Friday, 10 March 2017

20 Reasons To Love Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Twenty years ago today, a TV show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer first aired.  The fact that most of you reading this will instantly recognise the title of that show - and may well be able to talk about the premise in detail, regardless of whether or not you ever watched it personally - just goes to show how deeply embedded it became in popular culture.  Buffy was not just a TV show that came and went, leaving little mark.  Buffy came along and changed things, forever.

I arrived late.  I didn't really get into the show until season 4.  By season 6, I was utterly hooked and listened to the Once More, With Feeling soundtrack constantly.  I watched Buffy as a teen and it had a profound affect on me.  But, rather than merely gush about my personal reasons for still being such a fan of a TV show that will always rank in my top 5 favourite programmes ever, I figured, in honour of the 20th anniversary of that very first episode airing, I would compile a list of 20 reasons to watch Buffy and love it.

So, here goes...

1. It had mass appeal.

One of the reasons that Buffy was - and is - so successful, was that it catered to a seriously wide audience.  Looking for a show about vampires?  Well, duh.  The clue's in the name.  But beyond that, the show had something for almost everyone.  The mix of horror, humour, romance, teen drama, paranormal goings on and of course, for the first three seasons in particular, the portrayal of high school life, meant that whatever your televisual interest, you could probably find it on Buffy

2. It was honest.

Up until Buffy arrived, most teen shows focused on the popular kids at school.  Everything was bright and shiny and it didn't really portray the reality for an awful lot of teenage viewers.  Then, suddenly, a show came along in which the nerdy, awkward outsiders were the stars.  And Joss Whedon never shied away from showing us that Buffy and her friends weren't in with the "cool kids."  Whether it was Xander being knocked back by a girl he likes, or the entire "Scooby Gang" being mocked by the more popular students, you were always made aware that high school wasn't the joyous, socially exciting time it had been depicted as, in other shows.  Bullying, concerns about exams, unrequited crushes, failure to be accepted by your peers... It was all there, on Buffy, in all its painful, honest glory.  

And because of that...

3. The characters felt real.

It might sound strange to talk about a show that centres around a teenage girl who slays vampires in her spare time as being very real, in terms of the characters it depicts, but it's true.  Buffy may be The Chosen One, but she still worries about her hair, or her test scores.  Her concerns beyond her "job" as the Slayer are those of any average teenage girl, and that's what stops Buffy from being someone hard to relate to.  And it wasn't just the titular character.  Willow, Buffy's best friend, is portrayed as delightfully nerdy and endearingly awkward in social situations.  She is full of typical teenage self-doubt and you end up rooting for her in part because you just relate so much.  Xander is immediately recognisable as the hormonal teenage boy, desperate to be accepted by his peers and liked by the girls, and making many mistakes along the way to working out who he is.

Essentially, that was one of the most beautiful things about Buffy.  You got the feeling that this really was a group of very close friends, just trying to figure out who they are and where they're going in life.  You were able to see that they didn't always make good decisions, or get the happy ending you wanted for them.  And watching that as a teenager, who was also working out who I was and what I wanted from my life, was enormously powerful.

4.  The show could make you laugh out loud.

One of Joss Whedon's masterstrokes was that he didn't allow Buffy to ever lose its sense of humour.  No matter what happened, there was a witty line thrown in somewhere, or a visual joke to break the tension.  Anya becoming a human, having been an all-powerful vengeance demon for centuries, was just one of the many topics that provided giggles on the show, as we watched her try to handle humanity and work out how she's supposed to behave.  Buffy herself had a wit as razor-sharp as her beloved stake, Mr Pointy, and could rarely resist making a pun as she dispatched a vampire.  The jokes punctuated the storylines and kept the show moving at a fast pace.  Joss Whedon was even able to poke fun at the show itself, often through Giles, with his world-weary delivery of lines relating to the absurdity of whatever was happening in that particular episode. 

Whenever I'm talking to a fellow Buffy fan, the humour in the show is always mentioned.  Every time, without fail.  And with good reason.

5.  The show could make you cry.

I've already said that one of the biggest reasons I love Buffy is that it never shied away from providing an honest depiction of life, warts and all.  That was true throughout its seven seasons, and the sad moments were dealt with beautifully.  Obviously, an enormous part of that is down to the incredible acting displayed by the whole cast, but credit where it's due; the writing and direction was just perfect, when it came to breaking the viewers' hearts.  Take The Body, as the ideal example (major spoilers ahead...).  The first few minutes after Buffy comes home to discover her mother dead on the sofa, are played out with almost painful slowness.  The world seems to stop completely, as we follow Buffy walking down the corridor, unsure what to do.  The almost ridiculous realities of dealing with a death - Willow panicking about not being sure what to wear to the funeral, for example - are all on display, here, and the episode is devastating to watch (if you haven't seen it, you have been warned - have many, many tissues on hand).  For me, the most heartbreaking moment comes from one of my favourite characters on the show.  Anya, a former vengeance demon turned human, is not used to the concept of mortality and doesn't know how to deal with the situation.  As she contemplates the seemingly pointless nature of death, I find it almost impossible not to bawl my freaking eyes out.

