TV Top Fives: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I only started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer about a year ago, and it quickly climbed my list of favorites. It’s now not only comfortably seated in the top five, but may even be overtaking such past favorites as Alias and Veronica Mars.

In the past, I had the same problem with Buffy that I’ve always had with sci-fi shows: where in the case of Battlestar Galactica, I resisted it due to its being set in space (and seriously, no one can deny that the show is, in fact, set in space), with Buffy, I simply thought to myself the title says it all. It’s about a so called slayer of vampires who is named Buffy. What of interest could it possibly hold for me, a serious-minded sort whose taste is nothing if not discriminating (um, of course). I knew several Buffy People: people who were so obsessed with the show and so cultish with their obsession as to come off like complete and total freaks. They were worse than Trekkies, I thought to myself. Good thing I’m not like that at all, right?

Knowing how much I liked shows like Alias and Veronica Mars, though, my friend Suomichris convinced me to check out the show. It turns out, as we all know by now, that in spite of my misgivings, Buffy had a certain magical something that caused me to be almost instantly addicted. Almost. For the first half of the first season, I was still fairly skeptical. By the end of Season One and the beginning of Season Two, though, I knew that Whedon and his army of badly-dressed high schoolers and kitschy-sexy vampires had me by the short hairs and they weren’t letting go.

Yes, the fashion is bad; yes, the makeup and effects are bad, too. Well, if not bad then at least quite definitely dated. No, I take it back: on the fashion front, things are just bad. Poor Willow especially gets dealt some unfortunate blows in the form of several truly hideous sweaters.

Even while assaulting our eyes with anti-fashion, however, the show nonetheless presents a feast for the senses. There are monsters galore, from vampires of every stripe (some sexy, of course, others decidedly not so) to various demons and creatures in general. There’s fighting, explosions, blood, goo, and quick-quipping dialogue. Every night at The Bronze, the bar/coffee house where the kids hang out, there’s usually also really good music contributed by 90s indie musicians making guest appearances (Cibo Matto, Aimee Mann, K’s Choice), and the soundtrack features great bands, too (The Sundays, Sarah McLachlan, Garbage, Guided by Voices, Rasputina).

Beyond all that, of course, there is just plain good storytelling. Joss Whedon often claims in interviews that the character of Buffy came out of his effort to take the clichéd blonde helpless girl in the alley who gets killed in every horror film and empower her. And it worked:

See? There she is holding some sort of mystical orb of empowerment! (Not really. Really, I know exactly what that orb is, but I am not going to tell you, just in case there is someone reading this post who has yet to see the show. If you’re out there, non-Buffy-watching reader, I suggest you get thee to a video rental establishment posthaste! It is for you that I do not discuss the spoilers, even though the very idea of “spoilers” for a show that ended five years ago is completely ludicrous! ALL FOR YOU!)

Anyway, where was I? Right, the orb of empowerment. Well, really, what empowers Buffy is not that she has any kind of orb or that she comes from a line of mystical warriors, but that she has the circle of friends and familiars who help her wage the constant battle of good versus evil. The characters surrounding Buffy make the show as amazing as it is. There’s Giles:

Sensitive, Intellectual, hot, British Giles. As Buffy’s watcher, he has to guide her through her various challenges, and their relationship is one of the most touching on the show. Bonus: Anthony Stewart Head is a great singer and gets to exercise his chops on the show a few times. Yay! Also, he can exercise his chops on me any time, if you know what I mean and I think that you do.

Of course, there is the lovely, lovely Angel, who graces the show with his lovely, attractive presence for the first three years before spinning off onto his own show.

The relationship between him and Buffy in those three seasons provides a lot of momentum for the series — I can tell you that it kept me eagerly “tuning in” (or, um, renting/downloading episodes, since I started watching this thing 10 years after it aired!) to see what would happen next. Boreanaz is naturally great at playing the brooding, dark, mysterious type, but as you already know if you’ve seen him lately on Bones, he’s also great at the quirky comedy, which he occasionally gets to do here.

