In 1997, while channel-surfing, I came across an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A blonde girl in a leopard-print jacket was fighting a robot. The situation struck me as ridiculous, and I went in search of something more reasonable, like Star Trek: Voyager. The same thing happened years later, when I first came upon an episode of Farscape. I saw a man wearing goggles and a cape, smeared with some kind of alien jelly, and thought: this is way too silly. Both shows venture into ridiculous territory, which is part of their charm. In 1998, I remember talking briefly with a classmate about the show. I still hadn’t seen a whole episode, but she was describing how a character gets turned into a rat. We were studying Metamorphoses, and had grown accustomed to character transformations, but this brought me up short. ”Really?” I asked. ”A rat?” My friend nodded. ”They even talk about getting her a little wheel to play on.”
I wouldn’t think about Buffy again for a while, in spite of the fact that several of my friends were hooked on the show. DVD sets weren’t as common at this time, and if you didn’t manage to tape an episode, there was no way to re-watch it. Although the program had a dedicated fan-base, it never achieved the influence of something like Friends. It wasn’t until 2001 that I found myself engaged in a real conversation about the show. I was at a bar in Vancouver, and the drag show had just ended. We sat in a circle of chairs around the stage, drinking under dim light. A friend began talking about the episode which had just aired (“Seeing Red.”) He told me that I absolutely had to see it. ”You’ll love it. There’s magic, and lesbians, and–honestly, you’ll love it.”
At the time, I was sharing an apartment in a tenement building with two roommates. Giant spiders would crawl through a hole in the corner of the front door, providing a source of entertainment for my cat. I was living in a new city for the first time, and the loneliness was overpowering. I needed a distraction, so I bought Season One of Buffy. I watched all twelve episodes in a day. The pilot wasn’t amazing, but by the time I got to “The Witch,” I was hooked. The Scooby Gang seemed more real than my bedroom, with its brutalist futon and doll furniture from Zellers. I took the cash I’d put aside for groceries and used it to buy Season Two, which I viewed in a swoon of ecstasy while eating noodles. By the time Season Seven began, I was living with the friend who’d recommended Buffy in the first place. We watched the season premiere in reverential silence.
“Grave” was the episode that made me want to write about the show. The dialogue between Willow and Xander was so raw and beautiful. Both characters had already been through so much, yet they could still surprise each other. I wrote an essay over the Christmas holiday, and submitted it to Slayage. The essay would eventually become Blood Relations, a book I published in 2005. At the time, scholarship on Buffy was still developing, and very few people took it seriously. Fellow grad-students would often laugh, or stare at me in confusion, when I told them what I was working on. I originally intended to write my dissertation on the show. I suggested this to my supervisor with some measure of trepidation, since I only knew of one other person who’d done this, in a different discipline. I was surprised when he said: ”Go for it.” In the end, I wrote something different, but his initial support was invaluable.
I’m not sure why I haven’t taught Buffy until now. I think I needed a long break from the text that had consumed me for years. I offered a directed reading on the show a few years ago, but because it was a bounded project with a highly motivated student, I didn’t feel the need to jump back into the series. It wasn’t until last semester that I thought about delivering a standard course. As I sat down to re-watch Season One, I was worried that I’d hate it. Instead, I found it charming and delightful, just as I had before. There’s enormous potential in those first few episodes. The show continues to thrill and move me, even when I know exactly what’s going to happen.
I can’t say for certain what makes Buffy so interesting, or even if it deserves the amount of critical attention that it’s received from academics and fans alike. I do know that Joss Whedon is a masterful storyteller and director. None of his characters are truly safe, and for that reason, they all matter. He finds comedy in the darkest of moments, and is willing to confront pain and death in a way that shocks us, because it is bare and close enough to touch. The show gives us magic, only to reveal how terrible it can be. A lie told in Season Two is completely forgotten, until it resurfaces in Season Seven. A climactic battle with a cyborg is followed by a sumptuous dream about pillow-forts, Greek characters, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One episode changes the credit-sequence in order to show the effect of a spell, while another tells a story in complete silence.
I hope my students are engaged by the show. It occurs to me that certain images from 1997 may require further explanation: a card catalogue, a dial-up modem, a diskette. The episode “I Robot, You Jane”–the first one that I ever saw–is visibly paranoid about technology that seems ancient today. If Smartphones had existed then, Moloch probably would have conquered the world.