Why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best dramas of the last 25 years

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a finalist in New York Magazine’s reader poll of the best drama of the last 25 years.  Breaking Bad edged out Buffy for the win, but I’m still excited that Buffy made the list. You can read about the other finalists on New York Magazine’s Vulture blog:

http://www.vulture.com/2012/03/best-show-breaking-bad-buffy.html

Buffy was the first show I thought of when I heard about the poll. I was surprised that it was a finalist, though, because it generally doesn’t get broad mainstream recognition. You Buffy fans know what I’m talking about: the snicker and the eye roll you get when you try to convince a non-Whedonite that it really is one of the best shows ever. I’ll admit I was guilty of the same response when my best friend and Buffy sire Ashley first mentioned the show to me, but its humor, rich characterizations, and clever metaphorical use of the slayer mythology quickly won me over. 

As New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out on Monday in his analysis of the competition on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, the hallmark of many of the greatest shows is that they function as metaphors for our lives, for experiences we all share. Buffy certainly fits that bill, especially during the seasons set in high school: you think high school is hell? Well, Buffy’s high school is actually a portal to hell. Your boyfriend changes after you have sex with him? Buffy’s boyfriend changes, too . . . into a soulless murderous vampire (ok, the vampire part isn’t so much of a change).  This is what people who don’t watch the show have a hard time understanding – that a show ostensibly about vampires and a girl with super strength is actually about a girl dealing with challenges we can all identify with: fitting in, finding and losing friends, falling in love with someone who’s wrong for you, figuring out who you are.

What makes this metaphor work, of course, is Buffy’s stellar writing. While each episode may be driven by a monster of the week storyline, the overarching plot is grounded in a consistent through-line of textured character development and events with lasting consequences. That’s the difference between a perfectly decent show and an amazing show. I was recently going on about this while watching Blue Bloods, one such decent show. A lead character is assaulted and almost raped in one episode, but by the next episode, it’s like nothing happened – no after-effects of the attack, no consequences. The lack of follow-through makes the frightening event feel like just a gimmick, rather than real trauma happening to a real person. By contrast, when Buffy is almost raped by Spike, the aftershocks reverberate for the rest of the show. In another Blue Bloods episode, a cop’s family is shot at, briefly generating conflict – the frightened spouse wishes the cop would leave his job, their son acts out in school as he struggles to process the event – but it’s all neatly tied up in one episode, and nobody mentions the incident again in future episodes. When a shot is fired on Buffy, killing Willow’s girlfriend, it has tragic long-term consequences: furious, grieving Willow kills the shooter, an act that violates the show’s taboo against taking human life and forever alters Willow’s relationship with her own magical powers. Even though Buffy takes place in a fantastical world of demons and slayers, its characters are actually more believable than those on an average, less well-written show because they have realistic responses to events and evolve in nuanced, complicated ways.

Obviously, I can go on at length about all the things that make Buffy great, but if I had to pick just one, it’s the show’s full-throated feminism. Over the course of seven seasons, Buffy learns about the origins, limits, and responsibilities of her power and then re-defines it on her own terms. In the series finale, she challenges the rule, “made up by a bunch of men who died a thousand years ago,” that only one woman can have the power of the slayer at any given time. Instead, she says, “My power should be our power . . . Every girl who could have the power, will have the power; can stand up, will stand up.” In the show’s worldview, power is not about one person having it, but about using it in a way that equally empowers others around you. For me, this is the essence of feminism: it’s not about empowering women over men, but about challenging patriarchal structures that require one group to have dominance over another, that grant power through the subjugation of others. Feminism is about radical systemic change that equally empowers all people, regardless of gender, sexual, class, or other identities.

“Are you ready to be strong?” Buffy asks in her final speech. Nine years after the finale aired, that line, with its promise and its challenge, still gives me goosebumps.  To me, that’s evidence of Buffy‘s well-deserved place among television’s greatest shows.

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10 Responses to Why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best dramas of the last 25 years

  1. Heather says:

    Okay, you’ve convinced me to give it a try. I have the first several episodes here and will watch them over the weekend.

    • popgoddess says:

      My last attempt at siring was unsuccessful, so be warned that the first few episodes can look a bit hokey and dated to newcomers. Stick with it, though; I promise it pays off! If you just can’t make it through the short first season, I suppose you could skip ahead to Season 2, which has a more polished tone and rhythm.

  2. areed9b says:

    I started with Season 2 and only later went back to watch Season 1. I don’t think it caused me any problems in terms of continuity or attachment to the characters. And I agree that one of the many, many things to love about the show is its insistence that even in an imaginary world, events have real consequences.

