The first episode of Buffy was broadcast 20 years ago today. Jonathan Bernstein explains why it was this undead romp was one of most influential TV shows ever made
On March 10, 1997, Buffy The Vampire Slayer made its TV debut on the fledgling WB network. It’s not an understatement to say there was not much in the way of anticipation or interest greeting the show. It was based on a little-loved, unsuccessful movie that teetered over into camp without ever being funny or scary. Plus, the WB programming schedule was pretty much held together with glue and rusty nails.
As impossible as it was in 1997 to imagine a world where the 20th anniversary of Buffy would be a cause for celebration, it’s equally impossible in 2017 to look at the TV landscape and not be aware of the show’s influence and continued relevance. Here are a few reasons why Buffy still slays…
1. It made the future female
Asked why his writing is largely populated by strong female characters, Joss Whedon replied, “Because you’re still asking that question.” Before Buffy, the TV landscape was bereft of young, relatable action heroines. Yes, there was Xena, Warrior Princess but that was a fun, cult sword-and-sandal show with an invincible lead. Buffy was different.
The voice-over at the start of every episode may have intoned, “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,” but this wasn’t a show that placed its title character on a pedestal and gazed worshipfully up at her.
Buffy Summers was an occasionally awkward, often anxious Everygirl who chafed against her centuries-old responsibility to guard the clueless citizens of Sunnyvale against the seething masses of evil that surged beneath them. Though most episodes concluded with star Sarah Michelle Gellar staking a demon to dust, followed by a well-seasoned quip, the lies she needed to tell in order to successfully maintain her double life weighed heavily on her.
Once Buffy hit its stride, it was no longer acceptable for a female character to cower in fear waiting for a male protector to rescue her from impending doom. It was equally unacceptable for a female protagonist to be a one-dimensional tower of strength and resourcefulness. Buffy saved the world a lot (as it said on her headstone at the end of Season 5) but she could be bratty and selfish, and she couldn’t have done it without her friends.
2. It made the universe a bigger place
Our pop culture world is littered with ever-expanding universes; The Marvel Cinematic Universe. The successful small-screen DC universe and the less-successful big-screen one. The Star Wars universe. The Universal monsters universe. Before all these universes, there was the Buffyverse: the commingling of characters that started off on BTVS and spilled over onto the WB's Angel (1999-2004).
There was Buffy's original Scooby gang: her faithful hacker sidekick and future all-powerful lesbian witch, Willow; Her platonic pal, the neurotic wisecracker, Xander; Her tweedy British librarian Watcher (and surrogate father), Rupert Giles.
Then there were the peripheral figures sucked, sometimes reluctantly, into the Buffyverse. Angel, the soulful good-guy vampire, sworn to protect Buffy but also with a darker alter-ego as Angelus, the homicidal blood-sucking monster. Cordelia, the sneering, status-obsessed Mean Girl. Oz the deadpan, post-grunge, lycanthrope. Spike, the Cockney vampire whose psychotic hatred for Buffy slowly turns to infatuation. Anya, the centuries-old demon, who gets stuck in the body of a cynical teenage girl. Her fellow slayer Faith, the anti-Buffy.
Outside of The Simpsons, it’s hard to think of a series that has produced such a thriving community of richly-imagined subsidiary characters. Joss Whedon is a showrunner who likes nothing more than to bring misery to his cast and audience by killing beloved fictional figures. It’s testament to how deeply Buffy’s ensemble resonated with its fans that he slaughtered so few of them. Aborted spin-offs featuring Faith, Rupert Giles (the much discussed BBC horror show, Ripper) and the produced-but-not-broadcast Buffy animated series prevented the Buffyverse expanding even further.
3. It reinvigorated Doctor Who
When Russell T Davies set about destigmatizing the perception of Doctor Who as a platform for wobbly cardboard sets and Bonnie Langford, he zeroed in on Buffy as a blueprint for his 2005 reboot. “It showed the whole world that writing monsters and demons and end-of-the-world isn’t hackwork,” Davies said. ”It can challenge the best. Joss Whedon raised the bar, not just for genre writers but for every one of us.”
