Monday, January 31, 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

When it was recently announced that Sarah Michelle Gellar was looking to get back into the TV game, it dawned on me. Buffy The Vampire Slayer has been off the air since 2003. It's been eight long years since the Scooby Gang invaded my TV. There has been a lot of good television since then but nothing ever came close to repeating a similar success that Buffy had.

When I told friends I was hooked on this show back then, I got a lot of dismissive eye rolls.

"Really, Dave? It's a show about vampires."

No, no, it's more than just vampires. It's a metaphor for life as a teenager in high school, kids who deal with self-image problems and heartbreak. It's also about the importance of friendship and female empowerment.

"But it has vampires. It's stupid."

They just didn't get it. Vampires are hip these days, thanks to Twilight and True Blood, but neither can hold a candle to the subversive wit and depth of the Buffyverse. Joss Whedon -- writer, creator, director, certified genius -- created this show to illustrate that high school is hell. Every teenager has heightened emotions involving romance, friendship and sex. What better way to represent those emotions through vengeance demons and blood-sucking vampires?

Buffy is best described as a cross between My So-Called Life and The X-Files. Teenage angst meets monster-of-the-week. After the events that occurred in the far inferior feature film, Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson in the movie, Gellar in the show) moved to Sunnydale, CA, a small town that is built over a portal of demon dimensions that attract supernatural phenomenon to the area (a.k.a. a Hellmouth). As we learned from the film, she was fatefully chosen as a slayer. Slayers are called to fight these demons and vampires and other forces of darkness. Each slayer is aided by a watchman, who trains and guides her. Buffy and her friends, affectionately known as the Scooby Gang, fight against the supernatural elements while trying to sort out their ever-complex social lives.

The movie never did anything for me. It was campy and silly, too irreverent to really make the emotions stick. The TV show dug deeper. Whedon was able to take his original idea and flesh it out. Some ideas just fare better on television anyway.

He had a great cast to help hammer his metaphors home. Anthony Stewart Head is Rupert Giles, Buffy's watchman and the father she never had. He's protective, sensitive, but also tells it like it is. He helped shape Buffy into the powerful woman she eventually becomes. The ever-adorable Alyson Hannigan is Buffy's BFF, Willow. As the series progressed, she too became a powerful woman -- and a witch not to be reckoned with. Willow coming out as gay was groundbreaking for its time and was handled with refreshing sweetness and honesty. Her doomed arc with lover Tara provided great drama and a brilliant performance from Hannigan. Nicholas Brendan's Xander never had any powers but he was the loyal friend, a grounded and sensible person who fans regard as the heart of the show.

And then there's Gellar. She's the classic case of the under appreciated actress. To be able to pull off a role like Buffy Summers was a formidable challenge. She had to have the look of a tough-as-nails vampire slayer but at the same time display the pluck and vulnerability of your average teenage girl. She was a born leader who just wanted to shop, date cute boys, and hang out with her friends. The responsibility of being a slayer often became too much for her to bear. And Gellar made playing Buffy look so damn easy.

The rest of the cast came and went with memorable arcs. Michelle Trachtenberg played Dawn, Buffy's new younger sister at the start of season 4. Fans hesitated when Whedon wrote her in, but in time, they warmed up to the character. I may have reacted unfavorably for a while but, in hindsight, I can't imagine the show without her. Spike, Drusilla, Faith, Angel, Anya, Oz, Wesley Wyndam-Price, Cordelia... all gave our Scooby Gang love and heartbreak through the years.

I did not catch on to the show when it first aired on the WB network. I began taping the show (Heh... taping. How archaic!) as it was showing season 4. I watched the first three seasons on Netflix in a breathless marathon run and was hooked instantly. During those several weeks, my life was all about Buffy, all the time. The Buffy/Angel drama that anchored the beginning of the series was sexy and mesmerizing. It was so good, in fact, that they spun Angel off to his own show. He was missed but Spike was a welcome addition to the show. For a while, Spike and Buffy were sworn enemies but later he and Buffy became allies and eventual lovers. See, Angel and Spike -- those were the supernatural guys you pined for. They make Edward and Jacob look like clowns.

I was finally "live" with the rest of America in the middle of season 4, while Buffy and gang were off to college. It wasn't my favorite season (that honor goes to season 3, with the arrival of Faith coinciding with the big fight against Mayor Wilkins, aka the big giant snake demon), but the show still consistently surprised me. This season included one of Buffy's very best: Hush. In it, a group of ghouls steals the voices of Sunnydale residents, rendering them unable to scream when they are killing them. The episode, written and directed by Whedon himself, was a dialogue-free masterpiece.

Whedon continued to push the creative envelope year after year. The next season saw The Body, in which Buffy discovers her naturally deceased mother at home on the couch. It was the most quietly powerful hour of television I had seen all year. No music, no fighting demons, no special effects -- just a shell-shocked Buffy surrounded by her loyal friends. For the whole hour, Buffy simply struggled to make sense of it all. I leaned towards the TV in awe, hanging on to every one of Whedon's words. Unforgettable.

In contrast of tone from those greats, season six's Once More With Feeling was a massive production, a gloriously executed musical. Whedon himself wrote the lyrics and the entire cast was game for everything. It was a beautifully rendered song-and-dance hour that moved the series along and provided plenty of surprises and twists. That's what I loved about it -- it wasn't just a gimmick. It blended perfectly with the show's brilliant whimsicality.

And finally, the end. The glorious, heart-breaking, witty ending worked on so many levels. Whedon took his main motif - female empowerment - and drove it home by awakening the slayer in all of the young girls of the world. Every teenage girl had the strength, vision and instinct of a slayer. It just fit perfectly with the theme of the entire series. The final shot - the Scooby Gang stands before a hole in the earth where Sunnydale used to be - always give me goosebumps.

"What do we do now?," asks Dawn.

And Buffy just smiles. She's relieved. The world is not hers to save anymore.

That's the last of the Buffyverse I've experienced. I never joined Angel and his group of crime-fighting vampires and demons. I never read Whedon's comic-book which played out like season 8 of the series. And I'm fine with that. I felt closure.

And like Buffy, I felt relief, too.

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