High-School Hell: Buffy, a Season One Retrospective

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: a show you may have heard of, but never bothered to watch. Your impressions might have come from the failed 1992 film of the same title with Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland, created by Joss Whedon but quickly forgotten by everyone else. Five years later, Buffy the TV series was picked up as a twelve episode mid-season replacement on the WB network in the USA. Buffy herself (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has admitted that she took the role initially because she needed the paycheck, showing that no-one really had big expectations for Buffy, except Whedon, who was determined to tell two simple stories – “high school as a horror movie” and “a need to see a girl fight monsters, and not die.”

The very first scene of Buffy The Vampire Slayer clearly presents these two goals. Two teens break into Sunnydale High at night, the girl looking very innocent in her schoolgirl outfit and nervous about being there while the boy is goading her.  Suddenly, she morphs into a vampire and she attacks him, and the audience now knows not to expect a show full of helpless girls and boys who can overpower them.  It’s important to remember that this show first aired in 1997, and the women who kept Buffy company on other TV channels were written into story-lines where the abiding themes were love, loss and heartbreak rather than power, destiny and strength.

competition is hot
competition is hot at Sunnydale High

We meet Buffy Summers as she arrives in Sunnydale, California after being kicked out school in LA.  She lives with her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), who is supportive but knows nothing of her secret identity as the vampire Slayer.  As the Slayer, Buffy is the current “chosen one” in a long line of girls who, after the death of their predecessor, are imbued with ancient power “to fight the vampires, demons and forces of darkness.”  At Sunnydale High, she meets Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the school librarian who was in fact, sent from England to act as her Watcher – like Buffy, he is the current Watcher in a long line of Watchers who train and instruct their slayers.  Buffy meets the outcasts Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), the popular girl Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) and the elusive mystery man Angel (David Boreanaz), and together they form the “Scooby Gang” – Buffy’s group of friends who help her fight off evil.  We’re often reminded that no other Slayer before her has ever had a group of friends, and it is this support that helps her – both emotionally and literally – fight the forces of evil.  Their detective gang also sets up the emotional dynamics of the group: Willow’s always been in love with Xander, who only has eyes for Buffy. Buffy likes Angel, but they can never be together for mystical reasons, and Giles maintains a fatherly, slightly disapproving gaze on their quasi-relationship as it develops.

swathes to cut
swathes to cut

Season one is far and away the most serialised season of Buffy.  Each episode follows a classic creature feature plot while maintaining a comedic self-awareness about the horror genre – the witch who curses the cheer-leading team, the demonic online boyfriend who seduces Willow, the giant praying mantis that poses as a Biology teacher to entrap young virgin men, the hyena spirit that possesses Xander’s body after a field trip to the zoo.  But through these monster-of-the-week style episodes is a through line of menace, as the season’s villain The Master – a vampire so old that he can no longer change into his human face – works to escape his mystical, underground prison and murder Buffy.  In the finale of the season, Giles discovers that it is prophesied that the Master will escape and will kill Buffy, no matter what any of them do. “Giles, I’m sixteen years old,” she tells him, a solitary tear rolling down her cheek, “I don’t want to die.”

It’s a moment of pathos that reminds the audience of the immense responsibility and pressure on Buffy.  This can sometimes be forgotten because of the way that the show chooses to portray the high-school-as-hell metaphor through a comedic lens, as Buffy often quips clever one-liners before she eliminates her enemies.

I’m not going to tell you what happens – you’ll have to watch Season One to find out if The Master kills Buffy or not – but there are six more seasons to go.  Throughout the coming seasons, poignancy and emotion will develop much more strongly, but Season One is the perfect place to start!

Favorite episode of the season – episode 10: ‘Nightmares’
Across Sunnydale, everyone’s worst nightmares start coming true. This includes Buffy’s dad telling her that she was the reason her parents split up, Xander being chased by a killer clown, Willow on stage in Madame Butterfly and Buffy as a vampire, as imagined in Giles’ nightmares. Bonus baby Joseph Gordon Levitt as the kid in a coma who is responsible for it all!

Least favorite episode – episode 4: ‘Teacher’s Pet’
Feeling his affections for Buffy are going to waste, Xander becomes smitten with the new Biology teacher who turns out to be a giant praying mantis in disguise, looking for virgin men to fertilise his eggs. Lots of good character moments in this episode – Willow pining for Xander whose pining for Buffy, but it’s peppered between one of the more gross monsters of the week. She eats a sandwich of live bugs at one point. Yuck.

Honorable mention – episode 11: ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’
Strange attacks are being inflicted upon Cordelia and her popular friends. Buffy and the gang trace it back to Marcie, a girl who was ignored by classmates and teachers to the point that she literally turned invisible. The ending of this episode is haunting and clever! Bonus: Marcie is played by Clea DuVall.

All seven seasons of Buffy The Vampires Slayer are currently streaming on Presto and Netflix (US).

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