Davids Basement of the Bizarre

THE BASEMENT’S TIMELESS TELEVISION: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

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We all have those television shows that have stuck with us. Perhaps something you watched as a child that you have fond memories of or even something that you connected with as a teen. Unfortunately though, oftentimes when we revisit these shows later in life they don’t always hold up. On rare occasions though, there are shows that not only hold up, but hold up to repeated viewings and can still cause an emotional response just as it did when you first saw it. For this entry I am discussing one of my all-time favorite television shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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For those that don’t know, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the brainchild of writer, producer and director Joss Whedon and ran on the WB station from 1997 until 2001 and then on UPN from 2002 until 2003. It’s the story of Buffy Summers, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, a teenage girl from Sunnydale, California has been chosen as a vampire slayer. The critically acclaimed series was noted for its metaphors of living on a Hellmouth where vampires and demons run rampant and comparing it to how hellish high school life can be.

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The supporting cast features Buffy’s Watcher, Rupert Giles (played by Anthony Stewart Head) and two of her best friends, Willow Rosenburg (played by Allison Hannigan) and Xander Harris (played by Nicholas Brendon). Throughout the seven-year series there were also many characters that were introduced, some that were just featured in one season and others that returned throughout the main story arc over multiple seasons. Some continued after season three to the companion show Angel.

Aspects of the show dated, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the well-written storylines. Despite the inclusion of vampires and demons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was very realistic in how the characters were written and portrayed. Topics such as bullying, your first boyfriend/girlfriend and the stress of passing your classes all came into play, all the while dealing with monsters.

The series received critical and popular acclaim and usually reached between four and six million viewers on original airings. Although such ratings are lower than successful shows on the “big four” networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox), they were a success for the relatively new and smaller WB Television Network.

Despite the fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was almost entirely ignored by major award shows during its run, the series was nominated for the American Film Institute Award for Drama Series of the Year, Gellar was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama for her performance in the show and the series was nominated five times for Television Critics Association Awards, winning once in 2003 for the Television Critics Association Heritage Award.

The success of Buffy has led to hundreds of tie-in products, including novels, comics and video games. The series has received attention in fandom (including fan films), parody, and academia has influenced the direction of other television series. The series, as well as its spinoff series Angel and extensions thereof, have been collectively termed the “Buffyverse”.

Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the “Slayer”, one in a long line of young women chosen by fate to battle evil forces. This mystical calling grants her powers that dramatically increase physical strength, endurance, agility, accelerated healing, intuition, and a limited degree of precognition, usually in the form of prophetic dreams. She has returned from death twice and is known as a reluctant hero who wants to live a normal life. However, she learns to embrace her destiny as the vampire slayer.

Giles.

Buffy receives guidance from her Watcher, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). Giles, rarely referred to by his first name (it is later revealed that in his rebellious younger days he went by “Ripper”), is a member of the Watchers’ Council, whose job is to train and guide the Slayers. Giles researches the supernatural creatures that Buffy must face, offers insights into their origins and advice on how to defeat them. He also helps her train to stay in fighting form.

Buffy is also helped by friends she meets at Sunnydale High, Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon). Willow was originally a wallflower who excels at academics, providing a contrast to Buffy’s outgoing personality and less-than-stellar educational record. They share the social isolation that comes with being different, and especially from being exceptional young women. As the series progresses, Willow becomes a more assertive character and a powerful witch, and reveals she’s a lesbian. In contrast, Xander, with no supernatural abilities, provides comic relief and a grounded perspective. It is Xander who often provides the heart to the series, and in season six, becomes the hero in place of Buffy who defeats the “Big Bad”. Buffy and Willow are the only characters who appear in all 144 episodes; Xander is missing in only one.

Dawn and Buffy.

The cast of characters grew over the course of the series. Buffy first arrives in Sunnydale with her mother, Joyce Summers (portrayed by Kristine Sutherland), who functions as an anchor of normality in the Summers’ lives even after she learns of Buffy’s role in the supernatural world (“Becoming, Part Two”). Buffy’s younger sister Dawn Summers (Michelle Trachtenberg) is introduced in season five (“Buffy vs. Dracula”). A vampire tortured with a soul in return for horrific deeds committed in the past to many, including a young gypsy girl and her family, Angel (portrayed by David Boreanaz), is Buffy’s love interest throughout the first three seasons. He leaves Buffy after realizing he will never be able to give her a normal life. He goes on to make amends for his sins and to search for redemption in his own spin-off, Angel. He makes several guest appearances in the remaining seasons, including the last episode.

Xander and Anya.

