Arguably Joss Whedon’s strongest and most durable work, Buffy the Vampire Slayer holds its own against many popular shows around today – even surpassing many of them in terms of originality and its approach to character arcs. In fact, when it comes to most of the clichés we see today in genre television, if The X-Files didn’t do it first, then Buffy did.
Mixing teen melodrama with B-Movie horror tropes, Whedon and his team of directors and writers brought some fantastic concepts to life in this show, often then going on to undercut their own ideas with some seriously clever dialogue. This isn’t to say the show is without its ups and downs however – Seasons 4, 6 and 7 are often cited among the show’s weakest as it lost some steam in its later years, particularly with Seasons Six and Seven following Whedon’s departure as showrunner and the show’s move to the US channel now known as The CW.
Even from the very beginning in its shaky first season, the show proved to be expert in deconstruction, finding joy in taking tried and tested horror clichés and putting them in front of ingredulous and sarcastic teenagers – this is a very different breed of vampire fiction. Even the idea of Buffy herself came from the concept of the final girl or the victim cheerleader from probably 50% of horror films: what if the helpless cheerleader was heavily armed with ancient weapons and super-strength?
The first season’s appeal mostly lies in this B-Movie tone (Teacher that’s actually a giant praying mantis? Evil talking puppet? Check), but ascends to something a lot greater with the episode “Prophecy Girl”. Buffy demonstrated its ability to combine this B-movie camp with sincerity and some surprisingly dark material, the Slayer seemingly meeting an untimely end by being drowned in a puddle.
The writers don’t let up either, making a point of showing that heroism isn’t without its drawbacks, and victories aren’t always absolute – and sometimes there’s just nothing the characters can do. This idea resulted in potentially one of television’s most powerful explorations of death and grief in the critically acclaimed episode “The Body” – which mostly strips back the fantastical element of the show for an extremely raw and emotional piece that will stick in my memory for a long, long time.
The show finds new and entertaining ways to explore pretty dark subject matter, a commonly cited fan-favourite episode, “Once More, With Feeling”, is a musical episode in which the characters just can’t help but express their true feelings in bursts of choreographed song and dance. It’s hilarious and a sight to behold, and genuinely moving once the episode gets to its big reveal. Also there’s dancing vampires.
All that said, there is still plenty of action to be found in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and not just doom and gloom and sarcasm. The fight scenes are hard hitting even by today’s standards, with expert stuntwork elevating the show beyond its already great material. Buffy is small, but she packs a big punch (and a lot of kicks), and Whedon and co. make some pretty fun set pieces every now and then.
But back to the characters – Whedon wrote really strong characters with Buffy; creating fascinating overall arcs for the likes of Spike and Willow, even Giles – all of whom go through massive changes with every season since they were introduced, Whedon and co. mining every change in circumstance, every twist and every tragedy for maximum pathos and humour. There is a wealth of compelling characters in this show, and it’s a testament to the writers and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s strong central performance that Buffy never gets sidelined.
This completely extends to the show’s wealth of ‘Big Bads’, all of which are memorable (for better or worse) and are given plenty of room to build up a prescence and even get some of their own humour in – The Mayor, the Big Bad of season 3, being a particular highlight in this regard. The show does well to give every recurring character layers too, Faith (the other Vampire Slayer) making for a tortured and very memorable dark reflection of Buffy.
A personal favourite is the longtime recurring character of Spike, a vampire that starts out as a fairly major antagonist that the show takes great fun in neutering and changing over the course of every season, ending in a truly surprising yet natural turn of character – and maybe apart from brief parts of season 7, he’s potentially the show’s greatest source of humour.
Almost endlessly creative, full of heart, clever dialogue and some pretty insane plot twists, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a must-see for any television aficionado.
Best episodes: Prophecy Girl, Lie To Me, Innocence, Passion, Becoming, The Wish, The Zeppo, Doppelgangland, Graduation Day, Hush, Restless, The Body, The Gift, Once More With Feeling, Conversations With Dead People, Chosen
Created by: Joss Whedon
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Head, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, Amber Benson, Seth Green, Marc Blucas
Music: Christophe Beck, Thomas Wanker
Number of Episodes: 145
Episode Runtime: 45 mins