20 years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on the WB. It could have been one of a long line of dorky supernatural teen shows, but instead, it became iconic — if you hang out on any corner of the pop culture internet you’ve probably seen it talked about this week, and its influences across the SFF genre are undeniable. Even as the show poked at the genre and made fun of it and challenged it, it laid ground that others since have tried to imitate.
Especially as it established itself in later seasons, it wasn’t afraid to take risks. It did an entire episode without music (‘The Body’) and devoiced its characters (‘Hush’). It ran a musical episode (‘Once More, With Feeling’). It sent viewers on bizarre drug trips and continually pushed against boundaries of what television was ‘supposed’ to look like, quite frankly reshaping the medium for the better. People talking about prestige television now often don’t make this connection, but in some ways, the show demonstrated that television is an art form, not just entertainment, and that viewers like art on the small screen. This is a huge thing. I’d contend that Game of Thrones wouldn’t exist without Buffy, any more than True Blood or Preacher or other shows that created extreme beauty of grotesquerie.
My relationship with Buffy and Joss Whedon’s work in general is complicated. It’s one of my favourite television shows of all time, and includes several of my favourite television episodes of all time. But I also haven’t drunk the kool-aid. I don’t think Whedon is the epitome of art, incapable of doing wrong. I also don’t think that Buffy is a radical scion of social justice. I think it did some things well, really well, but others…not so much. I’m also aware that Buffy was the creation of a large group of people, not Whedon alone, and that many of the writers and producers shaped it, very profoundly, for good and ill.
For those that think I harsh on Buffy unnecessarily, I feel obliged to point out that I have a Buffy tattoo and I routinely reference the show in my daily life, from psychiatry appointments to jokes. This is a show that is indelibly written on me, as it is in the case of many people around my age, particularly those from the US. I critique it because I love it so much, not because I think it’s garbage.
Someone on Twitter recently asked me about the writers who made me want to be a writer and I’m still thinking about the answer to that question, because it proved unexpectedly complicated to answer, but I also think it could be expanded to a larger conversation about the art and creators that made me want to be part of the media landscape. About what inspires me and makes me think ‘this is what I want to create, and the kind of legacy I want to build.’ And Buffy is very much a part of that.
When I think about the show, I also think about my goals as a creator — I want to create the kind of work that evinces these kinds of intense emotional responses. When people talk about how given episodes stay with them long after the credits roll, they’re speaking to some of my most fervent desires. I don’t just want to make art that people enjoy. I want to make art that stays with people, that becomes part of the fabric of their lives, that spawns entire fields of academia and sparks intense conversations that traverse social boundaries.
I think that’s true of many people in media — writers, visual artists, people in film and television, musicians. Of course we all want to make art that becomes a core part of the landscape, and we all want people to find themselves in our work. The thought of people being so moved by my art that they create fanworks delights me. The idea of having quotes tattooed on people’s bodies is amazing and humbling and also slightly terrifying. The thought that maybe someday someone who is struggling to articulate something will turn to their psychiatrist and use a quote or concept from my work to illustrate it means a lot.
For me, art is about getting inside of people, and that’s what the team on Buffy did. They got inside of us, so deeply and resonantly that they shaped a generation — just as J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter. So much art has come and gone since ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ aired and Philosopher’s Stone went to press, and a lot of that art is bound up in one or both of those works. Some of it seems to be lingering. Some of it has quietly faded away.
It’s so hard to find the precise reasons why a work of art, or a world, becomes so iconic, leads so many people to identify with it so intensely. Even as many of us set out to make art with the hope that it will turn into the thing that defines our generations, we do so knowing that it’s unlikely, that some of this lies outside our control. On days when I am struggling, when it feels hopeless and pointless, when I ask myself why I’m doing this, I put on some Buffy and think about the scrappy band with a tiny budget and not much else who decided to give this a go and ended up creating a Slayer.
Image: Coffin, Jack Zalium, Flickr