And when one thinks of Angel, one necessarily also must think of Spike. Oh, Spike. I do love you so. This is, I have gathered from my perusal of the TWOP recaps, a controversial point. A lot of people, again, I gather, really, really hated Spike. I have to question such people’s sanity. I mean, have they not seen the man’s cheekbones?

The scene depicted above, by the way, is one of my favorites in the entire series. It’s set on the NYC subway in 1977, and it’s an epic battle between Spike and the then-slayer, Nikki, cross cut with a conversation between present-day Spike and Buffy. It’s effing brilliant, the way they filmed and edited it. BRILLIANT I SAY. Anyway, Spike is a fun character, supplying everything from comedy to villainy to love interest, and always with the cheekbones.

Below you can see him and his Special Ladyfriend, the crazy Drusilla:

Standing between them is a chaos demon, described by Spike as “all slime and antlers,” with whom Dru is cheating on Spike. See? Inter-species nooky as well! With antlers! And goo!

In the sixth season, a season roundly despised by TWOPpers and fans alike (again, unfathomable to me), each of the characters begins to be faced with his or her dark side, and things in the normally perky gang of demon fighters start to get a bit bumpy.

And veiny, as above. The relationships and transformations explored in this season are some of my favorite things that happen on the entire show. Again, many (if not most) fans despise this season and the seventh one, but I think it seems natural and right that the characters should go through the things they do. Since the show covers their lives from sophomore year in high school onward, this year would be just about the right time for certain coming-of-age crises and realizations to happen. Willow, above, has to face the extent of her own dark power — and I don’t just mean the dark power of a bottle of Feria, although, again, not a flattering look, sweetie.

Buffy, Giles, Spike, Xander, Anya, and the others all go through some major things of their own, which (again) I’ll refrain from detailing here. It’s my impression that a lot of the fans who think the show went downhill in these later seasons believe that the friend characters (Willow and Xander, mainly) got short shrift in favor of bigger relationships between Buffy and Spike, or in favor of the appearance of Dawn, for example. I just don’t think this is true.

One thing that remains constant throughout the show is that the relationships established in the first season among Buffy, Giles, Willow, and Xander remain the very core of the show. Xander, although he is one character who doesn’t have any mystical power or demon-fighting skill, still manages to be one of the strongest and most important characters on the show.

And not just because of the hard hat! Some of his scenes in seasons six and seven are among the most touching and poignant on the series.

The storytelling in the first season or so is more simple: we have a crew of fighters for good, and they’re faced with an army of evil in the form of vampires and demons. Their job is simple: defeat evil. As the show goes on, though, the stories become more complex, and the firm line between good and evil begins, naturally, to blur. It’s these complexities that make the show so powerful. While I appreciate the charm of the earlier seasons, there’s no way that it could have maintained any momentum for seven years without growing deeper and more nuanced. For it to have any real emotional effect, the characters must grow up, and as they grow up, so must their stories. That’s one thing that Joss Whedon and the writers on this show always manage to accomplish: they create a bizarre and imaginative fantasy world in which the people, the stories, and the emotions are nothing short of real.

7 thoughts on “TV Top Fives: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

  1. TimT June 17, 2008 / 6:45 pm

    That scene where evil Willow drains all the magic out of the books and magic and becomes black and her eyes turn black with words running in and out of them? I love that scene.

  2. clarabella June 17, 2008 / 6:48 pm

    You know, I didn’t throw in my two cents in the 75% debate, but I wouldn’t consider you and I 75% friends. However, even if we labeled ourselves 99% friends, this would be the 1% where we are polar opposite. I don’t enjoy Buffy all that much, though I’ve seen, collectively, though not consecutively, probably about four seasons from times when there was nothing else I wanted to vegetate in front of one the TV. I find absolutely nothing attractive about Boreanz. I know you know this and think I’m insane for it, but there it is. I hope this isn’t a deal-breaker for us.
    However, I am pretty much in love with everything else Joss Whedon has written (I’m thinking about a certain show named after an insect and a certain Captain of Complete Yumminess), and I am with you 100% on Spike. Good God, the cheekbones. And the rest of that man is pretty beautiful too.

