The Chosen Ones
It began as a disappointing film. Its title invites derision. Yet over five years Buffy the Vampire Slayer has won fan and mainstream recognition as the hippest, wittiest show around.
So what makes it so
Text by Scott Andrews
|Excerpts from Starburst #280|
For a show to turn on a dime between horror and comedy, and to make seem so effortless, is one of the hardest possible things to do, and from the very beginning that skill has set Buffy The Vampire Slayer head and shoulders above all other shows in its genre.
As the seasons have progressed, the writers have expanded on that initial outing and pushed the envelope. Take the opening teaser sequence of Bargaining, the Season Six premiere. Buffy, as everyone should know by now, is dead and gone, and the Scooby gang are desperately trying to protect the town by using a robot Buffy, hoping to convince the vampires that the Slayer is still on the case.
As the gang try not to think about the death of their best friend the oblivious Buffy-bot makes inappropriate, Dada-ist quips like, "That'll put marzipan in your pie plate, bingo" when she stakes vamps. The juxtaposition of humour, horror and grief immediately establishes that although the show has changed networks between seasons it remains exactly as it has always been - a hybrid that expertly juggles drama, comedy and horror like no other.
But Buffy The Vampire Slayer is six years old and has established its own rules and its own way of doing things. Staleness is hard to avoid - when people expect you to subvert expectations how do you keep your show surprising?
Happily, the series has never had that problem. After three years in a row that closed with big battles against that season's `end-of-level' bad guy, Season Four wrapped with a surreal dream episode; after years of writing snappy dialogue, Joss Whedon did an episode where no-one was able to speak; after having countless innocent people killed by supernatural means, when Joyce dies it is from a brain tumour; a new character joins the cast but she's a sister that everyone, except the audience, remembers. The big secret of the show's continuing appeal is that as time has gone by it has gone from subverting wider genre stereotypes to subverting itself, and to great effect.
"Nobody is what they are forever, they change,
their alliances change and sometimes dissolve."
One of the most predictable elements of the horror films that inspired Buffy the Vampire Slayer was that the characters, more often than not, were straight out of central casting - the nerd, the school bitch, that blonde girl who goes into the alley and gets killed, the beefy jock and so on. And the monsters were all cardboard cut outs too - the werewolf, the vampire, the mummy - all could be relied upon to behave in a particular way, to follow slavishly the rules laid down.
Given that the mission statement of the show is `nothing is as it seems', it was only a matter of time before the "genre-busting" ethos of the show started to affect the characters themselves. Each of the characters has had sides to themselves revealed that could never have been suspected when they first appeared:
Angel, initially the heroine's informant on the street, turned out to be a vampire, then a good vampire, then the heroine's lover, then a psychopathic mass killer; Jenny Calender, school computer teacher and Giles' girlfriend, turned out to be an agent of the people who had cursed Angel, sent to Sunnydale on a surveillance mission; stuffy, boring Giles had once earned the nickname Ripper', which hints at a far murkier past than his diffident, cartoonish Englishness would lead one to suspect; Willow, who had for so long lusted after Xander, and then found true love with Oz, turned out to be gay; Oz, the cool guitarist, ended up furry and fanged come each new moon; the bitchy Cordelia fell for Xander and then moved to the spin-off show where she evolved into a genuine, compassionate and very funny young woman.
Then there's Spike, who embodies all that's best about Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the way it handles its characters
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When he first crashed, literally, into the show Spike was the new recurring bad guy for Season Two. A vicious, impulsive punk, obsessively in love with his mad sidekick Drusilla, he was ruthless and a real threat. But by the end of the season he had betrayed his friends, teamed up with Buffy and helped save the world, although admittedly because he liked that it was full of "Happy Meals on legs".
When he returned in Season Three's brilliant Lover's Walk he was a broken man, alcoholic and desperate because Drusilla had left him. He even analysed the Buffy/Angel romance with far more perspicacity than any of the regular characters had managed.
Come Season Four, Spike had one brief, sarcasm filled outing as villain before being captured by a military organisation and effectively neutered. By placing a chip in his brain that makes him incapable of hurting anyone except demons, the writers created a situation where the old enemy was now a pathetic wreck, relying on the Scooby gang for succour. As the season progressed he even fought by their side, although mainly because it was the only way he could get to enjoy a good scrap.
By the end of that fourth year it seemed likely that Spike would be killed off. He'd walked the whole path from prime threat, to loser, to neutered loser, to unwelcome hanger-on who betrays the Scoobies and thus alienates the only people who had been willing to tolerate him. What else could he do?
Season Five saw Spike fall improbably in love with Buffy, a storyline which initially smacked of desperation and which would have been a terrible disaster if handled by lesser writers or given to an actor less capable than the endlessly surprising James Marsters. And then, in Fool For Love, the production team pulled a master stroke, revealing that as a human Spike had been an immature and lovesick poet, and demonstrating that now, neutered and lovesick, what had seemed to be character evolution had in fact been character regression.
As writer Doug Petrie put it: "He's a heartbroken poet and he'll always be a heartbroken poet." As ever, the show had first subverted the genre by having the bad guy evolve, and then, when it risked becoming stale, it subverted itself by revealing his growth to be the very opposite of what it appeared to be.
In Season Six he seems to be approaching emotional maturity at last, has earned the trust of the group, is able to share a laugh with Giles, and is fiercely, devotedly protective of Dawn and Buffy. When Buffy is reanimated and has to claw her way out of her coffin, it is Spike she bonds with first, after all he knows exactly what it's like to wake up six feet under. Sarah Michelle Gellar has said that this season Buffy's bond with Spike will grow and bloom, because she now has more in common with him than any of her old friends.
Just part of the 8-page cover photo-feature in Starburst #280.
Images © UPN / The WB. Feature © Visual Imagination 2001. Not for reproduction