It’s been twenty years since the first episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer hit our screens. Well, it has if you’re in the US, anyway – here in the UK, we wouldn’t get to see Sarah Michelle Gellar kicking undead arse until January 1998. But even so: twenty years. Not to do that horrible ‘wanna feel old?’ thing, but if Buffy were a real person, she’d have celebrated her 36th birthday earlier this year.
It’s kind of incredible. And with two decades’ worth of hindsight, it’s easy to see how much impact the teen vampire show with the silly name has had on the world of TV (and beyond). In honour of its anniversary, let’s have a look at its legacy. Here are 10 ways Buffy changed the world:
Making kickass heroines the norm
The hook of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, at least to begin with, was that Buffy was a pretty unlikely superheroine. It’s well established pop culture lore at this point, but Joss Whedon created the character as a response to seeing so many cute blonde girls killed off in horror movies. Buffy was the one who could fight back – she was the thing the monsters were afraid of, not the other way around.
After seven seasons of the show, though, the incongruity of seeing Sarah Michelle Gellar beating up monsters had turned into something else. It didn’t seem unlikely that she’d win the fight any more. It seemed obvious. Of course someone who looked like Buffy could easily overpower a murderous supernatural creature three times her size. And of course she could do it in heels, with impeccably applied lip gloss, without ever compromising her femininity. If it sounds like I’m being flippant, I promise I’m not: Buffy was a girl, unashamedly so, and far from that being a weakness, it was the source of her strength.
Post-Buffy, we’ve seen a lot of other superheroines take centre stage in supernatural stories of their own. Without Buffy, we’d never have had Alias, or Lost Girl, or Underworld, or Orphan Black, or Wolfblood, or the Resident Evil movies, or Jessica Jones, or Shadowhunters, or… you get the idea.
Turning vampires into sexy bad boys
Another pop culture phenomenon we almost certainly wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for Buffy? Twilight. You can argue about whether that’s a good thing or not in the comments, but Buffy The Vampire Slayer definitely changed the way we thought about vampires thanks to the doomed romance between Buffy and ensouled vampire Angel. Because yeah, while vampires are generally pretty evil in the show, they’re not straightforwardly so – and there are ways to turn them into almost-acceptable romantic partners.
The groundwork for Buffy’s take on vamps was laid by Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, which featured a whole set of eloquent, tragic, sexy vampires, but those books weren’t aimed at teenagers. Buffy nabbed the idea of a tortured vampire and made first Angel and then Spike into teen pin-ups (yeah, twenty years ago we still bought magazines with pull-out posters inside). Her relationships with the undead were pretty fraught – let’s not forget Angel turned evil after they had sex and tried to end the world, forcing her to kill him, while Spike developed an obsession with Buffy while still entirely soulless – but that’s what made them compelling. The fact that neither of them had a happy ending is actually a point in the show’s favour, when you think about it.
Making it okay for heroes to have a Scooby Gang
The set-up for world-savers used to be one hero, plus maybe a semi-disposable sidekick. Superheroing was meant to be lonely business, because if you’re the Chosen One, all the baddies are coming after you, and that means getting close to anyone puts them in danger.
Buffy completely exploded that idea. Buffy herself should’ve been operating alone, with just her Watcher for company, but instead she made friends and included them in her adventures. And sure, she may have had to rescue Willow and Xander a few times at first, but as her social circle widened, it not only began to include more superpowered types, but the non-powered members learned how to fight evil in their own way.
Given how Buffy ended (at least on telly), it definitely looks like part of the show’s thesis was about how no one person should be responsible for saving the world all by themselves, and that everyone has powers to bring to the table. Buffy might’ve been the one with the heroic destiny, but that didn’t mean she had to go it alone.
Helping pave the way for LGBT characters on TV
In some ways, it’s startling how far we haven’t come in twenty years. But Buffy definitely helped break new ground with its portrayal of lesbian relationships. Whedon and co had to push against restrictions imposed by the network at first – they weren’t allowed to show Willow and Tara kissing to begin with, for example – but were able, eventually, to include a gay relationship that was just as romantic, emotional, and ultimately heartbreaking as any other on the show.
In its final season, Buffy included broadcast network TV’s first lesbian sex scene, when Willow consummated her relationship with Kennedy. There had been gay sex scenes shown on cable networks before, notably in Queer As Folk (we’re talking about the US version here, though obviously the UK Queer As Folk pre-dated Buffy too), but Buffy was nonetheless an important milestone in LGBT representation on TV.
