I'll be honest with you. I wanted to write a post on Dark Shadows, the cult supernatural soap opera that had my friends and me glued to the television screen every weekday at 4 PM from 1969 to 1974. It seemed only right, what with Tim Burton's film adaptation of the show, starring Johnny Depp as Collinsport's resident vampire, Barnabas Collins, hitting theaters this spring. But you know how thought process goes. Thinking of Dark Shadows, I started thinking of vampire shows in general, which set me to reminiscing about what I believe is hands down the best TV show about vampires to ever lure viewers to the small screen...namely, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
BTVS aired from March 10, 1997 to May 20, 2003, and for those six years it not only provided entertainment for my daughter, my younger son, and myself, it offered an unlikely respite from the familial storms doing their best to blow us apart during that same period. Created by Joss Whedon, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie of the same name (he reportedly wrote it during breaks on the set of the NBC sitcom Roseanne, for which he was also a writer), BTVS was one of those rare gems that surface on television every so often: a superbly-written show, with a talented cast, and the ability to transcend genre, demographics, and even the strictures of the medium of which it was a part.
Of course, I didn't realize any of this when my daughter, who was 12 when the show first aired, told me about it and suggested that I watch it with her. It was a suggestion I took very seriously, despite the fact that, as a rule, I'm not particularly interested in fantasy shows, especially ones featuring vampires. My childhood passion for Dark Shadows had nothing to do with the fact that its main character was a 200 year old vampire. The reason I watched the show was that I loved the ghosts who were Barnabas Collin's co-residents in that spooky old mansion in Collinsport. That's right. I'm a ghost person, and while I have nothing against the occasional vampire, the undead just don't interest me in the same way that ghosts do. Maybe it's a preference for eeriness over horror. Not to mention that I had seen the BTVS movie (starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry) and hadn't thought much of it. Even so, as anyone who's parented an adolescent girl can tell you, the mere fact that an adolescent girl is willing to spend an hour in the same room with you, for any reason at all, is akin to winning the lottery after plunking down your last dollar to buy the ticket. So, of course, I agreed to watch the show with her. At worst, I thought, I would spend an hour pretending to enjoy a bunch of vapid nonsense for the sake of bonding with my daughter. At best, the show might actually turn out to be bearable, with the added bonus that it would still give me an opportunity to bond with my daughter.
Both scenarios turned out to be wrong. Watching BTVS that night, I knew right away that, despite the fact that it was a show about high school students engaged in an ongoing crusade against the vampires who populated their town, BTVS wasn't just some dopey show aimed at teen-agers with nothing but gratuitous lust and blood-sucking to recommend it. The dialogue was sharp, witty, and spot on in terms of pop culture reference points as well as authentic teen-speak. The title character, Buffy, as played by Sarah Michelle Geller, though pretty and blonde, was no Barbie Doll. She was alternately tough and fragile, very funny, and there was a recognizable human quality about her, as there was in most of the other characters, even the adults, who, instead of behaving like the usual cartoon adults in teen-oriented TV shows, were three dimensional beings with complex personalities and deep flaws. The show's premise, that Buffy Summers, an otherwise normal teen-age girl was also a vampire slayer, one of which is born into every generation for the purpose of fighting the vampires who live and feed secretly among us, might be fantastical, but it was only a backdrop for the smaller, personal dramas taking place among the show's characters. Sunnydale, the southern California town in which Buffy and her friends lived, might have been built on a "hellmouth", but that hellmouth had nothing on the hell of trying to get through high school, which was every bit as much a problem for Buffy and company as the constant threat of vampires, demons, and other sundry creatures skulking in the shadows outside Sunnydale's drugstores and supermarkets.
For my daughter, watching BTVS was a much less profound experience. Like many of her friends who also watched it, she simply enjoyed the show and its characters. That the characters resonated with her and other girls her age was not a matter she felt any need to examine or dissect. Her affinity for Buffy was based on the fact that some people thought she and Sarah Michelle Gellar looked alike. The crush she developed on actor Nicholas Brendan, who played Buffy's friend and partner in arms, Zander Harris, had more to do with his "cuteness" than it did with the fact that, in creating Zander, Joss Whedon had created a character whose status as a high school loser, although tempered by a biting wit and an unwavering sense of loyalty to his friends, made him someone with whom adolescent viewers could relate as well as admire. And my daughter's fascination with the show's supernatural premise was the result of the excellent writing that characterized the show throughout its six year run, not, as it was for me, a deep sense of awe over Whedon's success in marrying the supernatural with the everyday and managing to make it all seem not only believable, but somehow poignant, even in those moments when Buffy's job as "the slayer" required her to stake a vampire and turn him or her into a cloud of special effects dust.
But there was a lot more to BTVS than good writing and poignant moments. The slew of recent movies and TV shows about vampires, such as the Twilight movies, True Blood and Vampire Diaries may have obscured the memory of BTVS's originality and brilliance somewhat, but their success says more about the mediocre taste of their fans than it does about their content. For all of the money the franchise has made, there isn't one line of dialogue in any of the three Twilight movies that compares with BTVS at its best. Consider the following lines from the first Twilight movie, which take place between Bella (girl) and Edward (vampire) shortly after they first meet.
Isabella Swan: Are you going to tell me how you stopped the van?
Edward Cullen: Yeah. Um... I had an adrenaline rush. It's very common. You can Google it.