At Sunnydale High, Buffy meets several other students besides Willow and Xander, willing to join her fight for good, an informal group eventually tagged the “Scooby Gang” or “Scoobies”. Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), the archetypal shallow cheerleader, reluctantly becomes involved. Daniel “Oz” Osbourne (Seth Green), a fellow student, rock guitarist and werewolf, joins the group through his relationship with Willow. Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), Sunnydale’s computer science teacher, joins the group after helping destroy a demon trapped in cyberspace during season 1. She later becomes Giles’ love interest. Anya (Emma Caulfield), a former vengeance demon (Anyanka) who specialized in avenging scorned women, becomes Xander’s lover after losing her powers and joins the group in season four.

Faith.

In Buffy’s senior year of high school, she meets Faith (Eliza Dushku), the other current Slayer, who was “called” forth when Slayer Kendra Young (Bianca Lawson) was killed by vampire Drusilla (Juliet Landau), in season two. Although Faith initially fights on the side of good with Buffy and the rest of the group, she comes to stand against them and sides with Mayor Richard Wilkins (Harry Groener), after accidentally killing a human in season three. She reappears briefly in the fourth season, looking for vengeance, and moves to Angel where she voluntarily goes to jail for her murders. Faith reappears in season seven of Buffy, after having helped Angel and his crew, and fights alongside Buffy against The First Evil.

Buffy gathers other allies: Spike (James Marsters), a vampire, is an old companion of Angelus (Angel) and one of Buffy’s major enemies in early seasons, although they later become allies and lovers. At the end of season six, Spike regains his soul. Spike is known for his Billy Idol-style peroxide blond hair and his black leather coat, stolen from a previous Slayer, Nikki Wood. Her son, Robin Wood (D. B. Woodside), joins the group in the final season. Tara Maclay (Amber Benson) is a fellow member of Willow’s Wicca group during season four, and their friendship eventually turns into a romantic relationship. Buffy becomes involved personally and professionally with Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), a military operative in “the Initiative”, which hunts demons using science and technology. The final season sees geeky wannabe-villain Andrew Wells (Tom Lenk) come to side with the Scoobies after initially being their captive/hostage; they regard him more as a nuisance than an ally.

Willow and Tara.

Buffy featured dozens of recurring characters, both major and minor. For example, the “Big Bad” (villain) characters were featured for at least one season (for example, Glory is a character who appeared in 12 episodes, spanning much of season five). Similarly, characters who allied themselves to the group and characters who attended the same institutions were sometimes featured in multiple episodes.

The show is set in the fictional California town of Sunnydale, whose suburban Sunnydale High School sits on top of a “Hellmouth”, a gateway to demon realms. The Hellmouth, located beneath the school library, is a source of mystical energies as well as a nexus for a wide variety of evil creatures and supernatural phenomena. In addition to being an open-ended plot device, Joss Whedon has cited the Hellmouth and “High school as Hell” as one of the primary metaphors in creating the series.

Most of Buffy was shot on location in Los Angeles, California. The high school used in the first three seasons is actually Torrance High School, in Torrance, California, the same high school used for Beverly Hills, 90210. The show was initially very dependent on location shooting, because the production budget allowed for few permanent sets to be built. In Season One, this was limited to the interior of Sunnydale High (the library, hallways, and classrooms), Buffy’s bedroom and the Master’s underground lair. From Season Two more permanent sets were built, including the full interior of Buffy’s house, Angel’s mansion, Giles’ apartment, and extensions to the high school set (the addition of a dining hall and commons area). A driveway area near the gated entrance to Fox Studios was transformed into a graveyard. In Season Three the Sunnydale “Main Street” was constructed on the backlot, which would be a staple location for the rest of the series. When the show transitioned to college in the fourth season, the hallway sets from Sunnydale High were remodeled to appear as the interior hallways of UC Sunnydale.

Buffy is told in a serialized format, with each episode involving a self-contained story while contributing to a larger storyline. Each season’s storyline is broken down into season-long narratives marked by the rise and defeat of a powerful antagonist, commonly referred to as the “Big Bad”. While the show is mainly a drama with frequent comic relief, most episodes blend different genres, including horror, martial arts, romance, melodrama, farce, science fiction, comedy, and even, in one episode, musical comedy.

The series’ narrative revolves around Buffy and her friends, collectively dubbed the “Scooby Gang”, who struggle to balance the fight against supernatural evils with their complicated social lives. The show mixes complex, season-long storylines with a villain-of-the-week format; a typical episode contains one or more villains, or supernatural phenomena, that are thwarted or defeated by the end of the episode. Though elements and relationships are explored and ongoing subplots are included, the show focuses primarily on Buffy and her role as an archetypal heroine. Gellar described the show as “the ultimate metaphor: horrors of adolescence manifesting through these actual monsters. It’s the hardest time of life.”

