On July 31, 1992, the studio formerly known as 20th Century Fox released a low-budget horror-comedy in theaters called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It starred Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, the late Rutger Hauer, Hilary Swank, David Arquette, and the late Luke Perry, and told the story of a high-school cheerleader who suddenly discovers that she is destined to slay vampires and other supernatural forces who are present in her small California town. The film didn’t impress critics, and despite being filmed on a $7 million budget, its $16.5 million take at the box office was nothing for the Powers That Be over at Fox to do cartwheels about. The film’s screenwriter, Joss Whedon, wasn’t entirely happy with the way the film turned out, particularly since — due to studio interference — the script became too reliant on comedy, the comedy that it relied on wasn’t very funny, and it wasn’t nearly as scary and dramatic as he had wanted it to be. Oh, and according to Whedon, Donald Sutherland was a huge prick to deal with on set.
After working as a staff writer for several television shows, such as Roseanne and Parenthood (the other television adaptation that didn’t star Peter Krause and Lauren Graham), and as an uncredited script doctor for films such as Speed and Twister and Toy Story, Whedon was approached by Gail Berman, president/CEO of Sandollar, the Dolly Parton-owned production company which owned the television rights to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and asked if he wanted to take another crack at making Buffy the way he originally intended. After writing and directing a brief non-broadcast pilot for him to pitch to the networks, it was sold to The WB (a.k.a. ‘the greatest television network in all of existence’), and on March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer made its network television premiere.
Sixteen-year-old Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has just moved to the town of Sunnydale, California with her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), for a fresh start after Buffy’s last encounter with vampires at her previous high school resulted in its entire gymnasium being burned down to the ground, and Buffy being expelled as a result. The new school she has transferred to is Sunnydale High School, where she immediately crosses paths with Alexander “Xander” Harris (Nicholas Brendon), who is socially awkward and heavily reliant on wisecracks; Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), who is brilliant, but also shy and insecure; and Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), the spoiled, popular, and ruthless queen bee who treats the school like her own personal sandbox, and who won’t hesitate to embarrass someone just to make herself and her friends laugh. Buffy just wants to live a normal life as a normal teenage girl, but school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) can’t and won’t let that happen. As Buffy’s designated Watcher, he informs her that the entire town of Sunnydale rests on the very mouth of Hell itself, and it is up to Buffy to accept her responsibility as a Vampire Slayer to battle the vampires, demons, and many other things that go bump in the night who want nothing more than to kill the Slayer and make all of Sunnydale (and the world, if possible) into a literal hell on Earth.
Before I go any further, I of course have to talk about the problematic elephant in the room known as Joss Whedon. He is, as we all know and have pretty much accepted by now, an abusive and self-centered f-ckboy who made life hell for many of the people who worked with and for him, and he also has a tendency to stick both feet in his mouth whenever he’s interviewed. There are plenty of reasons why he deserves this vitriol, and I’ll touch upon some of those reasons a little later. But for now, when it comes to Joss Whedon, he falls into the same category as that other problematic scat-muncher, J.K. Rowling. We can credit them for what they’ve created, and for how much we absolutely love and appreciate that creation, but there is no f-cking need whatsoever to heap any more praise onto them for who they are or for what they’ve done. And certainly not when their current words and deeds continue to do nothing but cause pain and anger to the people who once considered themselves to be fans, and making us wish that they’d shut the hell up and go skydiving into the nearest bottomless pit.
One of the most persistent themes throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that high school is hell, and that for most teenagers, simply existing and trying to live a normal life while attempting to survive all four years of high school is as nightmarish as being confronted by a vampire while you’re walking home at night. (Sadly, Hard Harry is not a student at Sunnydale High to help make things a little easier, but it would be pretty damn interesting if he was.) For Buffy and her friends, high school is a hundred times worse, as they have to deal with their own personal lives while being confronted by monsters of all shapes and sizes every week.
