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Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Director: Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon
Creator: Marti Noxon
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Amber Benson, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Nicholas Brendan, James Marsters, Anthony Head
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 8pm EST

(UPN)

Review [18.Jun.2002]
Review [10.Jun.2002]
Review [4.Jun.2002]

There's always consequences

Poor Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Last year was lousy. She got her butt repeatedly kicked by Glory (Clare Kramer), a beautiful but demented goddess. Her boyfriend dumped her to go hunt demons in South America. Her mother died of a brain aneurysm. She learned her sister isn’t really her sister but the human incarnation of an energy force that unlocks a portal to another dimension. And, then, at year’s end, came the triple play. The WB canceled her series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Emmy voters once again snubbed her and her show. And to top it all off, she sacrificed her life to save the world from yet another impending apocalypse.


Fortunately, UPN has decided to revive both Buffy and her series. But after last year, the girl is bound to have issues. Add to them the fact that, during the new season’s premiere episode, her friends were interrupted while trying to bring her back from the dead, and forgot to dig her up. Granted, they were being chased by a pack of motorcycle-riding Hellions, but that’s small consolation to a young woman who has just had to claw her way out of her own grave. Suddenly finding yourself back among the living has got to be as rough as suddenly finding yourself among the dead. All this is enough to make any 20-year-old want to curl up in bed with a stack of Alanis Morrisette CDs and a bottle of Jagermeister, but that’s not Buffy’s style. This is great news for viewer, because Buffy is at her best when she is dealing with things other than killing vampires and demons, things far more complicated, like life.


For those unsure how Buffy wound up six feet under, a quick history is in order. Buffy Summers resides in Sunnydale, CA, which just happens to be ground zero for all things demonic. For five seasons, Buffy and her Scooby Gang—including, at this point, two witches, an ex-demon, and a vampire, and the Watcher, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head, who will only be a recurring player this year)—have battled all things scary and bad, and suffered the joys and heartbreaks of maturing into young adults (except for Giles, already an adult). The WB series was a moderate ratings success and spawned a spin-off, the equally dark and witty Angel. But, money proved truly to be the root of all evil, and the WB refused to meet producers’ demands for more cash per episode, which is how Buffy wound up on UPN.


It would require a synopsis of all of last season to explain fully the events that led to Buffy’s death, so we’ll cut straight to the dramatic conclusion: Glory was planning to throw Buffy’s sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) into a portal, thereby destroying Earth, so Buffy threw herself in first, thereby closing the portal, defeating Glory, saving her sister and the rest of the world, and killing herself. Trust me, if you missed it: it was a spectacular death with lots of cool special effects.


Now jump ahead three months. As season six opens, we find the Scoobies doing their damnedest to fight off the demons, and employing the Buffy-bot, a robotic replica of Buffy (a leftover plot device from last season). Once shy and demure, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) has emerged as the group’s new leader. In addition to her increasing powers as a witch, she now has the power of communicating telepathically. Unfortunately, the demons have figured out that the Buffy-bot is just an imitation of the real Slayer and are ransacking Sunnydale, which, apparently, has neither a police nor fire department. Buffy, having crawled out of her grave, finds herself in a town that resembles a war zone, surrounded by demons and abandoned by her friends. Unsurprisingly, the demons are defeated and Buffy is reunited with her friends, whom she rejects, and Dawn, whom she embraces, but she still has a long way to go to being acclimated to live among the living.


Buffy’s revival is hardly a new idea in the history of drama. From Greek mythology to Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit to TV’s Charmed, writers have pondered the consequences of resurrecting the deceased. Often, these characters are thrilled at the opportunity to be back on the physical plane, though they’re often struggling with issues were left unresolved during their lives. In Buffy, we have a character resentful of her resurrection, one who was content to be dead. In their rush to reunite themselves with their lost companion, the Scoobies didn’t consider that they wouldn’t be pulling Buffy from an eternal life of suffering in the bowels of Hell, that maybe she wasn’t in Hell at all.


Buffy’s resentment stems not only from the awkward manner in which she was revived, but also from the fact that she was finally at peace, happy to be reunited with her lost loved ones, and glowing in the everlasting light of forgiveness. Brought back to Earth, where she once again must deal with the traumas of vampire-killing, lost loves, and cruel human nature, Buffy finds herself in a literal Hell on Earth. As one character explains, “The thing about magic? There’s always consequences. Always.”


