Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I was a late-comer to Buffy fandom. There has already been thousands (more likely millions) of words written about this show and its spin-offs, from fan sites to academic papers to professionally published books on the allegories and metaphors in the plots. I don't expect what I have to say is going to influence anyone to either view it in a different light (if they are already familiar with it) or to consider watching it if they haven't yet. But I am writing this because I do recommend it, both for its sharp, witty dialogue as well as the darker psychological undertone. I had seen the original movie from 1992 and was not impressed at all, so when the series started I figured it would also not be to my liking. The fact that it aired on The WB network made me think it would be geared to a teen or pre-teen audience, and there is a bit of that, but you have to look beyond and below the surface details to get to the true meaning.
It was not until I became a fan of Firefly that I decided to give Buffy a chance. Creator Joss Whedon already had many fans from Buffy (and its spin-off, Angel), and there were many mentions of these earlier shows on sites devoted to Firefly. I realized that many of the writers and directors that worked on Firefly had also worked with Whedon earlier, and I became intrigued to see how they had developed their craft to the point that made Firefly such a great show. I still think that it is Whedon's best work to date, but there is also a lot to recommend about Buffy.
The title alone might be off-putting to some. The name Buffy evokes images of an airhead Valley Girl, interested only in boys, make-up and cruising the mall. But Joss and his fellow writers were successful in subverting both the teen-angst and horror genres. The character that is the typical first victim in a horror film is the vapid blonde cheerleader. In the Buffy movie and series that cheerleader is the victor, not the victim. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the Chosen One, the latest in a long line of Slayers that have been called to battle the forces of darkness, to vanquish vampires and other monsters and demons.
All of Whedon's shows share one common trait, that of the created family, people not related but who come together to form a group that supports each other and help to overcome a common foe or similar adversities. In Buffy, the family consists of the title character and her new-found friends at Sunnydale High School, Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander (short for Alexander) Harris (Nicholas Brendon). In the original movie Buffy was called to the fight by her "watcher," played (ineffectively in my opinion) by Donald Sutherland. In the series that role fell to Anthony Stewart Head as Rupert Giles. He is the school's librarian, but most importantly he is Buffy's trainer and teacher. The stacks in his library are not typical, containing many books on vampires and demons, magical spells and potions designed to fight them, and histories of other Slayers so that Buffy might learn from their mistakes.
It was appropriate that Giles is a librarian and that most of their meetings take place in the library. It is an effective metaphor for the outsider in school, the geek or nerd who is shunned and ridiculed by the popular kids. One can view this series from different perspectives. Yes, there are vamps and demons to fight, but ignore that and it is just a show about teenagers trying to fit in while knowing they never will. Of course, Buffy is originally not of this type. She was a cheerleader, a popular girl in her previous school, up until she realized her calling as a Slayer. As much as she wants to stay in that safe and comfortable world of popularity, she realizes it is not going to happen as long as she has that grave responsibility. This is also where the show is about more than just what it seems. It is about all of the unsung heroes who fight the good fight regardless of the odds, simply because it is their responsibility, someone has to do it, and it is the right thing to do.
Quite a few other shows and book series of late have vampires as romantic figures, and while Buffy fans have criticized them of copying the formula, in truth that is a long tradition, going back at least as far as Stoker's Dracula. One of my least favorite things about the Buffy series is her romantic entanglements with Angel (David Boreanaz), the vampire with a soul. Truthfully, the Buffy/Spike (James Marsters) relationship is my least favorite, and for much the same reason, but as with the other metaphors in the story, if you can view this as the typical "good girl falling for the dangerous bad boy," it is no different than many other teen dramas. Buffy is my favorite character, mainly for her resolve and determination to continue the fight no matter how hopeless the situation seems, but I also love Willow and Xander and Giles, along with many other supporting characters too numerous to mention.
The series ran for seven seasons, the first one being a short twelve episodes due to it being a mid-season replacement. All the others have twenty-two episodes, with the last two seasons being broadcast by UPN, while the spin-off Angel remained on The WB. If it had been on one of the major networks it is likely that the first season would have been the last. Not only is it the most erratic and uneven, the ratings were marginal even for a netlet like WB. But they stuck with it and were rewarded with a show that grew in popularity and in quality. There will long be arguments over favorite episodes or the strongest season. I think the show peaked with Season Three, although there are many other great episodes (and characters) that came later. In my opinion, the best episode of the series, in fact one of the best hours of TV ever broadcast, is "The Body" from Season Five. There are many fans of "Hush," the "silent" episode in Season Four and "Once More, With Feeling," the musical ep from Season Six as well.
One of the most creative things that Joss and crew accomplished was ending each season in such a way that it would have been a satisfactory conclusion if the show had not been renewed, while at the same time leaving it open for a continuation. This is probably most evident in the conclusion of Season Five. No spoilers here, just remember this is a world full of magic and supernatural events. Anything can happen.
If you are inclined to start watching this show now I would recommend you start from the beginning. Even though the first season is weak it does lay the groundwork for everything that comes later. When you come to an episode you think is too silly just skip it, but do continue because you will be rewarded later on. At the least you should watch the first three episodes and the twelfth. The first two ("Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest") were originally broadcast together as the pilot, and the third ep sets up a character dynamic that continued (sporadically) throughout the series, in fact is still continuing in the comic book series.
When I first watched it I rented the discs from Netflix, and they are still available that way, but now with their "Instant Streaming" service you can watch on your computer or on your TV if you have a wireless modem and compatable device. HuluPlus also offers the full series streaming to your TV. The complete series has been released twice so far on DVD, but at the current time neither is in production, but that will likely change in the future. It is available in individual season sets. The link to amazon.com in the Overview column to the right is for Season One, but you can follow links there to find the others. Even if you start by renting the discs or viewing the show in streaming form, you might end up buying it all like I did, because it does hold up to multiple viewings. If you aren't a Netflix customer or don't want to sign up for HuluPlus, you can still watch the series online at Hulu.com, or catch repeats currently running on either the Chiller or Oxygen cable channels.
My review of the Season 8 comics
Buffy World and Buffy Guide, two good fan sites
Wikipedia, an overview page with links to articles on the series, the movie, the comic books, etc.
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