She saved the world. A lot.
I didn’t discover Buffy the Vampire Slayer until sophomore year of college, years after the original series had ended. I checked out the first season on DVD from my university library, vaguely remembering half an episode I’d watched at a friend’s house in middle school and looking for some way to procrastinate. (This is pre-Netflix, folks.) I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
From the very first wolf-howl in that old-school opening credits montage, I was hooked. No, scratch that–I was in love. Set against a delightfully 90’s backdrop of denim skirts, pleather jackets, and fluffy bangs, the show sucked me in with its tight writing, colorful characters and yes, its heart. I commandeered the communal TV, let my roommates know who was the new head of the household (Buffy Summers, obvs) and settled in for one long, wild ride.
The heart and soul of the show is, of course, Buffy Summers, a sixteen-year-old California blonde with a petite frame and skimpy outfits who just happens to have superpowers. There’s a line in the first episode where a voice-over explains exactly who Buffy is:
In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.
I remember one word always stuck out at me in that introduction, and it was the word alone. She alone will stand against the forces of darkness. In all the billions of humans on earth, Buffy was the only one with the power to face down evil. How’s that for female empowerment! But Buffy was never a steely-eyed warrior raised from birth with a stake in her hand. No–Buffy was the kind of female superhero I’d been looking for my whole life: spunky with a side of snark, who still had to worry about homework, bad hair, and mean girls when she wasn’t saving the world from ancient vampires with fruit punch mouth or ravening demon hordes from Sunnydale’s unfortunate Hellmouth problem.
And the truth was, Buffy didn’t stand alone. Supported by her chosen cadre of misfits and nerds (nicknamed the Scoobie Gang in Episode 2), Buffy always had people to rely on. Willow–Buffy’s closest female friend, a tech geek-turned-witch–provided the brains to Buffy’s brawn, and provided a quiet, thoughtful foil to Buffy’s occasionally brash temperaments. Xander–the class clown, whose sense of humor only rarely outshone his taste in loud Hawaiian shirts–was always ready to back Buffy up, despite his lack of powers whatsoever. And of course, Giles, Buffy’s Watcher and stand-in father figure. With a cool British demeanor and an encyclopedia of esoterica in his neatly combed head, Giles was always the voice of reason in a tempest of insanity. Some of the most touching moments in the show, for me, came from the deep but often fraught relationship between Buffy and Giles, played with grace and aplomb by veteran British actor Anthony Stewart Head.
And let’s not forget the Scoobies’ love stories. Spike, the wicked and charismatic Billy Idol look-alike (“Actually,” says Spike, “Billy Idol stole his look from me.”) whose complexity and range took him from villain to sidekick to love interest to villain to tortured hero. Tara, whose heartbreaking storyline took Willow to the brink of darkness. Anya, the cutest of the Scoobies–who knew a revenge demon was capable of love? And of course, Angel, the progenitor of the “vegetarian vampire” trend and, in my opinion, the most important relationship on the show. Buffy and Angel’s classically Gothic relationship encapsulated so much of what made the show so engrossing: darkness juxtaposed against light, evil against good, damnation against the possibility of salvation.
I wonder if Joss Whedon and the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer guessed, when they were just starting out, what a phenomenon the show would become. Twenty years to the day since the first episode aired, there are now TV spinoffs, novels, graphic novels, coloring books and a clothing line. I guess even now, two decades later, it’s hard to forget the brave teenager with a stake in one hand and a crossbow in the other, dusting vamps and saving the world from one Big Bad after another. Even if it meant risking–or even sacrificing–her life.