Buffy the Vampire Slayer, WB/UPN (reruns on Pivot)
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The Backstory (i.e., The Movie):
This series is based on an earlier movie of the same name. (Both were created by Joss Whedon.) It is however important to remember that, as far as the series is concerned, the movie never happened. There are numerous differences between the movie and the series. For one thing, the Watcher (Merrick) was apparently reborn time and again throughout history, just like the Slayer. And he remembers each of his past lives, while the Slayer just has incomprehensible dreams about her past lives. (In the series, the Slayer does sometimes have prophetic dreams and stuff like that, but it's not a major part of the show.) In the series, there is a council of Watchers, headquartered in England. They're a rather rich and powerful group of stuffy British guys who are aware of much of the supernatural stuff going on in the world, particularly vampires, but they don't seem to do much of anything about it directly (at least, not that we ever see). Instead, the Council assigns one Watcher to train and guide the Slayer, and through him, the Slayer is to basically carry out the orders of the Council. (This is one thing that contrasts Buffy from most previous Slayers: she only does what the Council wants if she was going to do it anyway; otherwise, she generally ignores or outright defies them.) ...However, in the movie, there was no such group, just Merrick. Also, in the series, when a vampire is killed, it turns to dust, but that doesn't happen in the movie. Also, vampires can fly in the movie, but not the series. Also, in the movie the Slayer gets some sort of menstrual cramps to warn her whenever vampires are nearby. (I'm really glad to say this doesn't happen in the series.) In the movie, Buffy was a senior in high school. But in the first season of the series she starts out as... um, I dunno. She graduated at the end of season 3, so I guess she must have started as a sophomore. Anyway... In the movie, her parents are together but fairly self-involved and oblivious; in the series, her parents are divorced, and her mom clearly cares about her and takes an interest in her life (though it would be a couple seasons before she learned the truth about Buffy). Buffy did come from L.A., where she had been slaying vampires and trained by a Watcher. But the series pilot says she burnt down her high school gym, which explains her move to Sunnydale. But while the gym was wrecked in the movie, it wasn't burnt down or destroyed. It should just need some major cleaning up and small repairs, replace a few windows and whatnot....
(For more info, see Angel's backstory, though it contains spoilers for both series.)
This is one of the best series ever; one of very few series in television history that I would say really starts out brilliant from the first episode, and improves dramatically as the series progresses. The writing, the acting, the stories, everything is just great. It can be incredibly moving, emotional... but also hilarious beyond words. I think in a way the whole concept is nicely conveyed by the opening theme. It starts out with a very classic-sounding monster movie werewolfish howl, along with classic-looking monster movie visuals... but all that lasts maybe four seconds, before launching into some very cool, 90's rock theme music by Nerf Herder. Along, naturally, with scenes from the series; cool, ass-kicking, amusing, and cute visuals, all thrown together. This is what the series is. It is greatly influenced by the whole history of the genre, but it has a very modern and distinctive style all its own. The central concept, famously, is to turn on its head the traditional, cliched scene of a monster attacking a defenseless girl... by having the girl fight back and kick its ass. This in and of itself is a cool concept, and made for a reasonably entertaining movie. But the series... does so much more than that. Of course, we really get to know and care about the characters. We get not just a simple concept, endlessly repeated in new situations each week; but rather, truly imaginative and inspired stories from a seemingly endless well, which stand on their own as brilliant episodes, but also perfectly fit into and add to the continuing drama of these people's lives and the ever-evolving yet ever-consistent universe which is being built by those stories. And did I mention how funny it is? Oh, and, um... there are tons of skillfully employed pop culture references. You know I love a show that's good at using the pop culture references....
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) moves to Sunnydale with her mother, Joyce. She wants to fit into her new school and have a normal life, put her Slaying behind her. She meets a girl named Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), who is a rather unpopular, shy, mousy brain (so, naturally, she's my favorite character). Buffy also meets Willow's best friend Xander Harris, who is decidedly not a brain, but likewise an unpopular outcast. But at least he's pretty funny and stuff. Anyway, Buffy becomes friends with the two of them. There's also a popular cheerleader named Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), who doesn't want to be involved with these people (she's a lot like Buffy was before she learned she was the Slayer), but she eventually does get involved and is occasionally of some help. Anyway, despite Buffy's efforts to escape her past, her destiny isn't done with her, of course. The school librarian, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), turns out to be another Watcher. And Sunnydale is built over the Hellmouth (or a Hellmouth, whatever, I'm not sure). So there are lots of vampires and demons and all kinds of evil stuff going on. We also meet Angel, a mysterious figure at first, but it's not too long before we find out that he's a vampire with a soul, who wants to atone for past sins. He eventually starts dating Buffy. And there's a computer teacher named Jenny Calendar, who becomes a romantic interest for Giles, though that ends in season two.
