20 years ago today, Joss Whedon and Sarah Michelle Gellar graced our televisions and lives with what many consider to be the best, most essential contribution to pop culture of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series that originally aired in March of 1997, began as a mid-season series for the WB that introduced us to the hellish world of high school with a twist: Sunnydale High was quite literally over the mouth of hell. The series protagonist? A young blonde girl with a destiny that required her to combat the forces of darkness while still making time for school and a social life – and when you’re that age, it already feels impossible to juggle those transitional stages. The premise of ‘Buffy’ was enough to instantly resonate with a specific age group through multiple generations, but Buffy didn’t stop with teenage tales. The series soon delved into much more mature and universal life lessons that every person could connect to at one point or another.
What set ‘Buffy’ apart from other series and characters was that it signified that a girl who didn’t view herself as all important could take on life’s trials with the inner strength she wasn’t aware she had. Her grades weren’t the greatest but it didn’t detract from her true brilliance, she wasn’t the popular girl but people saw her for the compassionate savior she was, not to mention she had a wit and cleverness about her that only complimented her physical strength. Buffy became a pillar of inner and outer fortitude, not only for me at such a young age, but to anyone who gave the show a chance. You may be asking yourself what else makes this different than other series with morality and growing up as the focus, or maybe even those led by strong women – but before Buffy, a character like her was the helpless damsel who needed saving from the horror genre. Buffy redefined how a young woman could be portrayed in the media, a way that we need to see crafted more often. This (at the time) new inspiration extended far past young women, giving men and women of all ages courage to face their own demons (figuratively and literally if you’re a slayer.)
As the series came out of the High School setting it had been contained to, the larger changes began to take place and pushed both Buffy and the viewers out of their comfort zone. We weren’t facing the traditional nasties we had become accustomed to, it was now time to enter college and that first true spark of independence that one goes through at that age. Buffy began to feel overwhelmed by the balancing act of school, slayage and navigating through a new dating world as well as learning that being too trusting can be one’s downfall. In other ways the series tackled this real life growth, the supporting character Willow (resident witch and member of the ‘scooby gang’) escaped the overbearing family oriented life she lived and was able to explore her sexuality when she found herself falling in love with another woman (and fellow witch.) This was a major development for television, not usually allowing much to be revealed about same sex relationships – let alone their eventual kiss that is still talked about to this day. What made this feel natural was the connection they developed with the pair; it wasn’t placed in the story to turn heads, it was a pure unfiltered love at its greatest and that’s a gift that will stay with people for years to come.
As Buffy progressed to the later seasons, a return to family became focus – which is something life always comes back to. Buffy had to focus on watching over her younger sister (one of the supernatural/mystical inclusions of BTVS) that also was a rare shock to viewers of the series, given only slight indication via the show’s notorious and unrivaled foreshadowing. It took a darker turn when Buffy’s mother became ill, something completely unrelated to supernatural doings and entirely real – death and the trauma that immediately follows. The loss of her mother delivered possibly the most authentic essence of human emotion from the shock and devastation that triggers everyone to some capacity. The episode featured no music, no real supernatural plot, just 42 minutes of raw emotion that to this day hasn’t been surpassed by any other series on television – there is simply no way to recreate such a profound moment with an impact as heavy and brutal as “The Body.” That season featured another loss, the choice Buffy made to sacrifice herself to not only save her sister, but to save the world. For the first time in her experience as the slayer, Buffy felt that her ending her existence could be for the greater good and she made a sacrifice that blew viewers and critics away, but also fit the beautiful spirit of Buffy.
By the time the series had concluded on WB, BTVS had been picked up by UPN for additional seasons, having recognized the cultural phenomenon it had transpired into. Buffy not only came back to life as a series and character but it/she came back with some of the most distressing moments the series had to offer. Ultimately, the next path solidified that regardless of network or number of seasons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was far from concluding the momentous series that held plenty more lessons on humanity and how to navigate through the darkness that it can spew. In season 6, Buffy was brought back to life by Willow and the scoobies, but not without serious consequences. To begin, Buffy was ripped from heaven and spent the entire season trying to find her new purpose after feeling like she had completed her life mission. That empty feeling that followed was explored through Buffy trying to be an adult on top of feeling aimless. She returned to taking care of her sister, slinging burgers at a fast-food restaurant and beginning a destructive sexual relationship with former big-bad Spike as a shell of her former self. Buffy spent a long while trying to rediscover herself and become someone new, because that young bubbly slayer was now in a position where life changed on her and she either needed to adapt and grow or give up.
