Back in 1997, no one expected a television adaptation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would amount to anything substantial. The 1992 film was already five years removed from relevance and it was debuting on a fledgling network with a nobody cast. The series becoming a pop culture phenomenon was the unlikeliest possible scenario, yet somehow, Buffy awoke something in modern TV audiences that is still present 20 years later.
While calling the series revolutionary seems a bit outlandish it’s also fitting. It has no predecessor and no contemporaries. Serialized genre television was not the ubiquitous entity we know it as today. At the time of its debut there was The X-Files and, well, that was about it. For all its numerous merits of The X-Files it didn’t resemble anything as gleefully niche as Buffy.
It was the progenitor of both the superhero and the horror genre television series as we know them today. It provided a detailed blueprint for modern genre television. It was the first to spawn an entire franchise and extended universe of spin-offs, comics, novels, and video games the likes of which had not been seen since Star Wars. Seriously. The fact it was powered by a teenage female lead made the series even more unprecedented. We look back on what made the series so great and how it changed television forever.
When developing a series, especially when adapted from a feature film, the structure often has to change in order to benefit long-format storytelling. Early in the show’s development, Joss Whedon envisioned Buffy as a pastiche of teenage drama and horror. ABC’s short lived 1994 teen drama My So-Called Life was a major influence. In the book ‘Joss Whedon: A Creative Portrait‘ he detailed how we would pitch the series to network executives.
“When I pitched Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I told executives it was a cross between The X-Files and… and then I always took a moment to judge how smart they were. If they seemed like empty suits, I’d go with 90210. It was a big hit.” – Joss Whedon
That influence can be seen by the show’s large ensemble cast, the first of it’s kind in genre television, which traditionally featured a pair of leads (mostly of the opposite sex for a bit of playful tension). Buffy bucked that trend and assembled some of the best young talent ever put on screen. The titular role when to Sarah Michelle Gellar, already a veteran TV actress at that point with roles in Swan’s Crossing and All My Children. Her dramatic chops powered the series by giving audiences a lead that could deliver on emotional scenes in addition to kicking ass. The rest of the cast was rounded out with actors and roles that have since become familiar archetypes. Anthony Stuart Head was slayer-coach/exposition piece Giles. Allison Hannigan and Nicholas Brendan respectively as Willow and Xander provided the audience a pair of average teens to (often hilariously) act as a counterbalance to all the monster-fighting insanity.
Much in the vain of soap operas and dramas, the characters in Buffy had their own stories and development that stretched over the entire series. This was something new it brought to genre television. Seldom, if ever, were characters on network TV allowed to grow or change with any shred of significance. Often times, Buffy took a backseat to her supporting cast as their storylines powered portions of the overarching plot. Even the series’ villains were given character development that sometimes saw them change motivations and allegiances, most notably James Marsters as the vampire Spike. He went from nascent threat to reluctant hero and everywhere in between over the course of the series. David Boreanaz as Angel (who later received his own series, more on that shortly) similarly bounced between undead love interest and unexpected foe as he was constantly manipulated over his ties to Buffy. The perpetually shifting relationships between characters gave the audience plenty of meat to sink their teeth into. But more than just action and teeny-drama, Buffy dove head first into themes that deeply affected postmodern youth.
The show was as much about battling personal demons as it was literal ones. Buffy was always challenged in her perception of friends, family, lovers, enemies, and her own purpose as a Slayer. Seeing her constantly adapt and evolve was a major draw of the series. The show further developed into a powerful platform for social and emotional issues, many of which are more relevant today than ever. Sexuality identity, feminism, race, substance abuse, and even rape were major topics that drove to the heart of the series. It became something of a progressive think-piece that has since inspired numerous academic studies and discussions. However, its creative impact on television was even more influential.
There is no place where the impact of Buffy the Vampire slayer can be felt more than the network that spawned it. After a merger with CBS Television, the WB Network transformed into The CW and became the marquee station for young audiences. The success of Buffy drove The CW to develop more shows that would cater to the same demographic. Nearly all of them would replicate Joss Whedon’s formula. From Smallville and Supernatural to Vampire Diaries and Charmed, the network’s offerings fit the same teen drama/genre mold Buffy pioneered. There are perhaps no greater dopplegangers than producer Greg Berlanti’s collection of DC Comics based series. The Flash and Supergirl are both unapologetically Whedon-esque. Few can blame them in their efforts to duplicate the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After all, they’re not alone.
Dark Angel, Alias, Roswell, Being Human, Teen Wolf, and countless others are direct descendants. Even Whedon himself sought to mimic Buffy with his later projects. Firefly, Dollhouse, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. all follow the same distinctive tone that has become Whedon’s creative trademark. The Buffy Brand was so powerful it couldn’t be contained within the confines of a singular series.
After just a couple of seasons, the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer could no longer satisfy the fandom’s bloodlust. In 1999 the WB Network debuted the spin-off series Angel and the Buffyverse was born. It wasn’t television’s first shared universe, but at the time it was the most effective, and arguably it still is. Angel was in full interactive continuity with Buffy and ran for nearly as long, five seasons and 110 episodes in total. The Buffyverse was further expanded with a series of comics and graphic novels from Dark Horse Comics that are still in production. The Buffyverse produced a staggering multitude of Buffy-themed media and merchandise the likes of which television had never seen. Novels, video games, toys, and table top RPGs were available in great number.
Fans unsatisfied with simply consuming took to the internet to create their own Buffy stories. Yes indeed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired some of the first fan fiction to land on the net, dating all the way back to 1998. It’s a dubious accomplishment, but speaks volumes about the rabidness of its fanbase. It’s that fire that has powered this engine for two decades and counting. That could only have been accomplished by a project conceived in such bold disregard for convention. Seldom do television series have such a lasting, wide reaching effect on an entire generation. Buffy didn’t just bend genre, it redefined it.