Mildly humorous, I guess, if you happen to like your humor insipid and uninspired. But take a look at an exchange between Buffy and her vampire lover, Angel, played by the appropriately broody and much older David Boreanez.
Angel: I saw you before you became the slayer.
Angel: I watched you, I saw you called, it was a bright afternoon out in front of your school. You walked down the steps and ... I loved you.
Angel: Because I could see your heart. You held it before you for everyone to see, and I was worried that it would get bruised or torn. And more than anything in my life, I wanted to keep it safe. To warm it with my own.
Buffy: That's beautiful ... Or, taken literally, incredibly gross.
Angel: I was just thinking that too.
And then there's Spike (played by James Marsters), the former Victorian fop turned vampire whose bleached, spiked hair and black leather trenchcoat calls to mind an undead Billy Idol (who, incidentally, Spike claimed stole the look from him). As written by Whedon, Spike was a veritable font of pithy, witty, and often sarcastic sayings. Witness the following exchange between Riley (Marc Blucas), Buffy's rebound guy after her break-up with Angel, and Spike, during a discussion about Dracula.
Riley: You know him?
Spike: Know him? We're old rivals. But then he got famous, forgot all about his foes. I'll tell you what - that glory hound's done more harm to vampires than any Slayer. His story gets out, and suddenly everybody knows how to kill us, the mirror bit...!
Riley: But he's not just a regular vampire. He has special powers, right?
Spike: Nothing but showy Gypsy stuff. What's it to you, anyway?
Riley: He's in town, making his presence known.
Spike: Drac's in Sunnydale? Guess the old boy needed closure after all.
It would be impossible, not to mention more time consuming than I can assume the time for, to share as many of the best moments of BTVS as I would like. I could go on and on about Spike, but I could do the same for the hopelessly stuffy, and occasionally violently protective Giles, Buffy's "watcher", played by Brit actor Anthony Head, the perpetually politically incorrect demon-turned-human Anya (Emma Caulfield), and even Buffy's long-suffering mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) whose sudden death from natural causes was the subject of a BTVS episode entitled "THe Body", which, for the first twenty minutes, contained not a note of background music, relying, instead, on the silence of the Summers house, the distant sounds of traffic, and Buffy's occasional sobs and pained whispers to provide the emotionally-appropriate score.
And then there's "Hush", a genius bit of writing which contained no dialogue for almost the entire hour. And "Once More, With Feeling", a musical episode with songs written and arranged by Whedon and performed by the show's cast members. As far as inventiveness and originality are concerned, there's no other "vampire" show that can even touch BTVS. And as for balls, well, BTVS has that covered as well. BTVS featured a lesbian couple long before it became trendy to do so, and even had the good sense to entrust its viewers with the brains to appreciate an episode like "Conversations With Dead People" in which Buffy pours out her heart to a former, psychology-minded classmate turned vampire before staking him in the heart.
Joss Whedon has said that he created BTVS, the TV series, because he was unhappy with the way the movie turned out. The movie was too light-hearted, he felt, and the subtle balance of darkness and humor in his screenplay had been compromised for the sake of a less nuanced script with broader appeal. At the height of its fame, BTVS still had a relatively small audience, but it was an appreciative one which could never find equal satisfaction in cookie-cutter characters like Bella and Edward of Twilight, or their pathologically unoriginal counterparts in True Blood. BTVS may have been dusted, like Sunnydale's many vampires, but it remains, for my money, the best vampire show that ever flickered across a television screen. As Buffy said to her undead former classmate during her impromptu psychological examination in "Conversations With Dead People", "I'm The Slayer. It's sort of a thing."
If you're looking for a blog with meaningful content on the important issues of the day, you've come to the wrong place. This is the shallows, my friend. Nothing but shallowness as far as the eye can see. Let someone else make sense of things. I like it here.
- I love my grown children, miss all the dogs I ever had, and I cry at the drop of a hat, I believe in true love, destiny, fairness, and compassion. If I could be anywhere right now, it would be the ocean. My favorite city is New York, but I am always longing for London and craving more time in Copenhagen. I'm drawn to desolate places, deserted buildings, and unknown byways. I don't care how society perceives me as long as my gut tells me that what I'm doing is right. I am interested in paranormal things, spiritual things, historical things, and things that glow at night. I like to drink, I smoke when I write, I can't stand small talk, and despite my quick temper, I would rather kiss than fight. I'm selfish with my writing time, a spendthrift with my love. My heart has been broken so many times that it's held together with super glue and duct tape. The upside is that, next time, I won't be tempted to give away what I no longer have to give. But I will let you buy me a Pink Squirrel.
IN A WORLD FILLED WITH COMPLEX POLITICAL ISSUES, SOCIAL INEQUALITY, AND FINANCIAL UNCERTAINTY, I CONSIDER IT MY GIFT TO YOU, MY READER, TO OFFER THIS SHALLOW LITTLE HAVEN, WHERE NOTHING IS TOO SHALLOW, TOO INSIGNIFICANT, OR TOO RIDICULOUS TO JUSTIFY OUR ATTENTION. IN OTHER WORDS, IF IT'S NOT IMPORTANT....SO WHAT? NEITHER WAS MARILYN MONROE'S BRA SIZE. AND THAT STILL SELLS MAGAZINES, DOESN'T IT?