When I was younger and had recently fallen in love with serialized TV dramas, I had this idea that I was going to write a book about the antecedents of the Golden Age of Television. (At first this was going to be about the Golden Age of Television, but that book already exists.) This book was going to trace the history of ambitious and path-breaking TV, through The Prisoner (and maybe Star Trek), to Monty Python to Battlestar Galatica (which I hadn’t even seen when I had this idea), to Roots to Hill Street Blues (both of which I still haven’t seen), to Larry Sanders to Kids in the Hall, to Twin Peaks to The X-Files to South Park. (I assume Northern Exposure and some other shows I haven’t seen might also had to have been included. And I can’t believe I wasn’t thinking of The Simpsons.)
Conspicuously absent from this list? Buffy. And, really, any show that appeared to appeal primarily to women.
There were many reasons why I ignored Buffy, I suspect.
Buffy was clearly a show for girls. (Though I had seen and somewhat enjoyed the movie at some point.) Buffy was slight, it wasn’t serious. Buffy was a “monster of the week” show and wasn’t a serial drama deserving of serious study. But the biggest reason was because I didn’t watch it. I had seen snippets of a couple episodes – only enough to know Willow was gay.
I didn’t watch Buffy for a few reasons, but the biggest was it just wasn’t available on my Canadian basic cable when it was first on. I don’t know when I first caught the show, but it was either because, somehow, my parents now got channels showing the 6th and 7th seasons, or because it aired on Canadian network TV later. Either way, by the time I saw bits of it, I was falling hard for serialized drama, in the form of The Wire, Deadwood, Carnivale and The Shield. These were Important Shows because they were About Things and they were on channels that let you swear. (I have since very much changed my mind about The Shield, if you were wondering.)
But there were other reasons, I suspect, that I didn’t seek out Buffy once I was aware of it: it was a show for girls. I suspect that, had I sought out Buffy in university and could steal it online or rent DVDs – when it was in its final seasons – at least some of my male friends would have made fun of me for daring to watch it. And that’s something I certainly wasn’t interested in.
But, had I found it when it first premiered, in 1997, when I was 16, I might have actually really enjoyed it. (And if I had seen enough of it before I had to admit to my friends that I watched it, I might have even defended it to them.) And that’s because it’s entertaining, it’s funny, and it’s super nerdy.
But, between it being inaccessible and the “chick TV” aura of it, I avoided it; accidentally at first and then, later, on purpose.
But now I’ve watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its entirety, all 105 hours of it. I’m not sure I’ve ever completed a TV series this long. I’ve likely seen more of The Simpsons, South Park and Law & Order (and maybe the odd other show) but I don’t think I’ve ever completed anything else this long. Anyway…
It’s been so easy for most of us men to dismiss entertainment apparently geared towards women as slight. But, in many ways, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most important (and greatest) TV shows of the 1990s. And it makes me wonder how many other TV shows I’ve ignored because I thought they were meant for girls. (This is less of a problem for me with movies, incidentally.)
Few TV shows in 1997 were attempting season-long arcs as Buffy did. Now, admittedly, those arcs were pretty rough in the early years – and always broken up by “monsters of the week” – but they were still trying something that only Homicide and The X-Files and a few other shows were attempting. (And Soaps, of course. But that’s an entirely different thing.)
And the post culture-quoting heroes of the MCU and so many other 21st century movies feel impossible to me without Buffy. It’s not just the direct connection between Whedon and those movies he was involved in – it’s the whole dialogue aesthetic. For better or worse, we live in a pop culture world dominated by comic book nerds and the success of Buffy might have more to do with that than anything else.
But the most important thing is what Buffy is about. When I first fell in love with serialized TV, I was obsessed with allegories: The Wire is about the problems of the modern city, or even the modern state; Deadwood is about civilization itself, etc.
Well, Buffy is about the patriarchy, about how powerful men use society (and the people in it) to their own ends, who seduce the young into participating in their corruption, and who erect and reinforce the idea that girls don’t matter, that they’re weak, dumb and incapable (and should be available for male needs). Sure, the allegory isn’t always subtle, but it’s more subtle than you might expect from a network TV show in the 1990s. And the allegory of The Patriarchy as Vampires (or demons, or the army, given the week or season) is more subtle than a lot of “monster of the week” plots in the show.
(You might note the irony that a show featuring a fairly explicit critique of patriarchal society was advertised in such a way that many people in this society thought it was just “a show for girls”.)
About the “monsters of the week”: despite some weak expository dialogue and many deus ex machinas necessitated by a 44 minute episode format, most of the best episodes of the show are actually “monster of the week” episodes. I am mostly a serialized TV guy, but the best episodes of Buffy regularly show off what really talented people can do with 44 minutes and silly American TV morals. If you know anything about Buffy you know some of the episodes I’m talking about – the mostly silent episode, the musical episode, etc – but I regularly found a good “monster of the week” episode kept the show from getting too heavy or serious, and often it was really needed to balance the show.
And now, some issues:
The CGI has dated horribly. Now, that’s not on them, but it’s pretty funny watching this show in the 2020s. If you’re going to watch this for the first time be warned that the CGI is BAD. It’s 2010s no-budget Asylum bad. You’ve been warned. (This is a show that, at least in terms of graphics, would have been better served by premiering in 2017 instead of 1997. Of course, then it wouldn’t be a very big deal.)
