Buffy is 20 years old today. That is, for those to whom those words are meaningless (where have you been?? what is wrong with you??), it is now twenty years since the first episode of TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was broadcast.
Twenty years ago I was far too old for a show with a daft name like that. So I caught it more or less accidentally, and realised that the daft name belied a drama with depth, intelligence, wit and invention. A few years back, pondering more generally on why I care about fantasy as a genre, I wrote this about Buffy:
It all goes back to Buffy. Not, for me, to Dracula, or the George Romero zombie films, or Hammer Horror. Joss Whedon‘s show overwhelmed all of the assumptions I’d made on the basis of a silly title (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, anyone?) – just as The Stand disposed of my prejudices against Stephen King. Buffy had some seriously naff special effects, but it was never about that. The scripts were so sharp, so funny, so packed with layers of references that throwaway lines are often key to a more weighty subtext and the characters never lose their plausibility however bonkers the storyline. Through the medium of this fantasy with vampires, demons and all kinds of inhuman creatures, we’re exploring human relationships – teenagers and parents, sibling rivalries, sexual discovery and betrayal, bereavement and loss – in a fantastic context that allows these things to be explored in fresh and unexpected ways, that jolt us with their familiarity whilst we accept a narrative involving an ensouled vampire or a mayor turning into a giant snake. For all the scary stuff (and there are some real shiver down the spine moments) the things that stay with you are the human elements – what Heritage calls ‘the fat streak of humanity’.
I quote Buffy all the time. In daily life, and in this blog. When I write about death, and how we deal with it, I go back again and again to this:
Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):
“I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.” (‘The Body’, season 5)
And there are other moments that come back to me, inspire me.
There’s a cracking body-swap episode where Buffy and Faith swap places. Faith, as Buffy, begins by mocking what she sees as Buffy’s humourless puritanism, practising in front of the mirror saying ‘Because it’s wrong’, po-facedly. And then later, confronted with the reality of evil, and knowing that she could walk away, instead asserts that she will stop that evil from killing its intended victims, ‘Because it’s wrong’.
And then there’s the finale.
|EXT. BASEBALL DIAMOND – DAY
A young woman stands at the plate staring at the pitcher, waiting to bat. She looks a little nervous.
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer…
|INT. HIGH SCHOOL HALLWAY – DAY
A young woman breathes heavily as she leans on her locker for support.
|will be a slayer.|
|INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
A young woman is lying across the floor, having fallen out of her chair.
|Every girl who could have the power…|
|INT. DINING ROOM – DAY
In a Japanese-style dining room, a young woman stands up at family dinner.
|will have the power… can stand up,|
|INT. BASEMENT – DAY
A young woman grabs the wrist of a man who’s trying to slap her face, preventing him.
|will stand up.|
|EXT. BASEBALL DIAMOND – DAY
The girl at the plate changes from nervous to confident, smiling as she waits for the pitch.
|Slayers… every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?|
That montage was really important to me. I wrote this, a couple of years back:
That bit where the potentials become actuals – that beautiful sequence of young women taking that power on, without understanding it but knowing that its theirs, and standing up, literally or figuratively… Lord, that moves me so much, I can’t even speak about it without choking up. Over the last, very tough, year, it has played in my head at so many moments when I’ve felt powerless and defeated, and made me stand up straighter too.
Buffy fans will argue endlessly about which episode or which series is best, or worst. Each series has its advocates, even if there’s a pretty powerful consensus about episodes (‘Beer Bad’ is unlikely to feature as anyone’s favourite, though I could be proved wrong…) – any ‘best of’ list would have to include ‘The Body’, cited above. And ‘Hush’, and ‘Once More with Feeling’. And those three episodes illustrate the sheer variety of the series.
The first is a viscerally powerful portrayal of death and grief. It nods briefly to the vampire slayer role but fundamentally it’s about humanity, and mortality. It’s known as ‘the one without music’. ‘Once More with Feeling’ is of course the one with music, and ‘Hush’ is the one without dialogue (virtually). In ‘The Body’ the ‘big bad’ is death itself. In ‘Once More…’ and ‘Hush’ both the compulsion to sing and dance, and the inability to speak, are demonic, but their outworkings emphasise humanity – our failure to communicate, the way in which our fear of losing those we love leads us to hide part of ourselves from them.
And whilst Series 7 is not many people’s favourite, I think that one of the reasons why it stays with me, has become part of me, that it allows us to see these characters that we’ve followed through multiple apocalypses, many of whom we love, so damaged and scarred. Not bouncing back with a merry quip, not any more. We used to mock so many TV series in the 70s in which, whatever happened in the episode, whatever traumas, terrors, dangers and disasters were visited upon the characters, at the end they got to go home and have tea, and have a bit of a chuckle. Buffy never did that – if there was a gag at the end it was tightly tied in with the preceding narrative, and had a bit of a kick to it, or a poignancy that stopped it being trite. But here over a whole series (and going back to S6) we see these battered veterans, hanging on as best they can to their loyalties and loves and to whatever humour they can find, but unable to be what they were, carrying the weight of so many losses. It’s right we left them there, but I’m glad we got to go that far.
There are so many aspects to Buffy that I haven’t even touched upon. Cos what I really want to do right now is to dust down those DVDs and go back to Series 1, Episode 1. Back to the Hellmouth.
Buffy – the best bits: Harvest, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, The Body, The Gift, Tabula Rasa, Once More with Feeling, Chosen.