SPOILERS FOR ALL 7 SEASONS
There's a meme going around celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Buffy" or "BTVS"), stating 10 things that made Buffy great. But I thought, frak that, it's more 10 things that made me hopelessly obsessed with the series much to my family and non-internet friends considerable chagrin. If you weren't a Buffy fan, you'll never understand those of us who were. Although my list may or may not be a place to start.
1. Redefined the Genre
Penny: I don't get why Leonard loves this show so much. Sure it's cute but...
Bernadette: You did notice that it's about a girl who kills monsters and kicks ass...
Penny: Oh that's right, the girl does it instead of the guy, whoppee
- The Big Bang Theory
She's also, and this is important, NOT the damsel or the victim.
Unless you are a fan of the gothic/superhero/slasher horror genre, unlike Penny, you won't notice the degree to which Whedon, a horror film critic, slaughtered the old school horror tropes and then redefined the hour-long gothic drama, not to mention the horror genre, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The name in of itself was a sly joke - or a comment on the vampire/gothic/slasher genre in its entirety. Whedon neither satirizes nor parodies, he slyly sends it up while at the same time paying homage to it. Fixing the bits and pieces that he didn't like.
Up until Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the guy was the hero and the cute blonde was the victim, often the first victim. Buffy changed all that. From the very first scene, where we are teased by a creepy bad boy bringing an innocent blonde girl into a high school, at night, in the dark, all alone. In most tv shows in the 1990s and well, now, the guy would have turned into a vampire and sunk his teeth into the girl's neck. But in Buffy, the girl turns out to be the vampire and sinks her teeth into the guy's neck.
Buffy herself is a pint-sized, pretty, former high-school cheerleader, from the valley. In the 1990s and 1980s, being from "The Valley" or a "Valley Girl" meant dumb or shallow. They were a cinematic joke. The title itself is a joke. Buffy is the vampire slayer. For a bit it appeared to be a one-joke show, but no. Whedon expended on the cliche and subverted it.
Acting to redefine a genre. Or at least trying to. To an extent he succeeded. Urban fantasy took off during Buffy's tenure. And the leads were often tough women like Buffy herself.
2. Enter the Dramedy...or a bit of angst cluttered with quips
Prior to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, most hour long series were, well, dramas, shorter series were sitcoms. Rarely did the two meet. Whedon was amongst those who created the hour long dramedy. The series undercut its dramatic moments with sly quips. There's a line of dialogue between Buffy and Angel in S3, where he gives her a book of poetry that states that he loves her so much he is literally holding her heart in his hands. Buffy says while this is incredibly romantic, it is also..taken literally, incredibly gross. Others? Spike's line in Once More With Feeling - "If my heart could beat, it would break my chest". Or Buffy's timeless quip - "If the Apocalypse Comes? Beep Me."
The dialoque was fast and witty. The lines instantly quotable and many snaked their way into our lexicon.
The humor, a self-deprecating and at times very dry wit, undercut the campiness. The show often made fun of itself and the camp. The characters cracking wise or snarking at the silly monsters that came their way. In the process, it also made fun of pop culture.
3. Bending the rules regarding Narrative Form & the introduction of the Meta Narrative
Whedon played with format in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a way few have before or since. Sure people experiment with tropes now and again, and he's certainly not the first to subvert them. But while the network wasn't paying attention, nor apparently a lot of other people, the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were experimenting with different ways of telling a story.
* Hush - Whedon decided to see if he could tell a story without much dialogue, purely through silence and make it work within the fabric of the narrative as a whole. Add a bunch of fairy-tale villains and various comments on the unsuitability of words to express meaning...
* Once More With Feeling - Whedon created a musical meta narrative. He didn't just write a musical, because anyone can do that - see Sam Rami's Xenia, Scrubs Musical Episode or countless others. No, Whedon went a step further - he created a musical that commented on itself, the medium, the act of storytelling, and the creation of a musical in of itself.
