Over the last seventy years, Rock ‘n’ Roll and TV have defined more of our pop culture than any other medium. And today, “historians”—if you can call them that—maintain that we’re in The Golden Age of Television.
And they’re right.
We’ve seen some of the best written, directed, and powerful TV ever in the last decade and a half. But The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Dexter are the progeny of a television show that revolutionized the industry and changed, not only how TV is written, but our modern pop culture.
It was a punk rock television revolution driven by an outsider who rebelled against the status quo; that later—due to its influence—became the standard, leaving a lasting impact we still feel (and see) today.
And if you love modern television, you owe it to yourself to go back and watch all seven seasons of this groundbreaking show.
So why should you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Simple: Buffy is to television what The Sex Pistols were to Rock ‘n’ Roll: a rebellious (teenage) movement hell bent on defining what it meant to be an adult.
The Punk Rock Roots of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Everyone knows how The Beatles changed Rock ‘n’ Roll. But Beatlemania, and the next decade of music’s revolution, eventually permeated so much into pop culture, that rock became mainstream. And when something—anything—becomes mainstream, it loses part of what made it distinct in the first place. For Rock ‘n’ Roll, that meant it had lost touch with its defiant teenage roots. So to fight becoming more “adult,” rock—again—needed to become rebellious.
And the band that rebelled against the 1970s Rock ‘n’ Roll establishment was The Sex Pistols.
Rolling Stone once wrote that The Sex Pistols: “came to spark and personify one of the few truly critical moments in pop culture—the rise of punk.”
Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is one of the most influential and culturally transformative albums in Rock ‘n’ Roll history. The Sex Pistols not only established the tone for what punk should sound like but what punk meant as a lifestyle.
And like The Sex Pistols, Buffy the Vampire Slayer set the tone for what great television could be. It rebelled against the status quo and pushed the visual, conceptual, and storytelling boundaries to new dimensions. It was the catalyst that started The Golden Age of Television.
Here’s to the Misunderstood
Buffy—like punk rock before it—was a show for the outcasts, nerds, geeks, and teenage social pariahs. Created by an outsider—for outsiders. And like most things that are “fringe,”—including The Sex Pistols—society as a whole didn’t understand what they were witnessing. What “adults” saw was only what they could see on the surface: violence.
But the violence inherent to both Buffy and The Sex Pistols was there for a reason. It wasn’t because punk rockers or Joss Whedon loved bloodshed. No. It all stemmed from the very same vein.
What’s worse than dying at the hands of blood-sucking vampire? Becoming an adult. And (ultimately) that’s what Buffy the Vampire Slayer was all about; and what The Sex Pistols warred against with their guitars and microphones.
I Don’t Wanna Grow Up
The adults living in late 70’s London didn’t understand the appeal of The Sex Pistols. And the same can be said about adults when Buffy captured the attention of teenagers across the US. It seemed childish, violent, and vampires?
“Look, kids, it’s time to grow up and stop believing in fairytales and ghouls in the night.”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard my dad or grandfather say I needed to stop reading comic books, playing video games, or believing in childish nonsense; this tends to happen when we reach our teenage years.
How we understand our teenage years is—in the scope of human history—a new concept. The modern definition of teenager only came into existence after WW2. Musicals like Grease and Bye Bye, Birdie attempted to explore the frustrations and concerns faced by school-age teens of the 1950s.
And Rock ‘n’ Roll became the de facto voice of that generation. Since then, teenagers have been behind the wheel driving pop culture towards Elvis, The Beatles, punk rock, MTV, and Napster.
During our teenage years, our parents, teachers, and society are preparing us for adulthood. They try and convince us—or outright demand—that we let go of the things that made us, unique—or “us”— as kids.
“It’s time to grow up. You need to be more adult.”
And our natural reaction to the demands of “growing up” is anger and resentment. Why can’t we define our own identity as adults? Why do we have to fit into your mold?
It’s More Than Teenagers Killing Vampires
Unlike the early TGIF shows of the 90s—whose morals and lessons for young audiences felt like they’d been written by some 45-year-old father of two who wanted to beat a younger generation over the head with what they should do—Buffy made the struggles of coming to terms with adulthood far more authentic.
Instead of being sermonized, Buffy allowed its audience to experience, and—more importantly— connect with the naive mistakes we all made as teenagers. And let’s be honest.
Half those mistakes we made as teens continued to plague us during college and the first few years of our “adult” lives. Which is why the pain, struggle, and hard lessons learned by Buffy and her friends still resonate well into your 20s, and even 30s.
Shot Stab to the Heart
It was a show that punched you in the face with the realization that life isn’t all laugh tracks and happy endings. It’s tough. It’s Hell. And if you want to define who you are, then you better get ready to face a shit load of demons.
