March 10th of this year will mark the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Joss Whedon’s beloved classic TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS). That may come as a shock seeing as BTVS seems to have a sense of timelessness that makes it easy to forget how old it really is – especially since Buffy fandom (and, by extension, Whedon-fandom) is still so prominent in pop culture. Today, if you are looking for a quick Buffy fix you can hit up Netflix to revisit some of your favourite episodes; check out a number of Buffy podcasts; pick up a number of Buffy (or Angel or Spike) comic books; or just dive into some dense Buffy philosophy via the many theoretical and academic writings on the topic.
However, if you’re not a Buffy super-fan but vaguely recall seeing some episodes and noticing Sarah Michelle Gellar on all of the magazine covers of the 1990s, you might be thinking – what’s all the fuss? The fuss is that BTVS had a major hand in changing the nature of TV storytelling and in bridging the gap between academia and pop culture. The series is entirely about subverting viewer expectations and is as smart as it is fun. If you don’t quite get it, it probably means it’s time to re-watch it. Here are 15 reasons why, as an adult, you will not regret giving it another go – once more with feeling.
15. Buffy Established The Whedonverse
Joss Whedon is now a household name and a pop culture brand of his very own. While he has made notable contributions to the Pixar and Marvel universes, he has also firmly established a universe of his very own, affectionately known as the Whedonverse. This is a collective reference to the group of genre-bending sci-fi/fantasy television shows that he has created using a very particular voice and style that is undeniably Whedon-esque. Significantly, it all began with Buffy. Whedon has said that he set out to create a show that was deep, dark, and real; a show that would mean something to him and be about his life. The series relies on themes such as loss, power, family, sexuality, and love. It also established Whedon tropes including the sexy tough chick, the sentimental (complicated) bad-boy, the abusive/absent parent, and the shocking death. Undeniably, these are the things we have come to expect from the entire Whedonverse, which includes BTVS, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse.
14. BTVS Re-Defined The Teen Scream
Throughout the late 1970s and into the 1990s, horror movies featuring the slicing and dicing of unsuspecting teens were a dime a dozen. Inevitably, girls would be thrust into one of two roles: the victim or the final girl. The former was likely to be a sexy bombshell killed off early on; the latter was likely to be a sweet virgin, chased and taunted until she finally fought back. But Joss Whedon had an idea to turn the teen-scream on its head. What if the pretty blonde was followed into an alley, and kicked the monster’s ass, without even breaking a nail? This completely challenged the sexism and female victimization that was inherent to the teen-scream. Buffy would never be a victim, because (as she says) she is “the thing monsters have nightmares about.” The true horror of the story is not the monsters she has to fight every day, but monotonous routine life itself – high school, relationships, parents. That’s the brilliance of BTVS, and what makes it so real.
13. It’s Not Really About High School, And it’s Really Not For Kids
The series has its roots in the simple idea that High School is Horror, which leads to the implication that the show is about high school. But this is not at all true, considering most of the series takes place post-graduation. In actuality, the show is about growing up – from high school to college, and beyond. Throughout its seven-season run, the characters face a variety of real-life scenarios that test their maturity and force them to embrace adulthood. The scoobies (as they call themselves) eventually leave high school behind, only to tackle the most adult issues, such as sexuality and love, loss and death, employment, marriage, and family. Without a doubt, a series that centers on a teenage girl and vampires is a tough sell for most adults, but the truth is younger viewers are likely to have a more difficult time understanding the themes that are explored here. By the end of season 7, it’s difficult to even recall a time when Buffy and her pals were just kids. It’s really quite the journey.
12. BTVS IS NOT TWILIGHT
Admittedly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is kind of an unfortunate title, especially in the post-Twilight world. But, to be fair, Slayer is right there in the title. You would, therefore, be remiss not to expect a whole lot of butt-kicking action.
If we cut to the chase, there is this:
So, yes, Buffy’s two most significant romantic relationships in the series are with vampires. But even these relationships are less about hopeless star-crossed love and much more about the deep and complex nature of being a Slayer. Throughout the series, Buffy harbors resentment towards her duty due to her desire to be a normal girl. Of course, as she realizes how impossible that is, normal dating also becomes complicated. Both Angel and Spike are atypical vampires and represent difference and darkness. Like her, they are trapped by their Otherness, no matter how hard they try to fight it. She is definitely drawn to this in them – but mostly she just kicks vampire ass.
