Series Gave Fans Much to Sink Their Teeth Into
Washington Post, May 19, 2003
By Rita Kempley
For millions of you, the world really is about to end, and this time, there is nothing your precious slayer can do about it.
After seven seasons of staving off vampires, geeks and the occasional apocalypse, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is pulling up stakes and 4 million fans in this country and many more around the globe are mourning the impending departure of the supernatural TV series.
Although some aficionados have resigned themselves to “Buffy’s” passing tonight, others are still devastated. “I’m going to die,” wails a closet fan, a lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous lest colleagues discover her obsession. She closes the door and whispers when speaking of the “chosen one.”
Truth be told, she is not alone among the accomplished who regularly visit the “Buffyverse.” Theologians, psychoanalysts and academics from all disciplines are drawn to the show like vampires to blood banks. Not that you have to have a degree to fall for the slayer and the Slayerettes.
For the un-Buffed, Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the adorable Buffy Summers, a not-dumb blond Valley girl who moved to suburban Sunnydale with her mother following her parents’ divorce. Buffy discovered that she is descended from a long line of slayers, that Sunnydale (“a one-Starbucks town”) is located over the Hellmouth and that she has been chosen to protect the universe from whatever it spits up.
Buffy was soon befriended by fellow high schoolers, the studious witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and the nerdy everydude Xander (Nicholas Brendon), who stuck by her side even when the show moved from the WB to UPN in 1997. Angel (David Boreanaz), a brooding vampire who has regained his soul, has fallen in love with Buffy and aided her in her nightly patrols of the Sunnydale cemetery.
Of course, her real quest is to conquer her personal demons, discover her true strengths and find her rightful place in the universe. Although she was modeled upon the typical scream queens of the horror genre, Buffy is much deeper.
Academics find the show’s use of myth, alchemy and allegory irresistible, says Angela Ndalianis, head of cinema studies at Melbourne University. Ndalianis, now organizing Australia’s first symposium on “BtVS,” sent out a call to scholars for papers and was stunned by the response. In one day, she received 250 essays extrapolating, deconstructing and scrutinizing creator Joss Whedon’s rich oeuvre.
Ndalianis has already signed up 15 speakers, including David Lavery and Rhonda Wilcox, co-editors of “Slayage: The On-line International Journal of Buffy Studies.” The Web site appeals to the slayer’s more erudite followers, who tackle such topics as Buffy and “the transgressive woman warrior” or Buffy and “the pedagogy of fear.”
Why all the fuss over a TV series?
“BtVS” has evolved into much more than a series about high school hell and sticking vamps. Whedon and his writers load the sardonic dialogue — known as Buffyspeak — with references to classic literature along with pop culture (“You’re so late, you make Godot look punctual,” said one character).
“You can bring your own subtext,” says Lavery. “The show has made inroads into all aspects of life.” He and fellow devotees were nevertheless shocked when they discovered that national security analyst Anthony H. Cordesman had written a treatise on “Biological Warfare and the ‘Buffy’ Paradigm.” “We thought it was mind-boggling that he had watched ‘Buffy,’ much less heard of the show,” Lavery adds.
Cordesman, chairman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a regular pundit on ABC News, says, “I was trying to explain modern warfare to people who seem to be incapable of understanding the subject. It is a fairly esoteric, difficult topic, so I thought if I related it to something in pop culture, it would be more easily understood.”
His point: We don’t have the slightest idea what threats might be coming our way. ” ‘Buffy’ deals with uncertainty and the grim side of life better in some ways than many experts in national security,” he adds.
Except for the occasional coffin, nothing is nailed down in the Buffyverse. Monsters never behave as expected, especially with all the body-shifting now that the First, Buffy’s ultimate nemesis, has emerged from the Hellmouth. The final episode finds the worn and world-weary heroes backed against the wall by the First. Xander, who has lost an eye, is fending off Cyclops jokes. Willow’s spells are no match for the First, and some young, untrained slayers are eating all the ice cream. The vampires Angel and Spike, respectively Buffy’s first and second loves, have joined the forces for good and Buffy has a new weapon, an ax she pulled from a stone that had been placed there by Caleb, the First’s evil minion. The gang might have a chance, if only Buffy can get the darn thing to work.
