June 2003

Bye-Bye Buffy

On the night of May 20th, television's finest fantasy saga came to an end at least one season too early. After seven rousing and increasingly complex years on the WB and UPN, Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer called it quits on network TV, relegating itself to a future of syndication and DVD reruns. Unlike many fine series that aired a tad too long (such as The X-Files and Seinfeld), Buffy was still in its prime when the series finale bowed, making the thought of a 2003 - 2004 Tuesday line-up without the program all the more gloomy.

Today, few remember that the series had pretty humble beginnings. To wit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the spin-off of a mediocre 1992 horror comedy movie starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry. But the TV series was a reinvention of considerable cleverness, one that was fortunate to be born in an age of genre TV plenty. The X-Files was a hit on Fox in 1997 when the series premiered, and knockoffs of the Chris Carter series such as Burning Zone and Dark Skies proliferated. Yet Buffy carved a unique niche for itself by focusing on character development, humor, and action as much as the expected horror quotient. Perhaps influenced by the then-popular Wes Craven movie Scream, all of the series' characters spoke with startling wit and irony. Their unique voices made each episode of Buffy an intellectual treat to go hand in hand with the more visceral pleasures of vampire stakings and the pretty young things like Sarah Michelle Gellar and Charisma Carpenter.

As progressive seasons of Buffy came to hungry viewers, audiences saw many long-standing conventions of genre television shattered. Series regulars changed dramatically in characterization and purpose, as in the case of David Boreanaz's broody vampire, Angel, a character that started out as a hunky boyfriend and then turned pure evil upon the loss of his soul in the episode "Becoming."

Other series regulars died (Amber Benson's Tara), switched allegiances (James Marster's Spike), and even altered the very foundation of Buffy's reality (Michelle Trachtenberg's Dawn). One character, Alyson Hannigan's delightful (and spin-off worthy) Willow, altered her sexual orientation. The third season of Buffy introduced another great character named Faith (Eliza Duskhu), a rival slayer to Buffy with coolness to spare, but severe self-esteem issues. Her moral collapse and ultimate (multi-season) redemption represented one of the show's finest secondary arcs. Spike too was something of a revelation. His character went from unrepentant Slayer-killer (in Season Two), to comic relief in Season Four, to action hero and romantic lead in Seasons Five and Six, to champion of mankind in the series finale.

The characterizations and performances were not the only treats. Storytelling in general grew ever bolder on Buffy, until the show was downright addictive for its twist and turns. In the fourth season, a "silent" episode entitled "Hush" was forged, giving viewers a riveting (and mostly dialogue-less...) hour of horror. In the fifth year, a story called "The Body" dealt with the unexpected death of Buffy's mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) in stark, human, non-cliched, non-genre terms. No last minute cop-out revived Joyce or offered a happy ending and all of the Scoobies (Buffy's gang of associates) had to face mortality as never before. In the sixth season, Joss Whedon wrote and directed a brilliant musical episode of Buffy entitled "Once More with Feeling," which exposed hidden character traits and secrets during catchy song-and-dance numbers.

And those were just the "big" episodes. In totally entertaining, non-preachy ways, Buffy the Vampire Slayer vetted episodes about school violence ("Earshot"), parenting skills ("Bad Eggs"), abusive boyfriends ("Beauty and the Beasts"), censorship ("Gingerbread"), fraternities ("Reptile Boy"), steroid use ("Go Fish"), and even low-paying, bad jobs ("Doublemeat Palace.") The show was something of a real-life a primer for imaginative kids as it focused on the difficulties and responsibilities of growing up. Thus the series became required viewing because of its complexity and knowing humor. The far-out demons and monsters could not hide the universality of Buffy's situation. She was a girl with responsibilities who had to grow up and make mistakes, learn and change. Not easy stuff, especially with the weight of the world on her shoulders.

The series finale, "Chosen" was a culmination of all that came before, an anthem of empowerment to women everywhere. In fighting her latest opponent, a spirit called The First Evil, Buffy had to activate "slayer" powers in all potential slayers, thus recognizing the potential in many women to become "more" than what they believed themselves to be. This was an inspired ending to a series that always concerned girl power, and in more general terms, self-actualization.
Much less satisfactorily, the finale also dispatched some beloved characters in what felt like too-rapid fashion. The finale would have benefited from a two-hour running time, but instead parts of the final hour, moving like a locomotive, felt rushed. This viewer, for one, wanted a little more time to mourn Anya (Emma Caufield) and Spike. To say goodbye to Dawn, Xander, Andrew, Willow, Giles and, of course, the heroic Buffy Summers.

Buffy's spin-off, Angel, survives on the WB but it is no substitute for Buffy, a near-perfect genre series that now takes its place beside Star Trek, The Prisoner, The X-Files and The Twilight Zone in fantasy television Valhalla. Sure, most Buffy fans watch Angel, but the shadow of Sunnydale always looms large over the vampire's adventure in L.A.

Rest in Peace, Buffy. Come September, a lot of people will be missing you....