The Gentlemen.

In the first few seasons, the most prominent monsters in the Buffy bestiary are vampires, which are based on traditional myths, lore, and literary conventions. As the series continues, Buffy and her companions fight an increasing variety of demons, as well as ghosts, werewolves, zombies, and unscrupulous humans. They frequently save the world from annihilation by a combination of physical combat, magic, and detective-style investigation and are guided by an extensive collection of ancient and mystical reference books.

Season one exemplifies the “high school is hell” concept. Buffy Summers has just moved to Sunnydale after burning down her old school’s gym, and hopes to escape her Slayer duties. Her plans are complicated by Rupert Giles, her new Watcher, who reminds her of the inescapable presence of evil. Sunnydale High is built atop a Hellmouth, a portal to demon dimensions that attracts supernatural phenomena to the area. Buffy befriends two schoolmates, Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg, who help her fight evil throughout the series, but they must first prevent The Master, an ancient and especially threatening vampire, from opening the Hellmouth and taking over Sunnydale.

Drusilla and Spike.

The emotional stakes are raised in season two. Vampires Spike and Drusilla (weakened from a mob in Prague, which, it is implied, caused her debilitating injury), come to town along with a new slayer, Kendra Young, who was activated as a result of Buffy’s brief death in the season one finale. Xander becomes involved with Cordelia, while Willow becomes involved with witchcraft and Daniel “Oz” Osbourne, who is a werewolf. The romantic relationship between Buffy and the vampire Angel develops over the course of the season, but after they have sex Angel experiences a moment of true happiness, breaking the Gypsy curse that gave him his soul, thereby he reverts to his evil alter-ego Angelus, infamously known as the most sadistic vampire in European history. Kendra is killed by a restored Drusilla. Angelus torments much of the “Scooby Gang” throughout the rest of the season and murders multiple innocents and Giles’ new girlfriend Jenny Calendar, a gypsy who was sent to maintain Angel’s curse. To avert an apocalypse, Buffy is forced to banish Angel to a demon dimension just moments after Willow has restored his soul. The ordeal leaves Buffy emotionally shattered, and she leaves Sunnydale.

Angelus.

After attempting to start a new life in Los Angeles, Buffy returns to town in season three. Angel has mysteriously been released from the demon dimension, but is close to insanity due to the torment he suffered there, and is nearly driven to suicide by the First Evil. He and Buffy realize that a relationship between them can never happen; he eventually leaves Sunnydale at the end of the season. A new watcher named Wesley is put in Giles’ place when Giles is fired from the Watcher’s Council because he has developed a “father’s love” for Buffy; and towards the end of the season, Buffy announces that she will no longer be working for the Council – they will be working for her. Early in the season, she meets Faith, the Slayer activated after Kendra’s death. She also encounters the affable Mayor Richard Wilkins, who secretly has plans to “ascend” (become a “pure” demon) on Sunnydale High’s Graduation Day. Although Faith initially works well with Buffy, she becomes increasingly unstable after accidentally killing a human and forms a relationship with the paternal yet manipulative Mayor, eventually landing in a coma after a fight with Buffy. At the end of the season, after the Mayor becomes a huge snake-like demon, Buffy and the entire graduating class destroy him by blowing up Sunnydale High.

Faith and Buffy.

Season four sees Buffy and Willow enroll at UC Sunnydale, while Xander joins the workforce and begins dating Anya, a former vengeance demon. Spike returns as a series regular and is abducted by The Initiative, a top-secret military installation based beneath the UC Sunnydale campus. They implant a microchip in his head that punishes him whenever he tries to harm a human. He makes a truce with the Scooby Gang and begins to fight on their side, purely for the joy of fighting, upon learning that he can still harm other demons. Oz leaves town after realizing that he is too dangerous as a werewolf, and Willow falls in love with Tara Maclay, another witch. Buffy begins dating Riley Finn, a graduate student and US Army Ranger seconded to The Initiative. Although appearing to be a well-meaning anti-demon operation, The Initiative’s sinister plans are revealed when Adam, a monster secretly built from parts of humans, demons and machinery, escapes and begins to wreak havoc on the town. Adam is destroyed by a magical composite of Buffy and her three friends, and The Initiative is shut down.

Spike and Buffy.

