'Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion': Read an excerpt now
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The story of the transformation of Buffy the Vampire Story from a low-budget feature film into a critically acclaimed television series is an improbable one. Joss Whedon was not, in fact, the instigator. That credit goes to producer Gail Berman, who in the mid-1990s was looking for new projects to develop for television. In 1992 the film version of Buffy had been released, based on Whedon's original screenplay. Exasperated with changes being made to his script during filming, he eventually left the set and avoided the studio during the later stages of filming. Whedon had gone on to enjoy a flourishing and highly remunerative career as writer and script doctor and had, in fact, put Buffy behind him by the time Berman approached him about the possibility of turning the film into a television series. Berman had presciently anticipated that the movie would provide the basis for an excellent series and sold Whedon on the idea (Whedon 25). Although she would later be mercilessly castigated as the villain who pulled the plug on Firefly when she was head of programming at Fox TV, the fact is that without Berman's initiative, neither Buffy nor Firefly would ever have been produced.
Berman and Whedon took the idea of Buffy to all of the major networks but were rejected by each one. The fledgling WB network, however, was in search of original programming and ordered a pilot. Although they did not place it on their schedule for the fall of 1996, they did order it to series as a mid-season replacement in the winter of 1997. While a number of major TV critics were immediately taken with Buffy's clever dialogue and meshing of comedy and drama alongside fighting vampires and demons (Matt Roush of TV Guide was perhaps the show's first high profile fan), the ratings through its first season were never strong and renewal was uncertain. The WB finally decided to give the show another chance and during its second season, with greatly improved writing and a larger budget that made possible higher production values, the show became a hit.
The TV series picks up three months after the end of the movie, with Buffy Summers relocating from Los Angeles to a new school in Sunnydale, California. The move by Buffy and her mother was forced by her expulsion from her former high school after she burned down the gym, which was filled with vampires, an event contained in the film's screenplay but which was eliminated due to budgetary limitations. The TV series is, therefore, strictly speaking not a sequel to the movie, but to the screenplay that Joss wrote that the movie was based on. Those wishing to see something like what he had in mind in writing the screenplay should see "Buffy: The Origin" in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, a comic that was "Adapted from Joss Whedon's original screenplay" by Dan Brereton and Christopher Golden (35-102).
In the film high school cheerleader Buffy Summers learns that she was the Chosen One; the formulation is sharpened in the TV series: "Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is The Slayer."
As Joss Whedon has pointed out, as silly as the title of the show is, it hints at several major aspects of the series. "Buffy" is intrinsically comical and leads the viewer to expect humor; "Vampire" indicates that the viewer can anticipate the scary and supernatural; while "Slayer" promises action, with the expectation that the action will involve girl with the silly name.
One of the central themes in the show is Buffy's reluctance to embrace her calling, from denying it in the show's pilot, to begrudgingly acknowledging its inevitability in the next few seasons, until fully embracing it in Season 5. Being The Slayer, the Chosen One, was thrust upon her, without her having a say in it. Although the show is frequently comic in tone, Buffy's story is at its core a tragic one. Why? Because one only becomes The Slayer when someone else has died, which points to the future and one's own inevitably death, which is likely to violent. As Buffy tells Giles in Season 5, "Look I realize that every Slayer comes with an expiration date on the package, but I want mine to be a long time from now. Like a cheeto" ("Fool for Love" 5.7). But the brute fact is that for Buffy many of the dreams she had when fifteen are no longer possibilities; instead her life situation is truly Hobbesian, a perpetual war against vampires and demons in which her life could well prove to be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Though, in fact, not solitary. One of the major differences between the film and the series is that in the movie Buffy, though with some help from her love interest Pike, fights more or less on her own; in the series she instantly acquires a group of friends who form a team to aid her in her struggle against the demons and vampires. Willow and Xander, along with her watcher Giles, form the core of the Scooby Gang--whose ranks swell and ebb as the series progresses--who aid Buffy both as friends and sidekicks, in addition to engaging in the ceaseless research that backgrounds all their activity. The more frequent paradigm of the hero--such as Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name--is of a loner, someone who neither desires nor can afford friends or companions. Although Buffy is the most powerful of the Scoobies (though she is rivaled in later seasons by Willow's emergence as a witch) and the only one who has no choice about fighting the powers of darkness, what sets her apart as a hero is the support she receives from friends and family. As the vampire Spike (later himself to be a member of the Scoobies) remarks after his first encounter with Buffy, "A Slayer with family and friends, that sure as hell wasn't in the brochure" ("School Hard" 2.3).
