In case you’re new here, I’m not referring to Slayer, the band. Rather, I am referring to slayer, vampire.
Also…argh, mateys. Here be spoilers.
A couple days ago at work, I had a long conversation with an elderly couple. It started on the subject of the restaurant in which I work and moved on to the subject of what I do when I’m not there (write), which led to the genre I enjoy and why I like it. They hopped on the train when I mentioned paranormal and urban fantasy, and the kicker came here:
Me: “One writer I truly admire is Joss Whedon. He created — ”
Elderly Woman: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer!”
Her husband nodded vigorously, and we proceeded to discuss the merits of the show and its characters. The woman extolled the virtues of Spike’s characterization (if you missed my mini-dissertation on the subject, you can catch it here and see my views on his relationship with Buffy here) and her husband brought up several of the themes in the show.
How, you might ask, does a show about high school students ensnare people who are my grandparents’ age?
I’m ever so glad you asked, gentle viewers.
Skeptics might scoff and question how a fantasy show can be “high concept.” Which implies that they don’t understand the meaning of “high concept.” Simply put, high concept means relatable.
Not everyone cares about vampires, but most people know what it’s like to feel excluded. One of the very first things we learn about Buffy herself is that she is the one and only slayer, destined to be chosen to fight evil until she dies and gets replaced.
That sounds pretty much like every human on the face of the planet. Sure, we might not have super strength and a metabolism to make Aphrodite weep, but we’re all born, given choices, and then we die. And someone else comes along to take our place. Although humans are social creatures, we all isolate ourselves sometimes, whether it’s on purpose or by accident. Being excluded is something we all understand.
Buffy herself is excluded from what she sees as “normal life” by virtue of her identity as a slayer. She’s cut off from her peers because she has to keep that identity a secret. She’s cut off from her family for the same reason. How many of us have felt we have a secret we cannot disclose to anyone? If you haven’t, call the folks at the DSM-V, because I’m pretty sure disclosing everything is a psychological disorder. (But then again, who doesn’t have a one of those?)
Love. Unrequited love. Rejection. Loss. Grief. Friendship. These are all high concept themes that are woven throughout every single episode of the show. I’ve yet to meet a single person who disliked Buffy the Vampire Slayer if they were willing to watch a whole season in its entirety. If you come in on The Zeppo and that’s all you see, I don’t really blame you for tuning out.
I’m the first to admit that I loved the show Friends. I’ve seen every episode because my college roommate had them all on DVD. The thing about Friends is that those characters are the same people in season 10 as they were in season 1. Ross is still the narcissistic insecure guy, Joey’s still the lovable fool, Chandler is the sarcastic one, Phoebe the wonky mate no one quite gets, Monica is still overdramatic and overbearing, and Rachel’s the female Ross.
If you take Buffy summers of season one, she is freaked out and overwhelmed. She wants nothing to do with being the slayer. She is self-serving and rather shallow, and she’s even a little hostile. Buffy of season seven? She’s a general leading teenage girls to battle the first ever evil.
You can grow with the characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can watch goofy Xander turn from high school dweebgasm to a carpenter even more solid than what he builds. You can watch Willow transform from what I imagine the catalog of teen fashion for Westboro Baptist Church looks like to the most powerful (and terrified) witch on the planet. And Spike? From mass murderer (including two slayers) to sacrificing his life for the world? Not only did Joss (and the laundry list of other phenomenal writers) do all that in seven seasons, but he did it with texture, depth, and subtlety that deserves a standing ovation or ten.
For every heart-ripping, tear-squeezing moment in Buffy, there’s one that will send your beverage flying out your nose. As Joss likes to say, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for God’s sake, tell a joke.”
Need a for instance? Here’s one of my favorites:
(In regards to the new principal’s office being situated on top of the Hellmouth…)
Buffy: “All day. Every day. That’s gotta be like getting showered with evil. Only from underneath.”
Willow: “Not really a shower.”
Buffy: “A bidet. A bidet of evil.”
I dare you to watch Tabula Rasa without cracking a smile. Beyond all the witty one-liners, though, Buffy is clever and engaging. Humans love to smile. From the time the first cave man bonked his buddy with a stick and made everyone roar with laughter, we’ve known it was the best medicine. It also makes the best stories even better. Where would the Lord of the Rings have been without Pippin?
First she reels you in and makes you care, then she drags you along for the seven year ride, laughing and crying all the way. But by the time you get to the end, you realize that you might be thinking a bit differently about some things than you did before.
It’s some of the underlying messages (some subtle, some rather obvious) that pack the most power. A female hero? A female hero who beats down everything that comes her way? That’s Buffy. And she paved the way for more like her. An openly gay character? Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, and her show’s ratings declined rapidly thereafter. Willow Rosenberg came out in the fourth season to some backlash, but the show’s creators didn’t back off. They portrayed her relationship with Tara as loving and normal, with struggles and pitfalls that are common among any relationships, heterosexual or not.
Some have made Willow’s magic use about drugs, but really I see it as her intense belief that she has to change in order to be accepted. That’s a theme that runs rampant throughout the show. Buffy, Xander, Willow, Spike, Anya, Giles — all are guilty of it.
There have been university courses taught on the philosophy and themes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a show with a message and a point — and many of each.
The real magic for a writer is when your creation transcends demographics, and that’s one thing that Buffy has managed. Now that Joss Whedon has gained some serious mainstream clout with Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers, I have a suspicion that interest in Buffy will re-surge. And when it does, I’ll roll out the welcome mat to new fans, young and old.
Miss any of my Buffy posts? You can find them all lined up like ducks right here.
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