Wednesday, July 12, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 11: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street

To discuss the next show on my list, I have to offer a few confessions.

It was the late 90s, and I was well on my way to becoming a TV snob. Having discovered "adult" dramas like ER, L&O and Homicide, I had little interest in ANY sort of teen soaps built around relationship dramas and the oh-so-intense problems of pretty privileged people. (Stop laughing. I'm being 100% sincere in my dismissal at the time.)

Try convincing THAT guy to watch a teen drama called "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," based on a painfully bad movie that died at the box office years ago. It didn't help that this was a show on The WB, which to that point was the terrible low brow home of such TV VD as Unhappily Ever After and Kirk. I ran from it like the plague, even after seeing a blurb or two in Entertainment Weekly about how it was "The Best Show You're Not Watching."

This is how my mother came to be a Buffy viewer before I did. I got exposed secondhand... but that viewing of "Inca Mummy Girl" did little to change my mind. It wasn't until I heard the hype about how the season two finale ended that I made it a priority to check out the rerun of that two-parter just before season three started. Angelus running amok, a second Slayer killed, Buffy forced to send a suddenly-good Angel to hell? I was hooked.

And then somehow Season 3 got even better. By then I was a freshman in college and Buffy was THE hot show in the dorms. It was the perfect show in the perfect environment at the perfect time. The dialog was witty, the characters were fun, and we were all still at the age where the metaphors of "High school is hell" still resonated. I've written before about how Season 3 of Buffy is one of the perfect seasons of television and I still stand by it. It pulls off a number of clever twists, like a major villain switcharoo mid-season. It justifies WHY our heroes and villains find themselves in holding patterns during the last third of the season, and it has one of my favorite "fall from grace" stories as Faith goes from ally to enemy.

And somewhere in all this I realized, "Holy shit! This is a superhero show and a coming of age drama all in one!" You can draw a straight line from Buffy to Alias to the excellent Greg Berlanti-produced superhero shows of the present day. This is why you won't find favorites of mine like Supergirl and The Flash on the list later. Both shows do their own thing, but when it came time to make hard choices, I couldn't dispute they were walking a trail that Buffy had blazed. (That said, I give those shows a LOT of credit for daring to put their leads in actual superhero costumes.)

That was one of the big lessons from Buffy, that one COULD translate the fun of the comic books I read into a TV series and not have to treat it entirely campy. At the time Lois & Clark was the most recent superhero show on TV and BATMAN & ROBIN was our most recent major superhero tentpole - both of which took the approach of somewhat mocking the material. Buffy lived inside its genre, while still being able to poke fun at the conventions of such a show. It never showed contempt for its audience or its mythology. It took the rules of its world deadly seriously and the irreverence came from the characters' reactions to the absurdity they encountered.

It was a tonal high-wire act, managing to be laugh-out-loud funny without sacrificing intensity. The show could tell a story one week about Angelus stalking and psychologically torturing Buffy, even killing one of her close friends, and then next week tell a silly story about a spell gone wrong that makes everyone fall in love with Xander... and both felt wholly appropriate to the series. It was a big lesson in the elasticity of the genre. Sure, The X-Files sometimes abandoned its deadly-serious tone for a goofy episode like "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," but what Buffy pulled off was on another level and it varied its tone far more frequently.

Creator Joss Whedon knew how to use the fans' expectations of the genre against them. There's an episode called "The Wish," (written by Marti Noxon) where Cordellia wishes that Buffy never came to Sunnydale. Instantly she finds herself in an alternate timeline where the town has been overrun by vampires for years and she's the only one who knows how it's supposed to be. She spends the first half of the episode shocked by the changes and trying to get help from alternate timeline versions of Giles and her friends. And then the show breaks a major "rule." Cordillia - the person who seemingly has to put everything right - gets killed. It was one of those "I can't believe they just did that! How do they get out of this?" moments. It was the kind of thing Buffy regularly did - it took the step that other shows would walk up to and then sprint away from.

Another good trope subversion is in the spinoff Angel. We get what appears to be a standard exorcism episode, with Angel and his friends trying to expel a demon spirit from a little boy who has been setting fires and threatening his family's lives. For much of the episode, it appears the tension is drawn from the fact the boy's parents don't realize Angel's a vampire himself. Also, since Angel can't handle a cross without it burning him, he's forced to stay out of the exorcism... until inevitably he has to take the risk. With the demon forced out, the show hits us with an incredibly dark ending - the freed demon is relieved to be out of there. He was trying to feed on the boy's soul... but the kid was souless. The demon confirms he never manifested until Angel detected him... which means all of the ugly stuff the kid did was NOT because he was possessed. He's just a dangerous kid.

Like I said, DARK.

I considered giving Angel its own slot on the list, but when it came time for hard choices, I had to concede that Angel and Buffy were too similar to merit separate recognition. Angel's stories tended to be darker, and often were more complex. Indeed, there are stretches of the spinoff that I prefer to the parent show. Ultimately, Buffy was more versatile and it made the impact on me first.

I've written a bunch of Buffy posts already, so be sure to check them out for more writing tips:

Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Body" - how to write a crying scene, part I
Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Body" - how to write a crying scene, part II
Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "Pangs" - PC or not PC?
Show, don't tell
My KsiteTV post: "What serialized shows like The Vampire Diaries should learn from Buffy’s third season." 
Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today! (We are all so, so old)

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