I still remember the first time I saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was at my best friend's house. It was a Wednesday night. We were in our school uniforms, eating pizza slices for dinner. That opening scene began: A girl and boy break into a school after dark, the girl terrified there's something lurking, but it's all a ruse. She turns into a vampire and sucks the life out of her prey. If I wasn't instantaneously hooked already, the grunge-fueled theme tune by Nerf Herder kicked in and suddenly this was the best thing I'd ever laid eyes on.
The rhetoric that introduced each episode – “In every generation there is a chosen one. … She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness — she is the Slayer” – became as familiar to me as Miranda rights. I was obsessed; I wore high ponytails more than was natural, I started taking martial arts classes, for a minute Cibo Matto were my favorite new band because they played the fictional Bronze club once. To this day, “Wild Horses” — covered by The Sundays on the series' original soundtrack — is my preferred Rolling Stones song. The show reminds me of the smell of new books. I bought one a week, every novella associated with each episode and the heavy-weighted Watcher's Guides, which were geek bibles, filled with trivia, behind-the-scenes info and verse after verse of the show's killer dialogue.
Still now, Buffy Summers remains my true TV hero. In 1997 I'd never seen a female character like her. One who was kind to her friends, enviably cool and pretty. She won the heart of the hottest guy in town (Angel! Swoon! But watch out for pointy teeth!) and saved the world on the daily. For a teenager just trying to survive a relentless onslaught of algebra homework, it was a lifeline. The creator of the show, Joss Whedon, said that the notion of Buffy came to him as a way of taking the idea of the frightened blonde running away from danger in a horror movie and turning that upside down. Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played Buffy, made a short appearance in Scream 2 the year the show first aired. Spoiler alert for those of you who haven't seen Wes Craven's masterpiece: Her character, Cici Cooper, was abandoned in a frat house and became powerless to stop the masked killer from throwing her to a bloody death. That would never happen to Buff, which was probably why Craven conceived of it.
Television, in my mind, is divided into two categories: B.B. (before Buffy) and A.B. (after Buffy). In the era before Buffy, fantasy was considered the realm of nerds. Buffy paved the ghoulish way for Twilight, The Hunger Games and True Blood. B.B. it was hard to conceive of a female superhero as true and multifaceted as Buffy; someone who was vulnerable and scared, yet responsible, fearless and sharp. She's the small screen's answer to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley (Alien) and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor (Terminator), except shamelessly girlish. B.B. I'd never seen a Jewish character on TV who I related to (Ross and Monica Geller were too grown-up and swanky in their NYC apartments). I felt a deep kinship with Willow Rosenberg, Buffy's best friend, who had to explain to the rest of her gang that being Jewish meant doing nothing for Christmas. Speaking of Willow, when she fell in love with Tara at a Wicca meeting in college (yes, Tara was a witch, but that was an improvement from Willow's former love interest, Oz, a boy werewolf), it was the first time I'd seen a queer character come out on TV. At the time, it didn't feel so impactful. Whedon made it that effortless.
Indeed, there are really no limits to the firsts Buffy brought to us. In the episode “I Robot, You Jane,” Willow scans ancient texts into a computer, feeding a demon that lives inside the server. When she begins to receive random instant messages from a Malcolm and starts dating him, she doesn't realize Malcolm is the monster, despite her friend's concerns. When you think about it, Buffy dealt with catfishing before catfishing even existed.
Buffy's enduring qualities are threefold: the dialogue (famous lines include “If the apocalypse comes, beep me”), the lovable characters (even the grotesque Master vampire has his witty charms) and the story arc. Whedon created an age-defying metaphor built upon the concept that high school and teenage life is hell on Earth. One schoolgirl's trials and tribulations to stay alive seem fantastic, but her daily grind is relatable to all teens traversing the shitstorm of puberty, exams and physical education.
Of course there are elements of it that feel dated. There's a special place in my heart for the first season, which barely resembles the rest of the series. Most episodes ended with an unresolved cliffhanger, while Whedon explored miniature subplots on the mythological, the supernatural and the downright weird. Buffy's knee-high boots, Angel's collection of shirts and the excessive use of velvet made it look like Halloween every night. Not to mention the hair! When season two opens, Buffy sports a shorter, smarter style, perhaps symbolic of a show that was newly liberated by its unfathomable success. Buffy's sudden personality change introduced complexities that would nourish all seven seasons. It was illustrated by the whip-smart banter between Buff and her high school frenemy Cordelia Chase:
Cordelia: “Buffy, you're really campaigning for bitch of the year, aren't you?”
Buffy: “As defending champion, you nervous?”
When it comes to the greatest episodes, critics talk about “The Body,” in which Buffy finds her mother dead from natural causes; it's 45 minutes of television that could rival any serious drama. They talk about “Once More With Feeling,” the all-singing, all-dancing musical episode. They talk about “Hush,” which was completely silent. My personal favorite is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” You know how sometimes the wrong dude liking you can feel like the worst thing that's ever happened? In that episode, Buffy's best friend Xander, who harbors an unrequited, puppy-dog crush on her, plays with magic and wishes for Buffy's returned affections. Instead, the witchery backfires and every woman in the town of Sunnydale falls for him. Every woman except for Buffy, who has to save the day yet again, such was her eternal fate.
Nobody expected Buffy to take off the way it did. Kate Nash, British pop star and Buffy fanatic, has thrown Buffy-themed gigs over the years. “Buffy was like discovering Nirvana,” she says today. “It was my best friend, my boyfriend and my social life. I remember every single thing about the day I saw the pilot air, just like how people describe falling in love at first sight. I remember my outfit, I remember her outfit, the way the camera panned her body when she jumped on the pool table, the McChicken sandwich I ate earlier. Trying to come up with the words to describe what Buffy means to me literally brings me to tears. It gives me all the feelings, the way you felt about Christmas as a kid, my first crush, my desire to be somebody, feeling like I finally fit in. In my weakest moments, I turn to Buffy. She makes me stronger, she makes me happier, she makes me feel secure and capable of anything.”
In 2017, Buffy Summers isn't patrolling society's graveyards, protecting us from harm. Yet, for anyone struggling to make sense of the chaos outside, wondering what it all means or tiring of the resistance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer reminds us all that putting up a fight is a worthy way to live.