OMWF was a meta narrative with music and dance numbers. I remember a friend telling me, "oh this is odd, the show is actually making fun of the fact that they are doing a musical." The self-deprecating wit was what endeared Whedon to a lot of his fans. And never was it more evident than in OMWF. The songs themselves are jokes or plays upon words, with lots of sexual puns thrown in.
An operatic number regarding the difficulty of removing Mustard from a Shirt
Xander turning to the audience after finishing his impromptu song and dance number with Anya: "move it along, nothing to see"
Tara's last line of "Under Your Spell" as Willow goes down on her...off screen, causing her to elevate..."Make me com........plete."
And of course Xander's last speech about doing a musical, which could be word for word Whedon's own speech to his cast and crew and the audience watching.
* The Body - the only episode that had no sound-track. Depicting death through awkward silences. Empty spaces. Negative space. And deft camera work. The episode haunts long after you see it. It feels stripped of metaphor, but of course it's not...the metaphor being the negative space that fills the space Buffy's mother once occupied.
* Restless - an experiment in surrealism and visual poetry. You either hated it or loved it. At its simplest, it explores the insecurities and fatal flaws of all four principal characters through their dreams, while at the same time providing the audience with a hidden road-map to the rest of the series. If only the audience can decipher it. Through-out, pop culture puns and sly jokes are littered - either directed at overblown cinematic darlings such as Apocalypse Now or French surrealistic cinema.
* Fool for Love - a study in styles.Watching Fool for Love is a bit like reading a comic made for tv. It jumps around. But at the same time it utilizes the unreliable narrator. As we watch Spike spin his tale for Buffy's ears, we also see the character redefine himself and his own image. At the end it's hard to know who he is exactly. Or what he wants. But do any of us know this for certain? The episode plays with identity and the roles people take on.
Each of the above episodes is a film/television scholar's dream. Filled to the brim with meta narrative and commentary on the medium, while at the same time expanding on it.
4. The Music...
Most tv series music I barely notice. Oh they have it. Grey's is so obnoxious about it that I have to turn on close-captioning. But few tv series selected songs that fit so perfectly.
Buffy was also amongst the first to premiere new bands, and albums, which people bought after-wards. Now, it's sort of a given for a lot of music related series or hip teen shows. But back then, not so much.
But the music in Buffy haunted me after the show ended. It encapsulated so perfectly the mood or the characters, often adding that extra layer. It was NOT just annoying background music.
Examples of some of the songs:
1. Wild Horses - the Buffy/Angel Theme Song
2. Transylvania Concubine by Rapunzel - Drusilla's Theme in Surprise
3. Pavlov's Bell by Aimee Mann - Spike's theme song in Sleeper (with the perfect phrase: "Trading Coats and ringing pavlov's bell...history knows that's how I fell")
4. Full of Grace by Sarah MacLachlan - the final song in Becoming Part II - while Buffy is on the bus
5. The Prayer of St. Francis by Sarah MacLachlan - the finale song of Grave, S6
6. Goodbye to You - the finale song in Tabula Rasa when both Tara and Giles have left
7. Virgin State of Mind - Willow's Theme song in Dopplegangland
8. Behind Blue Eyes - Giles song, which he sings in Where the Wild Things Are
9. Blue - the song Joss Whedon wrote for Conversations with Dead People, which begins the episode
10. Key - the Drusilla and Spike theme song in Crush
And many, many more.
There's also the haunting score, such as the Gentleman's theme in HUSH, which sends shivers up the spine, Close Your Eyes - Buffy/Angel theme, or the Final Fight score to Chosen.
5. Characters that you can sink your teeth into...
Whedon created complex characters, who were not always likable. Often did bad things. Yet were also relatable on a certain level. You cared. And characters make a story. Fans of the series have their favorites - which they will fight to the death for, no less. Some of the characters even subverted classic genre tropes.