Even after the three seasons in high school, Buffy had to face some of the most terrifying aspects of growing up. Including, in Season 5, where she had to come to terms with the (sudden) loss of her mother. Walking into your home to discover your mom’s lifeless body on the sofa thanks to an aneurysm isn’t a subject they cover in school.
Adulthood is rife with its own monsters and ghouls that go bump in the night, and no one really explains how to conquer these; nightlights don’t exactly make them disappear.
To some (cough Joe Lieberman cough), Buffy’s violence wasn’t something that should be celebrated on television. And like The Sex Pistols, those in power only saw the surface of the art before them, which in the case of Buffy was all about violently vanquishing vampires. But the violence—against demons, vampires, or the Hellmouth itself—was a metaphor for the struggles of growing up.
High School, College, Life is Hell
I hated high school. It never felt as “cool” as all the teen movies or shows I watched on TGIF made it out to be. And it sure as hell wasn’t anything like Saved by the Bell.
But in 1997—when Buffy first premiered—I was 10-years old; still three years away from entering ninth grade and high school. And since I
was predestined had chosen to become a minister at the time, Buffy — and even Harry Potter — were expressly forbidden because they were “recruitment tools for Satan.”
Of course, they weren’t tools of Satan (or maybe they were since I’m not a pastor), but anything that garners more attention than The Bible where I grew up was immediately considered “the devil’s work.” (You have no idea how many games or TV shows I missed out on because of Satan. Thanks, Satan.)
So I didn’t get into Buffy until my junior year of college. By the time I had first started watching the show, it was 2007. Ten years after Buffy first appeared in Sunnydale. And I watched the series, not once, but twice.
But here’s what I realized only a few episodes into season 1:
High school never ends.
All the same shit you dealt with in high school, you deal with—albeit in different ways—during college.
- Social issues among “cliques.”
- Forbidden love
- Coming to terms with who you are
- Fighting the status quo
- The first realizations of adulthood
- Having sex for the first time
- Dealing with the repercussions of sex
- Cheating on someone you’re dating
- Fights with your parents
Killing the person you love more than anything so that you prevent your world from being sucked into HellBreaking up with someone who you love deeply
- Watching your friends drive themselves into dark places and destroy their lives
All of these issues (and more) are dealt with during the show’s run. But the big ones—the ones the epitomize the experience of being human: lost and found love; fighting the oppression of those with power; and coming to the realization that mommy and daddy can’t save you anymore, and that you have to solve your own problems—can leave you feeling like you’re facing the apocalypse.
And stopping the apocalypse is what Buffy does best:
Season 1: Buffy stops the apocalypse
Season 2: Buffy stops the apocalypse
Season 3: Buffy stops the apocalypse
Season 4: No apocalypse (unless you count Riley’s character)
Dawn ruins everything by showing upBuffy stops the apocalypse
Buffy Xander stops the apocalypse
Season 7: Buffy stops the apocalypse
So why all the apocalypses? Well, for one, Whedon worried that every season of the show would be the last. So why not have Buffy save the world? The show ends on a happy note, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But there’s a bit more to it than that. Namely, every horrible thing that happens to you in high school, feels like the apocalypse.
“Oh God, this guy/girl I asked out said no. I’m going to die alone—surrounded by cats—and no one will ever love me.”
“If I don’t nail this test, I won’t get into a good college. And then my life is over. Oh, God. I’ll have to flip burgers at Wendy’s for the rest of my life, and I’ll live in a trailer and probably get addicted to meth.”
“My girl/boyfriend broke up with me. My life is over. OVER! *whimpers* I caaaa…caaaaa…caaaannnn’t live without them. I just wannnnnnnnaaaaa diiiieeeee.”
Feeling like the world is ending or your life is over doesn’t just happen in high school—it continues throughout your life. (And every damn day on social media)
Becoming an adult is its own version of Hell. And at the end of Buffy, the only way for Buffy and her friends to survive and carry on is to destroy all of Sunnydale—letting it sink into the Earth. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do in terms of figuring out our identity as adults?
Squashing our old selves so that we can define who, and what, we want to be when we grow up.
Anarchy in the UK
That’s what The Sex Pistols did with Rock ‘n’ Roll. They viciously smashed, not only sound equipment and guitars, but the preconceived notions of what it meant to be rock stars, and created their own identity. An identity and attitude that influenced, not only the “punk” movement of the 80s, but the alternative and grunge rock scene of the 90s.
Bands like The Clash, Black Flag, Green Day, and Nirvana all claim The Sex Pistols are the reason they became musicians. A band that lasted less than 2 years, somehow, influenced more than a two decades of Rock and pop culture.
