Real. That’s a strange word to ascribe to any work of fiction, let alone one called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not content with merely trumpeting the shows fantasy-horror roots, the title also satirises them, promising a series that is, by nature, an examination of art rather than reality. And the show delivered on that premise with its incessant genre deconstruction, pop culture references, and self reflection. Buffy was a construct through and through, at times not even a good one whether by just getting too far up its own ass with cleverness or grossly missing the mark on issues of real concern. And yet, “real” is the word I keep coming back to.
Real is commonly confused with gritty in today’s vernacular. Slick, shiny, pleasant productions are “fake” while dark, harsh, painful ones are real. While I think the trend has more to do with growing pessimism than any accurate assessment of realism, I will play along for the moment. Season six is commonly pointed to as the darkest, but the grimness wasn’t unprecedented for the series. Before that we had Joyce, Jenny, Ben, and Buffy‘s deaths, Faith’s corruption, Riley’s whores, Ethan’s torture, Angel turning, “Helpless” and “Hush.” These were big arcs/episodes/moments in the series and while the pain/fear/anger/loss they made us feel were very real I think I speak for most fans when I say that they’re not what defined the series.
Buffy was, at its core, a triumphant story. However dark things might seem at any given point, the Scoobies, and Buffy in particular, would always win in the end. “We saved the world, let’s party” ends the first season, and it’s reiterated in some form in each season that follows. And its not just these big wins that put the series in the slick, shiny, pleasant category. We had Spike in a Hawaiian shirt, Giles using the overhead projector, Anya’s non-American sign language, Willow & Tara, Buffy & Giles, Andrew & anyone, “The Zeppo” and “Once More with Feeling.” Even as we came to expect these pleasant arcs/episodes/moments the didn’t cease to be a source of joy. This emotional connection is no less real for being positive.
Buffy‘s ability to oscillate between positive and negative emotion may be evidence of its reality, but it isn’t the cause. Variety isn’t just the spice of life, its the essence of it as our lives aren’t the near-monotone that the vast majority of fiction present. Running the gamut of emotion certainly helps Buffy explains the why but not the how of Buffy feeling real.
There’s a straightforward answer to “how” in the show’s characters and themes. Buffy gave us people we could relate to doing things we understood, whether that was Buffy’s boyfriend becoming an asshole after they slept together, our Everyman being unable to put his life together, Giles feeling useless after his kids graduate high school, Willow being the best nerd to ever grace television, or Spike changing every part of himself for some chick he couldn’t have. With few exceptions, I could put every Buffy story on that list. “Universal” is a world that gets thrown around a lot, but it’s true in this case. What’s more, Buffy was also (mostly) unflinching in these explorations, with the characters remaining true to themselves as they dealt with what this universe through at them. Angel had to leave for much the same reason that Willow and Xander needed a tryst, or Spike had to assault Buffy. These weren’t decisions that would necessarily please fans, but they were true to how the characters would react to their situations.
Honesty and relatability are certainly preconditions to being real but it’s hardly a quality unique to Buffy. Every great TV series needs to hit that mark, many even hit it better. So why does Buffy still feel so singularly real to me? Ironically, I think it’s because it’s such a blatant construct. All fiction, by virtue of being fiction, is distancing. Much as we might identify with the characters and events onscreen, there’s always an awareness that these are characters we’re watching, not other people, let alone ourselves. It’s a barrier even the best shows need to contend with and none (well, maybe one) can overcome. Buffy comes damn close by putting the fantastical elements front and centre. We don’t need to contend with the fact that Kristine Sutherland is pretending to interfere in Sarah Michelle Gellar’s fake life when we’ve already accepted that that life involves slaying the vampyres. Buffy asks that you suspend your disbelief at the outset, and so by the time the universal themes and characters arrive, you’re ready to receive them. It’s a surprising, delightful, brilliant route to realism.
Far From Final Thoughts
This is not my final Buffy post. After 153 posts I still find myself with more to say than could be coherently contained in a single post. That’s more a testament to the incredible depth of this series than to the scope of my insight. Or maybe it’s neither and I just want the clicks. The Buffy reviews are far and away the most popular corner of this blog and I’m not quite willing to surrender that just yet. I want to thank everyone who’s been following along and I hope that you’ll check back in from time to time. The days of weekly reviews are over but there will be some semi-regular posts as I continue the impossible task of trying to get Buffy out of my system.
Apologies for the late post, RL got in the way. I also actually wrote two Buffy posts this week, the first of which ended up on the cutting room floor.
For all my analysis, the simple fact is that much of Buffy‘s “reality” is a product of its execution. Superb writing, acting, directing, etc. are what it really takes to get us to invest in a show and this one had them all.
I could run through the entire cast calling out highlights from over the years (maybe that’s another post) but I thought I’d just reiterate a few things that that don’t get enough mention:
Google some early episode transcripts and you’ll see just how absurd some of Giles’ dialogue was. Tony Head had herculean task in making this stuff sound credible and he delivered every time.
Nicholas Brendon is really freaking funny. His acting gets overlooked due to other characters getting most of the big dramatic moments, but Xander likely would’ve come off as pretty lame in someone else’s hands.
James Marsters really did make Spike’s character. It’s something that’s called out in more than one commentary track, his performance deviating from what the writers had intended but being so good that they decided to take the character that way.
Sarah Michelle Gellar’s work on this show was outstanding and it’s a shame that she hasn’t had a bigger career since then. We can cluck all we want about some poor film choices (and some of them were pretty poor) but I’d stack her performance on this show right next to the best of television’s leading ladies.
On another note, Buffy‘s score was great. I’m not really a music guy and so I often don’t appreciate just what a huge part of storytelling it is.
If I had to pick Buffy‘s most distinct element, I would have to say the humour. There’s a whole host of things that make this series relatively unique, but most of those can still be found in some form elsewhere. I can’t think of anywhere else, outside of Whedon’s other shows, that his this distinct comic sensibility.
Most disappointing hanging thread in : Ethan Rayne. I always like him as a villain and foil for Giles and his disappearing into the initiative vaults always felt unsatisfying.
Best Big Bad: Mayor Wilkins.
Best One Episode Villain: Kralik (The crazy vamp from “Helpless”)
Best Episode: “Hush” (duh), although I’ll trumpet “Fool For Love” as my personal favourite
A recommendation: I can tell from my stats that roughly half as many people are reading the Angel posts. If you’re big enough fan to read a Buffy Blog then you owe it to yourself to watch Angel. The first season’s pretty rough, but you can pretty much skip it. “Five by Five” and “Sanctuary” are great, but even they aren’t essential to continuity.
Another recommendation: If you just can’t enough Buffy then I’ll recommend the comics. Not Season 8, it sucks; so much so that I never bothered with Season 9. But Fray is awesome. Everyone Buffy fan should read Fray.
Much as I’ve enjoyed these reviews, I am glad they’re over. I’ll be taking a rather extended break from watching Buffy, after which it’ll be nice to throw on a favourite episode and just watch it.
Thanks again to everyone who’s read along with these reviews, in whole or in part. Angel will continue, for those of you who are interested, and Firefly is the logical followup. In the mean time I’ll try once more to resurrect my interest in SHIELD.