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:
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.