[Article by Mike Marinaro]
[Article (Spoiler Free)]
I’ve had quite the journey with Buffy the Vampire Slayer over the years. As the brilliantly rendered characters grew and evolved through their adolescence and young adulthood, I grew too; as they learned about themselves, I did as well. What, you might ask, beyond helping some geeky guy you don’t know learn something about himself, actually separates ‘that show with the corny name’ — yes, we’ve all called it that at one point — from other great television shows out there? Well, if pressed to boil it down to one reason above all others I’d yell out characters! That doesn’t really get to the heart of things, though, does it? Alright then, without further ado, here’s my 10-item unordered list of what makes this unique series so damn special.
- Character Fluency. When you get caught up in watching a string of episodes it’s often easy to overlook the connective tissue that binds the characters to the various stories being told. If you pay close attention, though, you’ll find the characters casually referencing what happened in the previous episode(s). Characters not only remember what happened seasons ago, but also what happened last week! I find this quality to be incredibly vital to why the characters feel so much like real people as opposed to just puppets of the writers and the plot. This dynamic allows for a level of ‘intimacy’ with the characters I’ve seen no other shows, quality or otherwise, accomplish to this extent. This is why it is one of the first things I notice is missing in other shows. Long-term and short-term memory in characters is something that I’ve only ever seen Buffy do completely right.
- Continuity. This show’s self-awareness of its history is immaculate. It’s not perfect — no show is — but I’ve never seen another that’s even come close to this one’s consistent use of continuity in a sea of ever-changing characters and plots. The fact this consistency is maintained over a span of 7 seasons and 144 episodes simply boggles the mind. From whole storylines to character development to in-jokes to throw-away references to poking fun at itself from time-to-time, Buffy never forgets where it came from.
- Foreshadowing. So Buffy does a fantastic job of remembering what happened before, but that joy impressively also goes in the other direction! Many major plot points and character arcs were planned seasons in advance, and that enhanced direction often shows itself in the form of subtle but largely deliberate foreshadowing. Between both the clearly intentional and the likely accidental hints of things to come, this level of interconnectivity between different parts of the story is truly unprecedented. I often find myself amazed to see something foreshadowed only to jump ahead to that point in the series and see a reference back to the episode that foreshadowed it.
- Psychology. The characters not only have short-term and long-term memory, they also have a lot going on inside them psychologically. Fortunately for us, Buffy is masterful at allowing the viewer into the minds of the characters. Through the thorough and nuanced development many of the characters get in nearly every episode there is rarely a point in the series where you don’t completely understand why someone’s acting the way they do or making a particular important decision. Some of this insight is conveyed through the themes of an episode, sometimes through the dialogue, but other times through literary techniques such as metaphor and symbolism, and yet still other times with simply great acting with subtle facial expressions and body movement at the right times. The characters all have unique personalities, opinions, and perspectives that largely drive how they’ll react in any given situation. All of these factors add up to a feeling of genuinely knowing and understanding who these characters are.
- The Fun Factor. Despite all the other quality aspects of the show, I have to admit I wouldn’t be nearly as invested in it if wasn’t just plain fun to watch. The show is far funnier than most comedies and is also able to blend that comedy with intense drama and pathos. The humor of the show isn’t one-dimensional either. The show sports situational comedy, character-based comedy, dialogue-based comedy, continuity/history-based comedy, and even silent comedy, sometimes all at once! Beyond the comedy, there is also some pretty awesome action sequences littered throughout the series. It’s quite fun to watch Buffy’s fighting style literally evolve season-to-season. Buffy is also very playful with language, yet it’s always consistent with its own internal rules. The best part of all this is that all of these qualities aren’t just in “the comedy episodes” — they’re a part of every episode in the series, albeit some episodes emphasize certain qualities more than others.
- The Cry Factor. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, once said that there are “[t]wo things that matter to me: emotional resonance and rocket launchers.” I’m not one to easily get emotionally invested in fiction, yet Buffy is able to emotionally bring me to my knees, often while laughing and cheering all at the same time. There’ll be a scene that has you on the brink of tears only to slip in a subtle joke that causes you to chuckle through the tears. Yet there are also moments — moments grounded in carefully crafted character development — that simply punch you in the gut and then kick you while you’re down. Despite being a fantasy show, Buffy is more consistently emotionally resonant than any other TV show I’ve ever seen. A large part of why this is so is because these moments are actually earned — they don’t come out of nowhere and feel natural based on what came before.
