The Brilliance of Buffy

In another thread, Lola asked me to explain my contention that the show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a post-modern masterpiece that many people just don’t get. As going into a detailed explanation in that thread would constitute something of a hijack, I’ve started this new one in order to give it my best shot.

Now, at the outset I want to state once more that my opinion isn’t that everyone should like Buffy. It has a lot of campy elements that many people find unpalatable and would rather not spend their time watching. This is fine. My beef is with the people who take one or two looks at the show and then dismiss the entire series as a cheesefest on the level of Charmed or Are You Afraid of the Dark?

I will now therefore list some reasons why I feel that the entire seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer stand as some of the best television ever created.

  1. The bread and butter of good television is good characters. Most of Buffy’s characters are unique, well-rounded and hilariously conceived. Giles the librarian. Initially looks like your stock-standard British fuddy-duddy professor, but turns out to have a very particular dark streak and a chequered past. Spike the vampire. Looks like the archetypal 80s punk and is the meanest, evilest MF on the block, until you learn that before becoming a vampire he was a gentle-souled poet whose clumsy amorous advances got his heart broken one too many times. This is to say nothing of the character development these two characters go through as the series progresses.

  2. Each season’s ovearcing plotlines present a veritable buffet of ethical quandaries, incisive metaphors and epic occurrences. And every time it looks like the sheer drama of it all is about to spill out over the top, the show checks itself with a well-placed joke.

  3. Every once in a while, the show’s creators decide to take a trip off the beaten path and create an episode that breaks the mould in some significant way; many of these single episodes have gone on to win Emmys, and have been otherwise recognized as masterpieces of television. Lola, ask your wife about episodes like Hush, The Body, and Once More With Feeling and watch the expression on her face as she describes them.

  4. The characters and circumstances of the show change from season to season instead of remaining static. In Season 1, Buffy and her friends are high school sophomores. Season 2, juniors. Season 3, seniors. Season 4, college. Etc. Characters die, characters leave, new characters are introduced. Things move on.

  5. The show’s creators are incredibly adept at taking common real-life difficulties and creating analogs for them within the traditions of the horror genre the show ostensibly takes place in. There are layers and layers of subtext and meaning behind so many things on the show that multiple viewings are often required.
    With all that’s gone before, you still may not like the show. That’s fine. It’s not for everyone. Some people have difficulty suspending disbelief in the face of the rubber vampire masks and witchcraft, some people don’t like the show’s quirky style of wordplay and sense of humor, and still others just plain don’t like it because it’s a “girl show.” But I draw the line at people saying the show is stupid or moronic, containing nothing of value outside a few cultural references, because that’s just patently not true. It means you’ve taken a surface impression of the show and run with it. It means you’re judging without knowing what you’re talking about. You can dislike it all you want, but don’t try to kid yourself or anyone else into thinking it’s not one of the highest-quality productions to come out of television in recent years.

I have nothing to say except the following:

I concur.

Many a linguist and word maven have swooned over the witty writing and the unique twists of the usual cliche usage of language in the show.

If Buffy were a book, it’d probably be at 10th to 12th grade level, which is much higher than most TV fare (and certainly lots and lots higher than other shows aimed at teens).


I like the way they throw out high- and pop-culture references left and right with no particular concern over whether the audience will “get” them or not. I still snicker at the “Nick and Nora Fury” line from Riley’s last appearance. Come to think of it, Riley was the target of most of the comic-book references…

Why couldn’t they have forced the cast at gunpoint to sign contracts that would allow the studio to own them for the rest of their natural lives, and then once they died give the studio unlimited rights to their likeness?

I miss looking forward to Tuesday nights. I miss the excitement of new seasons. I miss laughing and being in awe of what they got away with - all because it wasn’t dumbed down.

I miss Buffy.

I think that in the face of all the brilliant jokes and pop culture references that non-Buffy watchers never really get to understand how the show can pull at the heartstrings like no other.

Big sweeping episodes like Becoming, Graduation Day, The Body, and others are heartbreaking, but there are also smaller details and interactions (Willow/Oz/Tara, Giles/Buffy, Xander/Willow, Giles/Jenny, Anya/Everyone) that bring tons of emotion and depth into a show that one wouldn’t expect during a scene where a little blonde is fighting a guy in a scary mask.

Of course, if someone watches an episode of season 6 (other than OM,WF) and walks away with the idea that it’s a horrible show, I don’t blame them in the least.

I agree that Buffy was an excellent show. The episode where her mother dies is one of the most incredible and true-to-life things I’ve ever seen on television.

I also think the movie that started it all is highly underrated and while not as ‘heavy’ as the series, it still did a great job of showing Buffy’s transformation from a shallow, selfish, ditz to a complex, selfless, ditz. Great performances by Donald Sutherland, Kristy Swanson, Paul Reubens, and even Luke Perry. It often gets unfairly dismissed by fans of the series, those ungrateful bastards!

