The Buffy Summer
A few weeks gone by, Nikki Stafford declared June to be Vampire Month on her pop-culture blog, Nik at Nite. The primary topic of conversation — which I'm observing a moratorium on naming — was beginning to eat itself, and she had fangdom on the brain for at least two good reasons: (1) ECW Press, where Nikki serves as an editor and which publishes her Finding [censored] books, has a True Blood companion coming out. (2) She was preparing to attend Slayage — an academic conference devoted to the work of Joss Whedon in general and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular. I think there was also something about The Vampire Diaries in there.
I was surprisingly late getting into the adventures of Buffy Summers.
While I didn't see the movie when it came out in 1992, a dear friend of mine and her roommate were devoted to it as a cult-classic guilty pleasure, so one night they rented it on videotape (a reference that is now the purview of the cultural anthropologist) and made me watch it. I got a kick out of it, especially Paul Reubens during his exile from Pee-Wee Herman; Rutger Hauer could probably menace in his sleep, Kristy Swanson played good borderline-bimbo-with-breakout-potential, and I might even have appreciated the irony of Donald Sutherland as Buffy's mentor — his son Kiefer, see, had starred in The Lost Boys, perhaps the best teen-vampire flick of all time.
I had no idea how far the film had strayed from Whedon's original intent, however. The movie is basically a well done but camped-up take on the title's ridiculous high concept: Valley Girl vs. the Undead. But, at least as reflected in the WB/UPN television series that followed, Joss was going for more than a spoiled-girl-grows-into-obligations romp akin to Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead (with "secretly running the household" replaced by "secretly fighting creatures of the night because it's, like, totally my destiny"); the papers presented at Slayage have no doubt shown — and millions of fans (TV critics, scholars, and fellow filmmakers among them) can attest — that the world of Buffy had a much richer vein to tap than the movie suggests.
On TV Buffy went through camp and came back out the other side. There's no getting past that title or the premise of a teenager chosen to be a once-in-a-generation protector of humanity against all things that go bump in the night — nor should there be; Whedon obviously knew the value of the high concept even as he was interested in going much deeper. And one of the richest things about the TV series was its characters' steeped-in-pop-culture dialogue, the self-proclaimed "Scooby Gang" flirting with self-awareness as characters even as they worked through growing self-awareness as people. Like so many science-fiction, fantasy, and superhero sagas with not just valid but often startlingly dramatic or touching commentary on the human condition, Buffy is dismissed by wider audiences due to its genre trappings when (as with the best Star Trek or Superman stories) it's those very trappings that allow serious issues to be examined in a different, insightful light.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer made its leap to television in the spring of 1997, I sampled the first episode and caught another one a few weeks later. Not that I couldn't relate to the show's high-school setting (nobody ever forgets those days), but I was a newlywed struggling with the transition to full-time freelancing and self-publishing after a move that stripped away pretty much all of my regular income, so my TV viewing was limited mostly to the handful of shows to which I was already obsessively attached; what's more, my wife was hooked on La Femme Nikita and Xena: Warrior Princess, and I wasn't sure that I could take another low-budget semi-serious series in my diet — which is all Buffy appeared to me to be at the time.
Soon enough friends who couldn't believe I wasn't watching the show urged me to do so; we even started recording both Buffy and its new spinoff Angel in 1999 with the aim of getting caught up. I'd gotten sick, though, and it took some time for my perennial dizziness to quiet down enough for me to stomach moving pictures — only after which I seriously bonded with the TV, poor concentration having made reading difficult and left me hungry for narrative or (since I rarely got out) just some form of companionship.
I finally did catch up with Buffy in a big way a couple of years later, no longer married, still not very social, eating too much ice cream, and watching even more television. After seeing the landmark episode "The Body" and being floored by its power, even without having been a regular viewer of the series, I dug out my tape of the two-part series premiere, "Welcome to the Hellmouth / The Harvest" (kindly provided by friend and former co-worker Stefan Blitz, now editor-in-chief of Forces of Geek, who had sent me a care package complete with episode guides) and lucked out by jumping aboard the series' run on the cable channel FX with the very next episode. Not only was FX airing Buffy from the beginning in double-episode blocks Monday through Friday, later episodes were running in syndication and the WB network was repeating the past season weekly throughout the summer, so I got to gorge on the entire series, in order, via judicious juggling of videotapes before the new season began on UPN; it instantly became one of my favorite shows ever.
Although it can't help but suffer in comparison to Buffy, I've heard enough recommendations for The Vampire Diaries (whose pilot left me largely uninspired last year) that I'll be catching up with it this summer as it repeats on the WB and UPN successor CW, but I'm really looking forward to celebrating Vampire Month by finally indulging in the second season of True Blood and hoping that I can watch the just-launched third season soon thereafter with the help of HBO-enabled friends. Early this year I remarked on a comments page here that when a certain series concluded we should keep the Nik at Nite community that grew around it together for a Buffy rewatch — not that we'd otherwise abandon our beloved blogmistress, of course, but she wrote guides to Ms. Summers' Scooby Gang long before anyone had ever imagined Finding [redacted for sanity]. I have so much current TV to get up to date on lest my credentials among the pop-culture cognoscenti be revoked that I now dread the time commitment of such a rewatch, but the thought is still inviting.
Have you sunk your teeth into Buffy?
Promo shots from BTVS Seasons One, Five, and Seven © 1997, 2001, 2003 Twentieth Century Fox.
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Kindred Posts: Vampire Weekend • Come Try My Hellmouth On • The Vampire Slayer Diaries