Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Complete Series (1997-2003) was TV’s most unlikely pop-culture phenomenon since The X-Files. It is a series with humble beginnings (the movie, starring Kristy Swanson, was a minor cult hit and a critical failure), a tongue-in-cheek title, and a premise that reads like a comic book. So how did a snappy fantasy about vampires, demons, and a high school cheerleader born to dispatch them between homework assignments evolve? How did Buffy move from a whip-smart collision of hormonal turmoil, supernatural soap opera, apocalyptic adventure, and tongue-in-cheek humor to the most human exploration of death, grief, sacrifice, and self-actualization on TV at the turn of the 20th century?
Creator Joss Whedon’s inspired mix of horror movie revisionism, pop culture vamping, and wrenching tragedy uses the exaggerated trials of its teenage vampire hunters (Buffy and her friends, aka “the Scooby Gang”) as a metaphor for the same everyday troubles of its young (and not-so-young) audience. But a metaphor is only as good as the writing behind it, and Buffy is smartly written and dramatically inventive, using the fantastic to explore the hard choices and journeys made by human behind the hero. More than simply acrobatic butt-kicking by a delectable action babe, Buffy became a mythology for the modern media age, a celebration of female empowerment and friendship with a supernatural setting and pop-culture flair. This metaphor has a vibrant life all its own.
The show lasted an epic seven seasons on TV, limning an arc that charted the evolution of its characters (not just Buffy but her friends and even a few enemies) from high school teenager to independent young adult. Here is a guide to this unlikely hero’s journey through the years.
Picking up practically from where the movie left off, the first episode finds Buffy (a then-unknown Sarah Michelle Gellar) relocating to Sunnydale, a sleepy little SoCal town that just happens to be built on a fast-track to the underworld known as the Hellmouth. With her crisply British “Watcher” Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) as trainer, taskmaster, and increasingly paternal guardian, and new friends Xander (Nicholas Brendon), the jovial class clown, and Willow (Alyson Hannigan), the delightfully nerdy school brain, she begins the unending battle against the supernatural menaces that infest the town like vermin, drawn to the evil of the Hellmouth like vampires to a virgin throat. Never happy with the movie (a victim of studio interference), Joss Whedon got a rare opportunity at a creative second chance and relaunched his vision as a hip, youth-skewing series for the fledgling WB network. Debuting as a mid-season replacement with a complement of 12 episodes, it launched almost fully conceived. Sure, characters grew and relationships shifted (like Xander’s initial school-boy crush on Buffy), but while this is decidedly more lighthearted than later seasons, the essential mix of supernatural weirdness, sharp writing, snappy dialogue, and high school heroes saving the world from evil on a weekly basis is fully formed from episode one.
Episodes to remember:
Angel (David Boreanaz), the brooding vampire with a soul, debuts in the second episode “The Harvest” (originally the second half of a two-hour pilot) and reveals his cruel dark side in “Angel” (Ep. 7). Buffy faces death, literally, in the season finale “Prophecy Girl” (Ep. 12). On a lighter note, Buffy, Willow, and Xander massacre a scene from “Oedipus Rex” in the hilarious coda to “The Puppet Show” (Ep. 9).
Buffy and the Scooby Gang returned for their junior year with a full season’s compliment of episodes of vampires, demons, homework, and the usual teenage melodrama surrounding a butt-kicking heroine in love with a centuries old bloodsucker. It takes the promise of the first season and ups the stakes with an uncompromising level of dramatic bloodletting, beginning with the devastating transformation of Angel in the two-parter “Surprise”/“Innocence.” Here, a dreamy romance transforms into a harrowing nightmare when true bliss revives Angel’s repressed vampire alter-ego, the casually cruel Angelus. Amidst this adolescent symphony of guilt, obsession, and emotional sucker punches, however, are some lighter notes: Willow gets an admirer in Oz (Seth Green), a rock band guitarist with an annoying hair problem during the full moon; Xander finds true lust with snotty high school queen Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter); and vampire lovers Spike (a platinum blonde James Marsters, keeping the image of Billy Idol alive… in an undead sort of way) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau) blow into Sunnydale with destruction on their evil little minds.