Now, at this point I want to introduce the phrase "Big Bad," which generally refers to the major villain of each season. Another important phrase is "Scooby Gang," or simply "Scoobies." This is what the good guys call themselves, alluding of course to the classic cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! So each season the Scoobies have a new big bad to fight. In the first season, the Big Bad is a vampire called the Master, who was trapped underneath Sunnydale, roundabout the Hellmouth itself. He commands all the vampires in Sunnydale, and plans to eventually escape back into our dimension. But he's ultimately defeated. And that's all I'm gonna say about season one.
This season, the Big Bads are Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau). They're both pretty cool, and Dru is totally insane, as well as clairvoyant. For a time, Angelus was another big bad, himself. (If you haven't yet read Angel's backstory, do so now.) Also this season, there's another Slayer named Kendra. (There are lots of Potential Slayers scattered around the world, who are unaware of their potential. But normally there can only be one active Slayer at any time. When the active Slayer dies- which happened to Buffy, briefly, at the end of the first season- one of the Potentials is "chosen" to become the next Slayer.) We also meet Daniel 'Oz' Osbourne (Seth Green), who eventually starts dating Willow. He's a werewolf. He's in a band. He's so cool! Doesn't talk a lot, but he thinks a lot. Really great guy, that Oz. Also, near the end of the season, Will starts studying magic. At the end of the season, a bunch of stuff happens that understandably gets Buffy pretty upset. She gets expelled, and her mom finally finds out about her being the Slayer, and they have a big argument. But something much bigger than those things happens, and I don't want to spoil it by telling you what it was, except that it involved the Angelus story arc. And it made for one of the most dramatic, incredible, heartwrenching moments of the series. Anyway, Buffy leaves Sunnydale and spends the summer anguishing over everything....
This season, the Big Bad is Mayor Richard Wilkins III, who wants to ascend... become a demon, a full-demon, not these half-breeds we generally see running around. There's a new Slayer named Faith (Eliza Dushku), a Potential who was activated when Kendra died at the end of season two. She starts out working with the Scoobies, but ends up working for the mayor. We also meet Wesley Wyndham-Price (Alexis Denisof), a Watcher who is sent by the Council after the Council fires Giles. The Scoobies don't pay much attention to Wesley most of the time; they completely resent him. And he's not much good at fighting vampires or anything... yet. And there's a thousand-year-old vengeance demon named Anyanka (Emma Caulfield), who was originally human. Since becoming a demon, she grants wishes, mainly to women who have been scorned by men. Cordy doesn't know what Anyanka is, and wishes Buffy had never come to Sunnydale, and that creates a whole dystopian alternate reality where the Master is still alive and in control, vampires are everywhere, especially at the Bronze (a nightclub at which, in the normal reality, the Scoobies and lots of regular people like to hang out). And I don't want to reveal any more specifics about that reality, but Giles ultimately restores the original reality. And Anyanka can't grant wishes anymore because she's just human again. But later Anyanka, now calling herself Anya, tries to get her powers back by tricking Willow into helping her with spell. She fails at that, but it does lead to some interesting stuff involving the alternate reality she'd previously created. Anyway, Anya eventually starts dating Xander and actually helping the Scoobies. Gosh, what else? The mayor has a bunch of vampires working for him, led by Mr. Trick. Angel breaks up with Buffy, but sticks around to help against the mayor, who eventually Ascends. He turns into a giant snake demon at graduation (yes! the Scoobies graduate!) and stuff. He eats Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman), who was always a thorn in the side of the Scoobies, in his own little high school principal-ish way. Anyway, lots of interesting stuff happens, this season. After the Ascension, Angel moves to L.A. and gets his own series. On a related note, Cordy moves to L.A. to try to find work as an actress....
