Into every generation, a show is born that changes the course of TV. In the 1990s, that show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
On March 10, 1997, American viewers were first introduced to a plucky and ridiculously named 16-year-old cheerleader with no interest in demon-fighting who was nevertheless told by her erudite Watcher, Giles, (Anthony Stewart Head) that she was part of a long line of young girls imbued with superpowers and chosen to protect the world from the forces of darkness. Over the next seven years, fans watched as Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, honed her skills, battled demons, and saved the world—a lot—with friends Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), “Xander” Harris (Nicholas Brendon), and the rest of the “Scooby gang,” as they called themselves.
Not many people noticed at the time; the show was never hugely popular in terms of ratings, but it was a clear cult classic. The generation who grew up on Buffy’s genre-bending premise and fearless plot lines got an early glimpse of what TV (and movies) could become.
Last year may have been the year of genreless TV, but Buffy put genreless drama on the map. It was a fantasy epic wrapped in a teen drama sprinkled with comic relief and doused in martial-arts action. The show is rooted fantasy in realism in a way that hadn’t been done before on TV. That’s what made it timeless, even now that the show’s technology has become laughably outdated. (The Slayer didn’t get a mobile phone until the last season.)
The entire mythology was a metaphor for growing up. Managing powerful magics paralleled addiction, and battling demons mirrored the horrors of high school. When a girl felt ignored, she became invisible. When Buffy lost her virginity to her goodie-two-shoes vampire boyfriend, Angel, he lost his soul and became evil—he ignored her, when he wasn’t tormenting her, and started hanging out with the bad boys. Spike was an evil vampire—and a terrible rebound boyfriend later on the series. And when the gang conquered high school at graduation, they literally blew up the building.
It took its fans seriously—it presumed they cared about the characters and followed from episode to episode, foreshadowing the binge-watching that occurs today in the Netflix era.
The show approached these heavy subjects like drugs, death, sex, and even a school shooting, all with a degree of levity. For every dark moment, (mostly) there was pun or quip to cut the tension. (“We saved the world,” Buffy said, not long after being drowned to death and revived. “I say we party.”)
Then there’s Buffy’s portrayal of women.
Up to that point, there were few TV shows that centered on powerful women (let’s leave aside Xena: The Warrior Princess) and practically none that highlighted the strength of a teenage girl. Buffy showed girls they could be strong, outspoken, and stylish at the same time. She wasn’t the only character that broke ground.
Most of the women on the show were strong willed with super abilities. Willow evolved from a brilliant, bookish teen into an unstoppable Wicca, who came out as a lesbian in the show’s fourth season. She was also one of the few Jewish characters on the air, then. “There were a lot of young girls who loved Willow for that,” executive producer Gail Berman told the Hollywood Reporter. The show influenced teen TV series from Veronica Mars and iZombie to Supergirl and Glee (“Once More With Feeling” raised the bar for a musical episode in TV series.).
Buffy demonstrated the power of niche programming. The show may have debuted before social media but it arrived as the internet was taking off. Fans deconstructed episodes on message boards and AOL Instant Messenger. They went to conventions and they published a monstrous body of fan fiction that still thrives today.
That spurred the vampire genre on TV, later followed by hugely popular films like Twilight and shows like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood. It also set the stage for niche fantasy shows with mass appeal like Netflix’s Stranger Things, HBO’s Game of Thrones, and AMC’s The Walking Dead. And as special effects improved, it prefigured the Marvel movie series of multi-billion-dollar superhero hits—all centered on characters with a sense of purpose, in films with a sense of humor and a shared mythology.
Which brings us to Joss Whedon. The unknown writer and producer transformed Buffy from a 1992 flop B-movie he had written into the beloved TV show it became. He executive produced, wrote, and directed many of the episodes. “I always intended for this to be a cultural phenomenon,” Whedon told Empire, looking back on the 20th anniversary of the show. “That’s how I wrote it. In the back of my mind, I was always picking up an Oscar or a Saturn Award and everyone was playing with Buffy dolls.”
Whedon would go on to create the Buffy spin-off Angel and the short-lived cult classic, Firefly. But when it came time for Marvel to put their first series of movie heroes into a single summer blockbuster, no surprise they brought Whedon on to write and direct the first Avengers movie.
Way back in 2010, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige explained why he took a punt on Whedon directing such a huge film when he’d only made one feature film (a flop based on Firefly) in his life. “I’ve known Joss for many years. We were looking for the right thing and he came in and met on it,” Feige said. “We want to find a director that’s on the verge of doing something great, as we think Joss is.”
With a return of $1.5 billion at the global box office, Whedon didn’t do too badly.
And Buffy is what led to it all. “I want Buffy to be remembered as a consistently intelligent, funny, emotionally-involving show that subtly changed the entire world,” Whedon told Empire, “or a small portion of pop culture.”
The TV show didn’t win any major awards. It wasn’t universally recognized. But it became a pop-culture icon that captured a generation—and is still being discovered for the unsung masterpiece it is today.