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R.I.P. 'Buffy': You drove a stake through convention

May 20, 2003|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

She has spawned a spinoff and imitators, scholarly conferences and books, hundreds of academic papers, thousands of Web sites and millions of hard-core fans. Nonviewers may be baffled why a show that never cracked the top 50 in ratings had such a big cultural impact, but mere numbers could never reflect the intense appeal of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which ends its glorious seven-year run tonight.

"She saved the world a lot." Those words were carved into Buffy's tombstone at the end of the fifth season. She was resurrected later, but the epitaph was a mirror of the show's sensibility, an inspired blend of sly humor and pathos.

In the beginning, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), cheerleader by day, vampire killer by night, arrived in Sunnydale, Calif. It's a lovely town that happens to sit on the mouth of hell, from which all manner of evil spews forth on a weekly basis.

The show's elegant metaphor, that growing up is hell, was rich territory for the trials that adolescents face. Peer pressure, friendship, loneliness, dating, abusive boyfriends, betrayal, the generation gap, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll -- it was all fodder for demonizing, and battling those demons made for surprisingly realistic drama.

Buffy was the first young woman on television who was both empowered and realistically portrayed. She never patronized her audience.

Joss Whedon, creator of the show (and the 1992 film of the same name), deliberately set out to design an icon, not a character, and over the show's long run, it has stayed largely true to his original vision.

"People cared for her because she fulfilled a need for a female hero, which is distinctly different from a heroine," said Whedon, whose credits include the screenplays to "Toy Story" and "Alien: Resurrection," the fourth film in that franchise. "While a heroine is the protagonist, generally speaking, somebody swoops in and saves her. A hero is a more complex figure and has to deal with all the traditional rites of passage. Everything Luke Skywalker had to go through, Buffy had to go through, and then some."

Fantasy meets reality

"Science fiction, horror and musicals, the most 'fantastic' kinds of genres, are sometimes best able to deal with social or emotional problems in ways that would be less palatable if they were not disguised," said Vivian Sobchack. The professor of critical studies in the department of film, television and digital media at UCLA started watching because her son played in a band on the show. She was immediately hooked.

"It's comic, satiric and moving at the same time," Sobchack said, adding that, at a young 62, she's not in the expected demographic. "It's also about power and the sacrifices and responsibilities that power imposes, a woman's issue in the contemporary world that resonates a lot."

The show's breadth of appeal is such that younger viewers could ignore the depth and concentrate on the character's fighting prowess and fashion sense. (At one point during the run, a popular college frat drinking game involved chugging every time a bra strap was spotted. In Buffyspeak: Beer bad.) Witty references to pop cultural issues appealed to one demographic, while more veiled allusions to classic novels (Whedon cites "A Little Princess" as his favorite book) and surrealist Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel appealed to another.

Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the film department at Wesleyan University, who taught Whedon as an undergraduate, also praised the show's cross-generational appeal.

"My daughter, who's in her early 30s and a mother, is a gigantic Buffy fan who would have eaten her young before she would have missed an episode." Basinger, in her 60s, is equally devoted.

For Basinger, as well as for many other Buffy fans, the show works on so many strata -- mythical, psychological, philosophical, political, sexual and theological -- it wouldn't be surprising if geologists were among its admirers. "Buffy," like all great art, is inclusive.

But the show also had some insurmountable hurdles. A title that instantly struck some as too cartoonish or juvenile was one.

The location didn't help either. The WB could never promote it like one of the big four networks. (After five seasons on the WB, the show moved to UPN for the last two, where it fared even worse.) And the show itself, with its complex characters and multilayered mythology, was too hard for some viewers to follow.

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