Premiering 21 years ago on March 10, 1997, on a relatively new network, Buffy the Vampire Slayer went on to last 7 seasons over two networks, a spinoff, an ongoing series continuation in comic book form, and has endured as one of the most beloved TV series of all time even two decades later. First conceived and written as a feature film by Joss Whedon, the 1992 movie went full-blown comedy and none of the horror and female empowerment that Whedon envisioned. Years later, Whedon was approached to turn Buffy into a TV series, giving him the chance to redo the concept under his vision.
A revolutionary show that blended horror and comedy, with a fierce butt-kicking female lead before that was commonplace on the small screen, Buffy the Vampire Slayer continues to receive considerable attention for its cultural relevance and innovation. In celebration of its 21st anniversary, we look back at 21 reasons this show continues to slay:
There would be no Buffy, film or television, without its creator. Starting out as a staff writer for sitcoms like Roseanne, and a script doctor for films like Speed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is his first true baby; a film and series that would launch his trademark ability to gut his audience with shocking deaths and create badass heroines. Unafraid to craft morally grey lead characters with profound character arcs, Whedon paved the way for many series that would follow. He’s since moved from television to big Hollywood blockbusters, and looking back at his first series it’s no surprise why.
Duh. What would the series be without Buffy? The wise-cracking valley girl type that just wanted to be normal but with a fate that demanded the weight of the world rest upon her shoulders meant a high school teen that dealt with a tremendous amount of pain and suffering both internally and externally. Sarah Michelle Gellar brought the right amount of vulnerability and sass that made Buffy an instant icon, even 21 years later. Throughout all of the major emotional moments in the series, and there are many, Gellar handled them with seemingly effortless ease. She saved the world. A lot.
The Scooby Gang
Buffy’s group of friends brought together to help her on her daunting quest to save the world weren’t just relegated to the sidelines while the heroine got all the glory, they actually became an integral part of the show that soon felt more ensemble than one woman show. Xander, Willow, Giles, and eventually Cordelia and Anya would all evolve into layered characters with their own evolved journeys. From Willow’s transformation from mousy girl to Big Bad to empowered witch, and a groundbreaking depiction of her sexuality, Willow became a pillar of the show. Cordelia’s growth from shallow mean girl to maturity, Anya’s stuggle with humanity, and Xander’s plucky sidekick turned emotional center, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t just her journey, but her chosen family’s journey as well.
The Big Bads
Very few shows could deliver Big Bads like Buffy. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that this series was the one responsible for coining the term in the first place. From season 1’s The Master to the final season’s First Evil, each major adversary was not only formidable, but had distinct personalities that made them memorable. The charismatic Hell god Glory to the quintessential polite Mayor Wilkins III, the Big Bads became just as memorable as the heroes we rooted for. Perhaps no other major adversary is as well regarded as anti-Buffy slayer Faith, a tragic take on what Buffy could have been without her friends and family.
The Monsters of the Week
It says a lot that even with the complex Big Bads, the week to week monsters that appeared could still hold their own. Some humorous, but mostly terrifying, the monsters that Buffy had to battle could be skin-crawling and creepy. John Ritter is downright sinister as the suitor of Buffy’s mom in season 2, and the Der Kindestod of season 2 seems like a chilling precursor to The Gentlemen. Ghosts, demons, man-eating substitute teachers, and every weird creature in between, the Hellmouth attracted every possible monster conceivable, with excellent creature designs behind them, which meant even if you didn’t care about the characters (you monster), you still wanted to tune in every week.
Sure, the love triangle between Buffy, good vampire Angel, and bad boy vampire Spike often stole the conversation, but the series offered so much more than that. The father-daughter bond between Buffy and her appointed watcher, Giles, was one of the most compelling relationships of the show, as he transcended beyond a dutiful watched and became emotionally invested in his slayer’s life. The show even managed to be convincing in its introduction to a brand new teen sister, Dawn, in season 5, giving a surprising emotional through line in Buffy’s determination to save her sister when she’d never even had one before. In other words, Buffy was a character more enriched by her relationships with her friends and family, instead of being shaped by her latest boyfriend.
The Impact on Horror TV
Though there were horror series before Buffy, the long-running success of the series proved to networks there was loyal audience for horror on the small screen. It also provided a modern template for genre series that followed. After Buffy concluded in 2003, The CW (formerly The WB of which Buffy played a major role in its success) continued to ensure genre-bending shows would feature in its line-up. Long-running shows like Supernatural or The Vampire Diaries that would in some way draw comparisons to Buffy, even paying homage on occasion.
Whedon has a reputation for killing his darlings, and that started with Buffy. Whedon maniacally makes his audience emotionally invested in characters, causing their unexpected deaths to sting. When TV series that came before made us feel secure in the safety of important characters that sided in good, Whedon ripped the rug out from under us time and time again. Whedon didn’t wait long to set that tone, either, with season 2’s most brutal death of Giles’ love interest and peripheral Scooby member Jenny Calendar. That it was at the hands of Angelus? Ouch. The show didn’t stop there, either, tearing our hearts out again and again with shocking deaths of many important characters. Not even the leads were safe.
A Reminder of the Terrors of High School
High school and adolescence suck, and Sunnydale’s demonic Hellmouth meant cleverly conveying the horrors of high school with monster metaphors. Early season one episodes that featured creatures like man-eating Mantis monster Miss French that was a perfect symbol for the terrors of horny adolescence or the safe sex allegory of the Bezoar of season 2, but it was also the dynamics between the outsider Scooby gang and the mean popular kids like Cordelia that illustrated the frustrations of what actual high school life could be like.
