HOW BUFFY SLAYED
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.