This seems like a good place to ask this:

Why didn’t the vampires ever just try to shoot Buffy? She’s not that tough, right? Just walk up with four vampires (which they managed to do a number of times) and hit her with four shotgun blasts. Am I missing something here?

Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, felt that martial arts fights were cooler than gun battles.

That’s like asking why didn’t Batman’s foes just shoot him. (And, after establishing that he wears body armor, then it’s just like asking why didn’t Batman’s foes just shoot him in the face.)


And actually, Darla used guns against Buffy early on in the series, and she was shot by Warren toward the end of season 6, so it has happened.

Ah, Buffy, the show that changed my life. Really, it did. The musical episode. *The Body. Hush. Restless. * The wit, the pathos, the drama. Sob. Why is it over?

I agree that Buffy was a great show and my Tuesday nights are empty now, but in the interest of accuracy I think it must be said that the show did not win Emmys, other than for costume design and special effects. Those great episodes did not win any awards that I am aware of .

Buffy is the only TV show that I know of that has generated the kind of secondary scholarly work that highly respected authors do. Star Trek has its fandom of course, and its academic value as a pop culture phenomenon, but the sheer depth and breadth of Buffy’s subtext makes it entirely unique in the history of television.

Umm, a bold statement and probably not quite correct. Add in the academic and social impact of shows like M.A.S.H., All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show just to name a few and Buffy’s impact is not even in the same class as the heavyweights. Let’s put it this way- Spike’s jacket in not going into the Smithsonian next to Archie Bunker’s chair.

Just in currently running TV, I would think that the Simpsons would qualify for that honor- maybe even to a bigger extent then Buffy which remained barely on the national cultural radar, hence the rating difficulties during the last 2 seasons.

As to the main point- the brilliance of WB Buffy is hard to overstate. But, alas, the severe quality drop (on average) of UPN Buffy is hard to ignore. But like season five, of Babylon 5, the bad UPN seasons helped to show off how brilliantly consistent seasons 2-5 were.

For me, last season of Angel, then Buffy season three, and then Buffy season four will always remain among the top seasons in fantasy TV.

Why did Buffy get romantically involved with two Vampires?, the beings she is suppose to be killing, and protecting Sunnyvale.

Why is she charged with fighting Demons and Werewolves, etc, everything that is evil I guess, not just Vampires.

In addition to the examples mentioned by elf6c I will add Twin Peaks to the list of TV shows which have spawned scholarly work.

Angel and Spike were both special cases. Angel had a soul, which at the time made him unique among vampires. Buffy was not instantly able to deal with his vampirism, and her coming to terms with that was a good allegory for anyone contemplating a relationship encountering something in their prospective partner (like say mental illness or disability/disease) and making the decision as to whether the benefits outweigh the potential costs. As for Spike, initially it was not a romantic involvement. He did fall in love with her, but she only used him to help her feel something after her return from the grave. She broke off the relationship, but it then evolved into something that I’m not sure even Buffy understands. She certainly respects him and values him, and said she loves him (although he doesn’t necessarily believe her).

As for why she fights creatures other than vampires, well, because fighting other things makes the show more interesting, don’t you think?

Otto, elf: your talking context, I was referring to content.

True story: I watched that episode, cried hysterically, wrote a tearful email to my godmother apologizing for not keeping in touch with her after my godfather’s death, which resulted in a tearful phone call from her, which solved a lot of stuff I didn’t even know I was holding onto. I’d say that’s good television.

While I was never a devoted fan when it was on the air, I did try and watch it whenever I happened upon it. Last week, I was not looking forward to a funeral I had to go to, and I realised I was in prime Buffy-watching mode. My friend tried talking me into Family Guy, which I also love, but I didn’t feel like laughing hysterically, I felt like snickering. On one of the season 3 DVDs that I took home, there was a featurette with the writers, and one of them said “I love working on this show because I’ve never been told to dumb it down. Joss is simply opposed to that.” or somesuch.

I also think it’s worthwile to note the supernatural paralells to real life. Especially in the season three eps I was watching, it was clear that they were possibly working up to Willow’s eventual relationship with Tara. Buffy telling her mother she was the slayer, and Buffy’s mother’s struggle with the fact that her daughter’s life wasn’t going to be the simple one she envisioned, Willow being a witch and her simulatious hiding her interest in witchcraft from the adults and insisting her mother was too uninvolved in her life to notice, Buffy struggling with loving Angel, but hiding it from her friends because it was not appropriate for her to do so. A lot of these are issues all teenagers deal with, but I kind of feel that they were a sort of foreshadow of the Willow/Tara plotline, in my opinion, one of the finest representations on television of a gay couple that isn’t there to be the punchline of jokes or tintilating. Just two people in love. And later in the series, when Buffy finds out about Willow and Tara, she has to deal with the same feelings that her mother did when trying to accept Buffy. Very clever stuff.