Those of you who have become regular readers of The Reinvigorated Programmer but who don’t watch Joss Whedon’s show Buffy the Vampire Slayer will probably be inclined to skip over this article. Don’t do that! I hope to show you that Buffy has depths that you’re probably not aware of, and maybe to introduce you to a TV programme that you’ll not only enjoy over the next few months, but also add to your cultural tapestry. Buffy is very, very good, and I missed it for a long while because I thought it sounded dumb and fluffy and insubstantial. My bad. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
So far, I’ve seen the first four season of Buffy (plus the first of its spin-off Angel). A wiser man would hang back on the reviewing until he’d seen all seven seasons, but that’s not how we run this blog. (I will ask you, though, to avoid spoilers in the comments; and I in turn will try to avoid them in the article as far as possible.)
For reasons that seemed to make some kind of sense at the time, I decided to go back and watch Season 1 before progressing to Seasons 5-7. I wanted to look back at those early episodes with a different perspective from what I had the first time around. I’m glad I did: it’s an enlightening process, and it’s helping me understand more of why I like Buffy so much.
It’s widely considered that Buffy didn’t really hit its stride until Season 2, and I think my Season 1 review upholds that conventional wisdom. There’s already a lot to like by half way through the first season, but hindsight shows that it was casting about for its idiom in the earliest episodes. By episode 12 (the last in the season, which is half the length of the subsequent seasons), the character of the show has already drifted a long way from its debut, and gone a long way to becoming the show we love from Season 2 onwards.
What’s it all about?
I suppose I should include a brief synopsis for the two or three of you who have not heard of Buffy. The title character Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a high-school girl (at least for the first three seasons, after which she goes to college). She starts the series aged sixteen, and is about as frivolous as you’d expect. She lives in Sunnydale, Southern California, with her mother (Dad lives in Los Angeles). In addition to her everyday life, she is also The Slayer, the one girl in all the world with the power to fight vampires, demons, and the rest of the bestiary. She’s strong, fast, heals well, etc. So she has a heavy responsibility, and it doesn’t sit well with the typical teen lifestyle.
That’s it — that’s the High Concept at the heart of the show, and I think that the original intention was to play it primarily as a comedy. One moment Buffy is auditioning at the cheerleader tryouts, the next she’s fighting vampires — ha ha ha, how incongruous! She is nearly electrocuted, then worries about how her hair looks — ho ho ho, what a contrast! To be fair, it’s a good joke; but there is only one of it, and any one-joke comedy is going to get old pretty quickly.
So of course having established this very marketable concept, the show is actually pretty quick to discard it. The oh-she’s-a-cheerleader-oh-she’s-a-slayer vibe is strong in the opening pair of episodes, but quickly fades into the background, so that by the time the electrocution/hair joke crops up in Episode 8, it’s actually rather jarring (though delivered well enough to be funny). The incongruity trope does continue to make the occasional appearance throughout Seasons 2-4, but it’s downplayed: aside from the Struggle Against Evil, what the show is really about turns out to be Buffy’s friends. (I almost want to say “Buffy’s relationships”, but that makes it sounds like a soap-opera, which it decidedly is not.)
(Soon I’m going to watch the much-derided Buffy movie that was made a couple of years before the show started: I bet that is pretty much entirely played as comedy. BTW., no-one approaching Buffy for the first time should start with this movie, which by common consent has little to do with the TV series.)
Xander, Willow, Giles
Aside from Buffy herself, the core cast is made up of (from left to right in the back row of this picture) Buffy’s school-friends Xander and Willow, and the school librarian Rupert Giles, who is also Buffy’s Watcher — the guy who has the necessary training and knowledge to guide Buffy in her role as Slayer. It’s interesting to see how quickly things change between the three kids in this group: early episodes have a classic love-triangle thing going on: Xander fancies Buffy, who Just Doesn’t Think Of Him That Way; Willow Fancies Xander, who etc. Like the oh-that’s-incongruous-ha-ha-ha trick, this relationship schema is quietly abandoned pretty early on — Joss Whedon evidently recognised quickly that it was too stereotypical to have legs. (It’s dealt with, very humanely and touchingly, in the last episode of the season — and then it’s done.)
