Mix in equal parts sardonic humor, martial arts action, attractive cast members, monsters as metaphor, doomed romance, and feminism. Heat for seven years. Serve garnished with a stake through the undead heart, and you have the main course that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Created by Joss Whedon, the title heroine was first seen in a 1992 feature film of the same name, embodied by Kristy Swanson. Buffy was a popular cheerleader who discovered she was part of a historical line chosen to fight vampires and other spawns of evil. Trained under the eye of a Watcher (Donald Sutherland), Swanson still found time to romance bad boy Pike (Luke Perry), even as she faced down the twin perils of the school dance and the vampiric overlord Lothos (Rutger Hauer). The movie was not much of a hit, but Whedon wasn't quite willing to let his brainchild stay in the dark forever.
In March 1997, a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the WB network as a limited-run series. This time, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has moved to Sunnydale with her divorced mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), and tried to forget the past. That would be fine, except that Sunnydale is located on the Hellmouth, an evil portal that makes the California town a haven for vampires, demons, and other creepy things. It just so happens that the high school librarian is also a Watcher named Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), and he is as stuffy as any British librarian ever committed to celluloid. As she begins to face the terrors of school, Buffy also fights monsters ranging from demon teachers to invisible girls to the Master (Mark Metcalf), a powerful vampire. It's a good thing that her Slayer powers give her immense strength, fighting skills, and healing factors, because Buffy's battles are just beginning.
Luckily, Buffy has friends to help her. Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) is a good-natured nerd who is helpful despite his unfortunate crushes on women who turn out to be evil. Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) is a brilliant computer geek with a penchant for magic and shyness. Rounding out the group of sidekicks is Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), a bitchy fashion-plate who resents helping the geeks, but is drawn into the good fight time and again. When not in the graveyard or alleys fighting ghouls, the group mostly hangs out at the underage nightclub the Bronze, where live music—and the occasional fracas against the undead—are a staple. By the end of the first mini-season, Buffy had established itself as a ratings hit and a critical darling. Even as hundreds of websites sprang into life on the Internet, work began on a second season.
Throughout her tenure on the show, Buffy is portrayed as an archetypal heroine with a less-than-archetypal personality. Though she has no costume, she has a distinct alter ego as a student and daughter, as well as a heroic identity as a Slayer (the name most of the monsters call her). And while her Slayer's mission is to defeat vampires specifically, and evil generally, she uses her superpowers to make sure that her mission as a teenager—shopping, dating, hanging out with friends—is protected. While her secret is unknown to her mother initially, it eventually becomes evident to most of Sunnydale High's student body that Buffy is their protector (they eventually honor her as such at the senior prom in season three).
The first year had introduced into the mix a character named Angel (David Boreanaz), a brooding black-clad loner who was really a vampire
cursed with a soul. As season two began, Angel was both aiding Buffy and falling in love with her. Complications arose when they slept together, and his moment of true happiness forced Angel to revert to his evil vampiric self. Angel killed Giles' girlfriend, Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), showing that even series semi-regulars were not immune from sudden death. Even as Buffy and the so-called
Scooby Gang tried to cope with Angel's bad side, they also faced fellow vamps Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau), whose past intertwined with Angel's in the 1800s. Luckily, the heroes were regularly aided by Oz (Seth Green), a sarcastic teen rock-and-roller who was also a werewolf and Willow's love interest.
Season three (1998–1999) featured the redemption of Angel, even as the town's demonic Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener) planned to sacrifice Buffy's senior class of Sunnydale High in a bid to gain ultimate power. To do this, Wilkins seduced new Vampire Slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) to the dark side. Faith was an anomaly; although only one Slayer was
called per generation, a brief death (and resurrection) for Buffy in season one had resulted in another being called. Slayer vs. Slayer was soon set into motion, but as the season ended, controversy erupted. An episode about a teen bringing a gun to school—and the season finale about the mayor attacking the graduation ceremonies—were delayed in airing, following the Columbine school shootings.
