Still Slaying Its Audience
♦2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Joss Whedon’s hit teen horror show with a twist, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Tripwire’s Contributing Writer Alasdair Stuart talks about why it was important and its impact today…
20 years ago I sat in one of the bars on York University campus and tried to watch a TV 8 feet away that was showing Buffy. It was a cathode ray TV. My phone was…a phone. And the entire situation was not helped by the people who’d bit torrented the entire season already quoting the lines along a second or so before they were said.
The world was very VERY different. Buffy was still cool though.
A couple of years later I was running a comic shop in York. In doing so we took regular delivery of some of the first boxed sets.
VHS boxed sets.
I had The Usual Suspects (Two videos! Two copies of the film! One with commentary!)
I also had a Buffy collection. Which at that point was released in half season boxed sets of a mere three VHS tapes a time. These things were massive, you could put one in a sock and down a buffalo with it. And we sold a dozen of each.
It’s been 20 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 20 years since I sat in that bar. In that time I’ve lived in 5 cities, two counties, held four jobs and watched and written about hundreds of hours of television. A lot of it was better than anything Buffy produced in its seven years.
None of it would be possible without those seven years of Buffy.
The reason for that is threefold. Firstly, Buffy was a seven year deep dive into the idea of the strong female protagonist. Not just Buffy herself but Willow, Anya, Glory, Faith and countless other characters showed what a TV show with female characters who were more than victims could look like. There were of course victims too, but the series did a consistently fantastic job of exploring not just the idea of a tough heroine but the price she pays for that. Buffy, newly resurrected, asking if she’s in Hell. Buffy, in the middle of a musical episode, admitting her friends tore her away from heaven. Buffy, mildly and pleasantly surprised she’s still alive, as a surprisingly great guidance counsellor. Nothing was easy, nothing was tidy and no one backed down. Because, like us, they didn’t have the option.
Secondly, there’s the sheer technical audacity of the show. Buffy pioneered story arcs. Buffy inflicted the term ‘big bad’ on the world but in fairness it did do that very well. Most importantly, Buffy introduced to genre TV the idea of plot and character by accretion. Where symbolic stablemate Babylon 5 was a telenovela, Buffy was a constantly evolving flotilla of stories. It made mistakes, several of them at once in some cases but it was the first show into this territory and it got far more right than it did wrong.
And thirdly, let’s talk about those mistakes. Season 6 hammered the ‘MAGIC IS DRUGS’ metaphor into the ground. Season 4, which remains my favorite, used the untidy and unpleasant adjustment from school to further education or employment to create a deeply uneasy season that hit harder than most. These mistakes, or missteps at least paid off in interesting ways. Others weren’t so lucky. The show was an early lightning rod for diversity in TV, to the extent that the lack of black characters became a joke the show made itself. It’s principle gay couple were broken up by murder. It’s nominal male leads were by turns a mass murderer and an abusive proto-dudebro.
These mistakes have actually helped cement the show’s position in the canon. 20 years later the death of Tara is still cited as what NOT to do. 20 years later Mr Trick is still a villain people feel a surprising amount of sympathy for because of how shabbily the show treated it’s characters of colour. And 20 years later, people still think season 4 is rubbish.
That last one? They’re wrong. Apart from ‘Beer Bad’. That one I’ll let them have.
But those mistakes in the show mirror the mistakes in the show’s lead characters’ lives. This was a series about the uneasy transition into adulthood that was being made as TV was making that self same transition. Buffy was a show that embodied the evolutionary curve of the time; a perfect storm of brilliant performances, frequently brilliant writing, incredible ambition and terrible calls. It screwed up when we did. It pushed on when we weren’t sure we could. Oh and it had the best Aimee Mann cameo in history.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is 20. It’s magnificently dated, is crammed full of legions of people who went onto bigger things and remains one of the most fractious, difficult, uneven and important TV show ever made. It saved the world a lot. Not all the time. But enough.