Making musical episodes viable
Ask any Buffy fan for a list of their favourite episodes and chances are, Once More With Feeling is gonna be in there. Say what you like about Buffy’s later seasons, but that episode, in which a musical demon forced Sunnydale residents to sing and dance about their deepest darkest secrets, stands out as a series highlight.
Buffy wasn’t the first show to try a musical episode (Xena: Warrior Princess had two!) but it seems pretty safe to say that we wouldn’t have seen musical episodes of Scrubs, Supernatural, or The Flash/Supergirl without Once More With Feeling. Squint hard enough and maybe there’s even some of Buffy’s DNA in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, too.
Popularising long story arcs (and creating the Big Bad)
Hard to remember now, in the wake of Mad Men and Breaking Bad and all those long-running, slow burning shows, but TV back in the 90s used to be a lot more episodic than it is now. Especially genre TV. Your basic set-up had a cast of characters going to a new place or encountering a new challenge every week, with a reset button pressed before the next one started. You could dip in and out of almost anything without feeling like you were missing much.
Buffy helped to change that. Yeah, there are plenty of Monster Of The Week episodes, but every season – even the first one! – had a longer arc going on, with a Big Bad emerging over the course of the season to be faced in the final episodes. That structure changed the way other shows approached their own plotting and structure, to the point where it’s hard to think of any show that does the one-story-one-episode thing any more.
Buffy’s also responsible for the term ‘Big Bad’ to describe the season’s boss-level villain.
Prompting the creation of TVTropes.org
Apologies in advance for the hours you’re now going to spend reading pages on TV Tropes because I’ve reminded you that it exists, but the addictive site was created because of Buffy. It has its origins in a thread on the forums of Buffy fansite Buffistas.org, where forum members were identifying and discussing various plot devices. Off the back of the conversation, one member set up a wiki, and over time, that developed into the behemoth that is today’s TV Tropes. Even now, Buffy is one of the most referenced shows on the site.
Inspiring the Doctor Who reboot
Something else inspired by Buffy? The Doctor Who reboot. In an interview in 2005, Russell T. Davies said “Buffy The Vampire Slayer shows the whole world, and an entire sprawling industry, that writing monsters and demons and end-of-the-world is not hack work, it can challenge the best. Joss Whedon raised the bar for every writer – not just genre/niche writers, but every single one of us.”
Anthony Head echoed Davies’s comments in a 2015 Radio Times interview. “Russell T Davies said that he used Buffy as a model for when he was rebranding Doctor Who, because Joss Whedon was the first person to actually say you can have genuine comedy and life-changing events happening on the turn of a dime,” he said. “You could laugh in one moment and be terrified the next moment, and the two emotions actually complement each other. Joss was also very keen to make sure that every event had a repercussion. Nothing happened without it having a follow-through. He changed the face of sci-fi TV as a genre, I think, completely.”
So there you go. No Buffy, no Doctor Who reboot.
Teaching us to speak differently
Writing dialogue for teenage characters is always tricky, because whenever adults try to write teen slang, it tends to come off a bit cringy. So when he wrote for his teen characters, Joss Whedon didn’t try to incorporate words real life young people were actually saying; instead, he looked at speech patterns, and found ways to manipulate language that meant his characters sounded cool even if they were using completely made-up words.
Mostly, Whedon’s technique involved using parts of language in unexpected ways: adjectives became nouns, while nouns became verbs. Pop culture references were slotted in everywhere, intensifiers were added to all descriptions, and layers of wordplay were packed into every utterance. There’s a wit and colour to Buffy’s dialogue that makes it still sound oddly current – because, well, we all do it now, don’t we?
Making Joss Whedon a pop culture powerhouse
He’d written for TV before Buffy, but the seven season pop cultural juggernaut was really the thing that made Joss Whedon a name. After being disappointed with the way the 1992 movie of the same title turned out, Whedon wanted to prove that Buffy was a character worth spending time with, and, well, mission accomplished.
His post-Buffy career wasn’t all plain sailing, of course, but the show definitely opened doors for him, and now he can boast that he’s the director of one of the most successful comic book movies of all time. He’s also one of the most referenced, most quoted, most discussed, and most hero-worshipped creators ever. And all because he never lost faith in the little blonde Slayer who could.