How ‘Buffy’ Defined the ’90s and Shaped The Future

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an incredibly silly title for a serious, long-running television series. We’ll get that out of the way now. That title, coupled with the unlikely premise of a beautiful blonde girl fighting off vampires and hordes of evil monsters and other ugly things that go bump in the night, tends to immediately alienate potential viewers from the outset. All of that definitely turned out to be true when a cheesy film starring Kristy Swanson in the title role bombed at the box office back in 1992. Case closed. Time to move onward and upward from that catastrophe. One would think anyway. As fate would have it, Buffy would later be brought back from the dead (in more ways than one!) as a weekly television series that would go on to define a generation and help form the shape of things to come.

On the surface, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a tale of a young teenage girl named Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar in the series) who is chosen by destiny to be the Slayer: a girl from each generation that is imbued with super strength, agility, and a number of other supernatural abilities. She is tasked to use these abilities to fight vampires and various other forces of darkness as they arise. While it sounds like a cookie cutter superhero origin story in the making, the character of Buffy is more than what she appears. She’s also a real, human girl. What makes Buffy endearing to even the most casual viewer is that she’s into dating and the social scene, she struggles with her math and science homework, she wants to be a cheerleader and one of the popular girls. Furthermore, she really hates when her exceptional destiny gets in the way of what should be her otherwise perfectly “normal” existence. It’s how any teenage girl would react to being forced to do the extraordinary! Though the Slayer is traditionally made to serve her calling on her own, Buffy has never been the traditional type and is soon joined in her fight by a revolving cast of friends, family and other allies, most notably her assigned “Watcher” Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and her best friends Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan).

As the series progresses, the writers successfully balance Buffy’s home and social life with all the action and suspense of her calling by making heavy use of metaphor. Buffy and her friends often times are faced with supernatural threats that directly parallel issues cropping up their personal lives or that they are dealing with emotionally. In what is perhaps the biggest example of this, when Buffy loses her virginity and sleeps with her boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz), who is revealed to be a vampire cursed with a soul and conscience for all of the atrocities he had committed throughout the centuries, she wakes up the next morning to find that Angel has lost his soul thanks to a loophole in the gypsy curse that gave it to him in the first place and he has reverted back to his evil, bloodsucking ways. This is the writing staff’s answer genius twist on the typical “morning after” in which the unsuspecting girl is stunned to find her that her boyfriend is suddenly a jerk after one night together. And it’s a twist that plays out throughout the rest of the show’s second season and has major ramifications for everyone involved up through the bittersweet end of the show’s run.

My personal experience with Buffy is strange in that it truly was a more “personal” connection than most viewers maybe would have had. When the show began and Buffy was moving to the town of Sunnydale and starting at a new school in 1997, I was also just beginning to go to school at a new junior high. When the world was terrified from the Columbine massacre, Buffy beautifully and effectively dealt with her own threat of a school shooting (in an episode that would certainly be shelved indefinitely in today’s age). When Buffy’s mother passed away on the show, it eerily coincided around the same time my own mother passed away and we were able to mourn together. And when Buffy ended its run and I was forced to say goodbye to these characters who had become like dear friends to me in 2003, it was bittersweet as it was only days before my own high school graduation. Though I’m well-aware that it was just a TV show, it’s strange to say that this TV show got me through some rough spots in my formative years. It’s easy to see why I still consider it one of the best television shows that I’ve ever seen and why it had such an incredible impact on me as a human being and not just a passive fan. I can’t help but think that it had to have helped shape so many other fans around my same age-range in many of the same ways.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a series before its time. While it performed only modestly in the Nielsen ratings at best, it managed to attract glowing reviews from critics and even garnered some Emmy attention during its run. These are the types of commendations that even the best Netflix or HBO entries could hope for in today’s television landscape. Which was saying something since it originally aired on a then-fledgling WB Network and later transferred to UPN for its last two seasons on the air. Buffy helped both networks find a place on the map when they needed it the most and former head honchos at The WB later attributed the loss of the show to UPN in a dispute with the studio as the beginning of the end for both networks in this fascinating book detailing their history. (Interesting sidenote: they are now the same network!Buffy spawned a spin-off series, Angel, starring her previously mentioned former vampire lover in the title role. It inspired video game, comic book, and novelization adaptations. There are even essays and academic studies about the show! The show’s impact is also still felt today in every area of television that Buffy touched, from shows featuring strong female leads (AliasFelicity, Grey’s Anatomy) and even to other more recent vampire tales in pop culture (TwilightTrue BloodThe Vampire Diaries). Though the heroines of those vampire-related titles could certainly take some notes from Buffy in how not to get pushed around by their vampire lovers, it says something that Buffy was staking vampires weekly long before audiences were truly embracing it.

Buffy continues on today in the form of “official” comic book continuations of the television show from Dark Horse Comics. You can also watch Buffy all over again (or catch it for your very first time!) in its entirety on Netflix!

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