Anya: I don’t understand. I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead any more. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid, and, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever. And she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever and no one will explain to me why.

Seriously, The Body is quite probably the most raw, emotive, honest depiction of death and grief I have ever seen on television.  Who'd have thought a show about a wise-cracking teenage girl who slays vampires could provide that?

6. Big issues were dealt with.

I've already mentioned above that Buffy is forced to deal with the unexpected death of her mother.  And death becomes a big deal again, later on in the series when another major character is unexpectedly murdered (I can't even say who, because OH MY GOD I AM STILL NOT OVER IT). But death is not the only major issue we see, during the course of Buffy's seven season run.  Early on, we get an episode that focuses on domestic abuse (although I wasn't keen on the way Buffy and Willow spoke to the girl who was being abused; things got a bit victim-blamey in my eyes, but hey, that's a discussion for another day).  And it's made very clear to us, without ever going into enormous levels of details, that Xander's home life is not particularly pleasant.  In keeping with the whole "honest depiction of life" ethos that runs through the show, Joss Whedon was never scared of showing us a character having a breakdown, or experiencing something traumatic and awful.  Life isn't all puppies and kittens.  Neither was Buffy.

7. Love wasn't always pretty...

Despite being a show about vampires and monsters, there's a fair amount of romance in Buffy.  But that's not to say that it's all hearts and flowers.  We see everything, from unrequited love, lust, doomed romances and bad choices leading to broken hearts.  

Buffy falls head over heels in love with vampire, Angel, only for him to turn evil after she loses her virginity to him, and for her to be forced to send him to Hell.  Spike, another vampire who originally wants nothing more than to kill Buffy, ends up obsessively in love with her, willing to sacrifice himself in order to save the world for her.  Willow's unrequited love for Xander is relatable and realistically portrayed.  Willow and Oz are a beautiful example of a very pure form of first love. 

Love was a theme that ran through Buffy, for all seven seasons.  But we saw every kind of love - angry, obsessive, passionate, desperate, true... It was all there.

People talk about the two big relationships being either Buffy/Angel or Buffy/Spike, but let's not forget that there was a major relationship in this series that broke a LOT of boundaries at the time...

8. There was a lesbian relationship that was not done for shock value, but was a legitimately beautiful storyline about two women who were in love.

Whilst we've taken enormous strides forward when it comes to LGBTQ representation on screen, in the last two decades, we have to remember that back in the 90s and early 00s, the idea of two people of the same sex kissing on screen was quite a big deal.  So, when Buffy's best friend Willow realised that she was falling in love with her friend Tara, the storyline was big news.  But there was no shock factor element to this story.  Their shy, awkward development from friends to lovers was treated with enormous respect and realness, which is probably why so many fans fell for them as hard as they fell for each other.  Tara and Willow were just meant to be together, which makes their eventual, permanent parting, all the more shattering.  This was a pair that it was impossible not to root for, and to this day, many fans of the show - myself included - still look to Willow/Tara as a gorgeous example of real romance on screen. 

9. The writing bled into popular culture and became endlessly quotable.

If I don't want to do something, one of my favourite expressions to use is "a world of no."  Where did I first hear that expression?  You guessed it: Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The show portrayed a group of teenagers/young adults, talking in the way that friends of that age group really did at the time (and probably still do - God, I'm old).  It's no surprise that so many quotes from the show ended up on t-shirts and fridge magnets, or being taken as usernames on social media.  It was perfectly quotable.

10. At times, it was genuinely scary.

Okay, so it was a show aimed largely at teens, so there wasn't too much in the way of gore (although Xander having his eye gouged out by Caleb still makes me screech and look away), but it had plenty of scary moments.  Tell me Angelus' murder of poor Jenny Calendar didn't shock you.  Tell me The Gentlemen didn't freak you out.  Tell me there weren't moments when you genuinely jumped.  Tell me, and I'll call you a liar.  Because this show could be scary, despite all the humour.  And I don't just mean because of the 90s outfits...

11. GILES.

I'm sorry, but if your ass-kicking vampire show doesn't feature a sarcastic, supposedly-stuffy-but-with-a-secret-past type older dude who drinks a lot of tea and rolls his eyes a lot at the teenage rabble he's somehow become responsible for (he's meant to be Buffy's watcher, but let's face it, Giles takes care of all the Scoobies), then you're doing it wrong.  Giles is utterly pivotal to the show.  He is protective, wise, fatherly and actually, damnit, kind of hot.  Buffy without Giles would be like Ant without Dec, day without night, or me without some kind of sweet snack on standby at all times.

I just love Giles, okay?!