The Cultural Impact
Buffy’s wise-cracking, butt-kicking sass became the blueprint of many heroines that would follow. Shows like Veronica Mars, Doctor Who, True Blood owe a debt of gratitude to the tough Valley Girl that came before. More than that, the series-long story arcs and monster of the week type episodes were mirrored in later series like Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, Fringe, and more. Its ability to mash genres is still emulated today. Beyond that, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a social relevance that still holds hefty meaning today. The lessons learned in the show are timeless. As are the references.
Starting with an earworm catchy rock theme, the music and soundtrack became just as much of a subtextual character for the show as it was groundbreaking. It conveyed the attitude of the slayer, and the show itself, and launched a number of musical careers for the talent behind it. The best example, perhaps, of the relevance of music to the show was in the musical episode “Once More with Feeling,” one of the best episodes of the series that impressively nailed down a diverse range of music.
That the lead character is a female, not male, is subversive in its own right, but Whedon continued to challenge himself again and again in terms of narrative storytelling. After establishing a monster of the week type formula in season 1, he flipped that on its head and altered the series for something longer form. The entire trajectory of Whedon’s career is exemplified in this series, in that his only constant is the continuous defiance of expectations. The unexpected surprise that the slayer falls for a vampire, or that Buffy was in Heaven before her Scooby gang ripped her away, made for constant subversion of expectations.
The show had a wicked sense of humor and that applied to just about every single character, from the heroes to the villains. Buffy’s ability to wise-crack before, during, and after combat with the latest vampire or monster was utterly charming, but sometimes the wit and sarcasm was even used as a means of displaying just how terrifying the villains could be. Take season 7’s serial killing priest turned First Evil embodiment Caleb, who snapped a woman’s neck before snarking, ““I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that last part on account of her neck snappin’ and all. Did she say the end was near, or here?”
With a lead heroine that’s very rooted in a bubbly Valley girl stereotype, Buffy came with its own unique slang. So much so that not only did Gellar constantly have to ask what the words meant, but it eventually inspired its own book, Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon by English professor Michael Adams. Words like slayage, sitch, wiggins, and phrases like “five by five” made the show, and Buffy, endearingly unique. It also could be credited as being the first to use “Google” as a verb, when Willow first uses it in the episode “Help.”
The Huge Risks
Following right in line with the consistent subversion of expectations, Whedon and the writers weren’t afraid of taking huge gambles with the series, even if they didn’t always pay off. The darkness that plagued Buffy in season 6 and her subsequent sort of rapey relationship with Spike were tough to handle before she finally dug her way out of it. Willow’s evolution into lesbian was not only somehow organic, but groundbreaking for television. And the choice to write in a sister, as aforementioned, 5 seasons in when Buffy was an only child prior could have easily failed in lesser hands. When the risks worked, they really worked.
With dialogue often considered the best part of the show by critics, Whedon decided to challenge himself to create an episode pretty much devoid of dialogue. The result is one of the spookiest hours of television, featuring creepy ghouls known as The Gentlemen that come to town to steal everyone’s voices so their screams go unheard when they cut out their hearts. It was the only episode to be nominated for an Emmy, and it’s easy to see why.
The Epic Speeches
It wasn’t all sarcasm and sass that made Buffy and her gang so loveable. They also had a penchant for delivering epic speeches that served both as rallying cries and moments of profound humanity. It reflected on life and the evolving depth of characters, and the best part is that they weren’t just reserved for the leading lady. Nearly every important character got to deliver a powerful monologue at some point in the show, from Xander’s speech about a crayon to save his best friend, or a broken Spike professing his love, to Buffy empowering new generations, no one gives good epic speech like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Future Stars
While most of the cast was comprised of relative unknowns that launched careers for its main cast, the series also boasted a number of appearances by stars long before they became famous. From Amy Adams in episode 6 of season 5, Pedro Pascal pre-Game of Thrones in season 4, comedian Kal Penn, Oscar-nominated actor John Hawkes, singer Ashanti and countless others made early appearances before they became famous. Spotting these now-famous actors early in their career is yet another reason this series is so rewatchable.
“Close your eyes”
In a show that consistently gave you all of the feels, one of the most heartbreaking moments occurred in the season 2 finale, where Willow manages to restore Angel’s soul just as the awakened demon Acathla opened the vortex to hell. He’s confused and unaware of the 9 episode reign of terror, and Buffy tearfully embraces her former lover, telling him to close his eyes, before killing him. The series would be full of moments like this, where Buffy would painfully be forced to choose saving the world over her personal happiness, but it was the first moment that made you wonder if she’d ever get a happy ending at all.
In a series full of supernatural, where deaths come by way of vampires, demons, and monsters, Whedon delivered one of the biggest sucker punches in the shocking death of Buffy’s mother in season 5. It’s a heart-wrenching hour that begins with Buffy’s discovery of her mother, lying dead on the couch from natural causes. There’s no music, a staple of the series, just long takes of poignant grief. Nothing marked Buffy’s transition into full-blown adulthood like this harsh slap of reality.
Though typical vampire lore was used in creating the series vampires, Whedon made a huge change to the vamps from the film; he didn’t want them to look like people. He didn’t feel comfortable portraying a high school girl staking normal people on TV, so he leaned heavy into the fantastical, ensuring they looked like monsters when it counted. Turning to dust when killed also cleverly bypassed body cleanup duty.