Cult hit rides into its last sunset
By Andy Walton
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: She saved the world. A lot. But no more: The show's final episode airs Tuesday.
(CNN) -- "In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer."
In March 1997, those lines launched a mid-season replacement series based on a lackluster movie. The show's title -- "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- and its high school setting marked it as teenybopper fluff, lumped in with "Dawson's Creek" and "Beverly Hills 90210" in the press. ("Buffy" originated on The WB, which aimed its programming at teens and young adults.)
But in the world of television, as in the Buffyverse (as fans dubbed the show's fictitious world), appearances are often deceiving.
Buffy was, in fact, a tightly written show about a group of believable characters struggling through adolescence, fighting their own demons. Their demons just happened to be more leather-skinned and fangy than most. Quick, glib dialogue (think "M*A*S*H"), dark humor, and Jackie Chan moves from a five-foot blonde marked the show as something new. The finale to the show, finishing its seventh season, will air at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday on UPN.
"What's neat about 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is that on one level it appears to be pure pop culture; hot-looking girl runs around killing things, kicking, screaming, it's all good," says Lynne Edwards, a professor at Pennsylvania's Ursinus College. Edwards teaches a course on "Deconstructing Buffy," wrote the essay "Slaying in Black and White: Kendra as Tragic Mulatto in Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and describes herself as "addicted" to the show.
"But at another level, for those of us who were kind of nerdy in high school," she continues, "we get the literary references, like saying that a girl is so late she makes Godot look punctual."
Sarah Michelle Gellar has played Buffy through its seven seasons on television. Kristy Swanson played the role in the 1992 movie.
The story revolves around Buffy, the "chosen one" who fights vampires, demons and other supernatural evil with superhuman strength, agility and healing ability. A new Slayer is mystically "called," like it or not, when an old one dies. Buffy's ambivalence toward her brutal duty -- few Slayers survive to adulthood -- has been a constant thread in the series.
Buffy settles in the fictitious Southern California town of Sunnydale, home to a "hellmouth," a gateway to nether dimensions that serves as a magnet for evil. She is assisted in her calling by a group of friends called the "Scoobies" in homage to the ghost-chasing cartoon teens of "Scooby-Doo": the core of the group is brainy, mousy and later witchy Willow Rosenberg, heart-of-gold torch-bearer Xander Harris, and middle-aged Watcher Rupert Giles.
Others have come, gone, and died. (See our character guide.)
Critics swooned and a cadre of fans -- small by big-3 network standards, but fiercely dedicated -- gradually formed around the show. Internet message boards buzzed with heated debates. "Buffy" expanded its audience overseas, becoming one of the most popular American programs abroad; the staid BBC, the network that carries the show in Britain, has one of the most comprehensive "Buffy" Web sites.
The show has lasted seven seasons, surviving an ugly divorce with its original network and the death of the lead character -- twice. It didn't take.
Creating an icon
Joss Whedon wrote the script for "Buffy" the movie and has been the guiding force of the TV show.
If the show's success suprised a lot of people, creator Joss Whedon was not one of them. He'd taken a shot at "Buffy" before, writing the screenplay for the 1992 theatrical film. But after the movie veered away from Whedon's dark vision and into campy humor, he decided to try again on the smaller screen.
"Joss's master plan was really to create an icon," says executive producer Marti Noxon. "Of all the people I've ever met, Joss is the most organized, creative thinker. More often than not, he knew exactly where we were going in the big picture."
That "big picture" involved story arcs plotted far ahead. A dream sequence in season 3 hinted at events that wouldn't happen until season 5, and Noxon confirms that the fans aren't reading too much into it. "Certain story lines, Joss just knew what he wanted to do, and had plans a year in advance, and we could plant a reference."
Buffy appealed to its core audience, the young viewers advertisers crave, but it also reached beyond that niche, scoring with adults and academics. The latter, like Edwards, have created whole courses of study around the show.
"The very fact thirteen different people can watch the exact same episode and take thirteen different meanings from it makes it a crucial text," she says .
"Now it's getting into an area of cool nerdiness, and I think kids who didn't necessarily see themselves in television programming are starting to see themselves in a show that other people are seeing other things in," Edwards says.
The Scoobies "were conceived as outsiders. They were conceived as sort of misfits," Noxon confirms. "That certainly was part of the whole mythology that I think people really responded to, was this idea of 'geek on the outside, supergeek on the inside,' special powers and abilities, hidden depths."
Edwards says that despite the fantasy trappings, the characters ring true. "Young people see what's going on, they see it in their high schools, then they come home and see it played out on television. Granted, the football player is a demon, but it's all still kind of the same," she says. "I'm not even sure you can really call this pop culture any more, because of the way it reflects what's really going on in the world."
"Buffy's" fan base is unusually zealous. Television writers usually toil in anonymity, but "Buffy" fans know who wrote and directed every episode. The behind-the-camera folks face fan scrutiny and criticism unknown outside of the "Star Trek" universe, and perhaps not matched even there.
Among Buffy's best friends is Xander, who has been part of the "Scooby Gang" since the beginning.
The birth of "Buffy" came along with the rise of the Internet as a medium for the masses, and "Buffy" fans have been active in cyberspace. The Bronze, a message board named after an all-ages club on the show, was a hot spot on the official site when the show was on the WB network. When the show moved to UPN, the new network opted not to host a message board, so The Bronze Beta, an independent message board, was born. On Usenet, a system of Internet message boards, alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer is among the busiest groups.
Noxon, who served as lead writer before being named executive producer and wrote some of the more controversial episodes, has felt the heat. "I don't really pay attention to it, because it bothers me too much," she says. "Yeah, it hurts. I wouldn't lie to you. But at the same time, I'm glad that they care about who's writing and whose words are where. "
Noxon says that the end of Buffy has been gradually sinking in. "A couple of days ago I drove on the lot, and I saw Joss just wandering the parking lot. And I asked 'what are you doing?' and he said 'I don't know,' " she says.
"He said 'It's all gone, Marti,' and we looked in one of the buildings and sure enough all of the sets were gone. And that really hit hard, that Sunnydale High is no more. It's in boxes and crates somewhere."
Joss's master plan was really to create an icon.
-- Marti Noxon
Some of those boxes and crates have shown up on the auction site eBay, where one of Buffy's outfits is going for over $4,000.
Even Gellar, who asked to leave, said the emotions of the final episode caught her by surprise.
"The whole time I kept thinking, 'When am I going to cry?' " she told The Associated Press about filming her last scene in the desert outside Los Angeles. "I remember when it finally came it was like getting hit with a brick wall."
So what's next for the Buffyverse? The WB network (which is, like CNN.com, an AOL Time Warner company) has picked up the spinoff series "Angel" for another season. Some cast members may make guest appearances there, or even join the show permanently.
A BBC series based on Giles, another spinoff series featuring any number of the Scoobies, and even theatrical movies aren't out of the question, Noxon says. But not soon; Noxon and Whedon have both said they want to pursue other projects.
Members of the "Buffy" cast won't be sitting on their hands. Alyson Hannigan, who plays Willow, stars in her third "American Pie" movie, coming out this summer. Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) stars in the BBC series "Manchild," a sort of "Sex and the City" with 50-something men instead of 30-something women. Gellar, who moved from one Scooby gang to another, playing Daphne in 2002's "Scooby-Doo," has another movie in that franchise lined up this summer.
"People will say, 'It's a good thing you wrote your book, because the show is ending," says Michael Adams, author of "Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon" (see sidebar). "But I say the show is never-ending. No new episodes may be made, but with the technology we have today ... people are going to be hearing this as an example of clever speech for a long time."