Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Lord of the Nerds

During an otherwise joyous month for nerds (a new X-Men movie! The Matrix Reloaded! A They Might Be Giants documentary!), many factions of nerd-dom will suffer at least one major blow to morale: the demise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I do not speak of this derisively, but rather, as a nerd, mourning the loss of what may be the single best nerdcore program in TV history, as well as one of TV’s best, period.

By “nerdcore,” I mean programs with science fiction, fantasy, horror or action-adventure elements (often called “genre” shows in trade magazines), as well as shows with a somewhat marginalized or stigmatized (no matter how undeserved) audience. Thus The Simpsons, a show which certainly inspires a high level of nerdish devotion in much of its audience, doesn’t really qualify. One of the more universally popular shows in recent memory, it has long been more American institution than cult favorite (its less popular sci-fi cousin Futurama better fits the nerdcore mold). Nerdcore shows of note include Mystery Science Theater 3000, The X-Files, and all incarnations of Star Trek. Buffy, never earning the ratings of, say, Next Generation or X-Files, isn’t necessarily the obvious choice for lord of the nerds. But lord it does.

Some technical details help Buffy‘s case. It has run seven seasons, which seems to be a kind of magic number for sci-fi and fantasy programming: all of the latter-day Trek series have run seven years, and X-Files made it to seven before Duchovny started to drift, followed closely by Anderson. And unlike many cult shows (and contrary to much fan chatter), Buffy refused to peak early. Many fans like season two the best, but I’ll take seasons five and six, wherein Buffy and her friends deal with “real life” — real death, loss, and confusion. Team Buffy also gets bonus points for surviving a change of venue (from cheerfully trashy WB to constantly flailing UPN), and even a spin-off (the WB’s Angel).

Somewhat less technical is the gender issue. Buffy is often mentioned specifically as a “female empowerment” show, but one of its most inviting aspects is the way its cast has always been uncommonly split between guys and girls. The Star Trek scales are usually tipped toward the male side, and while The X-Files always had one star of each gender, most of its supporting characters were male. Buffy started as something of a girl power novelty (an ex-cheerleader who has to fight demons!), but during its run, every character has been given nuance, highs and lows. Alyson Hannigan’s Willow went from dorky teenager to confident Wiccan to vengeful Big Bad. Nicholas Brendan’s Xander has displayed range uncommon for the wisecracking comic-relief character. The Buffy writers (and their terrific cast) seem to understand not only a good wisecrack, but the psychology beneath it.

For example of this, look no further than this season’s episode, “Potential” (7-12), in which Buffy’s younger sister Dawn is briefly led to believe she is a potential future vampire slayer, only to find out she “isn’t special”, after all. At the episode’s end, Xander, ever the ordinary mortal of the group, approaches her and tells her he understands. Further, as the only one of his friends without supernatural powers, he’s used to watching the others, including Dawn. “You’re not special,” he says. “You’re extraordinary.” Watch this scene and try to imagine, say, Chandler from Friends giving a similarly succinct, beautiful speech about feeling like the average one.

These nuances extend even to Buffy‘s treatment of nerds themselves. Aside from Willow (who hasn’t been a full-fledged nerd since the show’s high school years), the trio of villainous nerds from season six (Warren [Adam Busch], Jonathan [Danny Strong], and Andrew [Tom Lenk]), while often portrayed as pathetic, were perfectly, utterly human: villains not out of evil powers, but insecurity. It also didn’t hurt that the writers would never settle for a cheap nerd signifier like “I know Klingon,” but instead came up with nerd references that only nerds would get (“Not one of you bunch has the midiclorians to stop her,” 6-21).

But perhaps the richest example of Buffy‘s creative dominance is its utilization of that time-honored nerd standby, continuity. Most closely resembling the seemingly infinite backstories of some of the longer-running comic books, many fine sci-fi and fantasy shows have collapsed under the weight of Dungeon Master’s Guide-sized history and prehistory. Star Trek is a blatant lost cause to anyone unwilling to do at least a little bit of studying (or to watch at least a little bit lost). And The X-Files is particularly disappointing in this regard. Early on, its continuing story arcs were among the best the show had to offer, inspiring animated Monday morning speculation and numerous Entertainment Weekly articles, but by the final Duchovny/Anderson seasons, the major storyline had become impenetrable even for longtime fans, and only certain standalone episodes were memorable.

But Joss Whedon and the rest of the Buffy team actually used continuity to the show’s benefit, using the TV format not just to perpetuate a soap opera, but to build a comics-like mythology, referring back to itself even as it continually moves forward. Supporting characters reappear, become regulars, or appear in the background only to wind up important later. For example, Jonathan appeared on and off for several years before becoming the subject of “Superstar,” a season four standalone episode (4-17), and waited another season and a half before emerging as part of the aforementioned Trio of Nerds. It wasn’t vital to know Jonathan’s history to understand the Trio of Nerds storyline (I wasn’t aware of it at the outset), but longtime viewers were especially tickled. Many nerdcore shows foster obsession; Buffy rewards it.

Seinfeld and The Simpsons have both operated in a similar style, but before Buffy, even the better hour-long shows avoided having that kind of fun. Its ever-developing characters and storylines contrast with the relatively awkward storytelling of many TV dramas, introducing and subtracting characters with Very Special Episodes or, worse, to coincide with the beginnings and endings of individual seasons. Buffy has quietly raised the bar of what television, as an art form, can accomplish. The X-Files, good as it could be, was usually divided between the mythology episodes, the monster-of-the-week episodes, and the character-based episodes, with occasional overlap. Buffy, at its frequent best, is all overlap: it’s development of individual characters, it’s a season-long epic, it’s a really cool new monster that steals voices or eats skin, all at once. It’s a richly detailed, multifaceted show that also satisfies a nerd’s desire for continuity, fight scenes, and, well, monsters that eat skin. And now it’s coming to an end.

All for the good, I suppose. Seven seasons is a great run, and better the show goes out with momentum, before the cast begins to lose interest. There will be no goodbye-to-Xander episodes, or Dawn-leaves-for-slayer-school setups, or any abrupt dismissals (Whedon and his team can make even abrupt dismissals seem masterful). The series belongs to the archives now, with copies of Watchmen, the even-numbered Star Trek movies and, soon enough, both Star Wars trilogies. We nerds, then, are left to make arcane references to some of the best episodes — “Becoming,” “Innocence,” “Fool for Love” (5-7), “The Body” (5-16), “Once More With Feeling” (6-7), and “Selfless” (7-5) — replaying them as if flipping through a favorite issue of X-Men or Batman (both comics that Buffy manages to resemble). I might have to start watching Alias or Angel to satisfy my nerdly cravings. But TV will be just a little farther from perfect again.