When Buffy Summers first arrives in Sunnydale, the last thing she wants to do is slay vampires. She wants to do science projects, date boys, make friends, and even make enemies – as long as those enemies are more along the lines of cheerleading rivals, rather than vampire masters set on destroying the world via Sunnydale’s Hellmouth.
She does everything she can to resist her destiny as the Slayer, but by the end of the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no doubt: she must rise to the talents she’s been given. And upon slaying the Master, she reluctantly accepts this destiny herself.
Buffy showed us what television could do, and was about to do
But Buffy had another destiny as well – as the harbinger of the current ‘Golden Age of Television’. When the show premiered in 1997, it seemed at worst a joke, at best a novelty destined for a short life. Instead it contained the seeds of a startling number of trends to come for the medium. Of course, Buffy was a watershed moment for the portrayal of young women on television, giving us a witty, smart heroine uniquely equipped to do no less than save the world. And it brought vampires back well before the age of Twilight. But it also innovated in more artful ways: combining fantasy and grounded realism in a way that prefigured everything from Alias and Lost to Jane the Virgin and the many superhero shows we have today; displaying a postmodern self-consciousness that’s ubiquitous in current programming; and experimenting with the form of television itself via a silent episode and a musical episode. In short, Buffy showed us what television could do, and was about to do.
Buffy’s maiden run in pop culture came in a 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson and written by Joss Whedon. The writer had envisioned a movie that would subvert horror clichés: he told Time magazine that he’d thought, "I would love to see a movie in which a blonde wanders into a dark alley, takes care of herself and deploys her powers." But director Fran Ruben Kuzui turned Whedon’s script into “a broad comedy,” as Whedon later said, instead of adhering to his original vision of a “scary film about an empowered woman”. The result was a poorly reviewed flop. A few years later, Whedon brought his original vision to television, which turned out to suit it better, allowing an unfolding mythology and a coming-of-age story that could develop over a number of years.
The two-hour series premiere first aired in the United States on The WB network on 10 March 1997. In it Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, tried to start her life fresh at a new school only to find herself pulled back into the slayer duties she thought she’d left behind when she moved. Critics loved its genre-mashing from the start; Time magazine called it “the most talked-about show to have debuted in the past months”. The magazine added, “Buffy churns a wry, ongoing parable of the modern woman's greatest conflict: the challenge to balance personal and professional life.” Throughout the first season, the show followed a fairly linear progression, with each episode featuring a monster-of-the-week for Buffy to vanquish with the help of her friends Xander and Willow and ‘Watcher’-turned-school librarian Giles, played by English actor Anthony Head.
The empowered heroine and monster-laden plots lent Buffy a cross-gender appeal and a subversive edge
It wasn’t until the first season finale that Buffy grew more complex as a character, as did Buffy the TV show. In its subsequent six seasons, it developed a life-shattering romance between Buffy and her broody vampire ally Angel (David Boreanaz), introduced bad-guy-turned-good Spike, faced the complications of sex and death, and bestowed upon Willow her own powers as well as a then-groundbreaking romance with another girl. The empowered heroine and the monster-laden plots lent it a cross-gender appeal and a subversive edge: "If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that's what's happening, it's better than sitting down and selling them on feminism," Whedon told Time.
Buffy’s complexity soon won critical acclaim and a rabid cult following. In fact, it was supposed to end with Buffy’s death in the fifth season finale, The Gift, but it was so popular that Whedon agreed to revive her for two more (less-focused) years on a new network, UPN. When the show ended for good in 2003, critics eulogised it despite acknowledgements that it had lived past its prime. “Blending fantasy with social realism, Whedon made the least-condescending show about young adults to run on prime time in recent memory,” Slate’s Hillary Frey wrote.
After Buffy’s finale, its mystique only grew. Its metaphorical depiction of the horrors of high school held up for new generations of DVD viewers and then streamers. It provided a deeper portrait of vampires – and the teen girls who love and/or slay them – than the Twilight craze of the late 2000s and beyond. The ‘kick-ass heroine’ became something of a trope – a welcome one – thanks to Buffy. But most of all, the show’s realistic relationships and elaborate mythology make for perfect viewing in the age of binge-watching.
But it isn’t just new young fans who are enamored. A few years ago, Slate determined that Buffy had become academia’s most-studied pop cultural artifact. And its influence lives on in shows being made today: "I think Buffy has been a huge factor in what TV looks like now – the mixture of tones in shows like Orange is the New Black feels Buffy-like to me, the recognition that humour creeps into our darkest moments,” Buffy writer Jane Espenson told SyFy Wire. Writer Drew Z Greenberg added: “Buffy established that it was okay to have a show which was both fun and intelligent – that you could be engrossing, mainstream, pop entertainment while still having something to say, still having a specific point of view about the world… And as legacies go, I think that’s a pretty good one.”
Add another title to poor Buffy’s list of grand fated destinies: Enduring Cultural Muse.
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