|"If the apocalypse
comes, beep me." And with those immortal words,
a legend was born. Or, actually, a teenaged Slayer
was defying her Watcher by dating a cute guy rather
than fighting the forces of darkness. Same diff.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show that was never
supposed to last.
It had a silly title, an unlikely premise, and was
based on a movie box-office flop. Its title still draws
snickers from non-viewers, who don't realize they are
ridiculing what is arguably the most intelligent and
best-written series on television today, if not the
past decade. Yet that same title contains the very
essence of the show: It's a drama laced with comedy,
just as a fluffy name, Buffy, is juxtaposed with a
rather ominous signifier, Vampire Slayer.
After seven years of pain, pain, a few laughs, and
more pain, Buffy is about to stake her last vampire.
The final four episodes will run Tuesdays at 8 p.m.,
beginning next week.
It all began in March, 1997, when Buffy the Vampire
Slayer was slotted in as a midseason replacement on
the WB network. The show was about a girl, played by
Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was the Chosen One, the
one who was destined to fight evil. It's the stuff
of comic books.
Except this girl didn't want to be chosen. She wanted
to be a normal teenager, and for the first season she
dealt with the usual perils of teen angst -- divorced
parents, new friends, problems at school, and a confusing
love life -- alongside the not-so-usual perils -- having
to patrol graveyards at night, discovering her boyfriend
is a 242-year-old vampire, and trying to stop a nest
of vampires from opening the mouth of Hell and bringing
forth the apocalypse. By the end of the first season,
she knew that her destiny was inescapable.
Now, seven years later, Buffy has grown up. She's
killed her boyfriend (but he's feeling much better
now), lost her mother to a brain aneurysm, acquired
a kid sister, sacrificed herself to save the world,
and crawled out of her own grave. As one character
has commented, "I suddenly find myself needing
to know the plural of 'apocalypse.'"
Now, she faces perhaps the biggest threat the gang
has ever seen -- a malignant non-corporeal entity that
embodies the world's most primal evil -- and in the
process viewers have watched Buffy grow from a 16-year-old
girl into a 22-year-old woman, and suffered with her
along the way.
Buffy is different from
other shows on television. It might only have about
five million viewers every
week, yet its cultural significance far outweighs its
seemingly small audience. In contrast, shows such as
ER or The West Wing, both well-written, well-acted
programs with four times the viewership, are not considered
worthy of study and fan dissection, certainly not to
the extent that Buffy or its spinoff show, Angel, might
On dozens of Web sites, its fans dissect everything
from whether the lovesick, formerly evil vampire Spike
is a proper consort for Buffy, to the criminal neglect
that the show has faced from the awards establishment
(even its best episodes, such as the near-silent Hush
or the all-musical Once More, With Feeling have been
ignored by the Emmys). Famously, Buffy also has a devoted
fan base among academics, who parse its every shot
and line of dialogue for cultural significance.
Buffy is the subject of four books of academic essays,
and in October, 2002, fans from around the world gathered
at the University of East Anglia in England to hear
more than 50 papers on the "Buffyverse" delivered
by academics. Topics ranged from "Queering the
Bitch: Spike, Transgression, and Erotic Empowerment" to "Yeats's
Entropic Gyre and Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer." So
what happened to the idea of this being a juvenile
What sets Buffy apart is
the writing. Joss Whedon, the creator of the show,
had a vision of a series that
was dramatic and mythic but still contained a lot of
humour. Along the way, he developed an original language
that found its way into the vocabulary of his viewers.
He mapped out a seven-year arc for the show that he
and his staff have followed
religiously for the show's duration, with a few pit
stops along the way. As such, the series has always
had a forward momentum, a feeling that everything that
has happened has had a reason.
David Fury, writer-director and co-executive producer
on Buffy and consulting producer and writer on Angel
(most fans will recognize him more readily as the Mustard
Man from Once More, With Feeling) says the perception
of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a pop-culture icon was
a bit of a surprise at first. "Nobody sets out
to be a cultural phenomenon," he says. "I
can't imagine that Joss ever imagined that it would
be that, but
he's enormously gratified that it has, that what he
set out to do has been recognized by the intelligentsia,
and it's very rewarding for us. It feels really good
to know we're respected like that."
This season, the show is
going back to seasons one through six and using all
of the knowledge viewers
have gained over the years to bring it to a mind-blowing
climax. Whedon has rewarded his loyal fans by bringing
up unresolved events that happened years ago and finally
offering an explanation for them. However, in doing
so, he has made this a show that has become impenetrable
to new viewers. This season the ratings have been lower,
because while the adult viewership has expanded due
darker and more complex plots, the teen viewership
-- the staple of UPN -- has dropped (The show is carried
on City TV stations in Canada).