12. Character development happened in SPADES.

We meet characters in Buffy who change dramatically over the course of their time on the show, yet somehow always seem to be themselves.  That's the beauty of Joss Whedon's creation - a character like Cordelia can start out as a shallow, not particularly friendly person, whose presence seems to be based around making life difficult for the Scooby Gang.  And yet, over the course of her time in the Buffyverse, we see her become a deeper person, who is capable of strength and bravery, but who can still be catty and a little shallow from time to time.  Joss allows his characters to grow naturally, whilst still retaining many of the key traits that make them them.  We all change over time, as a result of our experiences and life-lessons.  We see that happen to each one of the characters in Buffy, and that is magnificent.

13. As the characters learned from each episode, so did we.

Buffy was never one of those irritating shows that insisted on having the lead character break the fourth wall to tell the viewer "what we learned, today" at the end of each episode.  Thank God.  But that's not to say that there weren't lessons learned from the show.  Whether it was Willow's addiction to magic, which slowly began corrupting her life and her relationships (a metaphor for "drugs are bad, mm'kay," if ever there was one), or Buffy's own journey towards self-acceptance, we could all take whatever "lessons" we wanted from the show, but they were rarely forced upon us.  Much like the characters themselves, we had to work out what to take away from each situation.  It's why Buffy is still so frequently written about and discussed; there's still so much to take from it.


Only Buffy could have carried this off so brilliantly.  I'm an unashamed fan of musical theatre and Once More, With Feeling is, without doubt, my favourite episode (along with Hush and The Body - for veeeery different reasons).  A demon is summoned to Sunnydale, who makes people sing their biggest secrets, before eventually dancing themselves to spontaneous combustion.  Of course.  What is amazing about Once More, With Feeling is not only that the songs are brilliant, or that the episode is so well acted and directed, but that it doesn't break from the show's overall character.  The gang are all exactly the same as ever, just... With added jazz hands.  And the narrative arc of season 6 continues in this episode, too.  It's not a stand-alone piece (although if you wanted to watch it as such, you'd probably get the gist of what's going on fairly quickly).  Storylines that were started in the episodes before are continued in this one.  There just happen to be songs and dance routines.  It's bloody perfect.

15.  It broke TV boundaries.

Think of your favourite TV show.  Now imagine an almost completely silent episode.

That's what Joss Whedon did in Hush, supposedly in response to being told that one of Buffy's biggest triumphs was its witty one-liners and excellent dialogue.  In that episode, we meet The Gentlemen (still Buffy's creepiest baddies, if you ask me), who remove everyone's voices.  There are suddenly no puns, no sarcastic comebacks, no hugely realistic conversations between friends or lovers.  Almost everything we know Buffy for is gone.  And yet this episode is one of the best.  It manages to be frightening, funny and captivating, all without words.

If you don't know much about Buffy, you might wonder how that could work.  But Buffy was a show that was never scared to try a path that hadn't been trodden, before.  And that bravery paid off.

16.  The clothes.  And the hair.  

Guys, I watch Buffy with a fair amount of nostalgia, these days.  It is just SO of its time, in the most glorious of ways.  The nineties fashion on display is so notorious that there is even a Twitter account devoted to "Bad Buffy Outfits."

Pretty sure this is Willow auditioning to join the Backstreet Boys.

17.  The concept of friends as the family you choose for yourself.

Yes, Friends was already a hit by the time Buffy came along, but for me, it was Buffy that cemented the importance of the almost family-like bonds that can be created in a close friendship group.  Over the course of seven seasons, we see the Scooby Gang prepared to die for one another; defending each other and supporting one another through the best and the worst times of their lives.  From the entire gang standing up to Tara's father, to Xander being willing to sacrifice himself for Willow, when she's lost in grief and is using dark, evil magic and threatening to end the world, this was a show that really brought home the fact that it's not just blood-relations that make a family.  

18.  It's still relevant.

All these years later, there are still nerdy outsiders who don't fit in.  There are still angst-ridden teens, falling in and out of love and trying to work out who they are and what they want.  There are still plenty of people out there, dealing with indescribable grief, self-doubt or life-pressures, struggling to keep on top of their emotions.  The issues Buffy addresses are still present now, despite the show being twenty years old.  So, you can switch it on today, all these years later, and still relate.  Hard.

19. THAT theme tune.

If you haven't heard it, rectify that at once.  Nerf Herder's insanely brilliant theme opens with a church organ and a wolf howl and then descends into thrashing guitars and drums.  As far as TV theme tunes go, it has to be up there with the most awesome ever.

20.  Feisty Females Kicking Ass.

Buffy is lauded as a feminist show and rightly so.  At a time when most action heroes were distinctly male, Joss Whedon gave us a girl who was short, pretty and liked picking out cool outfits to wear... But who could kick ass when necessary.  Buffy Summers was feminine and feminist.  She wasn't a one-dimensional character and that was hugely important.  And the wider range of female characters on the show ran the whole spectrum of humanity, without being there merely for their looks or sex appeal; they were people with their own personalities, their own issues/back stories and their own quirks.  Seeing women portrayed like this was pretty groundbreaking.  The message was clear:  Any girl can do anything.  I can't thank Joss Whedon enough for that.

Happy birthday, Buffy.  I more than kind of love you.

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