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