Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today. That's something I find staggering to process. In many ways, Buffy ushered in an era of TV that is still ongoing to this day. It's pretty easy to point to several current shows - many of them on the CW - and feel them trying to evoke that Buffy magic. In processing how remarkable this is, I tried to think about what shows from 1977 were that much in the public consciousness at the time Buffy premiered in 1997.
I couldn't honestly come up with one - save for Star Trek, which was from 1966 and a special case as movies and spinoffs had kept it alive on film for most of those 30 years. The filmed Buffyverse ended in 2005 - nearly a full 12 years ago. And sure, you could point to plenty of old sitcoms like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, and so forth as shows that still had a strong awareness 20 years or more after their debut... but how many of them were regarded as still influential on then-present television?
I'm embarrassed to recall how late I was to the Buffy party. For all my fanboying of Joss Whedon, I wasn't even the first one in my household to discover the show. That honor goes to... my mother. At the mature age of 17, I was far above watching some silly teen drama. No, I had already skipped on to the adult dramas of Law & Order, ER and Homicide, some of the most well-crafted TV of any era. Why would I watch some dumb show based on a failed movie?
Considering the number of posts I've devoted to teen dramas over the years, that whole paragraph seems especially ironic. But it's true. My mother discovered the show somewhere during the second season. I recall the first episode I caught a piece of. It involved a love spell gone wrong, forcing everyone to act silly and result in a lot of second-hand embarrassment on the part of the viewer. (Watching actors forced to play ultra-horny never fails to make me want to crawl under the couch in embarrassment for them.) Immediately I tagged it as one of TV's most overused premises, used to thuddingly bad effect on TNG's in "The Naked Now" and not much better in Lois & Clark's "Pheromone, My Lovely," a episode where the only virtue was Teri Hatcher doing the Dance of the Seven Veils.
The second episode I walked in on my mother watching? "Inca Mummy Girl."
So yeah, I didn't become a convert until just before the start of Season 3, after hearing the hype over how season 2 had ended. When the finale re-aired early that fall, I caught those episodes, and from that point on, there was no doubt I'd be planted in front of the TV every Tuesday to catch new episodes. Before long, I was learning the names of the writers and recognizing the differences between a Marti Noxon episode and a Jane Espenson episode. I became a lurker on the alt.tv.buffy-the-vampire-slayer newsgroup and quickly got addicted to the discussions peeling apart the deeper layers of the show. There were few shows I could engage in that way at that time.
Let's be honest - the fact TV scholars keep calling back to Buffy is a pretty good indication that even in a golden era of TV, Buffy was groundbreaking enough to leave it's mark.
I still argue that season 3 of Buffy is one of the most perfectly-structured seasons of television. It's the platonic ideal of balancing standalone episodes with a season-long arc. The individual installments maintain their own identity week-to-week, even as the larger story is advanced as needed. Better still, the season paces out its villains. Though we meet the Mayor early on, it's not until about 2/3 of the season that he really steps up as the Big Bad, and even then, his scheme is given a particular timing that completely takes care of the big question in most other cases: "Why is this guy waiting all season for his endgame?"
Also, because of how the season unfurls its plot, we never fall into a rut where it feels like every week is the same wolf-and-sheepdog drama of the two sides clashing over and over again. Current genre TV often falls into this trap - introduce the main villain in the season premiere and have them and the hero spend all season locking horns. (Honestly, Buffy itself came perilously close to falling into this trap in Season 5, and even closer still in Season 7).
There's probably little else I could say about Buffy that I haven't said before in several other posts, so before I get to plugging those, I'll leave with this: Happy birthday Buffy! Hope it's better than the birthday where you lost your virginity. Or the one where your Watcher took your powers and locked you in with a psycho vamp. Or the one where Giles got turned into a Demon. Or the one where Dawn slashed her wrists. Or the one in the episode that I never rewatch.
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