as a result was my first true jaw-on-the-floor moment in the series. While Buffy’s loss of innocence is heartbreaking, it aids in her development, allowing her to end the episode a stronger, more mature character. Perhaps the most resonant aspect of the episode is the fact that the emotions Buffy feels are a universal experience at that age, even if we do not have to go out and kill demons. 

“The Body” (Season 5, Episode 16)

“The Body” lies in the same tier of episodes as “Ozymandias” and “College.” In a show whose strengths lied in its subtle use of music and sound effects, this episode contained neither. Sure, it is a painful watch, containing barely any (if at all) catharsis. Like Buffy, we are dragged on a rollercoaster of confusion, sadness and horror, lacking any discernible explanation or justification for what just happened. It’s actually one of the less fantastical episodes of the series, which makes the events that transpire even more shocking and brutal. It tackles human mortality in a way that we can all relate to. 

“Hush” (Season 4, Episode 10)

It takes a tremendous amount of skill to make a compelling episode of television with little to no dialogue. Like the more recent episode of “Bojack Horseman” (“Fish Out of Water”), “Hush” features little speaking roles due to a group of ghouls stealing the voices of Sunnydale’s residents. These ghouls, known as “The Gentlemen,” are some of the show’s creepiest beings, even scaring the cast during the episode’s production. Overall, the episode is an intriguing examination of the power of language in its ability to express clearly yet also to obscure.