As the series once again importantly reminded us, even the strongest people have to regroup and reevaluate their lives and there is no shame in discovering who you are. This season focused a large part on self punishment, accepting what you feel you deserve and even began to explore the severity of addiction through the scope of Willow. In the early days of the show, Willow was the meek geek who wouldn’t harm a fly, but she evolved as much as the series protagonist (and every character truly) becoming a powerful witch whose love for magic began to deteriorate into a full blown addiction. Many people became angered by Willow, however, like addiction goes you begin to realize that having control over something so powerful isn’t a simple fix and occasionally asking for help is the most mature thing you can do (via Buffy/Willow in season 6.) That came to a tipping point when the climax of the season saw a seemingly average guy (who poorly hid his misogynistic outlook) with no enhanced abilities murdered Willow’s soulmate Tara and nearly killed Buffy in the process. It was unexpected, tragic and incomprehensible initially, which is exactly how life can go – but this instance was intensified by the mystical influences of Willow’s power. Willow lost herself, completely succumbing to the darkest magic in a grief stricken rage that shattered her world. The solution? There wasn’t one, which is another lesson from Buffy that stands the test of time; sometimes the only way to bounce back from loss and instability is to survive and rebuild with what you’ve experienced, helping you progress towards a more knowledgeable and hopefully self aware future.
Going into the final season of the series before tackling the comic expansion of the Buffyverse, Buffy has gone through hell and back, coming out the most levelheaded version of herself she could possibly be. Luckily for her, it was just in time to lead an army of potential slayers being threatened with extinction from the first – as in the first evil known to mankind. A foe this large put Buffy and company to the test, forging Willow’s mystical progress when she felt she couldn’t gain control again, Buffy’s ability to lead dozens of women who were where she was years prior and Spike’s ensouled conflict with accepting what he had done as a demon for two centuries. Buffy and Spike were both utterly perfect characters to use for this final chance at change, as Spike finally earned his soul on his own accord (the attempted rape scene in season 6 was his lowest moment that indicated he needed to find that spark of humanity he believed he had remaining.) Buffy on the other hand had finally found a new sense of adulthood that didn’t require her to rely on others ever again. Together, the two took television’s most tumultuous relationship and began down a path with redemption and mutual understanding. Towards the series end, Buffy and Spike share a heartwarming moment (one of multiple) that purely centers on the two proclaiming their fears and adoration in regards to one another and it captured the beauty of true love without requiring an explanation – it just told their story through their actions and proved that even the darkest moments can have a dazzling light at the end of the tunnel.
By the end of Buffy’s seven year run, the future was unwritten and Buffy’s life was forever changed because she went from being the only chosen one to sharing her power with women around the world, encouraging them to embrace who they are and not feel alone as she had from the beginning. Buffy truly evolved from a young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders to the strongest person television has ever seen. The heroine saved the world, her family, her friends and managed to learn countless facets about herself in the process. There may be several television shows that replicate life lessons and strong characters, but none have proven to be as timeless and inspiring as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After 20 years since the show originally aired, new fans are finding their way to the series, old fans continue to discuss and rewatch and even new stories continue to be told courtesy of the mastermind behind this television juggernaut, Joss Whedon. Anyone who has given, or will give Buffy a chance will learn that masterful, methodical storytelling is a rarity and when we find a story worth being told, it can spend an eternity impacting people of all ages and all walks of life. From comedy, to drama, action and even horror, the series modeled life effortlessly and transcended television with superb talent from everyone involved. I sincerely know that Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be a part of my heart and a guidebook for myself and countless others for the rest of our lives.
“Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”