The following year featured the cast relocating to college, while Angel, Cordelia, and Faith's Watcher Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (Alexis Denisof) relocated to a spin-off series called Angel. Buffy found the balance of classes and creature-fighting difficult, especially once she began to fall for muscular stud Riley Finn (Marc Blucas). Too bad then that Riley was part of the secret government group the Initiative, which was capturing and studying monsters in laboratories underneath the university! Once Riley and Buffy found out each others' secret identities, they helped each other in battle, especially against Frankenstein-like creation Adam (George Hertzberg). Also notable this season were the additions of the characters Anya (Emma Caulfield), a whiny ex-vengeance demon falling for Xander, and Tara (Amber Benson), a shy lesbian witch whose interaction with the magic-wielding Willow would intensify over time. One episode written and directed by Whedon—
Hush—was mostly in silence, and earned the series one of its few Emmy Award nominations. By now the public and the critics alike were aware that Emmy was not going to reward Buffy no matter how good it was, but at least the show won in both ratings and sales of licensed merchandise, including an ongoing Dark Horse comic-book series and spin-offs; tie-in books; calendars; apparel, action figures; and Christmas ornaments.
In its fifth season (2000–2001), Buffy introduced a bizarre new wrinkle with younger sister Dawn Summers (Michelle Trachtenberg), whom everyone remembered, even though viewers had never seen her before. As the season-long story arc progressed, the secret of Dawn's existence played in heavily to the evil plans of sexy villainess Glory (Clare Kramer). Relationships progressed as well: after Riley leaves, Buffy and Spike began a dangerous romance (he now had a microchip in his head stopping him from harming humans so he joined the fight against evil); Willow and Tara became an openly lesbian couple; and Xander and Anya planned marriage. But the show's most shocking moment came when Buffy returned home to find her mother dead. In the season's ender, Buffy would sacrifice herself to save the world from Glory's machinations.
Moving from WB to UPN after contract renegotiations, Buffy's darkest and most controversial year was in 2001–2002, wherein everything good began to go bad. Willow's dark magic resurrected Buffy, but her friend was less than grateful to be pulled from heaven back to hell on Earth. Buffy and Spike's relationship grew ever more destructive. Three geeks—Jonathan (Danny Strong), Warren (Adam Busch), and Andrew (Tom Lenk)—planned to use their magical and scientific knowledge to become supervillains. The eventual result of their actions was the accidental death of Tara, a storyline that proved incredibly controversial in the press and on the Internet; Whedon and producer Marti Noxon spent much time defending themselves from charges of homophobia for killing one of the two lesbian characters. Another episode, written and directed by Whedon, was a musical, with the entire cast singing and dancing under the spell of a demon. The season ended with
Dark Willow having a black-magic meltdown that threatened all of the cast, and left one villain flayed alive!
The 2002–2003 season of Buffy was announced as its final one, and with rising costs, declining ratings, and series star Gellar chafing to move on to other projects, this announcement surprised few. The producers moved to lighten the mood, establishing a newly rebuilt Sunnydale High, a soul for Spike, and the return of Rupert Giles to semi-regular duty after his time away from the series. But Buffy and the Scooby Gang's troubles were not over, with an indestructible nasty preacher named Caleb (Nathan Fillion), a horde of superstrong über-vampires, and the First Evil threatening apocalypse.
Potential Slayers began arriving in Sunnydale to train, so in case Buffy fell in battle, they could move into her place. The series ended with the destruction of the Hellmouth and Sunnydale, but also a gift from Buffy to the world; the potential in girls everywhere was magically heightened, implying that every girl could be tough and strong like the Slayers.
Throughout its seven years, Buffy's strength lay partially in clever plots that used the evils and monsters as metaphors for problems faced by the characters—and implicitly, the viewers. The dialogue and direction of the series were almost always top-notch, the
girl power message was both constant and consistent, and the actors were likable and believable in their roles. Buffy became a cottage industry for its stars, who would appear at conventions and parlay their popularity into further roles once the series ended.
Spin-off series Angel continues on the WB, with Spike added as a series regular for the 2003–2004 season, and planned guest appearances from Buffy characters on tap. A Buffy animated series was in development for more than a year, but despite extensive script-writing, voice work, and design, the show was not picked up by a network. Rumors of a Buffy spin-off for Giles, Faith, or Willow swirled in the Hollywood hype machine, but momentum seemingly stalled on the Giles series (alternately called Watcher or Rippe), Dushku got her own Fox drama series, and Hannigan signed for a 2004 sitcom. Still, Buffy fans remain committed to a future for their heroines and heroes. New adventures still appear in comic book and novel form, and with the Slayer line opened for a broader group, it seems unlikely that Buffy the Vampire Slayer won't rise from the grave on television or film some time in the future.