Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Lord of the Nerds

Jesse Hassenger

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendan, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Amber Benson, Eliza Dushku, Charisma Carpenter, D.B. Woodside, Tom Lenk, Iyari Limon, Juliet Landau, Marc Blucas, Seth Green
MPAA rating: N/A
Creator: Joss Whedon

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.






Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.