During season five, a younger sister, Dawn, suddenly appears in Buffy’s life; although she is new to the series, to the characters it is as if she has always been there. Buffy is confronted by Glory, an exiled Hell God who is searching for a “Key” that will allow her to return to her Hell dimension and in the process blur the lines between dimensions and unleash Hell on Earth. It is later discovered that the Key’s protectors have used Buffy’s blood to turn the Key into human form – Dawn – concurrently implanting everybody with lifelong memories of her. The Watcher’s Council aids in Buffy’s research on Glory, and she and Giles are both reinstated on their own terms. Riley leaves early in the season after realizing that Buffy does not love him and joins a military demon-hunting operation. Spike, still implanted with the Initiative chip, realizes he is in love with Buffy and increasingly helps the Scoobies in their fight. Buffy’s mother Joyce dies of a brain aneurysm, while at the end of the season, Xander proposes to Anya. Glory finally discovers that Dawn is the key and kidnaps her, using Dawn’s blood to open a portal to the Hell dimension. To save Dawn, Buffy sacrifices her own life by diving into the portal and thus closes it with her death.

Glory.

At the beginning of season six, Buffy has been dead for 147 days, but Buffy’s friends resurrect her through a powerful spell, believing they have rescued her from a Hell dimension. Buffy returns in a deep depression, explaining (several episodes later) that she had been in Heaven and is devastated to be pulled back to Earth. Giles returns to England because he has concluded that Buffy has become too reliant on him, while Buffy takes up a fast-food job to support herself and Dawn, and develops a secret, mutually abusive sexual relationship with Spike. Dawn suffers from kleptomania and feelings of alienation, Xander leaves Anya at the altar (after which she once again becomes a vengeance demon), and Willow becomes addicted to magic, causing Tara to temporarily leave her. They also begin to deal with The Trio, a group of nerds led by Warren Mears who use their proficiency in technology and magic to attempt to kill Buffy and take over Sunnydale. Warren is shown to be the only competent villain of the group and, after Buffy thwarts his plans multiple times and the Trio breaks apart, he becomes unhinged and attacks Buffy with a gun, accidentally killing Tara in the process. This causes Willow to descend into nihilistic darkness and unleash all of her dark magical powers, killing Warren and attempting to kill his friends. Giles returns to face her in battle and infuses her with light magic, tapping into her remaining humanity. This overwhelms Willow with guilt and pain, whereupon she attempts to destroy the world to end everyone’s suffering, although it eventually allows Xander to reach through her pain and end her rampage. Late in the season, after losing control and trying to rape Buffy, Spike leaves Sunnydale and travels to see a demon and asks him to “return him to what he used to be” so that he can “give Buffy what she deserves”. After Spike passes a series of brutal tests, the demon restores his soul.

Dark Willow.

During season seven, it is revealed that Buffy’s second resurrection caused instability that is allowing the First Evil to begin tipping the balance between good and evil. It begins by hunting down and killing inactive Potential Slayers, and soon raises an army of ancient, powerful Turok-Han vampires. After the Watchers’ Council is destroyed, a number of Potential Slayers (some brought by Giles) take refuge in Buffy’s house. Faith returns to help fight The First Evil, and the new Sunnydale High School’s principal, Robin Wood, also joins the cause. The Turok-Han vampires and a sinister, misogynistic preacher known as Caleb begin causing havoc for the Scoobies. As the Hellmouth becomes more active, nearly all of Sunnydale’s population – humans and demons alike – flee. In the series finale, Buffy kills Caleb, and Angel returns to Sunnydale with an amulet, which Buffy gives to Spike; the Scoobies then surround the Hellmouth and the Potential Slayers descend into its cavern, while Willow casts a spell that activates their Slayer powers. Anya dies in the fight, as do some of the new Slayers. Spike’s amulet channels the power of the sun to destroy the Hellmouth and all the vampires within it, including himself. The collapse of the cavern creates a crater that swallows all of Sunnydale, while the survivors of the battle escape in a school bus. In the final scene, as the survivors survey the crater, Dawn asks, “What are we going to do now?” Buffy slowly begins to enigmatically smile as she contemplates the future ahead of her, ending the series on a hopeful note.

Caleb and Buffy.

Unfortunately, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon has been in the news a lot lately. The accusations against him from some of the female cast and unthinkable and someone in his power should not use that power for abuse. For me, this takes some of the enjoyment out of all of the great things he has created. Though I am still a fan of his televisions shows and movies, it’ll be difficult watching them now, knowing what was going on behind the scenes to the very actresses who gave us characters that we fell in love with.

To order your own copy of the complete series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD, please click on the image below. Please make sure to read other entries in my BASEMENT’S TIMELESS TELEVISION series.

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