11. Buffy Is A Superhero
If you are not a teenage girl, particularly feminine, or even female, you might think Buffy is not much of a worthy protagonist for you. However, if you are a nerd, have nerd-like tendencies, or just plain like comic books and superheroes, Buffy is absolutely right for you. Although her origin story is a little blurry, we do know that Buffy was once just a normal girl. Then, one day, she was called to a higher duty and suddenly imbued with a long history of slayer knowledge, super strength, and killer reflexes. According to slayer lore: Into every generation, a slayer is born; one girl in all the world, a chosen one. Buffy finds herself constantly having to reevaluate “the right thing to do” and having to balance her super-identity with her desire for normalcy. Like all superheroes, she is tasked with using her powers for good, protecting the innocent, and taking out the bad guys. On occasion, this also means saving the world.
10. BTVS Has Some Of The Best Characters In TV History
The primary character lineup is made up of Buffy, her two besties Willow and Xander, and her Watcher, Giles. Throughout the series, this core group is extended at various times to include: Angel, Cordelia, Oz, Faith, Tara, Anya, Spike, and Dawn. Although these characters are technically secondary, the writers do not treat them as such. In fact, most of them get their very own complex histories and story arcs. That is significant to note because, in a show all about growing up, the crux of its success is its ability to demonstrate how its characters grow and how their relationships with each other grow as well. By and large, BTVS is about friends and family. Each main character on the show is portrayed as being their own person on their own journey, meaning there is someone for every viewer to relate to. The logical changes everyone undergoes throughout the seasons is indicative of Whedon’s patient and thoughtful storytelling – and it is so worth it.
9. BTVS Has Some Of The Best Villains Of All Time
BTVS is both episodic and epic, especially in its approach to villains. For the most part (especially in seasons 1-4), it uses a creature of the week formula, so Buffy has something to fight in every episode. However, a more narratively significant villain is always brewing under the surface – this is the Big Bad, and every season gets one. And since Whedon has been very vocal about the fact that the monsters are metaphors, every Baddie matters. In order of appearance, we have The Master, Spike and Drusilla, The Mayor, The Initiative / Adam, Glory, The Trio, and finally, The First. We won’t spoil the fun by spelling out the metaphorical significance of each Big Bad, but suffice it to say they represent various obstacles along Buffy’s path to adulthood. Of course, it has to be noted that Spike goes from being season two’s biggest threat to the ultimate hero in a slow but sure character transformation that remains unmatched in TV history.
8. No One Is Safe On Buffy
With BTVS, Whedon established his Anyone Can Die trope, and his Anyone Can Be A Villain trope. Together, they make for some really interesting twists and turns. James Marsters (Spike) has laughed about having to live in constant fear while on the show, recalling an incident around his third episode when Whedon cornered him saying, “I don’t care how popular you are; you are going to die.” A number of secondary characters are killed off during the course of the series, prompting some of the most shocking and sad episodes. With Spike and Willow, the line between villain/hero is constantly being changing, so audiences never know what to expect. As impressive a feat it is to progress Spike from Big Bad to Passionate Hero, Willow’s progression to Dark Willow also tugs at our heart-strings. Her journey from the sweet but awkward genius, to the super-witch, is nothing short of tantalizing. Meanwhile, Buffy has her own ups and downs, reminding us that people are never stagnant.
7. BTVS Has Some Shockingly Unusual Episodes… And They’re Brilliant
On two completely opposite ends of the same spectrum, Hush (season 4) and Once More With Feeling (season 6) both use unusual methods to highlight the series’ particular way with words. The idea for Hush, an episode without dialogue, developed out of Whedon’s fear that he was becoming a TV hack. He liked the challenge of having to tell a story using only visual elements. The episode is very much about communication and how we need to get to the heart of what we want to say, without all the word vomit in the middle. Similarly, Once More With Feeling is an episode about communicating all of our true feelings, without holding anything back. So naturally, it had to be a musical. It was a bold decision, and the cast had severe doubts, but Whedon was dead-set on it. He has since said, “I made a musical because I was six years into a show, and I knew that nobody was going to stop me.” Both episodes are among the highest rated of the series.
