On Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 20th Anniversary, Three Super Fans Look Back
Image via Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Warner Bros.
On March 10, 1997, the WB debuted Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Picking up shortly after the 1992 movie of the same name left off, the series—created by Joss Whedon—followed Buffy Summers, a 16-year-old girl just trying to make friends in a new town… all while standing as the lone force, chosen by the powers-that-be, to protect the human race from vampires. As she opines in the second season, “Do you think any other Slayers ever had to go to high school?”
Buffy would run from 1997 to 2003 and during that time we would watch as the slayer and her friends went through the usual trials and tribulations of growing up—falling in and out of love, discovering yourself, PROM—all while battling the evil forces that constantly spewed from the Hellmouth that the fictional town of Sunnydale, California was built upon. Along the way was laughter, tears, and the occasional outbreak of song—all adding up to one of the most memorable and best TV shows of all time.
To commemorate show’s 20th anniversary, I sat down with fellow Buffy fans Clover Hope and Aimée Lutkin to talk about what made the show so great.
Madeleine: I initially missed the boat on Buffy and didn’t start watching until 2001 when it was running in syndication on FX. As a bit of a latchkey kid, I spent almost every afternoon alone watching the episodes back to back, catching up on all the seasons I missed. I have a very obsessive personality as a fan and am the type that once in, I’m all in. This was certainly the case with Buffy and soon Sunnydale and the Hellmouth became my whole world, probably to an unhealthy degree.
Do you guys remember when you first watched Buffy?
Aimée: I didn’t start watching it right away because I’ve always been terrified of anything remotely resembling horror. Vampires in particular—I used to always sleep with hair covering my neck as a deterrent. Then in high school I got a horrible infection that made me sick for weeks. A friend brought me all her pirated videos of Buffy on VHS and I watched them in a haze. I think it was Season 4 (I remember Buffy’s hairstyle) and it took me a long time to find Season 1 running in syndication somewhere. But I’ve been hooked ever since.
Clover: I have no idea exactly when I started watching, but I recall tuning into it regularly with my older sister. It had to be during the first season, sometime in 1998 when I was mid-puberty, around 14 or 15 years old. I was strangely in love with Xander and very attached to the idea of a girl kicking ass and the whole vampire mystique. Back then, I was also heavy into teen-angst action series like Power Rangers and Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad. Sorry my timeline is cloudy, it just feels like Buffy is fused into my childhood television memories.
Madeleine: I think that’s true for a lot of Buffy fans! It just melts into your life and it’s hard to distinguish a time before it existed. Clover, you touched on this with your… peculiar attraction to Xander and what a refreshing idea it was to have a teen girl superhero, but I’m curious about what specifically attached all of us to the show. For me, it was watching this girl who was tough and funny, but also easily dismissible because she was kind of a ditz have this secret life where she was literally saving the world on a daily basis. I think being in your early teens, it’s easy not to feel special, but here was someone who was literally “chosen” to be extraordinary and she had to keep it a secret. A lot of teenagers are waiting for someone to recognize their inner brightness like that. Plus, there was a real vulnerability to her that felt—amidst the super fun mythology—very real and relatable.
Aimée: I get the Xander thing, Clover! He’s very approachable. I’ve always loved TV shows that have a strong ensemble cast, and Whedon definitely knows how to assemble a group and create a sense of intimacy in their language (sometimes to the point of twee overkill). Buffy herself was never very relatable to me. I felt like if she weren’t a super hero she’d just be someone who bullied other girls, like Cordelia did. The group appealed to me. I wanted friends like that and bonds like that.
Clover: I sense some Xander judgment from Madeleine. [Note from Madeleine: NEVER!] But I’ll accept. What I also loved was the dynamic between the villains. From what I remember, mostly the frost-haired Spike, they were all witty and great foils for Buffy. It was this world where we always knew she was going to win and beat the odds but we wanted to see how she fought her way through it and in many ways that’s the journey of adolescence. You need some sense that you’ll be better when it’s all done, but you have to make that difficult journey anyway and fight some demons. I guess there’s no way to grow old without a lot of pain, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.