Debra Jackson, a professor at California State University, Bakersfield, uses the characters’ dilemmas to introduce her students to philosophical concepts such as liberty versus determinism.
Spike, one of Sunnydale’s most ferocious fiends, is figuratively defanged when a covert government agency plants a make-nice chip in his brain. Poor fellow falls madly in love with the slayer and, with human throats forbidden him, must feed on pig’s blood from the neighborhood butcher.
“The chip not only prevents Spike from causing pain, but curbs what he wants to do. This gets them to think about the effect of socialization on our free will and also helps them to realize that they have thought about philosophical issues before,” Jackson says of her students.
Heather Nathans, a theater history professor at the University of Maryland, takes advantage of Whedon’s tendency to play around with and mix genres. She uses an all-singing, all-dancing episode, titled “Once More With Feeling,” in her class on American musical theater and popular entertainment.
“The episode is so clever,” she says. “It had all the components of a musical, but also parodies the form.”
Though rife with pagan practices, “BtVS” has also been embraced by a large number of theologians. Jana Riess, religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly, is hard at work on a self-help book called “What Would Buffy Do? A Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide.”
“Whedon may call himself an atheist, but ‘Buffy’ deals with profoundly religious themes. It serves as a strong moral example most of the time,” says Riess. “If right-wing Christians followed the show, they might very well see that it is very Christian in its orientation.”
Buffy, who always wears a crucifix, was recently named “Theologian of the Year” by the Door, which bills itself as the world’s only religious humor magazine. Its editors are having fun with the award, but they aren’t poking fun at the slayer.
John Rutledge, whose nom de plume is Skippy R., writes, “Hidden between the stupid sitcoms, copycat dramas and reality shows . . . ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ has been acting out a modern-day morality play . . . dealing with topics like evil, redemption, resurrection, sex, guilt, existential angst, selflessness and sacrifice, religion and the occult often all before the first commercial break.”
Rutledge blames himself, kind of, for the show’s demise. “The last hot babe we named ‘Theologian of the Year’ was Xena, Warrior Princess, and her show folded soon afterward. Now Buffy’s history. The unexplained is indeed all around us. And the supply of easy-to-look-at interpreters of theology is dwindling.”
The show’s ratings had fallen — from more than 7 million viewers at its high point to fewer than 4 million near the end — and the actors’ salaries had gone up. But Whedon says pulling the plug was his decision. “I was like, I can’t do this anymore! I’m so sleepy,” he told Hollywood Reporter.
“The program has been the only work on television that consistently talks about spiritual realities without either preachiness or an ironic, ‘nudge-nudge’ approach, and that will be missed,” says Rutledge.
A few fans still hold out hope that Whedon, who is known for resurrecting characters and creating unexpected plot twists, is just putting them on. Buffy herself has risen from the dead, so why not “BtVS?” But the cast has already been showing signs of rigor mortis and Gellar, whose contract was up, is off making movies with husband Freddie Prinze Jr. Whedon has said both he and Gellar were worn out.
“I think that oddly enough, although Buffy fans love Buffy passionately, there seems to be a sense that it’s time,” says Camille Bacon-Smith, fantasy author and editor of “New Directions in Folklore.” “Shows have cycles. It’s really traumatic for fans, but the show has run its course.”
Even Lavery, considered the foremost Buffy scholar, senses that the time has come. “I am rooting for the show to end well, unlike ‘X-Files,’ ” he says. “When a show ends well, your enthusiasm is confirmed even in the face of losing it.”
So what are they going to do now?
Much to the relief of fans, “Angel,” a spinoff starring Boreanaz, was renewed last week by the WB. Better news yet, James Marsters will reprise the role of Spike on that show next season.
Scott Nance, who reviews each episode of “BtVS” on the sci-fi Web site “USS Chesapeake,” is going to miss the slayer. “But the show wasn’t always about Buffy,” he says. “There are lots of other characters and there are so many stories to be told. We can still access that world through ‘Angel.’ And who knows? Buffy might show up.”