Episodes to remember:
The devastating two-parter “Surprise”/“Innocence,” surely most harrowing consequences of pre-marital sex a teen ever had to confront, is a brilliant example of the show’s balance between the mythic and the mortal (eps 13 & 14). Also, John Ritter is chilling as a perfectionist who dates Buffy’s mom and starts to transform her life in “Ted” (Ep. 11). Willow begins to study magic in the two-part season finale “Becoming,” where Buffy slips back in the darkness with a sacrifice that will haunt her through the next season (Eps. 21 & 22).
There’s a new slayer in town, but wild-child Faith (Eliza Dushku) is only one of the latest complications in the life of Buffy, now in her senior year of high school. Also new on the scene are a demonic Mayor (Harry Groener) with a wholesome “Father Knows Best” sense of decorum and social niceties; the prim, proper, and utterly ineffectual new watcher Wesley (Alexis Denisof) sent to replace the increasingly independent and protective Giles, and the introduction of vengeance demon Anyanka (Emma Caulfield). More importantly to Buffy is the painful rebirth of the soulful vampire Angel, who has been to hell and back—literally. For all of the tongue-in-cheekiness of the show, there is nothing comic in the touching paternal bond that grows between the Mayor and Faith as her impulsive, violent ways draw her from the light to the dark. And don’t worry, Whedon pulls out another apocalyptic climax… and this one is for every viewer who remembers the misery of high school. Many fans consider this season—the last to co-star Angel (he left for his own spin-off series)—to be the best of the series.
Episodes to remember:
Anyanka turns Sunnydale into a demonic bizarro-world lorded over by evil vampire Willow when Cordelia rashly makes “The Wish” (Ep. 9). Then, evil Willow—leather and all—gets an encore in “Dopplegangland” (Ep. 16). Buffy gets a taste of the wild side in “Bad Girls” (Ep. 14) and then takes on Faith and the Mayor in the two-part finale “Graduation Day” (Eps. 21 & 22).
Buffy and most of the Scooby Gang go to college and discover the next generation of demon fighters: the Initiative, a platoon of monster-hunting Marines located in the basement of Sunnydale College. While Buffy falls for its boyish platoon leader Riley (Marc Blucas), Willow discovers feelings she never knew she had, Xander skips college, gets a job and falls in love (with a former demon, no less), and a now-returned Spike gets the chip on his shoulder replaced by a chip in his head. Lindsay Crouse guest stars as an imperious psychology prof who secretly masterminds the gruesome (and decidedly unethical) experiments on captured demons in a mix of Nazi medical torture and a modern twist on Frankenstein. In this case, it’s Adam, an Initiative super-soldier that goes AWOL in a big way. It’s the weakest season, in my opinion, which means it’s merely smart and engaging, but it also contains one of the most memorable and best loved episodes, the Joss Whedon-penned and directed “Hush,” an episode that is silent for half its running time, and even reveals the wicked past and even more wicked nickname of lovable old Giles: “Ripper.”
Episodes to remember:
Cadaverous killers, The Gentlemen, float through Sunnydale quieting voices and stealing hearts in “Hush,” one of the most inventive and eerie episodes of the series (Ep. 10). Faith returns in “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You” (Eps. 15 & 16) and the Scooby Gang dream of things strange, wonderful, and cheese-y in the season coda “Restless” (Ep. 22).
Dracula takes on the Slayer in the season opener, but the kicker of the episode is the introduction of Buffy’s little sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). The network pushed Whedon to open the show up to a younger demographic, but he turns the abrupt, inexplicable appearance of a new member of the Summers clan it into an ingenious opportunity. While Buffy takes on Glory (Clare Kramer)—her most powerful “Big Bad” (that’s Buffy-speak for really nasty nemesis) yet—and Spike the now-harmless vampire with a chip in his head, finds himself playing big brother to an identity-rattled Dawn and discovering feelings for Buffy that the undead aren’t supposed to have. Less dramatic but more central to the backbone of Whedon’s vision, however, is the growth of Xander (Nicholas Brendan), the “useless” member of the gang who finds his calling and his heart this season, and establishes himself, quite subtly, as the emotional equilibrium of the Scooby Gang and the entire series. While never losing his boyish goofiness, Xander becomes a man.
