I was the last person on earth who hadn't seen the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All my friends spent half their time watching it and the other half telling me about it. Whenever I attended a science fiction convention, I found Buffy panels in the program book and heard Buffy discussions in the hotel hallways. Everyone thought Buffy was the best thing since the invention of fiction. My interest evaporated like water on hot concrete. Surely nothing could be that good.
I thought my suspicions were confirmed when I saw part of the Scooby Doo movie, which starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, "TV's Buffy." Her acting was terrible, and she looked about as rugged as Karen Carpenter. Gellar didn't compare favorably to Kristy Swanson, the buff gymnast who played the title role in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie (which predates the TV series, and which I'd seen when it was released in the summer of 1992). Gellar offered no reason to venture down into the dark, arctic cellar where I keep my TV.
Then one day the infamous Fry's Electronics opened its first Seattle-area store, and there I unwisely went. All about lay DVD box sets, priced lower than anywhere else, offline or on. "Why not get Season One?" I thought giddily as I raced around the superstore leaving burn marks on my Visa card. "If I hate Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I won't lose that much money reselling it." Then my checkout clerk said, "Oooh, I'm going to buy that, too. Buffy's the best show ever!"
Yet I completed the transaction. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
But I didn't want to badly enough, because months passed before I saw an episode, and then only when a friend forced me to. During his son's nap we caught the first episode, "Welcome to the Hellmouth," and the second, "The Harvest."
As "Welcome to the Hellmouth" opens, Buffy is starting her first day as a sophomore at a new school, after being expelled from her previous school for burning down the gym while fighting blood-suckers (all of which happened in the movie). Vampire slaying isn't a typical pursuit for a Valley Girl, but Buffy has no choice: she is "The Chosen One," fated to fight the vampires and other supernatural nasties that seek to destroy the human race. Being "Chosen One" is a lifelong career of considerable brevity, and it's also a secret; no one knows except Buffy and the vampires. They appear in Sunnydale when she does, and instantly start slaughtering students in her new school.
It turns out vampires aren't new to Sunnydale, which sits on a little-known geographic feature called a "Hellmouth." It regularly spews out vampires—except for their bloodthirsty boss, "The Master," who is trapped underground until events align to liberate him. All signs indicate it will happen soon. Of course. I found this rather tedious, and I wasn't impressed with the vampires' dumb face-distorting make-up (wisely not used in the movie), or with The Master, who looks like a down-market ripoff of Clive Barker's infinitely more disturbing Hellraiser villains. If these aren't problems enough, the Hellmouth cavern is an unimaginative, standard-issue Hell. Why, I wondered, was anyone raving about such cheesy, mediocre horror?
Newly arrived from L.A., Buffy is befriended by Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), queen of the popular girls. If embroidering were fashionable, Cordelia would have a sofa cushion that said, "If you haven't a nice word for anyone, sit down next to me." Buffy is bothered by Cordelia's nastiness and starts socializing with two "losers," nerdy Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and awkward Xander (Nicholas Brendon). Smart, geeky, and fashion-backward, Willow evinces a believable social isolation. Xander just reminds me that in Hollywood, the most unpopular and/or "ugly" character is good-looking, but no one notices before s/he ditches the glasses or gets a new hairstyle. Buffy is a big-busted blonde knockout in hip L.A. fashions, but when she befriends the outcasts and almost drives a stake through Cordelia's heart, she earns Cordelia's contempt and seals her fate at Sunnydale High. It's the high school version of the fate worse than death (or vampirism): unpopularity.
The ruthless pecking order had me liking the first two episodes less and less. High school wasn't so much fun that I wanted its social inequities reenacted with brutal accuracy on the TV screen. But as Buffy alternated between powerless, humiliated high-schooler by day and powerful, deadly vampire-hunter by night, I finally began to understand the show's appeal.
In the story, the Hellmouth is a possibly unique supernatural/geographical feature, located directly under the fictional California town of Sunnydale. Symbolically and psychologically, however, the Hellmouth is high school.
Episodes one and two form a single story, in which Buffy makes friends who respect her secret; meets her new "Watcher" (teacher/mentor), school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head); and tangles with a new top vampire. Both episodes were written by series creator Joss Whedon, a man so idolized that Buffy fans uniformly call him Joss, even those who've never met the man. I was amused but not surprised that the first two episodes didn't justify his enormous adulation. The high school scenes are witty, knowing, painful, and convincing. And, it must be said, Gellar proves to be a good actress.
But the horror is pedestrian.
"Witch" changes that. The third episode (written by Dana Reston) replaces the hokey vampire makeup and generic Hell with genuinely creepy imagery from the start, as disquietingly dressed Barbie dolls are immersed by unknown hand in a bubbling, troubling witch's brew. One of the witch's curses steals Cordelia's sight by turning her eyes entirely white, while another seals a girl's mouth with smooth, featureless skin. Such images aren't just unusual and refreshing; they're primally disturbing.
