We recently rewatched the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s been a fair few years since we last saw it, which is long enough to forget a lot of details, so there was pleasure in rediscovering some of what made the show so good. A few random thoughts inspired by our rewatch.
To begin with, we can’t avoid the fact that Joss Whedon has now been exposed as an entitled sex pest who created a hostile and unsafe working environment on his shows. This knowledge casts a pall over our enjoyment of the show and gives an ugly tint to some of the character interactions. Xander’s puerile lusting after Buffy or Buffy’s teen crush on a two-century-old vampire are harder to stomach knowing what Whedon was up to behind the scenes. It’s not impossible to enjoy the show now, but we have more than the usual amount of disbelief to suspend.
There are other things that require a little indulgence as well. The series is twenty years old, and it shows. The special effects don’t hold up particularly well, the stunts are a bit obvious, and the pop culture references have not all aged gracefully. Still, that’s par for the course when going back to something older, and we can’t hold it against the show.
Other things date the series, too. It is a clear product of third-wave feminism, with its insistence that girly girls can be strong and don’t need boyish boys to protect them, but the series still can’t fathom the idea that girls don’t need to be girly or boys boyish at all. The overwhelming whiteness of the cast is also hard to ignore—it takes seven seasons before we get a person of color as even a side member of the cast. The show was notable at the time for showing a happy, loving queer relationship; it is notable now for crushing that relationship for the sake of drama.
Those things being said, though, Buffy is much better than I remember. The early seasons hold up quite well. The characters are well developed, the dialogue snaps, and the jokes mostly land. The central conceit of taking the challenges and frustrations of young adulthood and turning them into literal demons is just as much fun to watch now as it was then. The idea of a young woman who needs no saving but can kick monster butt all on her own is not as revolutionary now as when the series first aired, but it’s still satisfying to see a woman whose heroism is not the product of overcoming weakness but of embracing strength.
I find it hard to remember how good the first few seasons are because my memory of the show is tainted by the failings of the last few seasons. The show lost something when it turned away from the monster-of-the-week-as-coming-of-age-metaphor formula in season five and went hard into dramatic arc territory with the mystery of Dawn, Glory, and Ben. Season six has its good and bad points: the good point is the musical episode “Once More With Feeling;” the bad points are everything else. The early episodes of season seven recover some of the magic of the early series by focusing on the friendships of the main cast, but those are soon sacrificed to the First Evil arc that drags on for most of the season.
Many fans have their own personal cutoff points where they choose to mentally end the series. The end of season three is a popular one and makes sense; there is great satisfaction in watching the senior class of Sunnydale High School pull together to slay a powerful demon, and the end of high school makes a natural end point for the show. The end of season five is also a popular contender, with Buffy sacrificing herself to save her sister and the world. For myself, I choose the end of season four. The season has its weaknesses, but I enjoy the early episodes that take the monster-of-the-week approach to adjusting to college life. The ending that sees Buffy and the Scoobies tap into the primal power of the slayer brings a nice conclusion to the themes of friendship, courage in the face of life’s horrors, and Buffy’s ambivalence about her calling that animated the early seasons. In fact, I now wish that the geek trio of season six had been the villains of season four instead of Adam and the Initiative. The trio’s overt goofiness was always an odd fit in the bleak season six, and their refusal to grow up could have made for an interesting counterpoint to Buffy and the gang’s rocky but earnest transition into adulthood. Ah well—these are such things as fanfic is made of.
When we were packing up our house for our big transatlantic move last year, I was considering getting rid of our Buffy DVDs. Now I’m glad we didn’t. It was a pleasure to rediscover the joys of the early seasons, despite all the show’s other problems.
Image: Buffy cast photo via IMDb
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.