But because UPN is one of the smaller networks, ratings
don't really matter. "We don't register [the fact
the ratings have dropped] because we're just doing
the show as best we can, like we always have, and we
know our fans and we know we're not a show based on
ratings," Fury says.
Aimee Grosso, a fan from Chesterfield, Mich., believes
the reason the show is so popular is because the writers "give
the fans what they 'need' rather than what they 'want.' "
One factor that often kills good shows is when relationships
are requited; when Mulder and Scully got together on
The X-Files, for example, the tension was gone, and
the show lost its viewers. But on Buffy, as much as
the viewers want to see Buffy and her erstwhile mortal
enemy Spike get together, the writers realize that
what will be more intriguing to viewers in the long
run is to make the characters suffer, doubt each other,
and show their worst sides to one another before deciding
if they should start a relationship.
Spike is a witty, generous, funny guy who truly cares
for Buffy. Or at least the "man" part of
him does. Spike (played by James Marsters) may be in
love with Buffy, but he's a vampire with a demon trapped
inside him along with the man. One minute he's pledging
his everlasting love to Buffy, and the next his demon
side emerges and he tries to rape her. It's these grey
areas that act as metaphor for the complexities of
human relations but also have alienated some viewers,
while allowing others to appreciate the risks the writers
But these conflicts lend Buffy a realism that is lacking
in other programs. Heather-Anne Gillis of Dartmouth,
N.S., agrees: "Even though the struggle is couched
in the life of a young woman, we see in her struggles
the demons that we face every day." In reality,
relationships are difficult; on the Hellmouth, they're
Spike isn't the only one with a dark side. Buffy's
friends as well as her sometimes reluctant allies --
Willow, Giles, Angel, Oz and Anya -- have all recognized
a frightening darkness within themselves. Even Xander,
the heart of the group, fears that the alcoholism in
his family might turn him into a monster some day.
Each character has committed acts that are thoughtless
and stupid, and much of Buffy is about the remorse
and self-hatred they must live with.
Buffy, the one who is supposed to fight evil, has been
living with the fear that she has evil within her too,
and her struggle to overcome her fears, and not to
succumb to a death wish, has given the show its dark
edge for the past two years.
Rhonda Wilcox is a professor of English at Georgia's
Gordon College and co-editor of Fighting the Forces:
What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Slayage:
The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies.
She was one of the organizers of the East Anglia conference,
and she agrees that what sets Buffy apart from other
shows is its epic quality.
"I think that Buffy has raised the bar for television
says. "While Twin Peaks was unprecedented in terms of its visual work and
dream-like content, Buffy is unprecedented in its use of long-term narrative.
The people who make Buffy have done so with great integrity -- with respect for
the audience and with respect for their own text. The series' careful continuity
has allowed for character development of a sort never seen before. This show
has made it possible for people to see that while most of television is wasted
mental space, TV can be art."
The writers knew years ago how season seven would end
and, as a result, the show has a definite momentum,
a feeling that we're moving toward something. But
along the way the writers have had fun with more gimmicky
episodes, such as Once More, With Feeling, the musical
episode that cemented Whedon's reputation as a genius
in song as well as script. Or Hush, which boasted
29 minutes of silence when the demons stole everyone's
voices, yet the personality of each character still
So, to quote a song from the musical episode, Where
do we go from here? The talk of a spinoff this fall
has been quashed. The writers had hopes of developing
a show about Faith (the darker, even more messed-up
vampire slayer) before Eliza Dushku, the actress
who plays her, accepted a role in another television
Considering the present
amount of academic literature on the show, the end
of Buffy could signal the true
beginning of its study. Scholars will now have the
entire oeuvre to debate, and perhaps only then can
the true analysis begin. Which would be a fitting
irony for a Slayer who preferred a good staking to
book. "Introduction to the Modern Novel?" she
says as she's choosing her university courses. "I'm
guessing I'd probably
have to read the modern novel.... Do they have
an introduction to the modern blurb?"
For the viewers of the show, we'll be able to take
our memories with us. The characters felt like people
we all knew, and we could identify with Buffy's problems.
For seven years, the series taught us that nobody
-- not even the Chosen One -- is perfect. It left
the notion that a petite blond woman can save the
world, as long as she has friends in her corner. "You
have to take care of each other," she says. "You
have to be
strong. The hardest thing in this world is to live
in it. Be brave. Live. For me."
Nikki Stafford is the author
Me: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, published by ECW Press.