HOW BUFFY SLAYED

Empire (UK) - - The Box -

How did an unas­sum­ing mid-sea­son re­place­ment grow into a phe­nom­e­non that’s still adored 20 years on? With a re­boot in de­vel­op­ment, Louisa Mel­lor ex­plores the se­cret sauce in­side Buffy The Vam­pire Slayer

IN 1995, JOSS Whe­don had said good­bye to Buffy The Vam­pire Slayer. His first movie script, writ­ten in time snatched from his day job on the writ­ing staff of Roseanne, had not gone to plan. The 1992 film about a Val­ley girl mys­ti­cally cho­sen to pro­tect the world from vam­pires had ended up a knock­about spoof, far from the fe­male em­pow­er­ment hor­ror he’d con­ceived. Whe­don and di­rec­tor Fran Rubel Kuzui had com­pet­ing vi­sions, while ac­tor Don­ald Suther­land’s habit of im­pro­vis­ing lines sent the writer potty. Af­ter the film’s pre­miere, Whe­don walked away and put Buffy be­hind him.

The Slayer, true to form, didn’t stay down. While Whe­don was do­ing his best to forget her, Buffy was cap­tur­ing the imag­i­na­tion of pro­ducer Gail Ber­man, who thought Whe­don’s orig­i­nal script could work on TV. Mak­ing the con­trac­tu­ally re­quired call to Whe­don, Ber­man ex­pected him to pass on the job so she could be­gin the search for new writ­ers.

Against the ad­vice of his agent, though, Whe­don took the meet­ing. The gen­re­sub­vert­ing premise of a peppy blonde teen not be­ing mon­ster-bait but a mon­ster-killer was too thin to stretch into a TV se­ries, but what if Buffy could be a hor­ror com­pen­dium? Af­ter all, he rea­soned, ev­ery­body knows that high school is hell.

The idea quickly evolved from a half-hour af­ter­noon Power Rangers-style

show to a one-hour drama. It was pitched to Fox and NBC, but both passed. Even­tu­ally, emerg­ing net­work The WB took a punt on the con­cept and in March 1997 the first of 13 episodes aired on a Mon­day night as amid-sea­son re­place­ment for a can­celled Aaron Spell­ing soap opera.

In the two decades since its pre­miere, the su­per­nat­u­ral se­ries with a B-movie ti­tle won a de­voted fan­dom that ex­tends far be­yond the teen mar­ket (not least be­cause its teenage fans are now thir­tysome­things who still hold Buffy

dear). Crit­ics and aca­demics con­tinue to pore over its idio­syn­cratic di­a­logue and treat­ment of mythol­ogy and gen­der.

No­body re­mem­bers the Aaron Spell­ing show (hunks ’n’ hair­spray soap Sa­van­nah, FYI), but in the space it va­cated, Buffy

be­came a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. Here’s how it did just that…

TAK­ING TEENAGERS SE­RI­OUSLY

So much about teenage life feels like the end of the world that put­ting maths tests and break-ups side-by-side with death and the apoc­a­lypse was a per­fect fit. Sun­ny­dale High wasn’t only fig­u­ra­tively hellish, but lit­er­ally built upon the mouth of hell. Most of us con­sid­ered our teach­ers and class­mates to be mon­sters, but Buffy Sum­mers’ re­ally were. De­mons, witches, in­sects-in-dis­guise, In­can mum­mies, hyena-pos­sessed cool kids… It sounds as silly as the show’s ti­tle, but Buffy’s se­cret was never us­ing hor­ror ex­ag­ger­a­tion to mock the high-school ex­pe­ri­ence, only to find im­agery wor­thy of it. Though self-aware and of­ten ir­rev­er­ent, teenagers and their prob­lems were some­thing Buffy took se­ri­ously.

SUB­TEXT, SUB­TEXT, SUB­TEXT

Buffy is cat­nip to aca­demics; of all the plants in the TV gar­den, this is the one they sniff out to rub them­selves against. Why? Be­cause Buffy The Vam­pire Slayer was flu­ent in al­le­gory, which makes its sto­ry­telling rich with po­ten­tial read­ings. You name it – fem­i­nism, post­mod­ernism, the philo­soph­i­cal na­ture of good and evil… Buffy had a char­ac­ter or an episode to il­lus­trate it all. Its fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments have been ap­plied to ad­dic­tion stud­ies, gen­der pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics (even vam­pires need a pen­sion plan). There’s a ded­i­cated jour­nal se­ries and a bian­nual ‘Slayage’ univer­sity con­fer­ence, along with miles upon miles of on­line dis­sec­tion.

When crit­ics and aca­demics be­gan to give tele­vi­sion drama like The So­pra­nos se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion, Buffy was right there with it — you just couldn’t see her be­hind James Gan­dolfini, be­cause she’s only 5’3”.

WORDS THAT MADE YOU DO THE WACKY

As the man who makes sure all the Dothraki death threats in Game Of Thrones make sense can tell you, in­vent­ing a lan­guage for TV is tough. It’s one thing to coin a catch­phrase and an­other to dream up en­tirely new speech pat­terns. Buffy though, made it look easy. Joss Whe­don de­scribed his tech­nique for in­vent­ing teen di­a­logue as “twist­ing the English lan­guage un­til it cries out in pain”. By swap­ping word classes to use nouns as verbs and ad­jec­tives as

Main: Sarah Michelle Gel­lar kills it as Buffy. Right: Spike vamps it up.

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