This story originally appeared in Issue #2 of Paste Magazine in the fall of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.
My friends laugh in derision. “No, really, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the most subtly complex show on television.” Eyes roll, someone snidely remarks that the real assets of the show are tight sweaters, and we move on.
I can hardly blame them. The special effects often come across as cheesy afterthoughts. The plots can be campy and the tone flippant. And then there’s the name.
“It’s pretty hard to take seriously a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Marti Noxon empathizes. The Executive Producer of the series knows that first hand. Before joining the writing staff in Season Two as a story editor, she turned down the job. “I had already accepted an offer on another show,” she explains. “And even though I liked Buffy better, I just thought it was a wiser career decision.”
Fortunately for her (the other show only lasted one season) Joss Whedon, the creator and primary creative force behind Buffy, called her up and convinced her that if she wanted to be a better writer, she should come work for him. “I did a little homework and found out from some people who knew him that they thought that was true.”
What her friends knew, and mine fail to understand, is that Buffy, now entering its seventh season, is more than the standard teen drama so en vogue since Kevin Williamson rekindled and updated the devices of John Hughes in Scream. This show rises above the Party of Dawson’s Smallville, 90210 ilk. Indeed, under its sometimes-campy horror-genre surface, the show more closely resembles an amalgam of Twin Peaks, X-Files, Picket Fences, NYPD Blue and The Simpsons in its intricacies of plot, theme, character development, and wit.
“I think what a lot of the general public who hasn’t watched the show would be surprised by,” Noxon explains, “is that we really do put a lot of thought into what we’re trying to say and sometimes the show can be really textured and nuanced.”
‘There will be no Thomas Aquinas at this table.’
In some circles, the comparisons extend considerably beyond television, to the works of J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Homer and the Brothers Grimm. Such comparisons are subtly cultivated by the show itself. Its references range from Nero to Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Star Trek: Enterprise. When Whedon wanted to subtly foreshadow the sacrificial death and resurrection of the lead character, he had one of the characters reading from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in a dadaist episode of dream sequences a year before the fateful event. Look carefully in another episode, and you may notice the character of Angel reading Jean Paul Sartre’s La Nause as part of his continual search for meaning. “Beer Bad” contains the, um, unexpected frat-boy rejoinder, “There will be no Thomas Aquinas at this table.”
More than clever allusions, it’s the mythic sweep of the show told in carefully crafted narrative with emotionally realistic characters that has excited critics and academics worldwide. These highbrow fans contribute to “Buffyology” mailing lists and e-journals of “Buffy studies” and have published several collections of critical essays. The show surfaces at symposiums at Harvard Divinity School. This fall, academics will meet at a British university for a two-day conference devoted to the series. “Who would’ve thought you could deliver an entire liberal arts curriculum by talking about nothing but Buffy?” effuses a professor at Syracuse University in Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“It’s funny, because sometimes it definitely falls into the world of taking things a little too seriously,” Noxon reflects on the academic interest. “You know, we’ll get analysis of a specific episode, and they’ll be like, ‘Buffy and overtones and clearly you were … this psychological paradigm and this void and blah, blah, blah.’ And we’ll be like, ‘Really? We just thought it was funny.’”
‘The hero’s journey’
Nonetheless, the attention doesn’t come as a surprise. “[Whedon] has lots of layers that he’s working from,” she says. “He’s definitely working from some major archetypes, and he’s definitely trying to tell a myth in the same way that some of the great storytellers have. So I can understand why people would want to dissect it.”
The show is intentional in its mythic sweep. “There’s a very strong mythological feel to it,” Noxon explains. “ I mean, it is trying to tell the basic stories of existence. As high-falutin’ as that sounds, we really do try to tackle ‘What’s our purpose?” and ‘Why are we here?’ The hero’s journey is an ongoing thing we talk about here…. Most of what [Whedon] thinks of has a purpose and isn’t just to entertain.”
The show repeatedly answers those questions strongly: love, responsibility, sacrifice, community-these are where we find our purpose. Early in the show’s history we learn that Buffy’s support system distinguishes her from pervious slayers and allows her to surpass the expected lifespan of a slayer. “A slayer with family and friends. That sure as hell wasn’t in the brochure,” the vampire Spike says on his entrance to Sunnydale, Buffy’s hometown. When Willow’s rage turns her into seemingly the most powerful force in the universe at the end of last season, we find that Xander’s philial love trumps her evil:
WILLOW: Is this the master plan? You’re going to stop me by telling me you love me?
XANDER: Well, I was gonna walk you off a cliff and hand you an anvil but it seemed kinda cartoony. …I know you’re about to do something apocalyptically evil and stupid and hey, I still wanna hang. …The first day of kindergarten you cried because you broke the yellow crayon and you were too afraid to tell anyone. You’ve come pretty far—ending the world, not a terrific notion—but the thing is, yeah, I love you. I love crayon-breaky Willow, and I love scary-veiny Willow. So if I’m going out, it’s here. If you want to kill the world… well, then start with me.
