Whedon created an incredibly cohesive cast of characters that conveyed their unique individualism. If you didn’t personally identify with one of the main characters, then you probably knew someone that was like that character that had been a friend or a foe. Who didn’t have the beautifully perfect popular girl, the goofy boy-next-door, the brooding handsome guy, or the brainy kid that always threw the bell curve off? Although these characters – Cordelia, Xander, Angel, and Willow, respectively – initially seemed to fit their respective roles, Whedon did not become complacent with his characters. If anything, he obviously thought out the direction of his characters with a lot of care, planting seeds in episodes that he could later harvest. Cordelia is a good example. In “The Witch,” she is very driven to look and excel at cheerleading during the try-outs. She is quick to point out the inadequacies of the other girls; she is selfish and overly aggressive. In “Out of Mind, Out of Sight,” Cordelia reveals that she could be in a crowd of people, but she doesn’t know if they even like her or listen to her. She explains she would rather be popular because she doesn’t want to be alone. That fear of being alone is universal and, in that moment, Cordelia is humanized; it is the first step to accepting her, which is further explored in the season finale when Cordelia works with the Scooby Gang to fight off vampires from entering the library.
While Whedon gave each character screen time to develop, the belle of the ball was Buffy herself. She was beautiful, had an amazingly sassy/chic wardrobe, and gorgeous hair that was always done up in some new way, but she wasn’t perfect. She had trouble applying herself in her school work; however, Dr. Gregory in “Teacher’s Pet” saw her intellectual potential, if she would just apply herself. He even revealed he knew about her past (See the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.), but was offering her the opportunity to have a clean slate, something that Principal Flutie quickly revoked in the premiere episode, “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” Of course, as the series title reveals, Buffy is also the Slayer – The Chosen One – of vampires, demons, and generally all sorts of paranormal nastiness that finds its way to Sunnydale High School. And I thought my high school years were hellish! They pale in comparison, but the rudimentary and foundational emotions and experiences were brilliantly captured by Whedon’s pen. Buffy’s daily fight to keep the world safe endears herself in our hearts; we cannot help but feel helpless at the weight of responsibility she carries on her shoulders, especially when she tells Giles and Angel that she quits in “Prophecy Girl,” because she is just a “16-year-old-girl who doesn’t want to die.” Wow, powerful and wrenching, yet, time and time again, she found the strength to do the right thing, even when that path is detrimental to herself, either physically or emotionally. It is that emotional factor that is a recurring theme in each episode.
Each episode typically revolved around Buffy facing off with some paranormal creature, sometimes at the behest of the Master, but, occasionally, the threat was manifested as a result of angst by a fellow teenager. Yet at its heart, it was the emotional journey that was explored and experienced by Buffy and her friends that proved the strength of the series. Throughout the first season, each character was on a personal journal to fit in and find normalcy. Buffy just wanted to be a teenager with teenage issues, like worrying about homework and her hair, not about facing the Master and having her death foretold by a prophecy. Xander and Willow’s long-time friendship was tested with Buffy’s arrival. Willow pined for Xander, but she was afraid to tell him, while Xander struggled through much of the season wanting to ask Buffy out. He finally does in “Prophecy Girl,” only to have Buffy tell him she doesn’t think of him in that way, which is a statement he made in an earlier episode about Willow. Later, when Xander figures that he’ll just go the dance with Willow and they can have some laughs, how painful it was for Willow to tell him no, and then walk away. Again, Whedon would zig rather than zag, creating a powerful emotional moment that engaged the audience.
Friendship and familial relationships were often evaluated and compared. Friendships were tested in “The Pack,” for instance, and audiences witnessed a dark and cruel Xander, especially towards Willow, whom he rejects on the basis of her appearance, and then embodies a predatory predisposition towards Buffy and tries to attack her with intent to rape. The familial relationship is explored in “Angel” when Buffy’s paranormal world sweeps into her own home, where her mother is brutally attacked by a vampire. But the concept of family is always present; the Scooby Gang watches out for each other, just like family. When Willows falls for Malcolm in “I, Robot...You, Jane,” Xander and Buffy are the voices of caution and eventually risk their lives to save Willow in the climatic third act of the episode. Throughout the season, though, the audience gets a real sense of the bond developing between Buffy, Giles, Willow, and Xander, each taking risks for the other members. This is emphasized well in “Nightmares” in which Giles feels deep remorse and grief when he thinks that Buffy has died, and he faults himself with failing her. There is obviously an emotional investment that goes beyond the Watcher/Slayer dynamic for Giles. Alternatively, Buffy’s nightmare experience is learning that her father blames her for the divorce and then becoming a monster herself – a vampire. Giles anchors her attention when she is distraught about being the very thing she hates; it is a touching episode.
The last aspect of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the fact that it has become a visual document of historical significance because it captures the witticisms, pop culture slang, and social concerns of its time. In the first episode, as the audience is learning all about Sunnydale, Xander summed it up best: “Sunnydale is a one Starbucks town.” It’s a statement that quickly explained the town’s size. And it is a measure that hasn’t lost validity. In the same episode, Cordelia comments on Buffy’s “downward mobility,” and of course, Buffy’s “gives me the wiggins” is uniquely hers. The idea of books and face-to-face conversations becoming obsolete for computers and emails is explored in “I, Robot...You, Jane” as well as online dating. In a conversation between Xander and Buffy, they wonder who Malcolm could be because of the anonymity that the online dating format provides people, often not nice ones at that (like a demon!). In the third episode “Witch,” the extent that a parent will go for securing their child’s position on the cheerleading squad wasn’t all that farfetched and may have had its genesis in the 1991 Texas case in which a mother plotted murder so her daughter could get on the school squad. And the issue of bullying was explored in “The Pack” and in a similar vein in “Out of Mind, Out of Place,” as a teenage girl literally becomes invisible, a visceral byproduct of being socially invisible in all of her interactions at school – probably an all-too-familiar feeling from many of our collective high school experiences.
I was thoroughly riveted by the first season. The characters - all unique, flawed, and human, even a certain brooding vampire - captured my attention. Buffy, a strong leading lady protagonist who showed strength of conviction, was making the hard decisions that showed her altruistic nature in spite of her personal desire to experience a normal teenage life. She was one of the many characters I could admire and wish I had known when I was in high school. Whedon's commitment to the emotional journey was evident in every episode, and his inventiveness to mash up genres kept the show fresh and engaging. The witty dialogue gave a realistic vibe to the characters’ interactions with each other while providing that pause before Buffy donned her fighting stance. And the show is a historical testament to and comment about the world in the 1990s. What’s fascinating is that many of those topics explored in the show still have credibility today, so rather than becoming a dated relic of the past, the series, instead, still resonates with audiences today, becoming a timeless classic.
*Image from Google search.