In Retrospect: Buffy The Vampire Slayer by Garrett Collins

Garrett Collins debuts the issue of his new column for ‘In Retrospect’

Joss Whedon was once like all of us. Growing up in New York City, he was the son of Tom Whedon, who himself was a screenwriter that worked on such shows as The Electric Company and The Golden Girls. To pass time, Joss enjoyed watching films, especially getting into sci-fi and horror. While no one denies that Star Wars was the turning point for science fiction cinema, something in horror films always caught Whedon’s eye. He was stunned to see the beautiful blonde girl always being turned into victims, usually running and screaming from the killer in a dark alley in the process, with no redeeming character qualities whatsoever. After getting jobs in Hollywood as a script doctor, he also landed a gig writing for Roseanne, which in the late 80s-early 90s was the biggest show on television. Now a certifiably successful writer, Whedon decided to tackle the little bit of horror cinema that always stuck in his craw. He wanted to turn the “little blonde victim” into a super hero. He even credits X-Men character Kitty Pride being a big influence on the end character result. And, he thought the best way to do this would be to turn it into a successful movie. How could he lose?

When Whedon wrote the script to his movie in 1991, it was touted as one of the funniest, wittiest, and scariest scripts to come along Hollywood in a long time. Called Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the script landed in the hands of director Fran Rubel Kuzui and her husband Kaz Kazui, who saw it a lot differently than Whedon’s vision. She saw it as a pop culture comedy, with Kristy Swanson in the lead role and hot property Luke Perry in the thankless male lead. Whedon, of course, disproved of all the script changes that were made, and was genuinely crushed by the end result. For example, in Whedon’s script, all the vampires changed to dust when killed. Kuzui wanted to just show them die like humans. This, along with many other changes made to Whedon’s vision, made for a movie that was about as uneven as they get. Fun at times, but never horrifying, the movie made a modest $16.6 million at the box office. So, would this character that Whedon envisioned end up dead forever?

After getting acclaim writing or co-writing scripts such as Speed and Toy Story, Whedon once again reclaimed some clout in Hollywood. Count Fox Executive Gail Berman as the savior of Buffy. She had also seen the original script that Whedon had written for the film Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and knew Whedon’s vision did not exactly match what was onscreen. She asked Whedon to reinvent the character for TV, as she was trying to get a struggling network called the WB off the ground. Whedon, seeing his vision of high school as a horror film finally given the green light and be realized, agreed to the notion. Ironically filmed at the same exact high school as Perry’s own show Beverly Hills 90210, Buffy was envisioned by Whedon at the beginning its run on TV as “X-Files meets My So-Called Life,” even including his original vision of vampires turning to dust. Some metaphors started creeping into the early episodes (bullying used as a metaphor for hyenas, the object of Willow’s online affection turning out to be an ancient monster), but the show faired poorly. It was 104th out of 115 shows in its mid 1997 run. But, executives, confident it would find a wider audience, gave it a full slate of episodes for the next season. Would Whedon and the small gathering of fans online bring Buffy into its glory the next season?

While the metaphors were still in full swing, Whedon and company seemed to start catching on in other ways throughout the course of season two. Whedon was also highly involved with this season, having written 2 episodes by himself, and co-writing 5 others. Not coincidently, this is touted by many fans to be the best season of the entire series. There are some really big highlights, including the famous Halloween episode where all people wearing costumes turned into what they were dressed as. However, what started off as slight metaphors for teen angst were now turning into more mature themes. Sure, there was still the Hellmouth as Hell/school, but now, there were also themes such as abusive relationships and steroids. And, of course, a biggie. Known as one of the most identified with themes with many girls who have sex for the first time, Buffy’s first time having sex was with Angel. Sure, he was a vampire. But, he was also someone who proved himself over and over to the group, and grew in Buffy’s heart as well. However, after having sex with him, Buffy had in turn made the worst serial killers of all vampires, Angelus, return to wreck havoc with the other baddies of that season, vampires Spike and Druscilla. This one act made him lose his soul, in turn making him into a monster. Having this episode and character change broadcast on the night after the Super Bowl proved to be a home run for the network, gathering huge ratings and making the show one of the most talked about shows on television. With the conclusion of the season being that Buffy has to kill the man that she loves in order to save the world, now fans of comedy, horror, and character drama had something they could sink their teeth into. Whedon, rightfully assumed that while having Buffy and Angel be together is what the fans want, it is not what they need. He needed to keep the show fresh. Even the show it mostly resembled in its early stages, X-Files, never had the character development that was shown here. Whedon succeeded in not only bringing his character to life, but bringing it to a wider audience.