A few examples of these crises: A student is ignored so much by her classmates and teachers that she literally turns invisible; Buffy meeting her mother’s new boyfriend who could possibly become her new stepfather, only to discover that he’s strict and abusive, and very good at hiding those tendencies from everybody else; Xander being dumped by his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, and casting a love spell to make her want him back, but the spell backfires and affects the entire school instead; parents who are so obsessed with reliving their lost youth that they’ll cast harmful spells on their own daughters; Buffy being unable to start new relationships with boys that she really likes, for fear that they’ll end up caught in the crossfire of her duties as a Slayer; Buffy keeping secrets from her mother about who and what she really is, knowing that she’d never understand the truth, or worse, that she would understand the truth and still punish her anyway.
And one of the worst and most painful crises of all: Buffy losing her virginity to someone she loves, only to have that someone break her heart in the most painful way imaginable.
That someone: Angel (David Boreanaz), a mysterious, powerful, and easy-on-the-eyes stranger who introduces himself to Buffy as an ally in her battle against the forces of evil. But the truth about him comes out when Buffy realizes that not only is he really a vampire, but he’s a vampire whose merciless bloodbaths are the stuff of legend and has resulted in him being cursed by the Romani people with a soul in order to make him feel shame and remorse for every evil act he has committed. Buffy and Angel are both stunned by the fact that they’re deeply attracted to one another, despite being natural enemies as a vampire and Vampire Slayer. But they soon fall in love, and begin a relationship that leads to the two of them having sex for the very first time on Buffy’s 17th birthday. What should be the happiest moment of Buffy’s young life becomes an utter and complete nightmare when she learns the truth about Angel’s curse: If he ever experiences one moment of true happiness for any reason, his soul will be lost, and he will return to being the remorseless killer that he was before. Which forces Buffy to overcome her heartbreak, and find a way to defeat her former partner who is hell-bent on destroying her, her loved ones, and the entire planet.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer first premiered, it got many positive reviews from critics. But its premise, its network, and even its very title didn’t give those critics or most viewers much reason to take the show seriously. Granted, the show’s first season is a good one, but its growing pains and budget limitations are still obvious during those first 12 episodes. But then Season 2 came along, and Buffy took a giant leap in quality that soon made people pay closer attention to what the show was doing, and what it was doing incredibly well.
Thanks to Whedon and to the show’s talented staff of writers (including David Greenwalt, David Fury, Jane Espenson, Marti Noxon, Drew Goddard, etc.), critics and audiences began to greatly appreciate what Buffy was bringing to the table: its witty and memorable dialogue, the unique storylines that were both scary and exciting to watch, a cast of actors who brought their A-game no matter what was happening onscreen, and who made us really care about these characters and about what they were experiencing. Whether it was meeting a vampiric doppelgänger and trying to keep them from harming anyone else; experiencing a painful breakup with someone who is a vampire or a werewolf because living happily ever after with them is made to feel like it’s an impossibility, losing a parent when you least expect it to happen, and being forced to accept the excruciating reality that they’re dead; or simply the difficult realization of how much work can truly suck, and how difficult it can be to maintain a work-life balance, no matter what you do for a living. Even if it involves saving the world and having to keep it all a secret, much like another superpowered teenage hero, for whom action is his reward. It was easy to see why Entertainment Weekly chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the best television show of 1998, which occurred one year before the arrival of both The Sopranos and The West Wing, two shows whose monumental impact on the television industry are still being felt to this very day.
Let us now give a shout-out to the Scooby Gang, and to their allies…
Xander: In the eyes of many Buffy fans, he has made it way too easy to find moments where he says or does something that makes him seem like a Dogged Nice Guy and a f-ckboy in the making, and one who really wasn’t that deserving of Buffy’s friendship. Fortunately for Xander, those moments are outnumbered by the many times he has fought alongside Buffy and had her back, even with no superpowers to assist or protect him.
Willow: Her friendship with Buffy not only helped give her some much-needed confidence, but also inspired her to begin practicing witchcraft and becoming one of Buffy’s most powerful allies…when she wasn’t using her powers to erase her own girlfriend’s memories, or to take over the world Dark Phoenix-style, that is.