The narrative format of Buffy was established in Season 1. A Big Bad (in the first season, an extremely ancient vampire known as The Master) is introduced, against whom Buffy engages in a season-long confrontation. Each season features several standalone episodes, but even in these some portion of the longer narrative is developed. The season-long arcs are focused mainly on the struggle against that year's Big Bad. The arcs of the various characters are not, however, necessarily limited to a single season, but extend over two or more seasons. While neither Buffy's, Willow's, nor Xander's personal stories are articulated in single-season chunks, those of The Master, The Mayor, and Glory are.
Joss Whedon is a risk taker, and that fact accounts for some of the most thrilling as well as some of the most disappointing moments in Buffy. The upside of taking risks is that when they pay off, the results can be extraordinary. Seasons 2, 3, and 5 show what can happen when the risks pay off, these being some of the most compelling seasons of any show in the history of TV. The downside of risk taking is that gambles don't always pay off. Season 4, with its rather unconvincing and somewhat off-putting arc dealing with The Initiative, never really becomes particularly compelling, while the cyborg Adam is one of Buffy's least interesting Big Bads. Season 4 is one of the show's weakest, despite an abundance of outstanding standalone episodes. But despite this plethora of great episodes ("Wild at Heart" 4.6, "Something Blue" 4.9, "Hush" 4.10, "A New Man" 4.12, "This Year's Girl"/"Who Are You?" 4.15-16, "Superstar" 4.17, and "Restless" 4.22, to name only a few), they could not compensate for the weak central narrative.
Buffy was the WB's flagship series through Season 5. Then, after bitter contract negotiations between Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that produced the series, and the WB broke down, the show moved over to UPN. The final two seasons are generally not felt to be Buffy's finest. Both seasons were dark and featured too many weak episodes, while the Big Bads were not up to the level of previous baddies. The show nonetheless managed some spectacular episodes, such as the unforgettable musical episode "Once More, With Feeling" (6.7), "Conversations With Dead People" (7.7) and "Chosen" (7.22), the series finale. The show continued to take risks and refused to repeat itself; if the risks did not quite pay off, neither can it be said that Whedon and new show runner Marti Noxon were ever willing to stand pat.
The story of Buffy's success remains one of the most improbable in the history of TV. After all, most attempts at converting films to TV involve successful films, not failures. Not merely a successful television series, the show not only created a cultural icon in the character of Buffy Summers, but established new precedents in what it was possible to do with television. Few seeing the film in 1992 would have imagined that the little blonde vampire-slaying cheerleader would become an indelible feature of our cultural landscape.
Brereton, Dan, and Christopher Golden. "Buffy: The Origin." Adapted from Joss Whedon's original screenplay. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus. Vol. 1. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse, 2007. Print.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Chosen Collection. DVD Boxed Set. Created by Joss Whedon. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006. DVD.
"Chosen." 7.22. Writ. and dir. Joss Whedon. Buffy.
"Conversations with Dead People." 7.7. Writ. Jane Espenson and Drew Goddard. Dir. Nick Marck. Buffy.
"Fool for Love." 5.7. Writ. Doug Petrie. Dir. David Solomon. Buffy.
"Hush." 4.10. Writ. and dir. Joss Whedon. Buffy.
"A New Man." 4.12. Writ. Jane Espenson. Dir. Michael Gershman. Buffy.
"Once More With Feeling." 6.7. Writ., dir., and music by Joss Whedon. Buffy.
"Restless." 4.22. Writ. and dir. Joss Whedon. Buffy.
"School Hard." 2.3. Writ. David Greenwalt and Joss Whedon. Dir. John T. Kretchmer. Buffy.
"Something Blue." 4.9. Writ. Tracey Forbes. Dir. Nick Marck. Buffy.
"Superstar." 4.17. Writ. Jane Espenson. Dir. David Grossman. Buffy.
"This Year's Girl" (part 1 of 2). 4.15. Writ. Douglas Petrie. Dir. David Grossman. Buffy.
Whedon, Joss. Interview by Tasha Robinson. The A.V. Club.com. 5 Sep. 2001. Onion. Web. Joss Whedon: Conversations. Ed. David Lavery and Cynthia Burkhead. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2011. 23-33. Print. Television Conversations Series.
"Wild at Heart." 4.6. Writ. Marti Noxon. Dir. David Grossman. Buffy.
"Who Are You?" (part 2 of 2). 4.16. Writ. and dir. Joss Whedon. Buffy.