Tuesday, May 3, 2011

TV – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)

What is the main thing that keeps some people from watching one of the best shows to ever appear on television?  The title.  People will be interested in the show when I start talking it up, but when I tell them the title is Buffy the Vampire Slayer they get these funny looks on their faces and you can see them rejecting it. 

Entertainment Weekly named this show the best one on television when it completed its third season.  In my opinion it is one of the very best I have ever watched.  I would put the year and a half stretch from midway through its second season, to the end of its third season, up against any season and a half from any other show that has ever been on television – MASH, ER, Friends, anybody.  It was that good.

It was also highly influential.  Without this show there would have been no Lost, no Alias, no Gilmore Girls, no Big Bang Theory, and many others.  Aside from Joss Whedon, the creative people from Buffy went on to play major roles in writing and producing Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, Prison Break, Battlestar Galactica, Gilmore Girls, Lost, 24, Pushing Daisies, CSI, Eureka, Dexter, The O.C., Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Alias, Cloverfield (2008), That ‘70s Show, Desperate Housewives, Nikita, and Smallville.

So how does a mid-season replacement on a fledgling TV network (The WB) that is based on an okay, but flawed movie, that stars a former soap opera child actress (Sarah Michelle Gellar), another former child star with such movies as My Stepmother is an Alien on her resume (Alyson Hannigan), an actor who hadn’t been in much of anything before (Nicholas Brendon), and Anthony Stewart Head - a British actor best known to American audiences for a series of Taster’s Choice coffee advertisements where he had a budding romance going on with a female neighbor – become one of the best shows to have ever been on television?  (Try repeating that sentence out loud without taking a breath.)

First, it had great creative minds.  This is the first show I can recall where the writers were actually as well known to the fans as the actors and actresses. 

Second, it had a talented cast.  Gellar had won a daytime Emmy.  Head was a veteran of stage and screen in the U.K.  Hannigan was a talented actress who would go on to the American Pie movies and the TV series How I Met Your Mother.  Brendon showed excellent comic timing and played the everyman to perfection. 

Third, the network gave it time to build an audience.  Word of mouth was the way that the popularity of the show spread.  By the second season, when it went from very good to great, it had enough fans that its momentum would carry it for a total of seven seasons.

So what is it about?  Well, one of the reasons that Joss Whedon says he kept the title is that he felt it conveyed to people what to expect – humor, action, and danger.  What it doesn’t convey is the level of drama that would also come from it.  MASH is about the only other show I can think of that also perfectly balanced humor and drama on TV.  Yes, I am placing it on the same level as MASH. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or BtVS as fans call it) had episodes that would have me laughing so hard my chest would hurt.  It also had episodes that made me shed tears.  The episode that I consider to be the very best of the 144 that were produced (the second season finale) literally had me laughing out loud at one point and crying ten minutes later.  There have been very, very few episodes of any TV show that have ever made me cry.  The finale of MASH is one.  (Yes, another MASH comparison.)

The spark for the story came when Whedon was watching a horror movie and saw yet another pretty blond girl getting killed by something evil.  He felt sorry for the girl and all of a sudden he pictured a scene where something bad followed a pretty blond girl into a dark alley – and got the snot kicked out of it by the girl.  That was the genesis for Buffy.

He wrote a screenplay that got turned into a 1992 movie of the same name.  He didn’t have any say in what made it to the screen, though, and the movie was pretty much taken away from him.  He has sort of disowned it.  It has a few funny scenes in it, and it’s not a complete waste of time, but it’s not good enough for me to recommend that you see it.

Whedon got a chance to get it right when he was given the go ahead for the TV show.  He took the main character of Buffy, transplanted her to the small town of Sunnydale outside of Los Angeles, and surrounded her with a great cast of characters.

She arrives in town hoping to start over.  By birthright she is a vampire slayer, the only one in the world.  She has kept the secret from everyone, including her mother.  When she gets to the town, though, she finds that the new school librarian Mr. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) seems to know who she is, two new friends almost immediately get caught up in her dangerous life (Hannigan as Willow and Brendon as Xander), and a tall, dark, handsome, mysterious stranger (David Boreanaz as Angel) seems to want to help her and also knows what she is.  She also has to contend with the Queen Bee of her high school – Cordelia, played by Charisma Carpenter.