And Buffy took the edgy, raw, and in-your-face attitude of punk rock and applied it to a new medium. It was—in its own right—trying to define not only what it meant for millennials to be “grown up,” but like The Sex Pistols did for music, Buffy changed television and ignited The Golden Age of TV.
How Buffy Changed Television
Copy and paste the above header into Google, and you’ll get 551,000 results. (But only do that after you finish reading this article)
The most quoted and vocal proponent for the influence Buffy had on TV and pop culture, comes from Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker:
“Buffy had adult resonance disguised by its juvenile title and lo-fi looks—and it was the precursor to ambitious genre programming including Veronica Mars, Alias, Battlestar Galactica, Whedon’s Firefly, Lost, and True Blood.”
Before Buffy, the majority of TV—except for soap operas—was episodic. What happened in one episode was (usually) never mentioned in subsequent episodes. And those events never affected the characters one, two, or five episodes down the line—much less a season later. Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed that.
The long story arcs used to tell an entire season, allowed characters to develop and change—you know, like we do as human beings. Even episodes that felt like “filler,” were essential in laying the groundwork for character development that was crucial to the entire season (or series).
Becoming the Standard
For a show that was—in this author’s opinion—dealing with the hells’ of growing up, the slow development of these characters, and how they responded to the situations they found themselves in—because of their choices—made the show and characters feel more human than anything else before it.
And now, long story arcs with intricate character development have become the status quo.
- Breaking Bad
- The Walking Dead
- Stranger Things
But along with seasons that employed a continuous through line of action, Buffy changed how TV approaches villains by introducing the concept of “The Big Bad.”
There’s a New Big Bad in Town
The Power Rangers, Scooby Doo, and Law and Order followed the “villain of the week” formula. Pitting the hero(es) against a singular antagonist who they vanquished in the end. Buffy used this concept as well, but it did it in a way that also carried over to subsequent episodes and the overall arc of the season.
But the concept of “The Big Bad” is original to Buffy.
The monsters that the Slayer encounters every week are metaphors for the issues that we face in life. But “The Big Bad” is more like an ultimate metaphor for issues we all face growing up: tyrannical symbols of authority, bounded by social norms, loneliness, and death.
In 1997, this concept was revolutionary. Now, however, season after season in shows like Dexter, Heroes, True Blood, Arrow, The Flash, and Cartoon Network’s animated show Ben 10, you’ll see the same formula used. And the producers and showrunners for these shows have all said it’s thanks to Buffy.
Still, there is one more area beyond long story arcs or season-long antagonists where Buffy has been paramount in its influence: dialogue.
The Language of Buffy
How Buffy, Xander, Willow, and the rest of the cast spoke to each other not only influenced writers in future television series, but it also changed how we speak in our culture. Joss Whedon wasn’t a teenager. But he wrote a story that involved teenagers. So he needed to make their dialogue feel authentic.
Joss and his writers accomplished this in a few ways; and some of what they created, we still use every day.
First, Joss did something rather creative. He mish-mashed suffixes like -age, -ness, or -y with words that would normally never use those suffixes. For example, Buffy slays vampires. And on more than one occasion, Xander or Willow would ask her how the slayage was going? This isn’t a word. That suffix doesn’t need to be there.
But like punk rock, Whedon was creating his own sounds and words, thus creating the show’s own slang—of which there is a book dedicated to—that made the teenage characters he created feel rebellious, whimsical, and authentic.
The dialogue in Buffy is laden with pop culture references, filled with nods to famous movie lines, cheesy (even cheeky) one-liners, and humor that’s written to feel natural, not like it’s leading to a punch line. All of these are aspects that writers have carried on in shows like Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls, and Agents of Shield.
The Verb Pipe
Buffy has been studied by academics all over the globe for more than fifteen years. Colloquially known as, Buffy Studies, numerous college courses, lectures, and books have been written discussing everything from music, family studies, gender, sexuality, morality, and the pop culture influence of the Slayer.
Another Southern California teenager, Cher Horowitz, had already infected our pop culture with her teenage slang in the mid-90s. And this slang—that Buffy carried on and planted further into our collective conscience—continued the etymological process known as conversion: where old words are made new, usually by the process of transforming nouns into verbs.
Buffy is particularly partial to shifting pop cultural proper nouns to verbs and adjectives. She can’t believe, for example, that her Watcher, of all people, tries to Scully her with a sceptical mundane explanation for a supernatural problem, and she describes a dimensional disturbance as making time go all David Lynch. – Oxford University Press Blog
Verbing isn’t a new phenomenon in the English language. It’s something we—as an English speaking culture—have been doing for centuries. But it’s a necessary component subcultures use to distinguish themselves from the status quo. It’s a punk rock version of creating a new language—spoken, and understood, by those within that subculture.