Aimée: Oh, but Clover, also SEX. The villains were all about SEX, which is obviously very important for teens. I have a lot of Spike paraphernalia lying around… but Buffy’s first sexual interaction turned her boyfriend into a villain, which is a definite fear a lot of teens have. Danger in the unknown, but also excitement.
Clover: How could I forget, the sex. You’re right. Sex plays a role in so much of the horror genre as a representation of fear of Others and of your own body.
Madeleine: God, the villains on this show were so good. I think I rooted for them as much as I rooted for the Scooby gang. The Master? Spike and Drusilla? BAD Angel? I have no time for mopey Angel, but I have all the time in the world for Angelus. And then there’s the Mayor and Faith and even Nathan Fillion as the terrifying preacher Caleb in the final season. They were all so intriguing and allowed to have depth. One of my favorite lines comes from Season 5 when Buffy tells Drusilla that it’s impossible to love without a soul and Dru replies, “We can love quite well. If not wisely.” CHILLS!
What are some of the episodes that most stand out in your memory? There are the obvious (and entirely deserving) favorites like the silent episode “Hush,” the musical episode “Once More with Feeling,” and the gut-wrenching episode “The Body.” But what about some more surprising, less-known favorites? I’m partial to “Living Conditions,” which is about Buffy’s struggle with her (demon) freshman roommate, “The Harsh Light of Day” when Buffy has sex with horrible Parker and Spike (dating Harmony!) finds a way to come outside in daylight, “Something Blue” when one of Willow’s spells makes Buffy and Spike think they’re in love with each other… and pretty much all of Season 2.
Aimée: Unlike many fans, I adore Season 6, and it contains a lot of my favorite episodes, like “Tabula Rasa,” where the Scooby Gang loses its memory, giving everyone a brief moment of freedom from their pasts. “Band Candy,” in which all the adults in Sunnydale revert into their teenage selves, always makes me laugh, and young Giles is a revelation. And speaking of Xander, “The Zeppo” is a great showcase for his character and pokes fun at the usual dramatics of the series in an entertaining way. I’ve cried at “The Prom” multiple times, as Buffy is finally acknowledged by her H.S. classmates for her acts of courage. A great, earlier episode is “I Only Have Eyes For You,” in which a violent ghost story gets rewritten. And any episode where the bad guy is essentially the character’s inner demons works for me. “Fear Itself” is a great example of that, plus Halloween always amps things up in Sunnydale. Is that too many? Damn, I love this show.
Clover: Okay, this is where I had to fire up me old brain and try to recall some episodes. That didn’t work, so I Googled and came upon one of my favorites, “Innocence,” which is the episode where Angel full on becomes “his former self” Angelus after having sex with Buffy and Giles later tells her it’s all good that her good lovin’ triggered his transformation into Angelus. Sex is both beautiful and BRINGS OUT THE MONSTER IN PEOPLE. I just watched the episode again, the part where Angelus physically threatens Willow and Buffy tells him, “This can’t be you…” So dramatic! It reminded me how soapy the series was and how well it played with the fun dual identity aspect and the cycle of tragedy and resilience. There’s also some interesting exploration of what it means to be human, which is obviously a big thematic allure of the vampire genre.
Madeleine: People often complain about the introduction of Dawn, Buffy’s younger sister, in Season 5, but that was hardly the only misstep along the way. So what about where Buffy failed? One thing I can’t ignore when revisiting the episodes is how—with very few exceptions—the show is incredibly white. Imagine the criticism it would receive if it premiered in 2017 instead of 1997.
Clover: Oh yeah, I definitely remember thinking, “Where are all the black people?” while I was watching as a kid, but as it happened, that was a recurring thought because teen series and sitcoms in general had predominantly token characters. I don’t think the black slayer Kendra was featured on the show for very long. And now Bianca Lawson’s dad is married to Beyonce’s mom. I’m sure there are some problematic moments that would’ve inspired essays. How Angel’s Post-Sex Transformation Treats Young Women As Poison. Buffy’s Sex Problem. Buffy’s Black People Problem. Etc.