It is this examination of consequences that separates Buffy‘s characters from other supernatural heroes and heroines of recent years. Other series focusing on characters with powers, whether the ability to become invisible (Invisible Man) or leap tall buildings (Lois and Clark), deal with such consequences expediently, then move on to next week’s plot. Lost sidekicks and sacrificed relatives are quickly mourned and forgotten, and citizens who have been terrorized by demons, aliens, and the undead hastily return to life as usual. In Whedon’s mythical world, ramifications linger: citizens of Sunnydale still refer to the destruction of the old high school building by a minion of Hell several seasons ago.


Whedon must be given sole credit for creating this realistic world filled with mythical creatures. Although he is not the show’s sole writer, he plots each season out before filming begins. Even with the shared writing duties, scripts for the series have been consistently crisp, intelligent, and witty. Despite the show’s title, Buffy the Vampire Slayer gains much of its credibility by not focusing on the slaying of vampires. As Whedon told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “Our show is all about change and growth and living life and all it puts you through… I’m not saying it will be smooth, go well and be exactly the way you remember her, but (the revived Buffy) will be Buffy.”


While Whedon clearly has a firm comprehension of the human emotions that complicate heroism, he also deals creatively with the constant array of bad guys who are the series’ driving force. His most acclaimed script, “Hush,” had no dialogue for 60% of the episode. When the gang had their voices stolen by immoral forces, they were forced to communicate by miming. The plot was more than a variation of the battle against evil; it examined the importance of the human voice in all our interactions and the role that nonverbal communication can play in fulfilling our personal and societal needs.


Such a clever script would fall flat without a credible cast to perform it, and Whedon has assembled an energetic one. Gellar, of course, is at the forefront, and her ability to move from comedy to drama with ease and effectiveness has made Buffy a far more complex and interesting character than she might have been in a lesser actor’s hands. Gellar’s performance of Buffy’s confession that she did not want to be brought back was powerful and extremely tender; Gellar is a match for any other actress working on tv today. (Ironically, Gellar originally auditioned for a minor role on the series but, after 17 auditions, impressed Whedon enough to get the lead.) The actors who portray Buffy’s posse are equally exciting, particularly Hannigan. Standing at full attention on top of a mausoleum in the season premiere, a general psychically guiding her troops, Hannigan made clear that Willow will be a formidable force this season, ready to assume the role of vampire slayer even if Buffy can’t.


In contrast with Willow’s drama, the comic role of Anya (Emma Caulfield) has been increased. Anya, the ex-demon, will continue to advise the Scoobies on demonic matters, such as her clarification of the gang’s concern that Buffy would return a brain-eating zombie: “Actually, a zombie won’t eat your brain unless ordered to do so by his zombie master. A lot of people get that wrong.” Now Anya has been given the added responsibility of running the magic shop in Giles’ absence, a job she loves, but one at which she is terribly inept. Caulfield’s wide-eyed, matter-of-fact delivery of her lines, whether they concern demons or business affairs, brings out the humor of her observations, all coming from a “nonhuman” perspective.


With so much going for it, why isn’t Buffy the hottest show on television? The UPN premiere was a ratings success, and the show was also considered a consistent success on the WB. Yet, when given the opportunity to purchase the show this past year, NBC, CBS, and ABC all passed for fear that Buffy was a cult hit that wouldn’t appeal to a “broad” audience. Perhaps, but its consistent excellence makes it worthy of a larger audience than UPN can provide. Critics have certainly made an effort to promote the series. The Television Critics Association nominated it for Outstanding Achievement in Drama this year, TV Guide named Hannigan one of television’s Top Ten MVPs, and Gellar, already an Emmy winner from her days on All My Children, has been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama. Only the Emmys and the general public have failed to notice the quality work that goes into the show.


Given all these issues to resolve, Buffy Summers should have another rough year. That’s good news not only for viewers, but also for Whedon and Gellar. Unemployed, a college dropout (it’s hard to register for classes when you’re dead), undead, and suddenly the primary caregiver for her teenaged sister, Buffy has been brought back to a world of uncertainty and doubt. And let’s not forget, there are still all those vampires, demons, and just plain mean monsters that need to be destroyed. But Buffy will get the job done. After all, as her tombstone noted, “She saved the world a lot.”

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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