Cordelia: She is someone who doesn’t believe in tact or in caring about other people’s feelings, but is still willing to pick up books or weapons to help out whenever it’s needed. (One of her best moments is when Buffy realizes that Giles has deeply betrayed her confidence, and tearfully asks Cordelia to take her home. Cordelia has just walked into the library with no idea what happened or why Buffy is upset, but her immediate response? “Of course.”)
Oz: (Seth Green) a high-school senior/rock musician who is actually a werewolf, doesn’t talk very much, and doesn’t really need to when it comes to expressing how much he loves and cares about Willow.
Giles: A Watcher who takes his duties very seriously, and expects Buffy to do the same when it comes to being a Slayer. But he slowly begins to realize how much he loves her like she’s his own daughter, and that he will do anything to protect her and keep her safe.
And last but never least: Buffy Anne Summers.
When Joss Whedon first came up with the idea of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he wanted to defy the expectations of people who had grown used to seeing defenseless women brutally killed off in horror movies. And he decided to create a young girl who would be chased into a dark corner by a monster and seem totally helpless, only for that girl to surprise the monster by kicking the crap out of them without breaking a sweat, and walking away alive and victorious.
Well…all hindsight is 20/20, and when hearing anything about female empowerment come out of that man’s mouth, it’s only natural to respond with many a variation of “Bitch, please!” But that is a large part of what makes Buffy appealing at first. It’s not the only thing, but for most of us, watching a television show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and seeing the blonde-haired title character using her martial arts skills to exterminate vampires (and wearing really stylish outfits while doing so) is still a lot to get used to.
However, when the shock wears off, Buffy showed us, week after week after week, why her friends onscreen and viewers at home were willing to follow her into battle. She’s kind and friendly to those who might need a helping hand, fiercely protective of her loved ones, smart and cunning when handling any situation that falls into her lap (Just ask Luke, who let his guard down and found out the hard way from Buffy that sunrise doesn’t occur for another nine hours), and is extremely resilient when going up against any and all Big Bads. As Angel himself found out when he had Buffy on the ropes, unarmed and facing certain death at his sword: “No weapons…no friends…no hope. Take all that away, and what’s left?” Buffy’s response, right before she turned the tables and began kicking his ass? “Me.”
Because she’s Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. It’s why she won the “Class Protector” award from her grateful and appreciative classmates at prom, and it’s why her friends inscribed this simple but honest epitaph on her tombstone during her brief death: “She saved the world a lot.”
It goes without saying that the entire cast of Buffy gave outstanding performances in every episode. Even when critics and viewers had some difficulty taking the show seriously, seeing the cast do their thing never gave the impression that they felt the same. But Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy? The fact that she never walked away with a wheelbarrow full of Emmys and Golden Globes for her consistently excellent work on the show is, was, and always will be an absolute disgrace. Gellar could make you cheer her on in any action sequence, make you laugh at many a brilliant wisecrack (Buffy commenting on Faith’s constant lateness: “The girl makes Godot look punctual.”), and it was nearly impossible to not cry along with her whenever she was reminded of how utterly torturous her life as a Vampire Slayer could be. When Buffy finds her mother’s corpse lying on the couch, and the camera slowly zooms in on her face as she says, “Mom? Mom? Mommy?” Even just writing about that moment, I need every box of tissues I can find to wipe the tears away, because damn!
As for other cast members and guest stars, it is a long and talented list, of which this is just a fraction: Mark Metcalf (The Master), Kristine Sutherland (Joyce Summers), Julie Benz (Daria), Mercedes McNab (Harmony), Armin Shimerman (Principal Snyder), Robia LaMorte (Jenny Calendar), Brian Thompson (who appeared twice on Buffy, as Luke and as The Judge), Clea DuVall (Marcie Ross, the invisible student from Season 1), Emma Caulfield (Anya), Michelle Trachtenberg (Dawn Summers), Danny Strong (Jonathan), the late Robin Sachs (Ethan Rayne), Juliet Landau (Drusilla), Bianca Lawson (Kendra the Vampire Slayer, and the second-worst thing that Joss Whedon ever did was force Bianca to speak with that atrocious Jamaican “accent”), Eliza Dushku (Faith), Marc Blucas (Riley Finn), K. Todd Freeman (Mr. Trick), Alexis Denisof (Wesley Wyndam-Price), Andy Umberger (D’Hoffryn), Harry Groener (Mayor Richard Wilkins), the late, great John Ritter (Ted), Lindsay Crouse (Prof. Maggie Walsh), Clare Kramer (Glory, a.k.a. Glorificus), Joel Grey (Doc), Jason Behr (Billy ‘Ford’ Fordham), Amber Benson (Tara), George Hertzberg (Adam), Rudolf Martin (Dracula), D.B. Woodside (Principal Robin Wood), Adam Busch (Warren), Tom Lenk (Andrew), Nathan Fillion (Caleb), and James Marsters (Spike, who started out as one of Buffy’s fiercest enemies, but became one of the greatest loves of her life).
Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on The WB for five seasons, and when budgetary discussions failed between The WB and 20th Century Fox, the show left The WB and moved on over to UPN, where it aired its final two seasons. (It also got five more seasons released as a comic book series. If you want to see Buffy discover her attraction to women, Xander and Dawn in a relationship and starting a family together, or Faith and Giles working together to fight the forces of evil in ways that Buffy can’t and won’t, this comic book is for you.) Over the course of those seven seasons, there have been so many things to love and to remember about Buffy that to list them all would make this article twice as long as it is already. But here are a few: Buffy’s rematch against The Master after coming back to life. Spike making his presence felt when he arrives in Sunnydale, including killing The Anointed One and announcing that more fun needs to be had. “I’m Kendra…the Vampire Slayer.” “That was me favorite shirt! That was me only shirt!”
Buffy being comforted by Giles and Joyce after Angel loses his soul. Angel getting his soul back right before Buffy is about to kill him, and going back to who he was before…right before Buffy stabs him with her sword and sends him to Hell to keep the Earth from being destroyed. Spike telling Buffy all about how he killed two Slayers. “If the apocalypse comes, beep me.” Oz using his animal crackers to explain to Willow how all monkeys are obviously French. Buffy in the red leather pants. Spike and his love of Passions. The Ascension, and Mayor Wilkins transforming into a giant serpent. (This one scene resulted in the Season 3 finale being delayed for weeks, because it was scheduled to air one month after the shootings at Columbine High School, and because it portrayed acts of violence happening on school grounds.) The entirety of “Hush.” The entirety of “Once More, With Feeling.” “I’d like to test that theory.” Giles laughing his ass off at Buffy when she tells him what she and her friends have been up to in his absence. And how Buffy’s plan on defeating the First Evil and saving the world is to share her power as a Slayer with every girl and woman who needs it.
There have also been many things that some critics and fans have not loved nearly as much. Specifically, the sixth season of Buffy, which was viewed as being much darker and more disturbing compared to earlier seasons, and not nearly as well-written or enjoyable to watch at all. Willow suddenly being addicted to magic and becoming increasingly reckless; Buffy and Spike finally giving in to their attraction and having a mostly sexual relationship that was more toxic and aggressive than loving and compassionate; Riley coming back to Sunnydale in need of help, and to seemingly throw his marriage in Buffy’s face; Tara getting shot to death in front of Willow, leading to Willow unleashing a Roaring Rampage of Revenge that led to her becoming the Big Bad of the season; Buffy ending her relationship with Spike, only for him to initiate sex with her that instead came off as attempted sexual assault; Spike realizing what he had done and leaving the country in order to have his soul restored. If you were on Internet message boards when Seasons 6 and 7 first aired (especially the boards for Television Without Pity), you most certainly remember how the intense levels of vitriol aimed at the show during that time, and how it could power an entire fleet of rockets from the Earth to the moon.
After the third season of Buffy, when Angel had his soul restored and was forced to confront that his relationship with Buffy could no longer continue, the character was written off of the series and given his own spin-off titled Angel, in which he leaves Sunnydale behind and heads to Los Angeles. It’s where he launches a private investigation agency with Cordelia, and with a half-human/half-demon named Doyle (the late Glenn Quinn) to help the helpless, and to protect them from evil that comes in both human and demonic form.
And not only was Angel a really great spin-off that dealt with the pain of adulthood, much like how Buffy dealt with the pain of adolescence, it gave us this unforgettable moment, for which we should all be eternally grateful.