The increased sophistication isn't confined to the imagery. The witch curses the students for a trivial, yet chillingly believable, reason: she'll do anything to get her daughter on the cheerleading squad. With "Witch," season one makes a sharp upward turn in accomplishment and intelligence: from now on, the horrors arise directly from adolescent concerns and fears.
"Witch" showed me why people adore Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series does something that is rare not just on TV but in all media: it tells the truth. And it does so by a method that is even more rare, or, rather, rarely done well: it tells the truth by literalizing the perfect metaphors.
The Horror of High School
In "Teacher's Pet" (written by David Greenwalt), a gorgeous new substitute teacher is giving the boys the major hots, and she returns their flattering attention. Meanwhile, Buffy, stalking a vampire, witnesses it fleeing in terror from the teacher. Though she looks like a normal (if unusually attractive) woman, the teacher is a repulsive monster who preys in a dreadful, deadly manner on virgin boys. I hardly need to elaborate on the adolescent fears literalized by this episode.
In episode five, "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date," Buffy experiences the terror of a first date with a cute fellow student she really, really likes. Since she keeps having to slip away to kill vampires, and can't tell the boy what she's doing, she fears standing him up will make him lose interest. But at last they go out on a date. And, horror of horrors, he discovers her dreadful secret, though his reaction is nothing like she expects. He gets off on danger. This means they cannot be together, because Buffy will get him killed. Fear of rejection isn't unique to high school, but scripters Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali focus on the anxieties of the first date.
Written by Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer, "The Pack" offers further examination of high school's pitiless pecking order. The new hyenas at Sunnydale Zoo have an unsuspected supernatural aspect, and their spirits possess the souls of a clique of high schoolers—and also of innocent Xander. Xander changes in despicable ways, while the clique—now his clique—becomes even more predatory. It's deeply disturbing to see a pack of vicious high schoolers with the social restraints removed; and it disturbs mostly because the difference isn't all that great.
In episode seven, David Greenwalt's "Angel," Buffy spends the night (chastely) with her unofficial mentor and not-so-secret crush, the handsome, mysterious man known only as Angel. A fear that's universal, but particularly keen in high school, is the fear that your beloved isn't what he or she seems. When Buffy discovers Angel is a vampire, not only can they never be together, they're also mortal enemies.
In episode eight, "I Robot...You Jane" (written by Ashley Gable and Thomas A. Swyden), Willow accidentally releases a demon from a medieval tome by scanning it into a computer. Now the 'net is possessed. Willow doesn't know that, though; nor would she care. She's met a guy on the Internet who really likes her, and accepts her as she is. She's never seen him, but she's never had a date and she's essentially ignored by Xander, the boy for whom she's hopelessly carried a torch for years (Xander, naturally, thinks of Willow as a friend and loves Buffy, who in turn thinks of him as a friend). Being duped by a deceptive chatroom "lover" isn't unique to adolescents, but, young and inexperienced, Willow is particularly vulnerable.
Written by Dean Batali and Rob Des Hotel, "The Puppet Show" features a fear hardly confined to teenagers: the creepy ventriloquist's dummy that controls its puppeteer and may also be committing murder. Buffy, Willow, and Xander find themselves forced to participate in an another horror, one almost uniquely high-school: the talent show.
Episode ten, "Nightmares," returns the storyteller's reins to creator Joss Whedon. A child in a coma makes other people's nightmares come true. Even more than the other episodes, "Nightmares" sounds like a Stephen King idea. The execution of the idea clearly isn't King's, though at their best both King and the Buffy writers expand their art to universal themes. The nightmares include some high-school classics, like taking a test you haven't studied for and finding yourself naked in class. Buffy's nightmares are even more devastating. And turning into a vampire may be less painful than having her father tell her that she caused her parents' divorce.
In the X-Files-tinged "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" (story by Joss Whedon) a student ignored by all the other kids and teachers becomes literally invisible. No one notices that she's vanished until she manifests her distaste for her situation, and especially for Cordelia, by taking up a very sharp scalpel... In a pleasing bonus, Cordelia finally shows a little depth, revealing her insight into isolation and the particular horror of being alone in high school.
Which is Worse?
The first season's twelfth and final episode, "Prophecy Girl" (written and directed by Joss Whedon), deals with the universal fear: death. Buffy's mentor, Giles, discovers an ancient prophecy that foretells the Slayer's death in atypically unambiguous terms. Buffy just wants to go to the Spring Fling dance, but The Master is going to kill her tonight, and she cannot escape her fate. She tries. She realizes that abandoning her responsibilities will kill her friends. She conquers her fear of death and returns to fight The Master. She dies.
Naturally, a show that's produced another six seasons hasn't permanently finished off its lead. But by walking boldly through the valley of the shadow of death and the valley of the shadow of high school, series creator Joss Whedon shines light on a host of darknesses that are often ignored by both television and society. Except for the first American Pie movie (which, interestingly, shares with Buffy the actress Alyson Hannigan), I've never seen a film or TV show that's as honest as Buffy the Vampire Slayer about the Hell of modern American adolescence.
Which is worse, really: fighting demons, or attending high school?