It’s hard to believe that Buffy the Vampire Slayer started 20 Years ago today. The brainchild of Joss Whedon, after the mediocre original movie in 1992, it must have been difficult for any of the cast and crew to imagine just how much of a phenomenon it would become.
I have many happy memories of the show. Having been too young to watch it when it first aired (as is the case with most of my favourite TV shows) I finally saw it when I was 11 and I was immediately hooked by its sheer fun and action. Seeing it again over the years my appreciation continues to grow, not just as a nerdy viewer, but as a writer and storyteller. Beyond the supernatural excitement, the series was also a brilliant TV drama with flawed but unique characters, emotional themes and some wonderful moments of comedy that kept it down to earth and relatable.
Ever since it ended in 2003, the shows remains influential and thanks to DVD’s and Netflix, it’s still popular both with its original fans and those discovering it for the first time.
To commemorate its two decade anniversary, here are five reasons why the impact of this unique series can still be seen in modern culture.
While The X-Files was the first show to create an ongoing mythology arc, it was scattered amongst stand-alone episodes which jarred the flow of the story. Buffy started a new trend of serialised stories. ‘Stopping the Apocalypse’ was the fomula for each season, but different villains and concepts kept the series fresh. But what equally kept viewers hooked were the true to life characters and seeing real people in epic situations played out in big season long arcs. This influenced everything from Lost to Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Even Russell T Davies cited the shows story arcs and comic moments as an inspiration when re-branding Doctor Who in 2005.
Some shows lose the thread of their mythology arcs (The X-Files and Lost, I’m looking at you). Thankfully Joss Whedon is a writer who knows his backstories inside out.
The idea that one girl in every generation is destined to be the ‘Slayer’ and rid the world of supernatural demons sounds slightly silly. But the tight mythology is well thought out, with some episode cleverly referencing to previous Slayers by including flashbacks that emphaisise how the past can affect Buffy’s present and future.
And the idea of the fictional Sunnydale being placed just above a Hellmouth, churning out enough demons to keep Buffy and the gang busy is pure genius and helped elevate TV storytelling to new heights.
I’ll be honest, I hate teen dramas. The characters are always shallow and unworthy of sympathy and the plots always feel ridiculous and unreal. I’m biased of course, as an old soul who did crosswords in the womb and born with the mind-set of a 40 year old, I never feel like the target audience.
But Buffy’s different. Because while averting the Apocalypse and enduring late night vampire staking sessions at the graveyard, the teenage characters always feel real. They go through normal teenage angst that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of My So Called Life or Skins. From rebellion, dating, identity crisis, passing school exams and fears for the future, Whedon certainly understands the struggles of teenhood.
And like all good horror, he uses the supernatural elements to elevate these emotions even more. In this show you could go on a date with the hottest guy in school, but he could turn out to be a vampire. Or in one brilliant episode, Buffy’s Mum starts dating a guy who turns out to be a Killer Robot.
The metaphor of high school being hell is played out in full flames…
It’s this combination of everyday teen situations and fantastical scenarios that continues to influence with examples such as Riverdale, Class, The Vampire Diaries and The 100.
Nowadays it’s common place for franchises to have shared universes. Some start with a few successful movies and then decide to expand into a shared universe. Others intend to be a shared universe from the beginning and fall flat on their face (cough, DC).
Buffy thankfully falls in the former category. After three seasons, Whedon created the brilliant spin-off Angel, a much darker series than its predecessor. Whedon had a clear sense of the world. With the two shows airing back to back, there were regular crossover episodes, almost becoming two hour movies.
The series also inspired original books and comics with stories centering on past Slayers, one example being the underrated Tales of the Slayer book series.
And four years after the show ended, Whedon and co continued the series in comic book format. Starting with Season 8, the stories are canon and while this ruins chances of a reunion movie or mini-series, they’ve proven wildly popular. Season 11 is currently ongoing along with a Spike and Willow spin off comic series and Angel has too continued in comics. And these various titles regularly crossover.
With more and more Shared Universes in film and television, executives should turn to the Buffyverse to see how it’s done well. It was one of the first and probably the best.
Of course the series biggest impact is on the portrayal of women in film and TV. A heroine all girls can look up to, Buffy Summers is strong, flawed, sassy as hell and with her sharp tongue can talk back as equally to teachers as well as the vampires who’ll end up as dust on the ground. As we follow her over the course of seven seasons, she matures from a rebellious teen to a responsible adult who has everything thrown at her but never forgets her responsibilities at the graveyard.
Whedon was inspired by the strong women in his life and set out to create a horror heroine who would go against the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed.
While by no means the first genre TV or film heroine, with predecessors including Uhura, Ellen Ripley, Princess Leia, Sarah Connor and Dana Scully, she was one of the first strong heroines to lead her own fantasy TV series and this made an impact almost instantly. Without Buffy we probably would have never had Charmed, Kara Frace, Katniss Everdeen or Rey from the new Star Wars films.
Thanks to brilliant writing and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s epic performance, Buffy has become a cultural and feminist icon. Just two days ago on International Women’s Day, many social media users referenced Buffy as a woman to aspire to and proves that 20 years on, the character remains influential.
The special effects may be slightly dated, but with tight storytelling, complex characters and universal themes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is timeless and we’ll no doubt be discussing its significance when it turns 100 years old and beyond…
Happy Birthday Buffy!