One of the biggest reasons behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s success and popularity was Joss Whedon himself. Not just because he created the show, and acted as its showrunner for nearly its entire run, but also because he was seen as immensely talented. Whedon was seen as someone who cared greatly about women, who respected them, and wanted to do everything possible to make sure that they would get the representation they needed, wanted, and deserved. In his numerous interviews, he would express these beliefs, to the point where one of his statements from his acceptance speech for an Equality Now award in 2006 would always come up regarding his feminist beliefs: “Why do you always write strong women characters? Because you’re still asking me that question.” But as the years passed since both Buffy and Angel aired their series finales, the bloom started coming off of the rose when it came to Joss Whedon. His former colleagues soon began speaking out about his behavior towards them, and how it was anything but feminist. One of those former colleagues was Charisma Carpenter, who spoke about how Joss treated her during the filming of Angel’s fourth season when he discovered that she was pregnant.
The dominoes continued to fall when it came to Whedon’s reputation taking one body blow after another, as fans expressed how uncomfortable they now were about his television shows. Firefly insisted on having characters speak portions of their dialogue in Mandarin, despite the fact that there were no Asian characters on the show, and there was a future storyline planned for one of its characters who is a sex worker that involved her being kidnapped and sexually assaulted. The entire premise of Dollhouse seemed as if it relied on human trafficking and sex slavery just so that its female characters could be seen as the Fighting F-cktoys that Whedon wanted them to be. His work on The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron have received equally harsh criticisms about their treatment of female characters in the years since they were released. Kai Cole, Whedon’s ex-wife, wrote about how he had several affairs, and used his feminist beliefs as an excuse and as a shield for constantly surrounding himself with beautiful young women who would lavish affection and attention on him.
The hits just kept on coming for Whedon, as news began to come out about his bad behavior on the set of Buffy. Not too long after Ray Fisher blew up his spot and told the truth about how abusive he was when directing reshoots on the set of Justice League, followed by James Marsters speaking publicly about how Whedon behaved very aggressively towards him because of how upset he was about Spike’s immense popularity with fans, four actresses from Buffy spoke out against Whedon and his conduct towards them. Sarah Michelle Gellar stated how proud she was of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and how she will always hold the show in high regard, but she completely distanced herself from Whedon. And the fact that Michelle Trachtenberg stated that Whedon was not allowed to be alone in a room with her caused a lot of jaws to drop.
Earlier this year, Whedon spoke with Vulture in his own defense regarding all of the accusations about his behavior on the sets of Buffy, Firefly, and Justice League. I’ve already written about this, and if you need an example of someone who digs himself into a much deeper hole because he refuses to take any responsibility for his actions, you need look no further than that interview.
Recently, there’s been some discussion about possible reboots and revivals of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a new generation of fans. In 2018, it was announced that there would be a revival of Buffy with a Black woman as the lead, and with writer Monica Owusu-Breen acting as showrunner. (When Sarah Michelle Gellar was recently asked about this, she voted for Zendaya to star in the project). But there has been no significant progress made since then, so the Buffy revival/reboot is now on pause and in Development Hell at the present moment.
There is so much more I could discuss about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (How it was constantly and unfairly ignored by the Emmys; Who was the better partner for Buffy: Angel or Spike?; The potential spin-offs that were discussed after Buffy ended its run), but I’ll end it with this: No one can deny the fact that Joss Whedon is mainly responsible for Buffy’s creation, even if Whedon himself turned out to be a massive f-cking disappointment. But we can all take comfort in knowing that he’s not the only one who gets to control Buffy, or decide what happens to her next. Because Buffy Summers is powerful, and her power doesn’t belong to just one person, it belongs to many. It belongs to the people who love her, who have been entertained by her, and who have been inspired by her. To not just fight for what’s right and what’s just, but to know that fighting together is so much more effective than fighting alone. That is power that should not be in the hands of just one person. Especially not in the hands of Joss Whedon or anyone like him.
All seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are streaming on Hulu. And Seasons Eight through Twelve of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are available wherever comic books are sold.