If you didn’t know, it’s the 40th anniversary of the theatrical release of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” There’s a lot of buzz and fanfare about the anniversary, with a new movie, “The Last Jedi,” coming this December. There’s also been rumor of a 4K restoration of “A New Hope” hitting theaters sometime this year, though all that exist now seems to be just that: rumors.
Looking past Star Wars and to the small screen, there’s another anniversary for a TV science fiction/fantasy show that made a big impact on the genre, launching some of its actors to stardom and its creator, Joss Whedon, to head one of the biggest comic book-based movie franchises ever — the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That show? Well, it’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which premiered March 10, 1997.
I have to admit, that I never watched Buffy until earlier this year. Sure, I caught an episode or two back in the day when it was having its first run on the WB, but I never really got hooked. And admittedly, I was kind of put off by its name. After all, what says “ditzy cheerleader” more than a name like “Buffy?”
I would not have bothered with the show, which I’ve binge-watched along with its spinoff “Angel” on Netflix, had it not been for some spurning from someone who told me I was missing out.
They were right, I had been.
Now, having watched it, I have to say that it’s one of the few science fiction/fantasy shows that I would c
all “great,” ranking it up there with “Babylon 5,” “Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009),” “Lost” and another show by the same creator, “Firefly.”
Before someone says “what about ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Doctor Who?’” I’ll say that those two shows are surely influential and entertaining, but they are also very by-the-numbers and just less “real” feeling than the others I mentioned.
What do I mean by “real?”
Well, what better way than starting with the title character, Buffy, who is portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar.
By the name of the show alone, you’d think you’re looking at a horror-comedy that you’d see on networks aimed at teenagers like MTV or Freeform.
You’d be wrong.
Sure, Buffy is a cheerleader and it would be expected that she’d be with the “in” crowd right away. But instead, we begin with her starting her sophomore year at a new school (she burned down her old one) already in social-outcast status.
The only people who accept her are other outcasts: Anxiety-ridden Willow (Alyson Hannigan of “American Pie” and “How I Met Your Mother”), who seems constantly on the edge of a panic attack, and Xander (Nicholas Brendon), who talks big but can’t seem to land a date with a girl, which at the beginning seems to be his sole goal for the first season. They spend most of their time in the high school library, where Buffy’s “watcher,” Giles, who is essentially a vampire hunter’s manager, works as a librarian.
Oh, and the library sits on top of the Hellmouth, a basin of supernatural evil.
Anyway, Buffy and her friends, dubbed the “Scoobies,” spend much of their time battling vampires, other undead, demons and many other odd supernatural evils over the course of the series.
Pretty simple, and the series could have lasted a season or two on that alone. But it thrived for a different reason, and in a way, changed the course of science fiction/fantasy TV. Whereas before the genre was largely defined as “people on a spaceship/time machine going on an adventure, seeing their lives reset every week.” After the mid-’90s, with “Buffy” and “Babylon 5,” people expected something different. They wanted characters who they not only saw a bit of themselves in, but also grew.
And the characters on “Buffy” did grow. Buffy and her friends started as sophomores in high school, dependent on their parents for financial stability and basically trying to navigate the difficult world for outcasts. As the series goes on, they become adults, with the characters being in their mid-20s by the end of the series.
Outside of monsters, they deal with breakups, deaths of parents, raising a sibling after the death of a parent, engagement, college, foregoing college, dropping out of college, desperation for money and even addiction among other things. These subjects are approached in the after-school special way; instead, they forgo preachy messages and focus on the characters’ joys and pains. You find yourself rooting for them in their joys and falling with them in their misery, which there is plenty of, since Whedon loves to kill his characters without warning. Enemies become friends, friends become enemies and monsters become human.
Of course, there are some innovative episodes as well. During its fourth season, “Hush,” there is an episode that is conducted almost totally without dialogue. Another episode from the season, “Restless,” probably captures what it is like to be in a dream better than any other TV show or movie that I’ve ever seen. Others I’d recommend for those who don’t want to watch an entire series include “The Zeppo,” “Lovers Walk” and “Once More, with Feeling.”
But really, you should watch the whole series. It’s worth it, though there are a few weak seasons. It’s impact alone warrants viewing because despite airing on a minor network and an absurd-sounding premise, it helped change not only the science fiction/fantasy genre on TV, but the big screen as well.
Most of all, the show itself is about change — the sort of change that we’ve had ourselves.