Time for another exhumation of a long-dead TV series, and yes, I’m aware of the inherent punny-ness of doing an “exhumation” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was not one of those that watched the show during its seven season run (1997-2003); I was unaware of it at first, and at any rate, it was on WB and then UPN, neither of which were networks I received at the time. Since some of the circles I hang out in consist of genre fans, I’ve occasionally been asked to “turn in my geek card” for not having seen the show. So I decided to humor people and find out what all the fuss was about.
Picking up just after and slightly acknowledging the movie of the same name, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was written and produced by Joss Whedon, who was reportedly displeased with the film. I haven’t seen the film, maybe he had his reasons, I don’t know. It starred Sarah Michelle Gellar in the title role, and sent Buffy to the town of Sunnydale, California, which sits atop a “Hellmouth”, a source of malevolent energy that attracts vampires and other demons. This, of course, provides the fodder for the show to have a different threat every week.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to find ways to watch the series. Hulu had the first three seasons up in rotation (one season at a time), and that’s how I watched them for a while (starting long before this blog was born; hey, I’m not above taking advantage of good blog fodder even if it starts pre-blog.) From the fourth season on, it was a bit more dependent on finding the episodes to watch elsewhere (hello, Chiller channel), but although it may have taken a while, I did indeed manage to finish all seven seasons.
Suffice to say that if the show sucked, I wouldn’t have done so. Mind you, season six might have made me quit if I hadn’t been so near to the end by that point anyway. But I gather I’m not the only one who isn’t a fan of that season.
For the most part, Buffy follows a “monster of the week” format, with a gradual advancement of a season-long story arc running as a b-plot for most of the episodes. And it quickly launches into different threats and enemies than just vampires; this is a good thing, as although she’s the “vampire slayer”, the show would have been unlikely to have had the legs to go seven seasons on just vampires alone.
Another smart move is that a large part of the writing is devoted to the development of the characters… Buffy and her friends don’t just fight monsters, they struggle with school, dating, and life in general. There’s an effort to make them behave like real people in an unreal situation rather than just be two-dimensional action stars. Indeed, other than the super-powered Buffy herself, most of her gang are just ordinary people fighting the good fight. The core trio of Buffy, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and Xander (Nicholas Brendon) remain a constant through all seven seasons, and the camaraderie within the group works well, with characters playing off each other naturally and trading witty one-liners. Importantly, no character is portrayed as always being right, or always having the answers; also, no character is portrayed as always being wrong, or useless to the team. Even when Xander finds himself outpaced by the rest of the team in later seasons, he’s still helpful in keeping the others grounded.
Anthony Head plays Buffy’s mentor Rupert Giles, and brings a lot to the table, being the most experienced actor on the crew. Even in the early seasons where the acting is still a little rough for some of the young adults, his presence keeps the scene from going too far awry. The character himself is also fairly important to the show, not just as the guy who knows the most about the demons and vampires, but also as the designated father figure for Buffy and sometimes the others. When he’s absent from the show, the writers take advantage of the absence of a level head to let the characters make some stupid decisions… and the problem is, they really are pretty stupid decisions, even by the standards of twenty-somethings. It hurts the credibility of the show that the earlier seasons worked so hard at building.
David Boreanaz appears in the first three seasons as Angel, a vampire who has been cursed to have his soul restored. In the show’s universe, a vampire is a particular type of demon that inhabits a body after it has been killed by a vampire and takes over. The soul of the human it was is gone; as Giles says early in the first season, “That is not your friend, that is the thing that killed your friend.” Angel is different, as a group of gypsies whose loved one he had killed cursed him to regain his soul. As a result, he has a conscience again, and is tormented by the killings he had committed while soulless.
