My friends laugh in derision. “No, really, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the most subtly complex show on television.” Eyes roll, someone snidely remarks that the real assets of the show are tight sweaters, and we move on.
I can hardly blame them. The special effects often come across as cheesy afterthoughts. The plots can be campy and the tone flippant. And then there’s the name.
“It’s pretty hard to take seriously a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Marti Noxon empathizes. The Executive Producer of the series knows that first hand. Before joining the writing staff in Season Two as a story editor, she turned down the job. “I had already accepted an offer on another show,” she explains. “And even though I liked Buffy better, I just thought it was a wiser career decision.” Fortunately for her (the other show only lasted one season) Joss Whedon, the creator and primary creative force behind Buffy, called her up and convinced her that if she wanted to be a better writer, she should come work for him. “I did a little homework and found out from some people who knew him that they thought that was true.”
What her friends knew, and mine fail to understand, is that Buffy, now entering its seventh season, is more than the standard teen drama so en vogue since Kevin Williamson rekindled and updated the devices of John Hughes in Scream. This show rises above the Party of Dawson’s Smallville, 90210 ilk. Indeed, under its sometimes-campy horror-genre surface, the show more closely resembles an amalgam of Twin Peaks, X-Files, Picket Fences, NYPD Blue, and The Simpsons in its intricacies of plot, theme, character development, and wit.
“I think what a lot of the general public who hasn’t watched the show would be surprised by,” Noxon explains, “is that we really do put a lot of thought into what we’re trying to say and sometimes the show can be really textured and nuanced.”
‘There will be no Thomas Aquinas at this table.’
In some circles, the comparisons extend considerably beyond television, to the works of J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Homer, and the Brothers Grimm. Such comparisons are subtly cultivated by the show itself. Its references range from Nero to Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Star Trek: Enterprise. When Whedon wanted to subtly foreshadow the sacrificial death and resurrection of the lead character, he had one of the characters reading from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in a dadaist episode of dream sequences a year before the fateful event. Look carefully in another episode, and you may notice the character of Angel reading Jean Paul Sartre's La Nause as part of his continual search for meaning. “Beer Bad” contains the, um, unexpected frat-boy rejoinder, “There will be no Thomas Aquinas at this table.”
More than clever allusions, it’s the mythic sweep of the show told in carefully crafted narrative with emotionally realistic characters that has excited critics and academics worldwide. These highbrow fans contribute to “Buffyology” mailing lists and e-journals of “Buffy studies” and have published several collections of critical essays. The show surfaces at symposiums at Harvard Divinity School. This fall, academics will meet at a British university for a two-day conference devoted to the series. “Who would’ve thought you could deliver an entire liberal arts curriculum by talking about nothing but Buffy?” effuses a professor at Syracuse University in Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“It’s funny, because sometimes it definitely falls into the world of taking things a little too seriously,” Noxon reflects on the academic interest. “You know, we’ll get analysis of a specific episode, and they’ll be like, ‘Buffy and overtones and clearly you were … this psychological paradigm and this void and blah, blah, blah.’ And we’ll be like, ‘Really? We just thought it was funny.’”
‘The hero’s journey’
Nonetheless, the attention doesn’t come as a surprise. “[Whedon] has lots of layers that he’s working from,” she says. “He’s definitely working from some major archetypes, and he’s definitely trying to tell a myth in the same way that some of the great storytellers have. So I can understand why people would want to dissect it.”
The show is intentional in its mythic sweep. “There’s a very strong mythological feel to it,” Noxon explains. “ I mean, it is trying to tell the basic stories of existence. As high-falutin’ as that sounds, we really do try to tackle ‘What’s our purpose?” and ‘Why are we here?’ The hero’s journey is an ongoing thing we talk about here…. Most of what [Whedon] thinks of has a purpose and isn’t just to entertain.”
WILLOW: Is this the master plan? You're going to stop me by telling me you love me?
XANDER: Well, I was gonna walk you off a cliff and hand you an anvil but it seemed kinda cartoony. …I know you're about to do something apocalyptically evil and stupid and hey, I still wanna hang. …The first day of kindergarten you cried because you broke the yellow crayon and you were too afraid to tell anyone. You've come pretty far—ending the world, not a terrific notion—but the thing is, yeah, I love you. I love crayon-breaky Willow, and I love scary-veiny Willow. So if I'm going out, it's here. If you want to kill the world... well, then start with me.The scene continues as Willow magically slashes at Xander while he continues the simple refrain “I love you” through the pain until she finds herself sobbing in his arms.
“I think that one of the recurring themes is that you can sort of create your own family and that your relationships with other people are kind of what makes life worth living,” Noxon articulates. “We keep reaffirming that as a purpose, that our community is really what we make it and that it can be reason enough to keep going even in the face of lots of adversaries and lots of difficulties.”
The concept for the show was born as a twist of the horror-movie cliché of the female victim, and it has continued to focus on female empowerment. Noxon elaborates, “Another recurring theme is the idea that you can be both feminine and concerned with romance and boys and at the same time continue to struggle to find out who you are and that your primary purpose is kind of that, to be true to yourself and to kind of reaffirm your own power as opposed to getting totally caught up in, you know, boys.”
(The rest of this article is available in Paste Magazine Issue #2.)