Instead, Buffy, Xander and Willow (and, to a lesser extent, Giles) quickly settle into a friendship. It’s hard to explain what a profound thing that is to anyone who’s not seen the show: it is, simply, a deep, unfeigned affection for each other — a thing that is not in itself dramatic, but that provides a backdrop of stability against which all the weird stuff can happen, and seem all the weirder for it. It’s surprisingly rare to see believable portraits of friendship in films and TV — it’s the most overlooked and underrated of relationships, and whatever the relationships in Friends were, they weren’t friendship. And yet it’s such a very important thing. The Buffy-Xander-Willow friendship is so solid that on the few occasions that it is threatened (especially in Season 1 Episode 6, and towards the end of Season 4), it feels like a violation. When Xander is cruel to Willow, even as early as that sixth episode, it is genuinely disturbing.
And that, in part, is a tribute to how very likeable the show has made these three characters. I know that the word “likeable” is weak sauce — Word Inflation means that we’re all supposed to aim for Turbo Verbs and suchlike in our writing, but no thanks. When “likeable” is the right word, I’ll stick with it. Note that by this I don’t just mean a weaker form of “lovable” but something qualitatively different. I like these people. These are people I would like to have a drink with (or at least I would if I were 20 years younger; or, rather, given the California liquor-licensing laws, if they were 20 years older). I want things to work out for them. I want them to be happy. I felt distraught for Willow when she found out in Episode 8 that her Internet boyfriend was not what he seemed. The forced laughter between the three friends at the end of that episode was very poignant — and funny at the same time. That’s only possible because the show has made me like the principals so much.
Again, if this seems like a small thing, consider how different it is from The Dreadful Torchwood: Owen is contemptible, Captain Jack is a child, Gwen is weak, Ianto is a cipher — by the end of Season 1, I was actively rooting for the Giant Rift Kaiju Thing to kill ‘em all. (but as it turned out, it was defeated by Captain Jack’s Can-Never-Be-Killed superpower — funny how useful that turned out to be, who’d have guessed? Apologies to the spoiler for anyone who didn’t see that coming.)
Season One’s main bad guy (or the Big Bad, as they are known in Buffy-world) is frankly not very interesting: a vampire known as The Master who is imprisoned underground until the last episode. From Season Two onwards, the bad guys become a lot more interesting — funnier, but also more menacing. Part of the payoff for this change is that when the incongruity between Buffy’s two lives is drawn out, it’s not played for laughs any more, but represents a harrowing weight of responsibility that is completely inappropriate for someone at her stage in life. Like many aspects of the second and subsequent seasons, this is first seen towards the end of Season One, and specifically in the final episode. I’ve written before about the quietness of her courage as she goes to face the Master, knowing that her death is prophecied. One of the last things she does before going to meet him is to comfort Willow, who is scared of recent developments but has no idea what lies in store for Buffy. It’s heartbreaking to watch Buffy take the parental role towards Willow, shielding her even then from painful knowledge, and simultaneously steeling herself for the confrontation ahead.
This only works because Gellar is a frankly sensational actor. The writing is very sharp and witty, and the supporting cast are all very good (though all three of them are to some extent stereotypes, so that little subtlety is required of them), but Gellar is several dozen orders of magnitude beyond them, and qualifies as one of the most perfect pieces of casting ever. To be blunt, Buffy is Gellar’s show (which is why the recent talk of making a new version without her is not so much offensive as it is meaningless). She can say a whole world without even opening her mouth, conveying rich cocktails of conflicting emotions. Yet this is done with a light touch — it’s never Academy Award Clip acting, never acting-for-the-sake-of-acting. It’s always done in the service of the story that the show is telling. In that sense it’s deliberately unspectacular — like a great guitarist who plays precisely the right solo, the one that the song needs, rather than the one that will show off his guitar-hero moves. (It astonishes me that Gellar is not getting more and better film work.)
The bottom line, and I know this is going to sound weird, is that Buffy is realistic.
Yes, I know that the premise is wildly unrealistic. But if there was a sixteen-year-old girl with superpowers whose destiny was to fight vampires and demons, and whose best friends were a couple of nerds and a middle-aged librarian, then it would be just like it’s portrayed in Buffy.
So: go and watch Buffy. Although I’ve written about Season One, it should be clear from what I’ve said that Season Two is a better place to start for most people. (Also, the Season Two box set [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk] is better value than Season One, because there are twice as many episodes.) I’ve deliberately said nothing about the important developments in Season Two, so as to avoid spoilage.
Note that Buffy’s binary search code is provably correct. She is one talented girl.