TV (THE BOOK): Why 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was the best possible name for that show
Today is publication day for TV (THE BOOK): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, the anthology where Matt Zoller Seitz and I rank the top 100 American sitcoms and dramas ever, and write essays about them, and a whole lot of other things (movies, miniseries, current shows, shows that weren't top 100-worthy but were sentimental favorites in some way, etc.). You can order it in multiple editions (including an audiobook recorded by Matt and me) at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Google Play, Kobo, or your favorite indie bookseller.
Here's Matt and I explaining how we assigned scores to figure out our top 100:
And here's us explaining our rules for what was and wasn't considered for the top 100:
We're very proud of the book, and can't wait for people to start reading, but if you still need a taste or two to push you over the buying edge, The Ringer ran an excerpt last week featuring part of our explanation for how the top 100 was chosen, along with our joint essay on Deadwood, while Matt's home base at Vulture this morning has the essay on our top-ranked show, The Simpsons(*).
(*) Maybe my favorite section of the book — and the favorite of many of the early reviewers — is called The Great Debate, where Matt and I argue out what should get the top pick after we initially wound up with a five-way tie for first place.
Included below is the essay I wrote about a little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which finished in a tie for 25th place — alongside, appropriately enough, fellow classic high school dramas Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life — among our Pantheon of series, coming up just as soon as I get the mustard out...
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997–2001; UPN, 2001–2003) Total score: 94
TV show titles rarely bring viewers into the tent, but they can keep them out. If you want to give your charming blended-family comedy an ironic name like Trophy Wife, don’t be surprised if your target demographic takes it literally and stays far away. (See also Terriers, Selfie, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend...)
Now, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran seven seasons, was never in danger of cancellation at any point (it jumped networks after season 5 only because UPN was looking to steal a hit from its rival the WB), launched a long-running (and, eventually, very good) spin-off in Angel, was beloved by its fans, and helped define the identity of an entire TV network for the short but memorable existence of the WB. By any standard you want to measure, Buffy was a success.
Except maybe this one: If you tell someone who’s never watched it that a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer is among the best TV dramas of all time, they will roll their eyes at you and change the subject to something less divisive, like immigration policy.
Would a Buffy the Vampire Slayer by any other name have been a crossover hit rather than a cult classic, or won more awards, or simply have been an easier sell to non-fans? Certainly, you can imagine WB executives thinking that, which is why they briefly tried to get Joss Whedon to shorten the title to just Slayer.
Whedon held firm, and not just because it might have created confusion between the show and the thrash band that brought the world songs like “Reign in Blood” and “Mandatory Suicide.” He knew that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the perfect title for his series, because it captured the exact spirit of what he was planning to make.
You could give it a more serious or distinguished title, but no matter the packaging, the show inside would be about a vapid teenage girl, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who discovered that her destiny was to protect humankind from vampires, demons, and other creatures of the underworld, and a show whose tone shifted rapidly between horror, melodrama, action, and pure comedy. The name tells you all of that, and suggests that if you’re turned off by it, you’re probably not going to like the series to which it’s applied.
It was a tonal balance that director Fran Rubel Kuzui didn’t even bother attempting with the campy Buffy movie adapted from Whedon’s first script. The show, though, would have room for many different emotions, all juggled expertly by Gellar, Anthony Stewart Head, Alyson Hannigan, and the rest of the cast. It was a series made cheaply even by the standards of TV’s fifth-place network, but it almost never seemed ridiculous despite the primitive effects and awkward stunt-doubling for Gellar. If it wanted to make you laugh at a bit of witty banter (“I laugh in the face of danger. Then I hide until it goes away.”), it could. If it wanted its latest monster to creep you out, it found the most disturbing context possible. And if it wanted to make you cry, it was pointless to try fighting it.
If anything, the exaggerated nature of the various undead villains only made the high school setting more effective, because what is adolescence if not a time when every problem gets blown wildly out of proportion?
In the real world, a girl whose boyfriend started treating her badly after they finally have sex wouldn’t need to worry that he had turned pure evil, as happened with Buffy and her vampire love interest Angel (David Boreanaz), but it might feel that way for a while. And a real teen boy going through the changes of puberty might occasionally imagine himself a monster, but laconic guitar player Oz (Seth Green) actually transformed into a werewolf every time the moon was full.
Turning monsters into metaphors for teenage emotional turmoil was a clever gambit, and one that played particularly well during the show’s three seasons set in high school. Buffy is (by our rankings, anyway) one of the best TV shows ever set in high school, but it wasn’t entirely immune to the same problems that eventually beset all such shows when their characters head to college. Even so, those later seasons still had a knack for landing on the right parallel between the supernatural and the universal, like Buffy’s little sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) literally being put on earth to cause her problems (which in this case involved the literal end of the world).
(Those later years also offered some thrilling formal experiments, including “Hush,” an homage to silent horror movies, involving demons who rob people of the ability to speak or scream; “The Body,” a stripped-down outing where Buffy confronts the mundane reality of her mother’s death from natural causes; and the musical episode “Once More, with Feeling,” where a curse forces everyone to express their feelings through song.)
Back to that title. Whedon once suggested to the New York Times, “If I made Buffy the Lesbian Separatist, a series of lectures on PBS on why there should be feminism, no one would be coming to the party, and it would be boring. The idea of changing culture is important to me, and it can only be done in a popular medium.”
Whedon didn’t invent feminism in TV storytelling, or even the idea of cross-pollinating it with fantasy and sci-fi tropes. (For much of its run, Buffy overlapped with Xena: Warrior Princess.) But he created one of the finest examples of it, and wrapped it up in a wildly entertaining package that included a name that may have made some potential viewers roll their eyes, but that made enough of them smile and think this might just be a show for them.
And it was.
Excerpted from TV (THE BOOK):Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz.
Copyright © 2016 by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz. Used with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com