Episodes to remember:
Xander confronts himself, literally, when he’s split in two in “The Replacement” (Ep. 3). Buffy makes the ultimate sacrifice in “The Gift” (Ep. 22). However the season will be best remembered for “The Body” (written and directed by Whedon), which brings the reality of human mortality into clear and profound focus with an affecting exploration of death and grief (Ep. 16).
The strangest and, in some ways, the most fascinating season is a time of transitions and painful transformations… and not of the supernatural variety. As the Scooby Gang grows up, it also acts out. Brought back from the dead in a botched ceremony by Willow, a disoriented Buffy tries to lose her misery in a purely physical affair with the vampire bad-boy Spike. Willow becomes a magic junkie, Xander struggles with self-doubt, and Dawn resorts to petty crime and attention-getting antics. The crises are only amplified when a trio of tech-geeks, who dabble in the dark arts, decide to form a super villain team aimed at tormenting Buffy. It’s a game that turns dark and deadly. Apocalyptic endings are nothing new to the Buffy-verse, but the dimension of grief and rage that erupts in the final episodes here gives it an all too human grounding.
Episodes to remember:
True to the tone of the season, even the dazzling musical episode “Once More, With Feeling” (yes, the cast really sings songs penned by Whedon) is sown with misgivings and frustrations (Ep. 7). And true to the musical theater tradition, unspoken feelings are finally find voice in song. Everyone gets amnesia in the comic “Tabula Rasa” when a spell goes wrong (Ep. 8). Buffy gets a glimpse of a normal life in the poignant “Normal Again” (Ep. 17). Spike’s obsessive love for Buffy takes a terrible turn in the uncompromising episode “Seeing Red” (Ep. 19), which ends on another traumatic mortal death and proves again Whedon is never afraid to kill off an important character.
The final season of Buffy comes to a brilliant, ambitious, and satisfying end. As the Scooby Gang tentatively tries to put itself back together after the traumas of season six, the First—a shape-shifting form who may or may not be Satan but is most definitely the source of evil in the universe—declares war on Buffy and all the slayers of the world. The trembling potential slayers of the world travel to Sunnydale and turn Buffy’s house into a permanent slumber party. Meanwhile, Spike returns with a soul and a soul-crushing guilt that drives him stark raving loony, and renegade slayer Faith appears to redeem her past sins. Meanwhile Xander, the sole mortal human among the supernaturally enhanced fighters, again proves himself the heart and soul of the group. Joss Whedon and his collaborators enrich and deepen the slayer mythology in its final season with a level of feminist commentary, sexual politics, and mythological resonance and reclamation that resonates long after the final episode is over.
Episodes to remember:
The First taunts the heroes in the guise of casualties and lost loves of past seasons in “Conversations with Dead People” (Ep. 7). Dawn and Xander bond in “Potential” (Ep. 12). Faith arrives in “Dirty Girls” (Ep. 18), along with the First’s hateful, viciously misogynist henchman Caleb (Nathan Fillion, fresh from Whedon’s acclaimed but cancelled Firefly). And, finally, “Chosen” (Ep. 22) ends the series with the ultimate expression of empowerment.
A final note
While Whedon has nurtured the careers of actors and writers who have gone on to very successful careers (the Buffy writing staff alone included Jane Espenson, Marti Noxon, Steven S. DeKnight, David Greenwalt, and Drew Goddard, all who have gone on to become celebrated producers, showrunners, and screenwriters in their own right), recent events have revealed that Whedon also created a toxic work environment and has a history of bullying and mistreating members of his casts. (A thorough investigation was presented by Variety, which you can read here.) It is possible to acknowledge and condemn his treatment of actors Charisma Carpenter, Amber Benson, Michelle Trachtenberg, Nicholas Brendon, and others and also celebrate his creation. Because while it’s true that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is Joss Whedon’s vision, it is also the result of collaboration with a cast of talented performers and a team of writers, producers, story editors, and crew members. The show stands a testament to all of their contributions.
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Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Complete Series [DVD]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season One [DVD]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Two [DVD]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Three [DVD]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Four [DVD]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Five [DVD]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Six [DVD]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Seven [DVD]