  3. Ashley says:

    I started with season 2 and then went back and watched Season 1 later, and I don’t remember it causing me any trouble in terms of character or continuity. Joss sort of treats every season opener like it’s the series premiere, so you get plenty of exposition at the beginning of season 2.

    I always forget that it was me who started you watching Buffy. (I guess I always think we must have magically discovered it simultaneously.) I was actually “sired” (I hate that term precisely because of its patriarchal connotations; the idea of “siring” anyone in any way grosses me out) during a job interview: the folks interviewing me asked me what TV shows I liked, and when I said I liked The X-Files they told me I should watch Buffy. I didn’t get the job, but I think the introduction to Buffy was probably the better deal.

  4. Heather says:

    I wanted to give you an update… I watched the first two episodes of Season 1 a week ago before being distracted by other projects.  I’m so glad you gave me a little warning about the first few episodes, because they were…. okay.  They didn’t wow me.  And since I’m not much into vampire story-lines, I probably wouldn’t have continued without encouragement.  But I’m going to stick with it because I trust your opinion and because I can see the metaphorical possibilities, and that is intriguing.  I have the entire first season on my DVR , and the second season is starting up soon, so I may just jump ahead to Season 2.  I’ll send another update soon. And I love Ashley’s story about the job interview! Silver linings.

  5. Heather says:

    Buffy Update:  I decided to continue on with season one instead of jumping ahead to season two because I’m a bit of a precisionist and like things to be in order.  I also hate to feel like I’m missing anything.  Just having finished S1 and not having started S2, I offer a few quick thoughts.

    Several episodes (Witch, I Robot..You Jane, …) didn’t  have any vampires in them at all, which was surprising, and I have to admit they were my favorite episodes of the season.  Out of Mind, Out of Sight particularly caught my attention, and bringing in the US government at the end when she goes to her new school filled with Invisible Children was really intriguing.  I’m hoping to see that be a returning storyline.  For future seasons, I am hoping to see Xander’s and Willow’s characters fleshed out more.  I particularly like Alyson Hannigan as an actress… Such an expressive face!  And finally One Big Question: why did the Master still have bones left after being killed?  I don’t think any of the other vampires did.  

    • popgoddess says:

      Heather, you’re so diligent! Joss is the master (hah!) of character development, so no worries on the Xander/Willow front. As for the Master’s bones: I can’t be 100% positive without re-watching the episodes, but I think there’s something about him having bones because he’s one of the oldest and strongest vampires. Also, since Joss doesn’t waste details, the bones are used as a plot point early in s2.

  6. Heather says:

    Buffy Update:   I am part way through Season 4, having just finished “Fear, Itself,” and… I’m officially hooked.  Totally hooked.  Completely, shamelessly ridiculously hooked.   It was a bit of a slow build until the middle of S2.  I think specifically it was the “Passion” episode, which sealed my awe and amazement… the storytelling, the dialogue, the camera work, everything– hooked.  I used to watch a few episodes a week in the evenings after everyone else was asleep, but now I’m cramming them in whenever I can.  

    However, and I hesitate to mention this because it makes me sound old, there are certain elements of the show which bother me.  It almost certainly is related to the fact that I’m watching this series for the first time as a 37 year old mother of four, and so I come at it with a different perspective than I would have had, had I watched the episodes new in my early twenties.

    For one thing, fifteen years ago, I am sure I would have identified with Buffy because she’s “cool” and awesome and gorgeous and bad-ass and where does she get those clothes?  (I don’t recall anyone dressing like that when we were in high school.)  Namely, I would have identified with her because I would have wanted to be her, not because I was really anything like her.   

    But now I get that I was really much more like Willow.  And I’m okay with that.  Complete with intellectual interests and dorky clothes.  My favorite characters are Giles, Willow,  Oz (who is very much the better boyfriend than Angel), and Spike (who isn’t so much a favorite character as just too much fun to watch and crazy good-looking).  Speaking of Oz, I loved the bit in “Surprise” where he learns what’s going on.   Xander is like “yeah vampires are real…there are a lot of them in sunnydale…willow will fill you in.” And Oz just kind of nods.  “That explains a lot.”  Oh, and I love the Mayor!    Who knew evil could be so sanguine?

    Among other things, I just can’t get over how clueless the adults (excluding Giles) were for so long.  I get that a lot of parents are unaware of the private lives of their teenagers, but to this extent was just irritatingly unrealistic.  I couldn’t get past being pissed off at Joyce Summers every time I saw her on screen.  Do you not know where she goes?  How much time she spends away from home?  How often she and her friends hang out at The Bronze?  What is that place, by the way?  A nightclub for fifteen year olds?  Do such places really exist?