This season, most of the Scoobies go off to college, and Xander gets a job. Several, I think. And there's a secret government group called 'The Initiative,' which fights vampires and demons and whatnot. Captures them, does experiments on them, and stuff. They capture Spike and put a chip in his head that prevents him from harming humans. One guy in the Initiative is Riley Finn, who eventually starts dating Buffy. Also this season Oz leaves, to try and figure some things out about himself. Meanwhile, Willow is really getting into Wicca stuff. She also meets another Wiccan named Tara Maclay (Amber Benson), whom she eventually starts dating. And... one of the scientists at the Initiative builds a sort of Frankenstein's monster named Adam, made up of various demon parts and some technology and stuff. I suppose you could call him the season's Big Bad, but there's other stuff like trying to deal with college and the Initiative, who are ostensibly good guys, but not really trustworthy- and they certainly don't trust Buffy and her friends. Which makes the whole relationship with Riley pretty weird and strained. The season also includes one of the series' truly brilliant episodes, "Hush," in which everyone in Sunnydale loses their voices, so there's not much dialogue in the episode....
This season begins with Buffy vs. Dracula. (Dracula was played by Rudolf Martin, who coincidentally also played him in the unrelated TV movie Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula.) That was cool. But it was only one episode. Then, Buffy gets a little sister named Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). Everyone remembers Dawn always having been there, including Dawn herself. Also this season, a nerd named Warren Mears creates a robot girlfriend who runs amuck, and later Spike hires him to create a robot Buffy, which the Scoobies eventually find out about and deactivate. Anyway... Dawn actually used to be a little ball of light called 'The Key,' which some monks had been protecting from an evil god named Glory, who is this season's Big Bad. Glory wants to obtain the Key, so she can unleash some unspeakable evil, open the borders between this dimension and her own, from which she'd been exiled... and in the process pretty much merge all dimensions, which would be quite devastating. She doesn't know what became of the Key. The monks had turned it into a human (Dawn), and given her as well as everyone else memories of her always having been there. I said that, though. Um, anyway, it takes awhile before everyone figures out the truth. Ultimately, Buffy has to sacrifice her own life to save Dawn. (This won't cause a new Slayer to be chosen, since Faith is still alive.)
This season, the show moved from the WB to UPN. This was the darkest season of the series, a benchmark of darkness against which all dark and depressing things in the world should be judged from now on. It was very hard to watch, very painful, but still quite brilliant, and it still had plenty of humor. Anyway... Willow uses a spell to bring Buffy back to life. What the Scoobies don't know is that Buffy had been in a sort of Heaven dimension, and was very happy there, and was not at all happy to be back in the world. But she doesn't tell her friends any of this. She does, however, confide in Spike, who had been helping the Scoobies for some time, because there wasn't much else for him to do. He likes to fight, and now because of the chip he's only able to fight demons and vamps and such. So, he's sort of a good guy, but he doesn't much like the Scoobies and they don't much like him. But he had fallen in love with Buffy in season 5, I guess, but of course she could never love him. She was disgusted by the idea. But now she's just so miserable and everything in life feels wrong. And they end up sleeping together, in secret, but she's disgusted with herself for that and doesn't want anyone to know. And um... there are three geeks on the show, whom we've seen before separately, but this season they band together and call themselves 'The Trio.' The leader is Warren Mears, who teams up with Andrew Wells (the brother of a guy named Tucker who, in a third season episode, had summoned some Hell hounds to attack students at the prom.) I guess Andrew can do some demon-summoning, himself. Also there's Jonathan Levinson, who had been in any number of episodes throughout the series, but wasn't really evil. He was just basically looking for some way of fitting in with anyone. The Trio are more or less comic relief, kind of bumbling, not really what you'd call a serious threat. They're just normal people, after all. But they manage to cause some trouble. And in the end, Warren causes a lot of trouble. Earlier in the season, Willow was becoming addicted to magic, and Tara left her. Willow dealt with the problem and finally got over it, but now, just when she and Tara get back together, Warren does something that causes Willow to lose control. She's taken over by dark magic, and becomes really powerful and hellbent on vengeance and destruction and stuff.
