Welcome to our bi-weekly column, Prime Time, where different writers pick some of their favorite past shows and talk about what made them standout from the crowd. To read past installments, go here.
Critics and audiences of television in the last two decades have noted on several occasions that we’re currently in a “golden age” of tv, a time in which some of the most talented actors, directors, and especially writers, are taking their stories they want to tell into the episodic format. There’s a lot of crediting this to streaming services like Netflix, but there is a direct correlation between the time this era of quality began, and the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that aired on The WB and UPN. A lot of the praise is given to the vision of series creator Joss Whedon and his ability to not only write great characters that subverted stereotypes and genre cliches, but elevated storytelling and direction to a level that was on par with feature films. While people mostly credit, or criticize, Whedon about his persistent dedication to his scripts, his determination to keep his vision the way he sees it when directing is admirable, and this is true from the conceptualization to the editing room.
The original concept for Buffy was his way to subvert a traditional Hollywood horror movies: as he describes it, “The little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie…” he then made that girl turn to the vampire and kick its ass. This was eventually made into a film screenplay by Whedon, which would later be praised as a standalone piece of work, but instead of going out to tackle the project himself, the film rights were sold to then be directed into an offshoot comedy that completely missed the mark on what made Buffy so spectacular of an idea in the first place. It was a truly lucky moment on Whedon’s part, almost akin to the luck met with George Lucas on Star Wars’ merchandising rights, that he was allowed to then make a pilot episode for the creative industry to give Buffy one more shot, and once he got it, the show went on to be one of the WB’s highest rated shows in the late 90’s, and a cultural phenomenon with a constantly growing audience every year. Now, even 19 years later, Buffy and its spinoff series Angel have found new life in younger audiences on streaming platforms, and that audience is one that appreciates the history of empowering young female characters that they so desperately are searching for in media and entertainment these last few years. Whedon details about his vision when he set out to make Buffy into a full on television series, “The very first mission statement of the show was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it.”
Buffy herself is the kind of character that is more powerful than the world around her suspects, but she’s not, as the internet declares a lot of conveniently powerful characters, a “Mary Sue.” She has a certain amount of power that she doesn’t quite understand how to wield in the right way, and isn’t even certain of how much she is capable of. She is a character that isn’t exactly the same person by the end of the series as the sophomore high school student she started out as, and a lot of that comes from simple complications that come with becoming an adult, understanding what real love is, what real loss is, what real evil is capable of, and even conceptualizing the slightest idea of what her purpose in the world even is, despite a prophecy that intends to demand she accept exactly what she is to do with herself. In her own words, she’s basically like an uncooked tray of “cookies.”
Honestly, not a single character on the show, between Buffy and the whole Scooby Gang, or vampires like Angel and Spike remain the same “person” they appeared to be at the beginning of the series, and it can be as progressive as Willow and Tara being TV’s first on screen lesbian relationship, or as confusing as Spike’s struggle to understand his romantic feelings for Buffy, only to make a full 180 in his intentions by the series’ end. Whedon even takes characters that begin as a simple antagonistic stereotype in season one, like the detestable queen bee of Sunnydale High, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and actually turns her into a human being, and a complete joy to root for as a hero when she moves to L.A. to work alongside Angel. Watching these characters grow on screen for the long haul is a genius way to subvert even the most simple expectations in hollywood and television, and keeps the show in a league of its own instead of teetering between the monotony of a “monster of the week” sci-fi show and a soap opera where the characters become cardboard caricatures of themselves after five years.
Even the supernatural aspects of the show keeps aware of themselves and the expectations of them throughout, and when it doesn’t play something for laughs, or turn a trope on its own head to keep viewers surprised, the show introduces things that are so unique that they demands the attention of the industry to the point of winning Emmy awards: The silent world of the Gentlemen in “Hush”, Joyce’s creepy robot boyfriend “Ted,” and a demon who forced the tv industry to include at least one musical episode in every long running series since “Once More With Feeling.” Even the most human elements of Buffy are deserving of accolade, as seen most notably in the season five episode “The Body,” possibly being the most emotionally impactful in the show’s history, and having almost 0% to do with vampires.
Whether you want to accept Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the supernatural romp that it is, or see it as a way to judge how TV writing went about treating female characters in the 90’s, or chronicling the trend of Joss Whedon’s feminist take on the industry and whether or not it’s still applicable in it’s current third wave (on which I professionally do not have a definitive opinion on), I personally find that the show should still be a required watch for anyone who takes interest in genre storytelling and good character growth. Buffy has gone from a fun, subversive cult fan show to something that has changed an industry and challenged writers and directors and showrunners of every kind of genre imaginable, and there are very few ensemble casts of character actors out there that can match the power of Buffy and the Scooby Gang.