As incredible as it may seem, the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was aired nineteen years ago today! Running through seven seasons, the series established creator Joss Whedon as one of the most prominent and gifted writers of modern film and TV. But what made Buffy work so well?
Buffy subverted the horror tropes
From the outset, Buffy at its best is a show that subverted every principle of the horror genre. The pretty blonde girl who runs into an alley and gets killed in pretty much every horror film? In Buffy, that girl’s the hero, the Slayer, the one you really want to run into the alley to save you!
“In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”
All the way through, the series subverted key tropes. Take the critically-acclaimed episode “Hush”. In every horror film, the victim screams before death. On many occasions, the scream is what tells the hero evil is afoot; and so Joss Whedon penned an episode in which that was turned upside-down. The first thing the villains do in this episode is strip all Sunnydale of the ability to speak. No speaking, means no screaming; and as a result, everybody is vulnerable.
The idea alone is a clever one, but Whedon chooses to use this of all episodes to force Buffy and Riley into being honest with one another; they cross paths while both are hunting the Gentlemen. To reveal secrets in an episode where nobody can speak? That’s smart.
Buffy was a commentary on human nature
Rather than just being a horror series, though, Buffy is realistically one long metaphor for growth and self-discovery. We’re introduced to the cast as teenagers in high school, and we watch their struggles – with love, with loss, with education, and with friendship. For all the characters are larger than life, it’s not hard to recognise ourselves in them. Joss Whedon’s trademark humour only reinforces this, as the witty one-liners exaggerate our own failings and foibles.
“Sorry, but I’m an old fashioned gal. I was raised to believe that men dig up the corpses and the women have the babies.”
One character stands out above all the others. Anya began her time in Buffy as a vengeance demon, stripped of her powers and forced to live as a teenager. As the series went on, she learned to live and to love, and by the final episode showed herself a true hero. Throughout the series, her reactions reveal the strangeness and beauty of human existence. There’s a conversation in “The Body” that can’t fail to resonate, as she ponders the reality of death.
Buffy was a masterpiece of characterisation
For all that Joss Whedon was inspired by superhero comics, he wasn’t satisfied with a series in which the main characters remained semi-static for years on end. He was well aware that he was penning a series based around high school life, and he knew just how much people change in those years.
“They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn’t Chosen, to live so near the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody’s watching me. “
Perhaps nobody changes more than Willow. Her journey of self-discovery moves from an infatuation with Xander to the realisation that she’s “kind of gay”, while her hacking skills are soon upgraded with sorcery. She’s actually the villain of Season Six, a horrific twist that is somehow foreshadowed all the way through the series (check out “Doppelgangland” if you don’t believe me).
Ultimately, for all it was a horror show and featured a lot of special effects, Buffy was actually about people. It’s a celebration of human relationships, and never is this more visible than in the final episode. The Slayer curse once made Buffy stand apart from all others, but now it’s shared; instead of there being a single Slayer, there is an army of them, a veritable community who stand against the darkness. The girl who always stood alone, is alone no longer. The weight of destiny is shared, and her story is done.
Happy birthday, Buffy!