Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired on television roughly fifteen years ago and is now remembered as one of the most important and imaginative programs to ever grace the small screen; a highly creative, impressively well constructed genre-bender which defied all odds, Joss Whedon’s seminal late 90s show is often found at the top end of greatest TV lists and has something of a huge and passionate fan-base. The show really shouldn’t have worked – the concept and title sound silly for starters – and it was based on the reworked ideas of a failed comedy movie starring Kristy Swanson. Yet the show built a name for itself, garnering a small cult following which has grown over the last decade, working at first like The X-Files for teenagers whilst perfectly mixing various genres – drama, horror, action, romance, comedy – Buffy impressed audiences with its detailed, utterly likeable characters, creative ideas and surprising commentary on the real world, using monsters as metaphors for teenage issues and problems.
What’s perhaps most impressive with Buffy is how it changed genre television; showing the world that horror and science-fiction weren’t hack areas, and essentially raised for the bar for such subjects whilst twisting critical expectations of them. There hadn’t been anything like Buffy on television, and yet its influence on current television has been huge, essentially creating the supernatural soap opera, as well as pushing for self-referential, genre-subverting shows – without Buffy there wouldn’t have been, to name a handful, Supernatural, True Blood, Misfits, Doctor Who (in it’s new run), Smallville, and Being Human. It’s a huge show, and after so many years away, it’s time to take a look back at all seven seasons, to see what worked, what didn’t, and reflect on what made Buffy the Vampire Slayer just so great to watch. Rewatching the first season of Buffy, it’s surprising how dated it is. Everything is so 90s – clothing and dialogue especially – and these days it comes across as rather cheesy. There’s a real sense that the creators hadn’t quite landed on their look yet (the darker, mock-gothic which comes in with season two) and so for fans, the first season can be a little bit jarring. It’s also very airy and silly – which for newcomers will make the show a bit cringeworthy – 90s bubblegum pop – yet it’s important to note the show becomes rapidly darker and more serious from its second season, and that the first season is a poor representation of the show as a whole. For fans, seeing the characters so young and care-free is refreshing, especially when you’re aware of how bleak the show will go. Most television shows have weak first seasons and Buffy is no exception – the writing isn’t half as clever at the beginning and so the genre elements are played straight here, and therefore, seem cheesier. One of the great elements of Buffy‘s writing is the ability to twist and parody gothic horror tropes and whilst there are hints of this in season one, it’s not until season two that this really begins to work. There are also some stylish tweaks in season one which jar on rewatch – the music – pre the fantastic Christopher Beck – is dire, clichéd horror music which reeks of 90s suspense stock. It’s a much shorter season than those which follow – only 12 episodes – and provides a useful foundation for the show, building up the world remarkably quickly. ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ is a good pilot episode, noticeable for how it drops the viewer into an already established set up – Buffy is already the slayer etc – there’s some truly wonderful and accomplished world building here. By ‘The Witch’ and ‘Teacher’s Pet,’ we’ve learnt that vampires aren’t the only things that haunt Sunnydale, setting up numerous and imaginative monster-of-the-week episodes. Buffy was one of the first shows to mix monster-of-the-week plots with vast, consistent character development and overreaching plot arcs – The X-Files floundered doing this, abruptly shifting gears between the alien conspiracy plot and the individual episodes in stop-start manner – though the show hasn’t quite perfected this balance yet – here episodes are more, well, episodic, and the overall arc rears up only occasionally. On a thematic level, season one is built around the idea that high-school is hell, a great metaphor and the first example of Buffy using monsters as problems. The idea is approached in a backwards way here however; each episode represents an element of high school being hell, and the characters fix these problems as they come along – the horrors and dramas tend to be external, not related to the main Scooby Gang themselves. After season two however, the show switches around for the better, focusing on the characters first and the situations second (with the situations serving as metaphors for the character’s problems) which dramatically improves Buffy‘s quality by putting focus on the internal issues of the leads, and keeping the Scooby Gang central. There are some poor episodes in the run – ‘I Robot You Jane,’ stands out as dreadful – and the show here is much sillier. What’s striking though is that even the bad episodes get by on the strength of the characters, and each bad episode has something of merit – a witty line, a great fight scene – which allows it to get by. But there are some great episodes – ‘Nightmares,’ ‘The Puppet Show,’ ‘Angel’ – which hint at the quality to come. ‘Prophecy Girl’ is a brilliant closer, first-time proof of how much the show improves when Whedon writes and directs, and Buffy’s speech – ‘I’m 16 years old, I don’t want to die’ – is a great indicator of where the show will go.What’s interesting with the first season of Buffy is that, despite some of it being ‘off’ and not in