Anyway... some might say the Trio were this season's Big Bad, while others might say it was Dark Willow. But I believe the real Big Bad this season was everyone's psychological and emotional stuff going on. Aside from Buffy and Willow's issues, Dawn feels totally ignored and unappreciated, and becomes a klepto. Xander and Anya are supposed to get married, but Xander leaves her at the altar. He's still in love with her, he just doesn't feel ready for marriage. But he hates himself for this. Anya hates him, too, so she becomes a vengeance demon again. Giles moves back to England (he was supposed to have had a spin-off series called Ripper on the BBC, but that never happened). Oh yes, at one point Buffy thought she was in an asylum and the past six years or so had all been a fantasy. It's a dark, dark, dark, disturbing and horribly painful season, but it's as brilliant as any of the series. It includes the amazing musical episode, "Once More, With Feeling," which in a way I think of as a sort of counterpoint to the fourth season episode "Hush." (I recommend you pick up the cast album of the musical sometime, which also has some music from a few other episodes, including "Hush.") The musical brings a lot of important secrets into the open, including the fact that Buffy had been in Heaven before her friends brought her back, which naturally horrifies them. Also, the season finale makes up for all the pain of the season by being utterly brilliant, a grand climax, and the entire season's build-up to the finale was absolutely essential and perfect. I won't say too much about it, but one thing that happens is that Spike leaves to find some kind of like African demon shaman or something, apparently to get the chip out of his head. Instead, the shaman ends up giving him a soul... (Though in season 7, Spike would claim he'd gone to the guy specifically to get his soul back, so I'm not sure what to believe about that. I really thought Spike seemed as surprised as I was about the soul thing, at the time.)
This was the final season (at least on TV). Sunnydale High has finally been rebuilt and reopened, after having been destroyed at the end of season 3. And Dawn's going there now. And Spike's back, acting very weird and stuff. And Willow has spent the summer in England with Giles and a coven, learning to control her powers, though she's still feeling very nervous about them and very guilty about all she did last season. But at least the show is back to being a bit lighter again, most of the time. Also, one episode has Anya singing a song set during "Once More, With Feeling," in a flashback. Oh yes, and she becomes human again. Anyway, this season the Scoobies have to deal with the biggest of all possible Big Bads, something called 'The First Evil.' Apparently it was seen before in an earlier season, but I don't really remember it, I'm afraid. But this season it's out to bring on the biggest apocalypse ever. It's doing all kinds of stuff, I can't even tell you what all. And it's got a Turok-Han (ancient, savage, uber-vampire) working for it. And the Watchers Council in England gets blown up. The Scoobies start gathering all the potential Slayers from around the world, to train them to help fight the First Evil. (Some of the Potentials were played by familiar actors. At the time, I probably thought the most notable among them was Chloe, played by Lalaine, whom I knew from Lizzie McGuire. But in retrospect the most notable was Vi, played by Felicia Day, who would later become one of my favorite actors ever... though I didn't specifically remember her from "Buffy." Honestly, I don't have clear memories of any of the Potentials, though probably the most important one- based on character, rather than actor- would be Kennedy.) Also, Andrew Wells, the former Trio member, becomes a sort of ally of the Scoobies, but he's mostly around as comic relief.
Buffy eventually kills the first Turok-Han, but the good guys will eventually face many more of them, in the final battle. Meanwhile, the First Evil has plenty of other servants. There are these blind, robed guys called Bringers, who kill people and make trouble, but they seem fairly ineffectual against the main good guys. And the First controls Spike's mind for awhile. And then there's a guy named Caleb (Nathan Fillion), who dresses like a preacher, but merges with the First, giving him great strength. He proves more formidable than a Turok-Han, at least until Buffy acquires an ancient and powerful weapon (the Scythe), which also comes in quite handy in the final battle against the army of Turok-Han. Faith shows up to help, too, and the Scoobies vote her in as their leader for awhile, and Buffy out. That doesn't go well or last long. Also, Willow casts a spell that makes all potential Slayers become actual Slayers, without Buffy or Faith having to die. Oh, and Principal Wood, of the new high school, turns out to be the son of a Slayer that Spike had killed in the 1970s, so there's some conflict between the two of them, but he also becomes an ally against the First Evil. Anyway, in the end, the good guys win, but Sunnydale is destroyed in the process. (Luckily, all the citizens not directly involved in the battle had already evacuated.) Some good guys die, Xander loses an eye but gains a cool eye patch. All in all, a happy-ish ending, but not without terrible losses and regrets, and unanswered questions about the future. I must say, it's about the best imaginable end to one of the greatest television series of all times....
I should also mention that there have been several comic books based on characters from this show and from "Angel," but I haven't read many of them. Some of them are considered canonical and some aren't; one of the canonical series is Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight. There would later be more seasons in comic book form, but that's the only one I've read so far. I really hope to eventually read every new Buffy season, as well as comics about other characters.