Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the WB/UPN series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), but due to my review of Sekret Machines I wasn’t able to mark the occasion. Because the show was a seminal part of my adolescent years, I feel like I should have more to say about than I do, but somehow I find that the barrage of media coverage has approached the anniversary from every possible angle. Instead, I’ll just talk a little bit about the show. I need a bit of a break anyway after devoting so many hours this past week to Peter Levenda’s pretentious drivel.
TV networks have long been fond of shows about high schoolers because high school is the last more or less universal experience that Americans from all walks of life share, and these shows appeal not just to young audiences but also to adults who remember what it was like to be young. I read a review, for example, of the new CW series Riverdale that more or less said that the show was a teen drama for adults who grew up watching teen dramas. (It’s also remarkably good for a show that is utterly divorced from anything resembling reality.)
Teen dramas come around regularly, and every high schooler gets one that lines up chronologically with their high school experience. For me it was Buffy. I was a sophomore in high school when the show debuted, and in the show’s first season, so, too, were Buffy and her friends. They moved through life’s milestones in lockstep with me, and so I had more of an emotional connection to the characters than to earlier high school shows like Beverly Hills 90210, whose characters were years ahead of me (and the actors decades older), and later high school shows like The O.C., which I viewed at years’ remove from the characters’ life experiences. There were also funny coincidences that made Buffy seem more relevant to me than perhaps it really was. When Buffy went to college in season four, she hated her new roommate, who had a pink iMac and blasted Cher’s “Believe” and turned out to be a demon. I entered college a couple of weeks earlier, and I hated my new roommate, who also had a pink iMac and who wanted to practice the trombone in our room and who turned out to be secretly evil, asking me to help him deceive multiple women so he could juggle multiple girlfriends without the others knowing.
Buffy killed her roommate for being a demon. Mine moved out in short order to become an R.A. The replacement turned out to be worse. He was an exchange student from Singapore, nearly 30, with limited English. He arrived with—and I wish this was a joke—exactly one pair of pants and two shirts. He never showered and would “borrow” my things and scream at me in Chinese because I wanted to sleep at night and he was nocturnal and wanted to use the time to make nightly international calls to his parents in Singapore, where it was day.
High school was also the time that I discovered the work of H. P. Lovecraft, and I realized quite quickly that Buffy owed more than a little debt to Lovecraft’s Mythos. Consider, for example, Rupert Giles’s description of Earth’s history in the second episode, “The Harvest”:
This world is older than any of you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons demons walked the Earth. They made it their home, their... their Hell. But in time they lost their purchase on this reality. The way was made for mortal animals, for, for man. All that remains of the old ones are vestiges, certain magicks, certain creatures.
The phrase “Old Ones” is obviously Lovecraftian, but the whole sentence is a pretty close copy of the apocryphal “black magic” quote falsely attributed to H. P. Lovecraft: “All my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.”
There is much else that reflects Lovecraft, at least in his Derlethian form, but that discussion has occurred across the internet and plumbed to its depths.
In reading many of the reactions to the anniversary of Buffy, I was reminded that there is now an entire informal academic discipline of “Buffy Studies” representing the vast number of academic articles and books devoted to exploring the richness of the series. To be entirely honest, I think the academic love of Buffy is a little overblown. I’m not sure any one TV show deserves so much praise (though this article is probably the best case for the importance of Buffy as a structural influence on TV), since the experience of television is rarely that of consuming just one show, but rather experiencing television as a medium whose shows are in conversation with each other and the broader culture. Perhaps its place in academic discourse stems from its position as one of the last great series before TV splintered into so many niches that it was no longer possible to have a pop culture phenomenon that “everyone” (at least in certain demographics) knew about, watched, and liked. It’s hard to imagine, for example, an entire discipline of Supernatural studies, or anyone devoting twenty years of research to the fineries of True Blood. But on the other hand, neither of those shows would exist without Buffy, to whom they owe enormous debt. It just feels a little, though, like the whole Buffy Studies thing is, at heart, more of an emotional investment.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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