keeping with the show’s future style, the cast and characters are all excellent right from the beginning. A lot of television shows struggle with their characters at first, giving them just a couple of traits to get by before dramatically re-writing them later on. Buffy doesn’t do that. Though the characters are nowhere near as complex as they become, they are already fully-formed from the start, which in terms of character development, gives the show a great sense of consistency. There’s a sense that Whedon and co. knew where they’d like these characters to go from the very start. Starting with Buffy herself, the character was based on Whedon watching a horror movie and wondering what would occur if the dumb blonde turned around and defended herself, a nice subverted image which sets up Buffy Summers herself and indeed, the whole show. Buffy is more immature here, more Valley-girl, and the character has yet to become the world-weary, serious slayer of later seasons; this is Buffy at her happiest, when her issues are the most schoolgirlish – boys, her mom, schoolwork – built on the idea of her being just a girl, with a ton of hidden, unexpected responsibility. She isn’t quite the iconic character yet and nowhere near as psychologically complex as she later becomes, but the bulk of her character traits – clever wit, bright personality, honourability and both internal and external strength are all present from the beginning. Buffy is really the only character in season one to develop – her desire to have a normal life versus her duty as a slayer, her fear over dying and ultimate acceptance of her fate – and the character gets a surprising amount to do early in the show. Sarah Michelle Gellar is likeable, strong and vulnerable in the lead role, which is all the series needs at this point, yet ‘Prophecy Girl’ gives her, and the show, the first Big Acting Moment, with a really powerful speech implying the quality to come. Gellar really grows into the character across the show and delivers some of the most impressive acting performances on television.Alyson Hannigan is sweet and adorable as geeky, mousy Willow. Hannigan has great comic timing and delivers her lines in unusual but brilliant ways – her line about getting back most of her stolen Barbie, played as a positive not negative, stands as a good example of her style. Willow doesn’t get much to do in season one but pine after Xander, but across the whole show, she gets the most dramatic and interesting character development; rewatching, it’s amazing to think this little girl turns into the super-powered god she eventually becomes. Xander (Nicholas Brendan) is more light-comic relief here and gets some great lines, though again, isn’t given much to do besides pine for Buffy. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) is all twee and British here, with no hints of the cool darkness of later on, though the scene in ‘Prophecy Girl’ where he attempts to fight in Buffy’s place says a lot about his character and his powerful relationship with his surrogate slayer daughter. As the show progresses Buffy and Giles develop one of the most mature, family-focused relationships on television. Angel (David Boreanaz) doesn’t do much but sprout ominous one-liners and vanish, but he’s easy on the eyes and him and Buffy have an undeniable sexual tension which really comes into play next season. The twist of him being a vampire with a soul, and her falling for him, is remarkably poetic, and about a thousand times superior to Twilight‘s stolen plot years later. Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) is more minor antagonist here and Jenny (Robia LaMorte) is a sexy presence later in the run. The Scooby Gang are likeable from the start, which helps audiences get through the weaker episodes, and all characters become dramatically more complex as the show goes on. Buffy is noted for the strength of its villains – The Big Bad – a term since adopted by other TV shows to highlight the main antagonist. In season one, we have The Master (Mark Metcalf) and honestly, he’s just ok. He’s played a little bit too straight at first, coming across as cheesy with his monologues and gothic candles, though towards the end of the season Whedon and co. begin to subvert the character in increasingly fun ways, making him much more comedic and enjoyable. Metcalf, buried beneath makeup, has strong comedic timing which the character more compelling than he actually is. The problem is that The Master isn’t threatening and is somewhat passive as a villain, waiting around without doing anything, and in the end, is easily defeated too – he’s a far cry from the brilliant bad guys later on in the show. For an opener though, he’s not bad. Darla (Julie Benz) is a slinky presence too, though killed off extremely early considering how important to the lore her character becomes. The first season suffers from its episodic, silly plots and its dated style, but there are small hints of the greatness to come here. The characters are solid off the bat and though the writing isn’t amazing yet, there are some strong episodes and moments. Season one is interesting to look back at retrospectively, to see just how far the show comes from its small, high-school monster show roots, and for fans, going back and watching the Scooby Gang at a much lighter time is quite refreshing. It’s the least accomplished season and probably the worst (though season seven is pretty offensive), though with it out of the way, we’re set up for the fantastic season two, which really opens up the show and turns it into the critically acclaimed wonder its known for. Think of season one as a foundation for the characters – season two is where the show really begins. Things get much, much better.
Check out the Season Two retrospective too.