How Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed TV history

Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters in a scene from the cult American TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Photo via PA Wire

Darren Mooney

When TV critics look back on the turn of the millennium, they point to the dawning of a golden age. They argue for the emergence of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood as pivotal moments in the evolution of the artform, allowing television to be discussed in serious terms. These conversations often unfairly overlook Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ended 20 years ago this weekend.

Airing on teen network The WB and later on UPN, Buffylaunched to little fanfare. It was adapted by Joss Whedon from his screenplay for the largely forgotten 1992 film of the same name, starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry. Whedon recast Sarah Michelle Gellar in the lead role. Buffy is the newest arrival in the mysterious town of Sunnydale, a community that encounters a number of supernatural phenomena, including vampires, demons and werewolves.

Over the course of the show’s seven seasons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer used its horror framework as a metaphor for adolescence, with Buffy and her friends navigating the challenges of high school and college, albeit with somewhat heightened stakes. The show was narratively ambitious and thematically rich, attempting the sorts of experiments that modern television takes for granted, like a musical episode or an entirely silent episode.

Buffy’s legacy is complicated by its creator and showrunner. Whedon’s voice was a core part of the show’s appeal, notably in the distinctive dialogue that fans dubbed “Slayer slang” or “Buffy speak.” As a result, recent accusations of abuse and misconduct levelled at Whedon also hang over the show. Gellar herself has had to delineate the series and its creator: “While I am proud to have my name associated with Buffy Summers, I don’t want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon.”

Buffy’s reputation also suffers from the tendency to dismiss its subject matter. As the Pulitzer Prize winning critic Emily Nussbaum has noted, the series “combined a lot of different genres that people looked down on”, particularly in contrast to the “masculine, literary, weighty, bleakly challenging” drama of contemporary prestige shows such as The Sopranos. However, while its place in television history has often been overlooked, its legacy lives on.

Most obviously, Buffy demonstrated that heightened genre shows could attract a young and invested audience outside the confines of “nerd” culture. Its DNA flows through subsequent series such as Veronica Mars, Lost, Alias, Battlestar Galacticaand True Blood, many featuring strong young female leads. When Russell T Davies revived Doctor Who in 2005, he was inspired by Whedon’s show, wanting the series to be “like Buffy was in the first three years, before it went tragic”.

More directly, Whedon’s influence bled into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He directed both Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. His work on Buffy had been inspired by comics, and that fed back in. The approach to characterisation, dialogue and metaphor that he had honed on Buffy became a defining feature of the most successful film franchises in history, even trickling down to its competitors, to the point that Whedon was drafted in to direct Justice League in 2017.

In some ways, Buffy’s influence has become more pronounced in recent years, as many critics acknowledge the end of the Golden Age of Television heralded by The Sopranos. It’s certainly possible to draw a clear line between Buffy and more recent breakout genre hits such as Yellowjackets, Severance, Midnight Club and even Game of Thrones. If nothing else, Buffy demonstrated that audiences can eagerly embrace genre shows, if they’re given something to sink their teeth into.