It was one of those quiet days between Christmas and New Year. You know the type – friends are away with family, you are hungover in all senses of the word from overindulgence, and there’s not much to do but veg on the couch and watch TV. And so it was that I sat down one evening and was flicking through the channels and found a programme just starting that caught my eye. It went on to be one of the most popular shows of the 90s and early 2000s, and one that had an enormous and almost profound influence on me. That show was of course Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had its American premiere on this day 20 years ago, all the way back in 1997.
I have to admit, one of my initial reasons for sticking with the show was the women in it were so hot. (I was a teenager, what can I say?) But straightaway you could see that this was going to be something different. The very first scene of the pilot episode shows a male student being attacked and killed by a female vampire, completely subverting the tired narrative of the defenceless young girl at the mercy of a male demon, like all the horror movies that had gone before. And the hero, at the centre of all this mayhem and fighting to save the world from the vampires, is a teenage girl. In between maths homework, of course. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that I was hooked from the off.
The real power of the show was that it showed real problems than teenagers face, using the demons and monsters as metaphor. One example – the Angel and Buffy romance, which was a masterpiece of romantic writing. After their first night together, Angel loses his soul and reverts to his vampire self. Basically, the one night stand gone wrong. Instantly relatable to many. And it did this sort of thing all the time, episode after episode. Buffy herself is the embodiment of teenage alienation, the perennial outsider standing against the rebellious vampires. But all this was done with a light touch, the writing alluding to these metaphors without layering it on with a trowel.
It’s main and most obvious legacy is its feminism. Name a show before or since with such strong female characters? There probably isn’t one, and Buffy was groundbreaking for its time in its empowerment of women, flaws and all. The relationship between Willow and Tara was one of the first lesbian couplings on TV that I can remember, but it always felt like a natural progression of the story rather than an exercise in virtue-signalling. It was remarkable, but there was nothing so about their relationship. It just seemed to fit.
Throughout the show the viewer was never treated as dumb, never condescended to, and was dragged through the emotional wringer. The shows creator Joss Whedon was never afraid to make sweeping, heartbreaking decisions about where the story would go. The show wasn’t afraid to take massive risks, including killing off main characters abruptly mid-season. The death of Miss Calendar in my all-time favourite episode Passion was genuinely shocking. Indeed, the whole making Angel bad thing was a hugely daring storyline – the Buffy and Angel romance had vast followers who wanted to see a happily-ever-after storyline, bu no, that would be too easy. And still the viewers stayed in their droves. My favourite character is Spike, the English rock’n’roll vampire. The story of his falling in love with Buffy and their violent and destructive relationship in season 6 would have outraged many, particularly a close-to-the-wire attempted rape scene which I still find tough to watch. I respect Whedon enormously for taking the choice to bring the two together, knowing it could turn off large numbers of the audience but doing it anyway.
But audiences were treated with intelligence. After the show was greenlit for further seasons, it created long, sprawling story arcs that stretched across multiple seasons, something that had never really been done on such a scale in a TV show before. Indeed, the first episode of Season 2, When She was Bad, follows on almost directly from the last episode of the first season in its emotional structure. The stand alone episode aspect of the series was over, and the viewer was on a journey with these characters now. Later episodes would reference little plot points from years before, something which later shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad did so brilliantly. It felt immersive, a proper world with real consequences and decisions being played out further down the line.
I think the real power of the show was that it resonated far beyond its target audience. I will never forget the episode The Body, where Buffy finds her mother dead on the sofa after a long battle with a brain tumour. Here is a foe that Buffy was unable to fight, the death of the person she was closest to. The episode is brilliantly structured and written, with long takes and virtually all of the music stripped out, heightening the intensity. It’s a very moving and hard-hitting to watch episode. I lost my mother as a teenager to the same horrible disease and the vast range of emotions Buffy and her friends experience are absolutely bang on. It’s an extraordinarily bold piece of TV for what was a mainstream show.
But Whedon revelled in challenging the viewer. One episode, Hush, takes place in virtual silence. Another, Once More With Feeling, in the form of a musical. Both could have been ridiculous, but actually are two of the show’s greatest moments. Again, down to a pitch-perfect script and a sheer confidence in its actors. Any accusations that they are nothing more than gimmicks are defeated from the get go, especially when you realise that both are pivotal episodes in the development of each particular season. Huge advancements in plot and character relationships take place in each, all done in a unique and hugely satisfying way.
I could go on and on about this show really, and I haven’t even mentioned how funny it was, the one-liners, the sarcastic humour. How you have moments of sheer comedy one moment, then fraught danger the next. It really gave me everything, laughter, the odd tear, monsters, big, sweeping storylines, complex relationships, warmth and heart. When I first became a fan I was a little embarrassed to say so in polite company, fearing that people saw it as a silly, trite show for the teenage girl market. The show transcended that sterotype and soared to something much more inclusive, that has had a huge impact on modern popular culture and me as both man and writer. I’m very grateful that on that December night, I paused and watched rather than flicked through to another channel. If I had, I’d have missed out on so much. Happy birthday Buffy!