Aimée: Also a pattern I’ve thought about after following Joss Whedon for two decades is that he has a lot of evil mysterious black men in his shows. It happens on Firefly with Jubal Early, then in Serenity with The Operative and also on Dollhouse with Boyd Langton. On BTVS, there was Mr. Trick and in Season 7, Principal Wood, who appears evil until we discover that he’s the son of a slayer and is looking to avenge her death (caused conveniently by Spike, who beats him up pretty bad in their confrontation).
There are plenty of white villains too, but that’s because there are white people up to the rafters in all these series. There’s no counterpoint of representation on the hero side. Still, I enjoy all the characters mentioned above, as villains are generally more interesting and Whedon writes them very well, but I think it’s a failure of BTVS for sure.
Madeleine: Yeah, I think we all definitely agree, though I will point out that Principal Wood ends up being a hero (who gets to bang Faith!) and Firefly/Serenity’s Zoe (Gina Torres) is one of the best and bravest characters in the Whedonverse.
Buffy is emblematic of a lot of diversity problems that we see on television, but it was also very progressive in other ways. Like Willow coming out as gay in college. There weren’t many (if any) teenage lesbians portrayed in healthy relationships on TV at the time and now it’s pretty commonplace—from Degrassi: TNG to Pretty Little Liars. Which makes me think about the ripple effects the show has had. Would there be a Katniss Everdeen without Buffy Summers? Would Veronica Mars have had the same success if Buffy didn’t predate it? I personally don’t think so. There weren’t many shows like Buffy before it aired—shows that were smart, funny, and about and for (super) powerful teen girls. Plus it was Joss Whedon’s first major project as a showrunner. So maybe you could argue that without Buffy, there’d be no live-action Avengers…
Aimée: As a young queer lady, seeing Willow openly express desire for women was great—not just her loving relationship with Tara, but the casual asides she made in later seasons made it feel totally normal for a woman to be attracted to another woman and I appreciated that. I love Gina Torres, and speaking of ripples, I first remember her on Xena: Warrior Princess, on which she played Cleopatra. Xena is a predecessor of Buffy in my mind, and 20 years later you can see these women standing in a line, but also branching out and having the effects you mentioned on television. There is something of Buffy in Jessica Jones, the series, especially using super powers to address violence against women and abusive men.
Clover: Veronica Mars is definitely one of the most notable successors. And speaking of Avengers, it’s interesting to see, decades later, that Buffy was a superhero who I didn’t really define as such when I was younger, partly because the character was so fleshed out. I just thought of her as some formidable yet vulnerable teen force in the (fictional) world. Same with Xena, another show I loved. There are also obviously, structure wise, ways that Buffy influenced the way people create television and the way viewers indulge TV. It was a lot of things at once: a soap drama that was also a teen series that was also very adult, with a bunch of interconnected characters and monsters, and it’s one of those shows that made me think about love a lot during a time when I didn’t really understand it.
Madeleine: Okay, my last question is brief, though maybe very difficult. You have to pick one ride-or-die character, one favorite, in the whole Buffy universe. Who is it?
Aimée: Like I said, I’m in love with the ensemble, so this is hard! But I think Giles. He’s a complicated person, capable of doing terrible things for what he believes in, but not inflexible. And as I get older, I understand how truly smoking hot he was. Glad not to be a teen forever!
Clover: I would have to choose Willow. She was that quiet, crafty (that is a witch reference) force that reminded me the most of myself. There was darkness in there and like everyone else she craved love, which is the thing that keeps people alive. Think about it.
Madeleine: After a lot of consideration, I think my favorite is Anya, the demon-turned-human-turned demon again. She is funny, loyal, and had to choose to love people which is arguably harder than having it programed in your brain. Ultimately, though, I’m just relieved that none of you said Riley because I’d have to end our friendship.