- The Brain Factor. Despite the cheesy title, Buffy is actually a tremendously smart show that deftly utilizes metaphor, symbolism, and subtext which are all used with surprising subtlety. It’s also a show that is rich in themes that are present in every episode and through entire seasons, always saying something relevant about the characters. There are scenes that’ll have a witty pop-culture reference followed by a subtle literary reference, all of which ends up foreshadowing a character’s actions in the next season or is directly related to the themes of the present episode or season. There is a tremendous amount of sophistication in not just the text of the show, but also in its visuals. It should also be mentioned how incredibly gutsy the show can be at times, sometimes devoting itself to entire seasons. Most shows chicken out when it comes to following-through with the consequences of previous episodes or seasons, but Buffy nearly always delivers and has the guts to take the characters where they should organically be heading after what they’ve experienced.
- Variety. Buffy never gets stale throughout its seven seasons. There are many reasons behind this. The first is that that the show spans multiple genres ranging from drama to comedy to action to horror to romance, sometimes all within the span of five minutes. Yet all these elements are blended together so cleverly that it almost never feels jarring. The characters have complex personalities with both positive traits and negative traits. They can be witty and fun, but also occasionally out-of-line and mean, although their position is always understandable. This sort of spontaneous flexibility in tone is also present from episode-to-episode, with some episodes focusing more on an individual component of the show’s tone — there are hilarious comedy episodes, scary horror episodes, touching romantic episodes, and gut-wrenching dramatic episodes, and each of these have aspects of the others. On top of all of this, each season has a unique tone, look, feel, and even music. No season repeats the feel, themes, or character development of previous seasons. Because of this, each season comes out being completely unique from all the others. At no point does the show feel like it’s treading the same ground.
- Unique Episodes. The average episode of Buffy contains all of the things I’ve already pointed out, which already makes it an absolute joy to watch. Yet the show is never content to lean exclusively on its known strengths. There are a whole bunch of episodes that successfully do something completely different, whether it’s looking at the series from a different point of view or letting a minor character be the central character. It can get even more experimental than that, too, like having an episode with almost no dialogue or an episode that takes place entirely in the realm of dreams or an episode with absolutely no music or an episode with almost nothing but music. Despite how some of these episodes appear “gimmicky” on the surface, these ‘unique situations’ are always used as a springboard to say something about the characters and to move the story and themes forward.
- The Journey. The first time I finished all of Buffy I paused in reflection of what I’d just seen while being simultaneously saddened that my ride with the characters had ended. After this pause, I went back to the very beginning of it all out of sheer curiosity. I found myself completely shell-shocked at the contrast between the beginning of the series and the end of it. In the former, the characters are mere children who have unformed opinions, a romanticized outlook on relationships, are blissfully unburdened by the reality of death, and are the opposite of self-aware. Season-by-season these characters very gradually and naturally — based on their experiences and history — learned, loved, lost, evolved, and eventually became adults not just in physical appearance but as people. The characters we see at the end of the series are self-aware adults who are largely knowledgeable of their and each other’s faults, strengths, and motivations. The journey through the series isn’t one focused on plot or some big evil scheme, it’s one entirely centered on the characters. In this aspect Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like one giant book where each season represents a chapter in that story.
So, in the end, the common thread of all of these points is back to what I started with: it’s all about the characters. All of these items don’t exist in isolation either, they work together to make each individual quality that much more resonant. On top of all of this, there’s always something new to learn. There are many areas of the show that are worthy of study that I either don’t have specific interest in or simply haven’t started digging into yet, but they’re there to explore nonetheless ranging from the show’s use of music to gender studies to cultural impact, and plenty more. I learn more, pick up new things, and make new connections each time I watch the series. This is one of the rare times where the material is actually enhanced each time you watch it rather than getting boring or old. That’s the magic of a complex show that uses plots to service the characters, not the other way around. Plots on any show get old after a few viewings, but rich and layered characters end up taking on a life of their own.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a uniquely marvelous television series, one that actually gets better every time I watch it. Thankfully the show isn’t an academic bore to watch and is instead boundless fun. When I’m not feeling well and need a good laugh, I generally go to Buffy to cheer me up. When I’m in the mood to be deeply affected by something, I watch Buffy to give me a little teary-eye. When I’m in the mood to think about my entertainment, I watch Buffy and then write about it… a lot. This show is able to deliver on all these qualities and much more. This is what the show means to me. Now please go (re)watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and find out what it means to you.
“You think you know… what’s to come… what you are. You haven’t even begun.” – “Restless” [4×22]