Anthony Head, Giles on Buffy and an evil headmaster on a 2006 Who, commented: "Russell T. Davies said that he used Buffy as a role model for when he was rebranding Doctor Who because Joss Whedon was the first person to actually say you can have genuine comedy, [and] life-changing events happening on the turn of a dime.”
The Buffyverse and the Whoniverse came close to cross-pollinating in 2008 when James "Spike" Marsters showed up on an episode of Torchwood. Meanwhile, The most recent Who spin-off, Class, is heavy on the Buffy Season One monster-of-the-week-as teen-angst-metaphor trope. Without actually being any good.
4. It gave is bigger, badder villains
Speaking, as we were, about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, take a shot at naming your favorite three villains from the many, many movies under that umbrella. Loki’s the obvious first choice. But after that? Not so easy. Buffy villains, though. The Big Bad— a term the show sent rocketing into lexicon— who cast a shadow over each successive season? That’s easy. In Season One, it was The Master, the bat-faced atrocity who actually succeeded in drowning Buffy(before Xander brought her back from the dead).
The following year, it was the undead Sid & Nancy pairing of Spike and Drusilla, whose reign of terror was snuffed out by the appearance of Angelus (after Buffy had sex with Angel, thus giving him his moment of perfect happiness and igniting the curse that turned him bad).
In Season Three, it was the affable mayor of Sunnyvale and Faith, the swaggering bad girl Slayer who had all of Buffy’s abilities without her moral compass. Year Four, the confused, unsatisfying Buffy Goes To College arc, had Adam the Frankenstein figure created by a secret military conspiracy.
Year Five had Glory the hot evil goddess. Next season brought the trio of robot-creating, power-crazed nerds who inadvertently turned cheerful, passive Willow into an all-powerful, vengeance-craving witch bent on destroying the world. The final season was an all-out war against The First Evil who, ironically, turned out to be the show’s least memorable Big Bad.
5. It made special episodes genuinely special
No show consistently broke format more daringly or thrillingly than Buffy. Reacting against the torrents of praise for his fast, quippy, super-stylized dialogue, Joss Whedon wrote and directed Hush, an episode largely free of the spoken word, in which Buffy and friends face off against The Gentlemen, a cabal of floating ghouls whose appearance removes the power of speech.
In Season 4 finale, Restless, the entire surreal episode is devote to the dreams of the Scooby Gang. In the celebrated musical episode Once More With Feeling, a non-favorite of the vocally challenged Gellar, the cast sing and dance their way through an encounter with a musical demon. And in Season Five’s The Body, Buffy who has killed and punned her way through a mountain of vampires and assorted monsters, has to deal with the natural death of her mother, Joyce.
6. It legitimised teen TV
My So-Called Life, which debuted in 1994, was a fully-realized immersion into American adolescence. But that show only lasted a single season and it was broadcast at 10pm, therefore its place in the pantheon of Classic Teen TV is debatable. What’s not debatable is Buffy’s place.
Before BTVS, the admittedly-addictive Beverly Hills 90210 topped the menu of TV-hungry American teens. Buffy raised the bar. Joss Whedon proved that a TV series aimed at a young audience could have a specific voice and point of view, it could deal with adolescent fears and fantasies through metaphor, and it didn’t necessarily tie up all its problems in a pretty bow at the end of every episode.
The show’s influence was obvious and wide-ranging. It was there in the hyper-articulate, preternaturally mature cast of Kevin Williamson’s Dawson’s Creek, JJ Abrams’ Felicity and Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls. It was there in the tortured family dynamics and monster smackdowns on Supernatural. It was there in the surrogate extra-terrestrial family on Roswell. It was there in the witchy siblings of Charmed. It was there in the vinegary persona of teen-PI Veronica Mars and her own Scooby gang.
It’s there in The Vampire Diaries and iZombie and Riverdale. Ironically, the most recent show with a colossal Buffy influence, E4’s Crazyhead, is a textbook example of how to produce a Whedonesque series minus mythology or emotional depth.