What Buffy Taught Me

Over one hundred and forty hour-long episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer later, and I’m still trying to figure out why I don’t have as many people talking to me about this show as I do The Wire. 

But then I remember. The Academy doesn’t like Blade RunnerAlien, or The Shining.

Genre is a funny thing. “Genre.” If there are space ships or aliens or robots or monsters, academics want no part of it.

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How could the human condition be explored and dissected by a nerd interested in lasers? The snobbish nature of any “Academy” is exhausting. The Wire is a fantastic show that holds a mirror up to society and tells the truth in the face of violent response. It is full of excellent performances and layers that demand attention. I get that.

Also, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is every bit as good as anything I’ve ever seen. Be it movies, television, stage productions, etc. It’s not realistic. Buffy is a superhero in a world where high school (and eventually college) is actually Hell. An entire town held prisoner by the fact that Hell’s doorway is literally right underground, waiting to open at any moment.

Aside from the title of the show (which is decidedly anti-snob in every sense of the word), the very nature of its place in the pop culture spectrum will repel most serious absorbers of “great” art.

It’s a nineties hour-long dramedy about a hot young teenage girl killing vampires and falling in love.

It’s not like you’ve never heard of it. You haven’t seen it because you’ve heard of it.

But what if I told you that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a masterwork of the highest order? Would you trust me? You’ve read my other reviews and articles. You know what I like. Would you call me an art snob? Would you think I’m being ironic?

I’m not. What Joss Whedon created and nurtured through seven years of the impossible hedge-maze of television production is one of the single greatest achievements in television history.

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He wasn’t working with HBO or AMC, stations that aggressively market and produce “great” television.

He was working with the WB and UPN. Stations universally loathed as ridiculously awful hotbeds of lazy, terrible everything. Every week, Joss Whedon had to convince a station that hated what he was trying to achieve that, yes, this week would deliver the goods.

He gave television its first on-screen homosexual kiss. A lesbian couple that felt completely organic and realistic against a back-drop of a more important plot. Willow’s lesbianism wasn’t ever the focus of the plot, but just another fact about her character. Like her constant need to please everybody. Or her amazing skills with computer programming.

Whedon gave television its first true master class in writing and directing with “The Body,” one of the most nuanced, brilliant, outstanding works of filmmaking I’ve ever seen in my life. Television or not.

Before The Sopranos did it with “The Test Dream,” Whedon gave us “Restless,” an entire episode of television that takes place in a dream state. And it’s really weird. I mean, some of the most surreal stuff this side of the Twin Peaks finale. Which happened after Twin Peaks was cancelled.

In Ratatouille, Peter O’Toole’s character finally understands what it means to say “Anyone Can Cook.” It doesn’t mean anybody in the world can be a great chef, but that a great chef could come from any place.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, above all, taught me that anyone can make great art. Great art can come from any place. If you had told me, six months ago, that this show was going to offer me some of the most brilliant writing and directing I’ve ever seen, I would have laughed in your face.

“I’ve seen Bergman and Tarkovsky direct their masterpieces. You don’t know how much I know.”

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I would have said that in my brain, actually, and told you that Buffy sounded interesting.

But then I watched it. And I kept watching it. And something inside of me broke. My whole world rearranged.

Sure, Bergman and Tarkovsky were geniuses. They changed the landscape. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer does something much more difficult. It took a teenage soap-opera about vampires and monsters and high school and, through the sheer power of storytelling and directing, created some of the most shocking moments of artistic integrity and beauty and surreality of my cinema-loving life.

Sure, there are some real stinker episodes. Anybody remember “I, Robot, You, Jane”? Or “Him”? But for every “Beer Bad” there is a “Hush”. There is a “Seeing Red” or “The Gift”. Or a “Once More, With Feeling”.

I could go on forever. Buffy the Vampire Slayer took my snobbery and flushed it down the toilet. I stopped being an intellectual critic. I stopped judging things based on title, or cover, or director, or writer, and just started watching things to see what they offered me.

If you’re stuck in the world of “Academy” approved films, take Joss Whedon’s miraculously good show for a spin.

Do it sincerely, without cynicism or expectation, and it’ll teach you. For once, us snobs get to truly be students.

Have fun.

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