Another thing out of their control: the season lengths. I strongly believe 22 44 minute episodes (or, science forbid, 60 minute episodes) is too much for most serialized dramas, at least those not based on really long novels. And it’s really clear in some seasons of Buffy that they just didn’t have enough material – Big Bads disappear for multiple episodes at a time, goofy subplots emerge, lame monsters of the week show up. The show is too long. That’s not its fault, of course, but there is too much of it.
(It’s worth noting that the season length is also an asset at times, letting the show have a freedom to have near-bottle episodes, which are usually where it’s at its best. I’m a serial guy but the best Buffy episodes show me that it’s possible to have great TV in 44 minute stories. So it’s a double-edged sword.)
The show never fully works out its mythology. We’re never sure if there are more slayers or, if there aren’t as the show claims multiple times, why Buffy never has to leave Sunnydale. It’s hard to understand how there can be a Hellmouth in Cleveland but not another Slayer. And why are there other Slayers in Waiting in other parts of the world if the Evil is in Sunnydale? If you think too much about the mythology, there are lots of problems with it.
There is lazy expository dialogue, there are deus ex machinas to resolve seemingly unresolvable situations and many, many instances where characters do things that don’t make sense for their character (or for people) in service of the plot (though usually that’s for a “monster of the week” plot, not the main arc). At least some of this is a function of US network TV in the 1990s, however.
At least one character is inexplicably kept around for seasons when he should have been killed.
The longer the show goes on, the more speeches there are.
And I could really do without a lot of the Buffy-boyfriend relationship stuff. I understand that it’s necessary to a show like this but I found at least two of the relationships (well 1 1/2, to be accurate) to be pretty big distractions from the rest of the show. I think those could have been handled better.
I’m sure I could complain about more. But, instead, I’m going to finish with some stray comments about the show.
MASSIVE SPOILERS from now on
The fourth season has some of the best, cleverest and most entertaining episodes of the series but the overarching plot is kind of a mess. I kind of wanted to say this is the season where the show really hits its stride, and it sort of does, but the main story arc is kind of silly. And that’s saying something for a show whose third season involved a man transforming into a giant snake.
“Into the Woods”, from the fifth season, is possibly the worst episode of the series. Nothing happens – which is rare for this show – and Riley behaves like an idiot and Buffy falls for his emotional manipulation or some shit. As others have noted, it feels a little bit like a betrayal of the central message of the show.
There are few episodes in the show better than “The Body”, the episode in which Buffy’s mother dies. It’s one of the best episodes of 1990s network TV I think you’ll ever see.
The fifth season has a better overall arc – until that penultimate episode, which is pretty damn silly – but the highs are lower than the highs of the 4th (excepting “The Body”). Still, the show does feel more mature and more ambitious in the 4th and 5th seasons, than it did in the first few.
I would have been so angry about the show coming back after the end of season 5 had I been watching it at the time. I fully understand the anger. However, since I knew it was 7 seasons I signed up for, I expected it and wasn’t bothered by it much. (Also, this is the second time she dies.)
Season 6 has its problems, sure, but I don’t know why it’s hated so much (aside from essentially erasing the ending of season 5). All season-long arcs are flawed, but this one has some things going for it that the others don’t, namely 2 Big Bads. Also, the final episodes of this season are the most ambitious the show has ever been with telling a continuing story. The resolution is hokey, sure, but there is some truth to the message – Willow is gay and talented and needs someone else’s radical acceptance to overcome her, ahem, demons. There is something true in that for addicts and for all of us.
I quite like the plotline of season 7 except for how annoying all the teenage girls are. I think it’s the best arc of the series and a clear example of the show growing as ambitious as the “Golden Age” shows that had recently premiered.
But the mutiny that puts Faith in charge feels extremely false and unearned. Jenn explained it to me after we watched it, but it says something about how poorly it was executed in the show that why it happened had to be explained to me on a dog walk. As it actually happens in the show, it’s hard to understand why a group of people, who have been saved by Buffy numerous times – and who she has literally died for twice, and who brought her back for her to keep saving them all the time – would do this to her in order to put a former villain in charge. It would have been a stretch if it had been executed well. But the way it is executed – with it seeming to be about Xander’s eye of all things – makes it preposterous. Moreover, Buffy is back in charge so soon afterward the whole thing feels fake. Faith should have returned sooner and actually earned their trust in order for the mutiny to make sense. It is for me, the biggest problem of what is probably the show’s most ambitious season.
Despite its flaws – many of which are contextual – this is a great TV show. Received wisdom usually tells us that The Gold Age of Television begins on January 10, 1999, with the premiere of a cable serial drama about an organized crime family in New Jersey, full of violence, sex and swearing. But I think you could make a case, that The Golden Age of Television actually began two years earlier, on March 10, 1997, with a network show with no swearing, typical TV sex (until the 6th season), cartoonish villains and violence but American TV’s first serial-drama-as-allegory, a biting critique of American society as a patriarchy posing as a goofy, pop-culture-obsessed “monster of the week” “show for girls”: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.