    And then finally there was an episode that I thought would fix all that.  School Hard  was a great episode, as I thought it was resolving a few of the issues I was having regarding unaware parents.  Finally Buffy’s mom sees what is going on!  She even saves Buffy’s life!  And Principal Snyder (fun character even if he is one-dimensional) and the police chief seem to be wholly aware of what is going on in Sunnydale.  (But did they know the role of Buffy as slayer?)  I had been hoping the mom was now more aware, but no, several more episodes of cluelessness.

    Also really loved “I only have eyes for you.”  So so so so well written!! But again with the principal and the police!!!  They obviously know about the hellmouth, but do they know Buffy is the slayer?  How could they be missing that?

    Becoming parts one and two…  BEST season finale I’ve EVER seen!!  (Second best:   S3 finale Graduation Day, which probably could have served as a series finale, if necessary, it was so tightly done, just amazing!)  Sorry for all the exclamation points and capitalization!  But I just don’t have the words.  FINALLY mom finds out.  Her character still seems so very flat to me though.   But the few scenes we have of Spike and Joyce together are comic gold,  for example sitting in the living room in awkward silence waiting on Buffy… and also Spike pouring his heart out to Joyce about how devastated he is that Dru left him and then he asks for marshmallows for his hot chocolate…  Ahhhh!!  PRICELESS!  

    And Kendra.  She was a mistake, right?  I wonder whether we would have had Faith if the character of Kendra hadn’t been such a flop.  

    And finally my biggest issue with the series so far…  It seems to me that the Buffyverse, which I’ve learned is a real word, is unforgivably incomplete.  Hell is very real, but never a mention of heaven.  Demons are real, but no mention of angels.  Crosses and holy water are used liberally to ward off vampires, but no mention of why this works.  Vampire mythology has always been heavily tied up with Christian symbolism.  A cross without any mention of Christ is just a torture device.  I can’t see that it would have any effect on a vampire.  I’m not looking for heavy religious motifs, but a fictional universe with demons and a  hell and pure evil shouldn’t  exist without an opposite pure good.  And the realistically flawed characters we see in the show are not the opposite.  I’m only half way through the series, so maybe this will still be addressed, but I haven’t seen any foreshadowing.   

    And after these minor criticisms, I have to say again how much I’m enjoying this series.  At the point where I’m at now, Willow just got really upset with Buffy and reminded her that being the slayer doesn’t make her the boss.  “I’m not your sidekick!” she yells at her.  Which she kinda has been, but I’m betting this will be the impetus for her to really take off with the whole witching thing in an effort to assert her individuality.  I can’t say I approve of the idea, but it will be interesting to see where it takes her.  Also interesting that Xander’s biggest fear was being invisible to his friends now that they are in college.  I wonder if he’ll do anything to assert his identity.  And my favorite part of this last episode was Giles showing up with a chainsaw!!!  Ahhhh!!  I love him!  I think I have a crush on him.  I’m definitely showing my age that I find Giles way more attractive than Angel!  But Angel, come on.  He was a good looking guy for awhile, and then all the melodrama started to wear on me, and I don’t think the acting skills were strong enough.  All his heavy breathing was starting to get on my nerves.  I can’t say I’m sorry to have seen him leave the show.  Though when I finish Buffy, what will I watch?!  I might have to start Angel’s show.

    This is WAY too long for a comment, but I don’t have time to edit.  Just wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying your show.  I guess you had a successful sire!  Did you come up with a better word for that, by the way?

    • popgoddess says:

      Hooray, you love it! I’ve been wondering about your progress. You make so many interesting points that I could write a whole new post in response!

      Yes, season 2 finale – among the best episodes of any show on TV ever.

      The older I get, the more attractive I find Giles.

      I think Joss is making a deliberate point with clueless adults who are obstacles in the hero’s way; it’s a common theme in children’s/YA lit (Harry Potter, just to name a recent example) and teen-centered TV shows – Veronica Mars, Teen Wolf.

      I agree that the symbols of the cross and holy water seem empty without any discussion of their religious meaning. I think it’s a weakness of the show. Same goes for all the talk about who has a soul and who doesn’t; it’s a bit muddy without a broader spiritual context (see my post about The Fades).

      As for what to watch next: Joss’ space western Firefly and Veronica Mars, whose lead character combines Buffy’s bad-assery and Willow’s super smarts.

      Enjoy the rest of Buffy! Fair warning that things will get a bit dreary in seasons 5 and 6, but, as you’ve obviously realized by now, it’s well worth it.

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