When Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired, I should have been well within the borders of its target audience – teenage weirdo with a taste for anything dark. Maybe I would have been into it had I encountered the show on my own, but it was the stuff of girly sleepovers and watching parties at the time.
So instead of being introduced to Buffy as a campy, episodic horror-mystery mashup, I was introduced to it as “You hafta see this! Ohmygawd Angel is so hawt!” I then spent a weekend in a basement den with three girls eating trash, experimenting with makeup, and listening to running commentary on the physical perfection of season 1-2′s mopey-faced love interest. I was too busy grasping at the tatters of my poor masculinity to appreciate the funky monster costumes, snappy characters, awkward fight sequences, and ridiculous plot arcs.
After that weekend, I refused to watch Buffy again, even with college friends who clearly regarded it as savvy comedy rather than a chance to ogle awkwardly bulky shirtless dudes.
That is until this December when I got snowed in at a friend’s place in Portland (it snows so rarely that the city just shuts down when it does). We wound up watching the musical episode from season six, and it struck me: this show is brutal. The musical episode is 45 minutes of upbeat song and dance around fear of commitment, control issues, sexual manipulation, and self destructive depression. The song and dance presentation encourages you to laugh through these dark topics until the very end when the music stops, the narrative looks you in the eye and says, you know all these things are daily realities, right?
So, when I got back to Helsinki and my borrowed Netflix subscription, I watched all seven seasons in a span of two months. I can definitely say young Elizabeth missed out.
Although my reservations differ from those of my 17 year old self, it’s not a perfect show. Season 4, with its blond, Iowan plot arc, sags under the weight of fake good mental health and implicit patriotism. While Buffy is all about strong women, the show could have handled sex and gender a bit better. “Nice” women aren’t supposed to like rough sex, there is such a thing as too many partners for a woman but not a man, and lesbians are cool but gay men are ugh-gaaaay in Buffy. On the other hand, it does feel pretty realistic to the climate for queer teenagers and 20 something women in the late 90s to early 00s in the US.
The first two seasons are delicious candy with their rubbery monsters, hamfisted fight scenes, and satirized high school angst. As the show progresses, it gets into the ugly problems that often accompany the transition into independent adulthood, albeit usually couched as a metaphor involving a witch who can flay a man at a glance or a vampire with a synthetic soul. The metaphor has kept the comment relevant, however, not to mention entertaining. Even if the socio-cultural climate of the show has aged, the problems it laughingly outlines in fake blood and prosthetic makeup recur through modern society.
More subtle is the shift from childhood black and white morality to an adult’s grey rainbow. The hero remains righteous, but increasingly ambiguous scenarios confront the viewer until, no matter how attached you’ve grown to Buffy, you have to ask if the “good and righteous” response is really the path of least harm in certain situations, especially where people and feelings are concerned.
The show also provokes the viewer more directly. This paragraph and the next should be ambiguous, but may veer into spoiler territory. Be warned. For several seasons the show serves up cartoonish violence – a lot of funny villain death and a little melodramatic heroic death or suffering. Then a villain falls into a coma after one of these cartoonish fights, and she just lies there handcuffed to the hospital bed, looking very human with her makeup removed. And the season’s final boss villain, a dad figure to the comatose woman, formerly jovially evil, brokenly snot cries. She just lies there and eventually the handcuffs come off. She does not wake up for a long time.
In another instance, a beloved support character dies of natural causes prompting an entire episode of very realistic grief. For a full episode our hero desperately tries to do CPR on a cold body and hears ribs crack, stares at walls, vomits in a hallway and tries to hide it under a towel, returns to look at the corpse as though it may come back to life and get up. The viewer tunes in expecting silly, entertaining death and instead watches real death for a harrowing 45 minutes.
Don’t get me wrong. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is primarily entertainment, but it will occasionally come upside your head, teeth bared and free of fear. The campy fun of the first few seasons slowly expands to encompass cleverly posed questioning of sociocultural constructs, without getting too po-faced. I especially appreciated the de- (and re-) construction of the masculine romantic hero in seasons 5-7. Too bad my 17 year old boy self couldn’t have seen that through all the shirtless Boreanaz.