The first season is twelve episodes long.  It is a little uneven, but has some episodes that are great.  You should definitely watch this show from the beginning.  Long before Lost ever was thought of BtVS was already doing season-long narratives.  Unlike Lost, BtVS wrapped up the story at the end of each season.  The back stories of the characters carried throughout the series, though, which is why it is important to start at the beginning.

Seasons two, three and four are when the show was at its creative height.  The writers and the actors had figured out the characters and everything was running on all cylinders.  Season five took things more serious.  Season six was almost two different pieces: the first piece was great and included the landmark musical episode (more on that in a bit.)  The second part took a direction that I thought was a mistake.  It didn’t make it bad, but it was a little frustrating for me.  The seventh and final season was a good, solid season, and it wrapped the show up well.  After the third season, Joss Whedon spun off another show – Angel – that took the characters of Angel and Cordelia and put them in Los Angeles.  Please see my separate post for more on that.

As I mentioned in the Joss Whedon introduction post, “Joss is known for his strong female characters, witty dialogue, characters that grow and change, and for not shying away from taking risks with his plots.”

None of his characters are stronger than Buffy.  She is the most fully realized of all of his creations. 

Long before everybody and their brother were tossing in pop culture references on their shows, BtVS was doing it.  Whedon also coined a lot of terms on the show that became pop culture references for other TV shows – a nod to the debt they owed BtVS.  The other writers on the show copied Whedon’s style for their own scripts.  They would say, though, that when a fan would tell them their favorite line from an episode they wrote that it would invariably turn out to be one that Whedon inserted himself. 

The characters on the show went through huge changes.  By the end of the show they were far different from the people they started out as.  There were also losses of characters on the show.  Both of these things were almost unheard of on television at the time and were big risks.  Lost ended up almost as a parody where it was announced long beforehand when they were going to kill a character off.  BtVS didn’t do that.  You never knew when something big was going to happen.  I couldn’t count the number of “Oh my God!” moments I had while watching the show, and they were not usually from characters dying, but from things happening that I simply did not expect.

The show is eminently quotable.  There have literally been books published that are nothing but collections of quotes from the series, grouped into categories.  Whedon became so well known for his dialogue that he actually started getting some criticism for it from other TV shows.  (The concept that witty, intelligent dialogue is somehow wrong blows my mind, but I suppose when your show is being negatively compared to BtVS it must hurt.)  Whedon decided to answer critics in the fourth season by writing an episode almost entirely devoid of dialogue.  He ended up getting an Emmy nomination for it.

If it weren’t for his assistant forgetting to submit the paperwork, he would have likely won an Emmy for his musical episode in the sixth season.  He was close with his cast and many of them would get together at his house to sing songs and have a good time.  He finally decided to do a musical episode, but in typical Whedon style it would not just be a one-off then back to the regularly scheduled programming.  No, this episode was hugely important to the plot and to the entirety of season six.  The songs were perfectly matched to who the characters were.  And every single one of them was an original song written by Joss Whedon.  They were in many different styles, too.  There was a ballad, a love song, a rock song, a show tune, etc.  Most of the cast turned out to have decent voices and a couple of them had great voices.  The episode proved to be so popular that its songs were released as an album (long before Glee was doing it), and it got turned into a stage play.

Ultimately, if you want to boil down the series into one sentence, it is that the bad things that Buffy and her friends face are a metaphor for the challenges that we all face in life.  An example: a teenage boy having to deal with becoming a werewolf is a metaphor for the fact that he’s “going through changes” now that he’s a teen.

BtVS was one of the very first TV shows to come out on DVD, too.  The high sales it achieved showed that there was an audience that would purchase TV shows they liked and this became an important revenue stream for TV production companies.  Now, every TV show gets released on DVD.

I urge you to give this show a try.  Please ignore the title if it bothers you, and don’t think that because it starts out in high school that it’s only for teens.   

I give this TV show my highest recommendation.  In fact, I cannot recommend it enough.  It truly is one of the best shows to have ever been on television.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

   Season 1 DVD      Complete Series DVD

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