Thursday, August 7, 2008

Alphabeticals: B is for Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The thing about packing is that you have to make choices: what to take with you, what to leave behind…it’s not easy. I learned this lesson as I was packing for a semester in London last semester, and trying to pare down my books. Once I’d weeded it down to 17 (I came home with closer to 30, and don’t ask how I fit those in my suitcase) I stared hopelessly at the massive binder that contains all of my DVDs. It was not going to fit into my suitcase, and I couldn’t cram them all back into their individual cases…those wouldn’t fit either. I dug out a couple of old CD wallets, the kind that hold 24 and 62 CDs, respectively, and started making choices.

I don’t own a whole lot of movies. I narrowed those down to the good (Before Sunrise, Pride and Prejudice), the girly (Wimbledon, Love Actually) and the geeky (Serenity). Then it came time for the TV shows.

I have an extensive collection of TV shows on DVD ranging from season 1 of Clarissa Explains it All (if you’d asked me to write about my favorite TV show when I was 9 that’s what you would have gotten), to a random smattering of Friends seasons, to the four good years of Gilmore Girls (everything pre-Logan, basically). There are the shows that never made it past season one (My So-Called Life, Firefly), and the ones that always lead to hysterical laughter (Arrested Development). And then there’s the jewel of my collection, the collector’s edition Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Complete Series. 40 discs of pure, unadulterated awesome.

I was a late-comer to the Buffy fandom; my sister and I started watching the show through 1 AM re-runs after Saturday Night Live the summer before my senior year of high school and a year after it went off the air. I don’t think it was what either of us expected…it was funny. It was smart. One of the best episodes of the entire series didn’t even have dialogue and another was a musical! And all of it born out of a relatively crappy Luke Perry movie from the early nineties.

Joss Whedon, creator/producer/writer/God, wanted to create a metaphor for high school as hell, and set the series in the fictional Sunnydale, California, in a high school that literally was hell, or situated directly over it, anyway. He also wanted his heroine to be the girl from all those slasher movies, the blonde that gets killed in the first act. Enter Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar): a pretty, popular cheerleader who could kill you with her pinky. Not that she would. Unless you had fangs and a particular aversion to sunlight.

The show combined 3 key elements, all in its title. “Buffy” – comedy, “Vampire” – horror, and “Slayer” – action. (The “the” just holds it all together.) Sometimes it went to very dark places—in the episode “the Pack,” Xander (Nicholas Brendon), along with several school bullies, is possessed by a hyena. While he’s detained by Buffy, the other students eat the principal for lunch (not the only principal to be eaten in the course of the show, either. Buffy was never afraid of a high body count). It also went for completely silly comedy—after a bad break-up in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Xander blackmails a girl in his class into casting a love spell that goes horribly, horribly awry. As every woman in Sunnydale tries to seduce and then destroy him, Buffy gets turned into a rat and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) tries to keep the women in line long enough to reverse their spells.

At its best, though, the show combined comedy with drama. In the aforementioned musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” Buffy deals with her unhappiness at being brought back to life by her friends with a backdrop of dancing demons and silly songs (Sample lyrics to “The Mustard Song”: “They got the mustard out!”). It could wrench your heart and then make you laugh through your tears.

Every season of the series focused on a theme (season four was all about friendship, and how that can be tested in college, and season seven was about loneliness and alienation), and every season had a “Big Bad” around to cause problems. Some of the best include the Mayor, a germaphobe and all-around nice guy, if only he hadn’t sold his soul in exchange for immortality, and the Trio, three extreme nerds (Buffy writers almost all say that, if they needed dialogue for the Trio, all they needed to do was stick their heads into the Writer’s Room and write down whatever conversation was going on there, hence fights about the best James Bond and the line “Scully wants me so bad.”) who decide to take over Sunnydale.

After season 3, Buffy was spun-off into Angel, a darker, though sometimes funnier, show that followed Buffy’s en-souled vampire boyfriend, Angel(us) (David Boreanaz) to Los Angeles where he starts a mystical detective agency with a half-demon, half-drunk Irishman, Doyle (Glenn Quinn), and Buffy’s best frenemy Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter). Like any show, Angel had its ups and downs, and the body count was high, just as with Buffy. It was never a clone of its sister show, but they dealt with similar themes.

Buffy is what they call a cult show. It never had the highest ratings, but it had, and continues to have, a fan-base that loved it passionately. So much so that a year ago it returned, not to the screen, but to the page, as a canonical comic book written by Joss Whedon and several old writers from the show, as well as people who wrote for the early Buffy comics, and some new names as well. New issues are released every month, and they’ve contained some big surprises (literally, one of the characters is now a giant), several old faces (including a few that are supposed to be dead), and a lot of new characters. In the comics world there’s also Fray, a sort of spin-off set several centuries in the future, in a world where vampires are called “Lurks” and there hasn’t been a slayer for a very, very long time.

So you can see why the show lasted seven seasons on two networks, and why I gave up almost half of my DVD space to Buffy discs. The show was smart, funny, sad, and beautifully shot to top it all off. The acting, especially from Sarah Michelle Gellar, was always top-notch (Ashanti’s season seven guest spot aside). It was TV gold.

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