The scene continues as Willow magically slashes at Xander while he continues the simple refrain “I love you” through the pain until she finds herself sobbing in his arms.
“I think that one of the recurring themes is that you can sort of create your own family and that your relationships with other people are kind of what makes life worth living,” Noxon articulates. “We keep reaffirming that as a purpose, that our community is really what we make it and that it can be reason enough to keep going even in the face of lots of adversaries and lots of difficulties.”
The concept for the show was born as a twist of the horror-movie cliché of the female victim, and it has continued to focus on female empowerment. Noxon elaborates, “Another recurring theme is the idea that you can be both feminine and concerned with romance and boys and at the same time continue to struggle to find out who you are and that your primary purpose is kind of that, to be true to yourself and to kind of reaffirm your own power as opposed to getting totally caught up in, you know, boys.”
However, don’t tune-in expecting the tidy morality tales of 7th Heaven. Noxon elaborates, “… how do you overcome temptation and our dark side—that’s another big theme. In fact, that’s probably one of the most prevalent of the last year or two. Every hero has a dark side and every person has a dark side, and do you let that consume you or do you master it or do you learn to live with it and not master it? Do you make peace with it somehow?”
As Whedon told The Onion, “A writer has a responsibility to tell stories that are dark and sexy and violent, where characters that you love do stupid, wrong things and get away with it, that we explore these parts of people’s lives, because that’s what makes stories into fairy tales instead of polemics. That’s what makes stories resonate.”
‘The exact same thing happened to me’
Then again, “Intelligence in art has little to do with ‘ideas’ and everything to do with fidelity to experience and emotion, and innovation in finding ways to express those things” says columnist Charles Taylor. This is where Whedon, Noxon and team excel. They know their medium—how to exploit it in innovative ways to create captivating narrative.
Each season has its own tight story arc, with echoes going back to the episode one and foreshadowing sometimes a year or more in advance. The writers constantly subvert expectations, killing off major characters and fleshing out minor characters into pivotal ones. They also are wondrously inventive in plot devices: from the Emmy-nominate “Hush,” where most of the show occurs in a vacuum of spoken language; to “Tabula Rosa,” where the characters lose their memories and imaginatively reconstruct their roles; to “Once More, With Feeling,” where a demon curse causes the entire town of Sunnydale to break out in song.
Noxon considers the musical her favorite episode. “It all percolated with [Whedon]. It’s just so exceptional,” she says. “I mean, the music’s great, and the story’s good, and the performances are tremendous, and everything about it was amazing. And it pretty much made us all want to kill ourselves because he’s so talented. We had a bunch of Salieri’s here at Buffy. We all walked around going, ‘We are the Patron Saints of Mediocrity.’”
For all its inventiveness and intricate plots, the centerpiece of the show is its emotional realism. The characters grow and devolve in ways that mirror real life and the journey through high school and college into adult life. “We can’t just do a thing because it seems cool,” Whedon told NPR’s Fresh Air. “Everything that we put out there (whether or not it works) is based on the idea that the audience has been through this. A normal girl goes through this. A normal guy deals with this.… We can’t just say, ‘The war ships come; we transmogrify the blah, blah, blah.’ We can go to some pretty strange places, but at the start we always have to be about how does the audience relate to having done this themselves…. That emotional realism is the core of the show. It’s the only thing I’m really interested in.”
Whedon also recounted an online chat with a fan after an episode in which Angel becomes the evil Angelus after sex with Buffy breaks the gypsy curse that gave him a soul. The young woman confessed, “this exact same thing happened to me.” Whedon new he had hit his mark.
Even Noxon felt the need to draw the line between fantasy and reality in our discussion. After explaining that last season, they “just felt very strongly that a lot of the stuff that [Buffy] was going through was definitely part of a twenties experience,” she felt compelled to add, “not necessarily dying and having to come back from Heaven …”
‘Look at the shiny vampire’
It’s the seamless mixture of big themes and realistic characters—of the universal and the intensely personal—that distinguishes Buffy. As British critic Zoe Williams wrote, “… all traumas are major, pressing and could result in the end of the world; and yet, at the same time, all function as metaphors for genuine crises in the everyday human condition.”
“We really do try to tell the big stories on a scale that feels non-threatening and fun,” Noxon points out. “I’ve often said that, we kind of go, ‘Look at the shiny vampire,’ while at the same time really trying to get to the heart of good drama.”
Whedon elaborates, “I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, ‘Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers, let’s have dinner.’ I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show.” For countless fans, he has succeeded.
“Only yesterday,” Williams recounts in his story for the British paper Guardian, “two schoolkids [on a website devoted to the show] were discussing not whether they fancied Xander, but the nature of evil and redemption, and whether or not a vampire whose powers had been medically subdued could ever be rehabilitated to the same degree as a vampire whose soul had been restored.”
Buffy, a sign of life on television? Perhaps the most ambitious and engaging one since Picket Fences went off the air and Twin Peaks unraveled. And for my money, the most consistently compelling and innovate show to hit the small screen.