So Buffy wasn’t doing anything new by turning nouns into verbs. But the fact that the show ran for seven seasons and used conversion in nearly every episode, it left a lasting impact on our pop culture and how we speak to one another.
Once More With Influence
Even if you’ve never seen the show, you know who and what Buffy the Vampire Slayer is. Numerous television shows have made reference to Buffy over the years dating back to 1999 with Xena, Malcolm in the Middle, Arthur (yes, the animated series), The Simpsons, CSI, Bones, and The Big Bang Theory.
And because it’s been referenced in shows like Friends, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Farscape—and even the great British comedy Spaced, starring fellow nerd himself, Simon Pegg—that means it’s been injected into our cultural zeitgeist.
But beyond the numerous shows all across the world that have referenced Buffy, it provided fertile ground for some of the best television writers and producers in the last twenty years to flex their artistic muscles. And these writers and producers have now worked on some of the biggest TV hits during The Golden Age of Television:
- Game of Thrones
- Grey’s Anatomy
About the last show on the list above, Glee.
Without Buffy, there would be no Glee, High School Musical, and before “Once More With Feeling”—the Buffy musical episode—no studio exec would have greenlit a musical episode for anything that wasn’t animated. (Season 3 of Daria anyone?)
Without Joss Whedon and “Once More With Feeling,” shows like Psyche, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Scrubs, and Community would have never had musical episodes—period.
Music, Rebellion, & The Norm
Janet K. Halfyard, said in her book, Music, Sound, and Silence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
“an important subtext in Buffy is how alternative music defines the nonconformism and individualities of the central characters.”
For instance, in the 4th season of Buffy, Buffy’s college roommate hangs up posters of Celine Dion and plays way too much Cher. It turns out that Buffy’s roommate is a demon, who listened to the most established and corporate artists on Earth; something that a non-conformist (punk) could not stand.
Of course, there is a bit of irony here that both Buffy and The Sex Pistols share: They both started out as anti-establishment and conformed to no one else’s rules but their own. But due to their influence on the larger culture and the world around them, they became the norm; and everyone conformed to their identity.
At the time, though, The Sex Pistols were anything but conforming. Their attitude defined “punk” as a movement and it laid the groundwork for the next generation of raucous, individualistic, anti-establishment musicians. Without them, there would be no Social Distortion, The Buzzcocks, Nirvana, or Taking Back Sunday. And the same can be said for Buffy.
- Long story arced seasons/series with character development from episode to episode or season to season
- Established The Big Bad formula
- Quick, witty, and pop culture-laden dialogue
- Numerous scholastic studies at universities all over the world
- And musical episodes for hit TV shows
So like The Sex Pistols before, Buffy defined the next decade of culturally relevant entertainment. It was more than a show about teenagers dealing with vampires and demons. Sunnydale was more than an allegory that Hell that is high school. Buffy is a show that never held back punches or tried to sugarcoat the issues of becoming an adult.
A Modern Definition of Adult
“Adulting” has become a term used by millennials to describe the actions of being an adult. Actions that seem like we’re grown up, even if we don’t feel grown up. Because simply put: we’re still fighting adulthood; we’re still fighting the vampire that we don’t want to become.
We witnessed what becoming an adult did to our parents. We’ve seen more divorce than our parents saw in their youth; more teenage pregnancy; a (near) collapse of our financial system; gargantuan over-priced SUVs;
Nickelback; crushing college debt, and more.
I don’t know what it’s like to be an adult.
Okay, I do. I pay bills and work and have a wife. But here’s the truth: I don’t like the definition of what I assumed adulthood meant as a teen. I’ve fought that definition for years. And that’s ultimately what the vampires, monsters, and demons symbolize in Buffy: a teenagers fight with the inevitability of growing up.
That’s why Buffy matters. That’s why even if you’re in college Buffy makes sense. It’s why even when you’re an adult, the struggles and battles with the metaphors of the Hellmouth resonate.
We never grow away from those high school emotions. The same mistakes that we made as teenagers plague us as adults. And that’s maybe what Jean-Paul Sartre had right: hell is other people.
Welcome to Adulthood
Buffy isn’t about high school, though that’s the main backdrop. It’s about coming to a realization that we—as humans—make choices: who we love, who we align ourselves with, who our family is (Whedon was huge on the idea of “found family”), and how we change as people.
It’s rebellious style, and use of dark and violent metaphors showed young people what shows like Family Matters and Full House didn’t: the real, honest to God pain of growing up.
And that’s why you should watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not only because it provided the blueprint that your favorite shows today still follow, but because it’s a show that—through the metaphor of demons and vampires—shows you how you can define your own identity in a world filled with terrifying problems.