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…


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.


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”.


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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