For me, it was Spike, he was my favorite. He subverted the tropes. Next in line, was probably Buffy, who equally subverted tropes and rose above the stereotype of her name.
6. Literary references
Besides multiple film and televison references, the show was book smart and an English Lit not to mention Psych and Philosophy major's dream come true. References ranged from Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame to Shakespeare's Henry the V. In one episode there's a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's Cask of Armtadillo. (Which I know I've misspelled).
On the Psych side of the fence we had references to Freud and Jung. And if you were a philosophy buff, better yet into existentialism, you most likely went nuts over the philosophical references and metaphors.
People annotated Buffy, referencing the thousands of references littered within the series. And discussing the meaning of each.
7. Evolution of Story...or referencing past episodes in a new way, giving those episodes a new meaning.
Buffy was amongst the few series that got better as it went along, and made former episodes which you once thought weren't that great seem either good or amazing upon re-viewing. It was, in short, a series that you wanted to re-watch. Because after you saw a later episode, you realized, wait, I missed something in the previous one.
The last three seasons of the series for example comment on the first three. It's almost as if the post-adolescent characters are seeing what happened in the high school years, now through adult eyes. "HIM" in comic form exposes another side of "Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered", with Xander and Spike now in the befuddled Giles role. Or how about the episode where Amy forces Willow to do a body switch, just as her mother once did to Amy in the classic episode Witch? The ironic subtext remains ever present. Upon re-watch, the viewer catches the sly commentary on the characters. And begins to see each in a new way.
8. Improves upon Re-watching - or The Series You Feel Compelled to Re-Watch
Buffy is that rare series where each time you watch it, it's like you've watched a new show, you react to it completely differently. There's a few movies, books, and tv shows that I feel a need to re-watch - because when I do, I pick up something new. Or see something I didn't the first round.
It's odd, the series critics often rave about right out of the box, I don't feel a need to re-watch. There's nothing to be gained in rewatching Breaking Bad or the Wire, I think. It's pretty much all there on the first go-around. But Buffy, you don't always see it. It's hard to explain exactly - it's a bit like looking a Rorschach Drawing: each time you do, you see something new.
9. The Gaps in the Story-Telling...or the bits the Writer's didn't tell us
While mostly frustrating, this technique can to a degree create obsession. The Writer doesn't explain his story. Too often writers do. The show will wrap itself up so neatly, that you won't need any more info. Nor do you need to rewatch. With Buffy, you did.
It wasn't always clear. You could debate Buffy. You could argue about it. You could over-analyze it. The writer left gaps.
10. Broke barriers in TV
* First Full-Blown Lesbian Relationship Shown on Network TV and First Kiss, not to mention sex scene
* Rough/Kinky Sex with no nudity on Network TV (the jaw-dropping moment of Smashed, when Buffy unzips Spike and impales herself on his, well, penis. This is also ground-breaking in that Buffy initiates the sex and Buffy launches herself at him, and Buffy is the one in control...rarely if ever seen, unless the female character is a villain or femme fatale trope, here it was the opposite.)
* Subversion of Gender Roles (see Smashed)
* Made fun of Burger King and advertisers...which ahem, was not permitted afterwards
It also had a lot of fun playing with "jump the shark" tropes and flipping them. Whedon made fun of tv, made fun of established television tropes - such as the magical kid who shows up out of nowhere.
As much as I loved that series, I do not want a reunion special or movie. Nor a reboot. Let it be what it is, please.
Oh, now here's 10 short but sweet reasons I loved it, the non-obsessive addition:
2. Subversion of Gender Tropes
3. Spuffy or the Spike/Buffy relationship
4. Cool songs and soundtrack
5. Once More with Feeling - musical geek
6. Quips and Witty Humor and Dialogue
7. Girl is the hero or Buffy
9. Giles (actually ASH - I watched it for him to start with)
10. Unpredictable and experimental episodes