What ‘Buffy: The Vampire Slayer’ Means To Me as a Writer
Today is the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not the 1992 feature film, of course. March 10, 1997 was the debut of the weekly TV series on The WB network. And Joss Whedon’s signature show soon blazed its own trail and before leaving behind an unforgettable legacy.
Over the last twenty years, there have been a lot of articles and books written about Buffy’s place among the iconic female characters, what Buffy meant for female empowerment, as well her place among the strong and interesting female heroines. All of that is true, and Buffy deserves the accolades for all of those things. But today, we’re paying tribute to the show’s writing. If the Buffy movie had been her only appearance, then it’s not likely that anyone would be talking about her twenty five years later. It was the television series that gave Buffy a soul, and it was the writing that made her such an important part of TV history.
It’s easy to overlook writing on a show like this, but Whedon and his team of screenwriters were ahead of their time. For seven seasons, they found a near perfect balance between stand-alone episodes and season-long arcs. Nearly every episode of each season could be understood by itself, but the stories still played into the larger narrative that had been constructed. That’s become more common within the last 15 years, but it was extremely rare when Buffy was on the air. Remember, this was before Lost and before The Sopranos popularized serial dramas. Buffy wasn’t the first show to take this approach, but it was like a masterclass of screenwriting.
During college, I studied the writing of Buffy, and it held up amazingly well. The story structure was always solid, and each episode had its own unique problems to be solved while still leading into the next installment. More impressively, the characters vividly popped on screen. A lot of credit for that has to go to a very immaculately chosen cast. But those personalities were so well-defined on the page that it instantly made Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Angel, etc… into compelling characters. With just a handful of episodes in the first season, the writing team made us care about this group of unusual misfits.
However, it was the second season where Buffy truly found itself. Bringing in Spike and Drusilla as the new “big bads” turned out to be a stroke of genius. But the truly clever part was the way that the season slowly built up to the reveal of the “real” villain: Angel. Taking Angel’s soul away and turning him into Buffy’s greatest nemesis elevated the series to another level. Suddenly, the emotional stakes were higher than ever, and it actually mattered when characters died…because they weren’t coming back this time. That was the season that hooked me as a fan, and it delivered one of the most epic TV moments ever in the finale when Buffy was forced to send Angel to Hell…immediately after he had been cured. The lesson for writers there is “always go for the throat.”
The subsequent seasons improved upon the season-long arcs as the writing team refined their approach and found new ways to break our collective hearts. “Hush” always stands out as one of the best episodes of the series, since it managed to tell a story without dialogue for almost half of the episode. But the musical episode, “Once More With Feeling” is still the show’s crowning achievement. It’s not really fair that Whedon could write music as well as he writes everything else. Yet it’s hard to argue with an instant classic.
Even the dialogue on this series was something special. Now, everyone throws pop culture references into dialogue. But when Buffy was first on the air, it was still a novelty. And unlike other shows, the references revealed character, rather than simply existing only for the sake of a joke. Although “I’m glad to see you’ve seen the softer side of Sears” is still one of the best mean girls jokes that any show has ever done. And there were so many more great lines where that came from.
It’s no coincidence that many of Whedon’s writers went on to successful careers outside of this series. Drew Goddard, Marti Noxon, Steven S. DeKnight, Jane Espenson, David Fury, Rebecca Rand Kirshner, Drew Greenberg, David Greenwalt, and Doug Petrie have created their own legends in this industry, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was where they initially made a cultural impact. And that impact has never stopped. The influence of this series hasn’t waned, and it continues to be felt to this day. As a writer, I’ve always found this show to be inspiring. Whedon and his team built up the mythology of this show, fleshed out the characters, and turned the series into something that endures. Twenty years from now, fans will still be talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And there’s no higher praise than that.
What does Buffy the Vampire Slayer mean to you? Let us know in the comment section below!