  3. Alfina the Vague June 18, 2008 / 12:46 am

    Tim – AGREED! I love that scene, and all the mayhem that ensues. It’s great to see someone like Willow go through all that.

    Clarabella – Well, since we are 99% friends, I will “forgive” you! (As if you needed that assurance!) But seriously, on Whedon shows I think we are more 75% in agreement. For me, Firefly is an “admittedly good” show: I like it well enough and definitely enjoyed watching it, but I never found it as compelling as Buffy/Angel. Mostly, I wanted more over-arching stories, which I think they could have developed if given the chance, and I also severely disliked River as a character and a concept. But still, admittedly good. Buffy, on the other hand, is like sublime TV enjoyment for me. Love. I almost want to tell you to watch the whole series, in order, again…but…then I’d be like all those people telling me to watch The Wire — too much pressure, either to enjoy or to have some intelligent reason not to enjoy. Anyway, I am mostly glad you appreciate the cutting cheekbones of my boyfriend, Spike.

  4. Molly June 19, 2008 / 7:19 am

    I too watched Buffy (and Angel) ten years after it aired, watched it obsessively, one disc after another after another. It has overtaken Alias on my favorites list, though not my beloved Veronica Mars. I went into it knowing crucial plot developments in advance (Buffy fans talk about the show so much it was impossible to remain unspoiled–though I don’t think Angel is as good a show as Buffy, it had for me the huge advantage that I didn’t already know what was going to happen) and that the later seasons were universally considered inferior (this made them a delightful surprise–when Spike became a regular, I actually became more addicted). As any Buffy watcher would, I’d love to go on and on, but my thoughts can pretty much be summed up with, “What you said!”

    Except I have to agree with the conventional wisdom about Season 7. I thought TWOP et al. were crazy with their complaints about Season 4, Season 5, Spike (Spike! How could they!), so confidently expected to love the show till the end. But when the assortment of potential slayers assembled to whine and complain, they annoyed me so much I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch the last season again. Buffy got pretty mean too (a common complaint), but I can’t blame her, having to deal with those awful slayers-to-be.

  5. Alfina the Vague June 19, 2008 / 7:42 pm

    Molly – I will give you the annoyingness of the potential slayers, for sure! Argh! Somehow, though, they really didn’t interfere with my overall enjoyment of the season. I was too caught up in all the other stories. And the thing they did in the finale with those girls was basically worth it (for me, anyway).

    Also, I am re-watching all of VM now that I have all the seasons. It’s still so good!

  6. Molly June 22, 2008 / 8:11 pm

    I re-watched VM recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. Having listened to so many complaints about the third season I half believed it would disappoint me, so I was glad I still loved it, though it made me sad all over again about its cancellation.

    Maybe I will have to re-watch Buffy S7 eventually and focus on the good parts that my blinding frustration with the potentials, um, blinded me to. (Another related annoyance: Oz was one of my all-time favorite characters and Tara was OK, so I hated Willow ending the series with an obnoxious girl whose name I can’t remember with no apparent compatability other than sexual preference. I’ll stop complaining now; I don’t want to focus on the few things I disliked when for each there are dozens of things I liked.)

    I’ve been watching The Wire–had just started when you posted on it a while back. I find it good, but not addictively so. Once again, I pretty much agree with what you said. I think I must read your blog mainly for affirmation of my own taste; I always suspected I had great taste, and my suspicion is confirmed by seeing my favorites praised wittily and well.

  7. ruby June 25, 2008 / 3:35 pm

    I caught episodes here and there for the first three seasons, and my sister bugged the hell out of me about it. Then there was a huge turning point. “Hush.”

    You’ve seen it. It’s what made me one of those dorky Buffy fans. I just wish someone had killed Riley. He was irritating as hell. Oh well.

    Hubby has acquired all the DVDs…one day we will make it through the whole shooting match. Until then::

    http://doctorhorrible.net/ for the forthcoming Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Featuring Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan “Cap’n Tightpants” Fillion. Can’t wait.

    and Dollhouse is coming soon to Fox, so Whedon will be keeping us busy.

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