I was 11 years old when I first caught the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the youth-geared Canadian network YTV, often the only place to watch shows from networks that weren’t in the big three (ABC, CBS and NBC) back in 1997. It was a dark, lonely Saturday night, and my dad was out with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, leaving me home alone to wile away the evening with some late night television, as kids are wont to do. I had caught a couple of commercials for Buffy, but I wasn’t eagerly anticipating it or anything, and as such, I was watching mainly out of curiosity and boredom rather than any kind of deep-seated excitement.
Imagine my surprise when Buffy‘s premiere episode, “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” arrived on the scene. With whip-smart writing, badass fight scenes and vampires (which I was, and still am, deeply into), Buffy the Vampire Slayer blew me (and a hell of a lot of other viewers) away almost immediately.
Though it wouldn’t be until the brutal twist midway through the second season that Buffy would truly hit its stride, it was still able to build up an eager fan base even through its earliest and rockiest hours. Anyone who tells you that every Buffy episode is great is definitely off their rocker, but the best moments of the first season make up even for early clunkers like “The Pack” (which saw a group of high schoolers possessed by hyenas, of all things) or “Teacher’s Pet” (which focused on a sexy new teacher who turned out to be…a preying mantis).
Yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not without some truly ridiculous moments, but the infectious writing and carefully-crafted characters allowed it to remain watchable, even at its weakest. As its popularity increased (along with its budget), Buffy went from being a long-shot mid-season replacement to one of the WB’s (and later, UPN’s) hottest properties. In time it came to be surrounded by a number of like-minded WB shows like Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, and Supernatural that used their pretty young casts to gain a footing with other dramas of the time, but refused to talk down to their audiences.
The most notable example of this comes in the form of Willow’s journey throughout Season 4, in which she comes out as gay during her first year of college. It was an unprecedented move at the time, and though the relationship that she built with her eventual girlfriend, Tara, was not without its issues (censors wouldn’t allow too much affection between the two, meaning it would be a full season before fans would even see them kiss on screen), the culmination of watching another young person struggle with, and discover, their sexuality could not have been lost on the troubled and confused LGBT teens of the time.
It wasn’t just via the topic of same-sex relationships that Buffy the Vampire Slayer opened its audience up to important topics that they themselves might soon face, but also through its creative use of metaphors to deal with heavy subject matter while remaining true to its original vision. Take Buffy and Angel’s slow-burn romantic relationship, one that builds over the course of the first two seasons before reaching its natural conclusion, as Buffy loses her virginity to the 200 year old vampire, who then sluffs her aside and turns into a completely different person.
Though this storyline also contains a Gypsy curse and a vampire with a soul, the analogy would not have been lost on many girls who had probably gone through something similar when a cool, older bad boy who told them he loved them, only to toss them aside after he got what he wanted.
Metaphors like this would become a well-worn trick for Buffy, one it would use to explore many more troubling issues as time went on, including domestic abuse, drug addiction, and a bevy of others.
This clever penchant for creative storytelling would bleed into and affect not just the main characters of the show, but also its villains. Buffy was notable for being the first serialized drama to have season-long arcs. The “Scoobies,” as they were affectionately called, would be introduced to a new threat each year, struggle against that threat, and ultimately have a final showdown to end the season. Dozens of shows have aped this style since, to the point where it has become a cliche, but that cliche started with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The villains were often some of the most entertaining characters on the show, and more often than not, viewers would find themselves missing certain baddies when they were inevitably snuffed out. Luckily, one of Buffy‘s best villains, the punk music-loving British vampire, Spike, was allowed to live out the entire run of the show, going through a remarkable journey in the process, from villain to hostage to antihero, and finally, to full-on reluctant hero.
It was character transformations like these that allowed Buffy the Vampire Slayer to stay interesting and relevant for its full seven year life on the air. Characters were allowed to change and grow. Faith, another slayer, goes from hero to villain and back again during the course of the series, as does Willow. Buffy is forced to face the harsh realities of adulthood again and again, as she is forced to quit college, become a surrogate mother for her sister, and even work at a fast food restaurant just to make ends meet.
This forced march to maturity would take a death toll as well, with several key characters biting the proverbial bullet throughout the course of Buffy‘s run, often in shocking and brutal ways. This has since become a sort of Whedon trope, with many of his other dramas maiming or killing off beloved characters in the mere blink of an eye.
Finally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that horror, fantasy and sci-fi could be hip and cool. It showed that a show like this could be marketed to the key demographic that everyone was scrambling after, and as such, has paved the way for a great many shows that have followed in its wake.
A trendsetter for the ages, classes in Buffy are still taught today in universities all over the world, ranging in subjects from linguistics to writing, as well as gender studies. Even the great David Simon, creator of The Wire, remarked that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the “best show in years”.
Though it may never be as perfect or polished as masterclass television like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was — and is — a unique voice for the television medium, and one well worth discovering, even 20 years after its original premiere date.