By the time season 3 rolled around, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was on a creative and ratings high. Storylines were very well received by both critics and fans alike, and the show was averaging 5.2 million viewers a week. If people thought that Whedon was going to rest on his laurels, they would have to think again. Buffy dealt with the guilt of killing her boyfriend by doing what lots of teens would: she ran away. Leaving her friends and mom behind, she wanted to start a different life, but of course that doesn’t last long. She comes back, only to inadvertly bring back Angel and the threat to humanity. Once again, she hides it by hiding this from her friends, feeling guilty about the fact that he is back and she cannot help but still be in love with him. What people were really starting to realize around this time was that while Buffy The Vampire Slayer surrounded itself with demons, monsters, and genuine silliness, they were used as catalysts for the stories presented. Buffy deals by running away. In later seasons, the topic of addiction would be dealt with by using Willow’s addiction to magic to make her into the big bad of the season. Well, in season 3, Whedon used the senior year of high school to, what else, blow up the school. New characters like Faith the Slayer everyone finds cool and amusing at first, but turns toward the only father figure of her life, The Mayor, for guidance. Viewers are also shown the way of love by popular villain Spike, who bravely proclaims to Buffy that while he might be love’s bitch, at least he is man enough to admit it.

Season four would bring a time of transition for the show. As Buffy got more popular, so did some of the characters around her, and Whedon decided sometime in season two that it was time for Angel to have his own show. Biding time from show to show is never easy, but Whedon kept it in place for the most part throughout the two series on his plate. But, not coincidently, season four was a time when Buffy had more misses than hits. The story arc, which of course was still there, was just a little bit off. However, there was one bit of genius to come out of the season. Whedon, in response to some critics who claimed that the show’s primary reason for its success is its dialogue, decided to write and direct an episode that, what else, took away each of the characters’ voices. Thought of by many (me included) to be the high point of the show’s run, the episode Hush is Whedon at his creative best. Not only did he create an episode that was missing dialogue for a staggering 27 minutes, he also created some of the most horrific creatures the show has ever seen. Known only as The Gentlemen, one of which was played by Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth), Hush once again peaked everybody’s interest in the show. But, the utter strange places that season four ventured, combined with the introduction of Buffy’s sister Dawn in season five (huh?) made for very off-putting storyline choices and once again, more bad episodes than good.

By the time season six rolled around, not only was the show Buffy The Vampire Slayer in a state of change, but so was the network it was on. The WB became UPN, and shows like Charmed bore a high resemblance to Buffy in that it contained seemingly normal looking people with powers. While all this was going on, the show itself got much darker than what fans were used to. Her friends, thinking that she was in a state of Hell after her death at the conclusion of season five, find out (in the once again flash in a pan brilliant musical episode by Whedon called Once More With Feeling), that she was in fact in Heaven, and didn’t want to leave. The threat of Willow’s addiction and the after effects. A full on rape by Spike, who had started a torrid love affair with Buffy throughout the course of the season. All of these added to a show that not many recognized, and the show’s ratings started to reflect that. Was all of this due to Whedon being pre-occupied with Firefly and Angel as well? Maybe. But Whedon himself has dispensed these notions, even trying to take away all the venom that was spewed on fellow Buffy showrunner Marti Noxon by saying they had both planned out both seasons six and seven together. However, fans were not buying it. And, season seven, while looked at as a generally more successful season than the one previous (the opening shot of the season, with a vampire being stuck and unable to get out of the grave, is classic Whedon), was still looked at as not up to par for Buffy fans.

In Retrospect, Buffy The Vampire Slayer changed not only the way people view television, but female characters as well. Joss Whedon successfully continued with the character of Buffy what James Cameron started with the character of Sarah Connor in The Terminator. He took an otherwise normal character and made her into a superhero. He also, while having her deal with vampires and demons, made her deal with real life situations as well. Situations such as her mother’s death, paying bills, and dealing with poor life decisions. It made real-life scary situations into situations that dealt with monsters. In fact, you knew you were in trouble when watching an episode and a creature of some kind did not creep onto your screen. It was also one of the first shows that faltered in the ratings toward the beginning but was kept alive by fans on the internet begging to have more. Sarah Michelle Gellar, who is now starring in the intriguing throwback to film-noir TV show Ringer, was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2002, and the show itself won an Emmy for its season two 2-part episode where Angel goes bad. And Whedon? Well, he is only months away from delivering one of the most anticipated movies of all time, writing and directing The Avengers. Many years in the making, the weight of the Marvel comic book world lives on his shoulders. And, yes: it must be a dream for Whedon, after he himself read the comic books as a kid and wrote some X Men issues in his adult life, to direct Thor, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk to Assemble. But…you wonder if he still has in the back of his mind how Buffy would fit in. After all, she did face Dracula.


2 thoughts on “In Retrospect: Buffy The Vampire Slayer by Garrett Collins

  1. Pingback: Buffy in a Nutshell « comicbookjesus

  2. If the show had stopped after S5, or even after Tabula Rasa in S6. It would have been flawless. But S6 was a nightmare of badness with no relief. The second have of the season, in retrospect, was almost punishment for the fans.
    Every good idea in the first have was either throw away or wasted.The drug metaphor and killing Tara combined with a truly awful finale was just…ugh..
    It was a complete collapse of the show.

    S7 wasn’t crap..just mediocre and meandering. It was like visiting someone after a stint in rehab, trying to convince us it was wrong.



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