6. BTVS Featured The First Prominent Lesbian Characters On TV
From the very beginning of Willow and Tara’s relationship, the show-runners knew they had to proceed with caution. At first, the network would not even allow kissing, so the development of the relationship had to rely on subtext. Whedon has stated, “To me, having a character that is open to exploring their sexuality is about the same as having a girl hero — just something natural and cool.” It eventually developed into arguably the most loving and rational romantic relationship in the entire series. Still, Willow and Tara shared very few on-screen intimacies and were only shown in bed once. This was post-sex – and led directly to tragedy. Controversy about this aside, it wasn’t until 2003 that the show was able to show a lesbian sex scene, making it the first in broadcast TV history. The episode Touched (season 7) is about how in times of distress, we all look for comfort. For Willow, it is presented as being the first time in her life she can completely give in and let go.
5. Life Experience Makes BTVS Better
As we’ve said, BTVS is about the journey to adulthood. To ensure this growth would be relatable to audiences, the writers heavily drew upon their own life experiences, projecting them onto Buffy and the Scoobies. The series was designed to mirror real-life, and delved into some really heavy topics, like the loss of a parent, addiction, sexual assault, and depression. Subsequently, if you watched BTVS as a child or young teen, it’s relatively unlikely that you would have been able to connect with much of it after season 4. By the end of the series, Buffy has grown so much. This is exemplified by Spike’s moving words to her in season 7, “I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You’re a hell of a woman.” The moment grounds Buffy in her adulthood, giving her the strength to move forward and face the end of the world. Looking back on the series as an adult, recalling all of the things we face growing up, it’s so much easier to appreciate the story.
4. BTVS Has Its Own Academic Discourse
Buffy Studies is a thing (Google it); and with the continued success of Joss Whedon, it has expanded into Whedon Studies. In the height of its popularity, the TV series began being discussed by academics in the same way one discusses literature and continues to be to this day. This has resulted in the study of BTVS in universities and colleges and directly led to the notion that pop culture can be taken seriously. Examples of Buffy academia include the scholarly textbook, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale; The Whedon Studies Association; and the scholarly journal Slayage – all of which are written and maintained by professors and Ph.D. candidates from around the world. David Lavery, English professor and co-founder of the Whedon Studies Association, refers to Whedon as an inexhaustible source for study, noting the complexity and authenticity of his work. He adds, “I think Whedon studies will be going on for quite a long time.”
3. BTVS Is Hilarious
In BTVS, Buffy has to overcome a plethora of dangers and obstacles, and her life is nothing short of complicated and lonely. All around her there is chaos, death, and sadness. And somehow, she has to keep going. It’s all quite dreary. Luckily, we have that extraordinary comedic timing to fall back on. We may cry at times, but the writers guarantee us that we will laugh even more. “Buffy-speak” gives the show a distinct tone that is inherently light, even in the heaviest of scenarios. The writers are constantly playing with words and language to ensure that everything that gets said leaves an impression. The way the characters speak is intriguing and entertaining. In season 7, this is directly played to when a new character says to Willow, “I like how you speak. It’s interesting.” Though each character has their own voice, there is a commonality that runs through. Sprinkle in a variety of pop culture references and some sarcasm, and you have a winning script every time.
2. BTVS TV Show Is A Complete Story
We might be in a golden age of television, but the market is definitely becoming oversaturated. As a result, great TV shows appear and disappear on a regular basis. It’s incredibly frustrating to find out one of your favorite shows has been canceled – on a cliff-hanger, no less. It’s also pretty frustrating to wait around for months to get a mere 10-12 episodes spread out over an entire year. But none of this was the case during the original run of BTVS. Typical TV practices dictated an average of 22 episodes per season, and show-runners were usually pretty good about wrapping up stories at the end of a season to brace for potential cancellations. With some patient and calculated writing, BTVS was able to tell a complete story. The show was never canceled, and each season has a strong narrative arc. As a bonus, the ending offers a satisfying and logical close to a seven-year epic, offering much-appreciated closure.
1. BTVS Is NOT OVER
If the concept closure isn’t quite your thing, and you can’t quite seem to heal that BTVS hole after watching the series end-to-end, there is a solution. The show ended because Whedon was exhausted and believed it was time for everyone to go their separate ways. But it turns out, he still had some Buffy stories left in him. In 2007 he wrote and released season 8 (issue 1) as a comic book. The series remains ongoing, utilizing many of the original writers, as well as Whedon himself. The comic books average 25-40 issues each and follow what’s left of the gang as they tackle new and complicated issues. Although Whedon himself admits season 8 was a rocky start (the setup is pretty bizarre), by season 10 the writers had successfully brought the story back around to something more akin to the TV show. It just keeps getting better; season 11 began in 2016 and mirrors current issues in “divided America”, forcing Buffy and her friends to face the dark reality of prejudice.