While I like Boreanaz as an actor, I do have some problems with Angel. First is that whole “vampire romance” thing, which almost immediately begins with Buffy. I realize the genre wasn’t as ubiquitous back then as it is now, but even with the earlier Interview with the Vampire, I felt it was a bit silly to romanticize this killing thing that wants to eat you. (I’m glad the show had Xander reminding people of this little detail, as otherwise it would have strained credulity to just have everyone approving.) The second issue I have is just a personal sense of fatigue about the whole 1990s “angsty hero” thing, and that was such a large part of Angel’s character that even in his own spin-off show, the other characters sometimes pointed out how much of his personality was based on brooding. He’s an interesting character otherwise, but that forms such a large part of him, he gets kind of tiresome. (I did try and watch the spin-off, Angel as well, but the brooding got even more irritating there, and some of the plots were pretty bad… I quit about halfway through the third season.)
Another problem I had is just with the nature of the curse itself. The gypsies want to punish the vampire Angelus, so they give him his soul back. Thus, the soul of Liam, the person he was before, is tormented by guilt over the things Angelus did. But the premise of how the show’s vampires work is that the demon is a separate entity from the soul of the person. We can debate the morality of Liam being turned into a vampire, and whether he really understood what he was doing, but regardless, it wasn’t Liam’s soul doing all the killing. The demon’s only punishment is being shackled… and that’s rather less-than-permanent thanks to the world’s worst curse loophole. If Angel ever experiences true happiness, his soul returns to the afterlife. So in order to get revenge on a homicidal demon, they torture a soul that didn’t commit the killings, the demon continues to have fun by tormenting said soul with the memories of the killings (it has no regrets, and the show explicitly states it does taunt Angel this way), and if the soul stops feeling tormented by it, the demon is freed to continue its murderous rampages. I’m hard pressed to think of a dumber curse that could be inflicted.
But for all the problems with Angel himself, arguably the worst is what happened when the show didn’t have him available any more. Because then the writers decided that if Buffy couldn’t have a romance with one vampire, she’d have it with another. Spike (James Marsters), a bad guy in the beginning, was first given a chip in his head, then given romantic feelings for Buffy (somehow the written rule that vampires lack human feelings never applied to Spike), and then eventually regains his own soul voluntarily. This was all twice as angsty as the Buffy-Angel relationship, in addition to being repetitive… and a lot harder to excuse as early on, there wasn’t any possible argument that Spike was a “good guy”. He crossed the “stake him” line several times before regaining his soul, but essentially had a get of jail free card so that the writers could still have a Slayer-Vampire romance.
While the latter seasons still had their watchable episodes, I have to say the show was wearing thin on me by that point. Season six had a whole mess of annoying things other than the Spike-Buffy relationship, but the biggest was the “magic addiction” the writers gave Willow. Never mind that magic wasn’t shown as addictive in the first five seasons, never mind that other characters have used and were still using magic without becoming addicted, it’s addictive for Willow because… because… well, they apparently didn’t know, and neither do I. It’s essentially a failure on the part of the season six writers to grasp how drama works. You don’t throw in difficult plot elements solely to create drama, you let drama develop naturally out of the elements that are already there. And when something like that is thrown in there for one and only one character after five years of various characters using magic, it looks very transparent as an attempt to create angst for the sake of angst.
Seasons one through three were the best ones of the series, for me. In some ways, I think I probably should have just stopped there. It had its dramatic elements, but it remembered to not take itself too seriously. It still had a definite sense of “fun”, and the further the show went on, the less that was really present. (The musical episode excluded. That was great.) It was still enjoyable all the way through, but it was only really a great show for the first few seasons. (And I’d even argue a bit against season 2.) I’d almost go so far as to say that it had the “Star Trek curse”, only for seasons instead of movies; the odd-numbered seasons tended to be stronger than the even-numbered ones. Except, of course, season 7 just seemed rather lackluster to me. I found “The First Evil” to be rather too nebulous to be interesting, and the conclusion, complete with victory by magic solar talisman out of nowhere, to be a bit of a cheat.
Still, although I had a lot of issues with the show — and I’m aware that I’ve spoken more about the flaws of the show than its strong points — it was a fun show (and, after all, if it can get me arguing about some of the points, it has to have some value or I just wouldn’t care). It had a sense of humor that is all too often lacking in genre TV shows, and had interesting, mostly well-rounded characters. The special effects started out a bit dodgy, but the concepts behind the monsters were almost always interesting. It might have been better ended after Buffy’s graduation from high school, but it was a good show.