Why the enduring popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is well-deserved


In 1992, the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer had some moderate box office success, but the critics panned it. Joss Whedon, who wrote the script, was incredibly disappointed with the finished product, and said in an interview in The Watcher’s Guide Volume I: “I had written this scary film about an empowered woman, and they turned it into a broad comedy. It was crushing.”

Four years later, Whedon was approached to discuss developing his script for Buffy into a television series, and he jumped at the opportunity. This time around, he got the chance to do things his way, and keep his original intent of writing about “high school as a horror movie.”

Originally titled Slayer, the proposed series eventually went back to its movie title, and the first episode, Welcome to the Hellmouth” debuted on March 10, 1997 as a mid-season replacement for Savannah on the WB network. There it remained for its first five seasons, before moving to UPN for seasons six and seven.

And did I watch every single episode, loyally following the series throughout the entire run, and loving the snappy catch phrases? You bet your fruit punch mouth I did!

Season one began with Buffy and friends as high schoolers, and subsequent seasons saw Buffy attempt (and fail) to be a normal college student, then followed her into young adulthood. Some characters left us along the way (either permanently or on a reappearing basis), but Buffy and her most loyal friends, Willow and Xander, were there until the very end of the series.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer—Courtesy of Mutant Enemy

Buffy began as a sort of “Monster of the Week” show, but as our characters grew, so did their storylines. What we ended up with was a series that brought us horror, comedy, drama, and often, tragedy. And, the writing was so SMART!

Joss Whedon clearly had a lot of love for his characters, and the writers echoed that love, peppering the dialogue with pop culture references and snappy patter. As examples of the Buffyverse wit, Buffy named her favorite stake “Mr. Pointy”, and Buffy and friends regularly referred to themselves as “The Scooby Gang.”

There were touching moments as well, one of my favorites taking place during Season 3 in The Prom. During the senior prom, Buffy is given the Class Protector award by her fellow classmates, who have mostly shunned and made fun of her. The award is a glittery, decorated umbrella, presented  in honor of the class of ’99 having the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history.

“And we know at least part of that is because of you. So the senior class offers its thanks, and…gives you, uh, this…It’s from all of us, and it’s got written here, “Buffy Summers. Class Protector.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer—The Gift—Courtesy of Mutant Enemy

Joss Whedon was never afraid to kill off a beloved character, as long as it enhanced the storyline. Along the way, we even lost Buffy twice. Yes, she came back, but her death in The Gift was one of the most powerful moments in the entire series, and even knowing in my heart that she would come back, I cried a few tears. And her epitaph? “She saved the world. A lot.”

Joyce’s death in The Body was one of the top three strongest events during the series’ run in my opinion, and Sarah Michelle Gellar showed us what a great television performance looked like. I remember feeling like I was actually in her skin after she found her mother’s lifeless body on the living room couch.

Alyson Hannigan’s Willow was equally shattered when her girlfriend Tara was shockingly killed in season 6’s Seeing Red. Hannigan, so funny in American Pie, proved that her ability to portray extreme grief and rage was right up there with her comedic chops.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer—The Body–Courtesy of Mutant Enemy

Whedon was also not afraid to think outside the box, and that is where my remaining two favorite episodes come in. These two pieces of brilliant writing and directing are why I consider Joss Whedon to be a genius.

After hearing many critics and viewers continually insist that the main reason for Buffy’s success was the witty, smart and funny dialogue, Whedon wrote season 4’s Hush. Only 17 minutes of the 45 minute episode contain dialogue, the premise being that a sinister group of ghouls known as The Gentlemen have stolen the voices of every Sunnydale resident.

Aside from the novelty of there being no dialogue, Hush is also one of the most genuinely frightening episodes of any television show ever…The Gentlemen are terrifying! The creepy factor is balanced out by the humor of our “Scooby Gang” trying to communicate only through hand gestures, facial expressions, and, in the most amusing section, through Giles’ gory drawings on an overhead projector.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer—Hush—Courtesy of Mutant Enemy

And, then there is Once More, with Feeling, Whedon’s season 6 masterpiece. Since the first season of Buffy, Whedon had wanted to do a musical episode, but it was a daunting task. When the time came, he learned to play piano, and wrote all of the music himself. And it’s good music, people! I love musicals, so it takes a lot to impress me, but these were alternately funny, sweet, sad tunes, each of them ear worms.

The music ran the gambit from a Little Mermaid parody (“Going Through the Motions”) to a hard rock anthem (“Bunnies”), to a tender love song (“I’m Under Your Spell“), sung by Tara to her lesbian girlfriend Willow;  their relationship was one of the first long-term same-sex relationships portrayed on a network tv series. The music was released as a soundtrack recording, and I can sing every note of it.

Only two of our main actors were reluctant to sing, ballet-trained Michelle Trachtenburg (Dawn), who asked to dance instead, and Alyson Hannigan (Willow), who was terrified. Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, initially did not want to sing. But when she was told her singing could be dubbed, she claimed to have burst into tears at the thought of Buffy’s emotional turning point being performed by someone other than herself.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer–Once More with Feeling—Courtesy of Mutant Enemy

Once More, with Feeling received well-deserved critical acclaim, and after the series ended, there were public Rocky Horror Picture Show-style showings, with audience members dressing and interacting as characters while singing along with the music. In 2007, the showings ended after 20th Century Fox pulled the licensing due to a dispute with SAG over unpaid residuals.

Buffy ended after its seventh season, although Whedon went on to continue the series in comic book form. It has remained popular, and was recently added to Facebook Watch. In March of 2017, Entertainment Weekly magazine ran a feature in honor of the show’s 20th anniversary, interviewing and photographing Joss Whedon and the entire cast. I, of course, was over-the-top excited about this, and read the interviews over and over.

Most recently, a Buffy reboot has been announced, which most fans (including yours truly) did not seem very enthused about. In fact, when David Boreanaz (Angel) spoke about it at New York Comic-Con, boos were audibly heard in the audience.

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The backlash prompted reboot showrunner Monica Owusu-Breen to announce that “there is only one Buffy”, and that the updated series would include a new slayer, NOT Buffy. That made the whole thing easier to swallow for us hardcore fans, and I may give the reboot a chance after all.

Fellow super-fans, what are your favorite episodes? Will you give the Buffy reboot a shot, or would you rather stab yourself in the eye with Mr. Pointy?