From 1997 to 2003, TV viewers were blessed with a big fat exception to the designed vapidity of American mass entertainment. Week in, week out, a flavorsome blend of high wit and kitchen-sink operatics seduced audiences into reconsidering the dangers of corporate/political corruption, class war, homophobia and hypermilitarism all on Rupert Murdoch's dime, yet.
So, in anticipation of the Nov. 16 release on DVD of the seventh, final season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (20th Century Fox Home Video), one can revisit or perhaps make one's first acquaintance with the smart, passionate, ethically on-the-money delights of Joss Whedon's brainchild. More important during this crucial pre-election period, Buffy offers the wonderful absurdity of finding in a teen-horror TV comedy a 141-episode manifesto of fundamentally progressive American values: generosity, tolerance, the promise of redemption.
Just as the radical neoconservatives in the White House reflexively work against civil liberties, health care, labor issues and the right to vote while black, Buffy the product of an instinctive progressive cannot help but argue for those things. Or, as George Orwell once said of great texts, the show articulates what we already know as true, if we could only get our "scattered thoughts in order." (And in case the argument seems iffy or just plain wack, check out www.highstakes2004.com, where Mr. Whedon a Kerry advocate has announced his participation in conference calls regarding the upcoming election.)
First, some basics: Once a mindless consumer teen, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) heeds her calling as the "chosen one" who will stand against "the forces of darkness." The spawn of an overworked mom and an absentee dad, she does her slaying in the seemingly bucolic, conspicuously Caucasian suburb of Sunnydale a place that just happens to be located atop a "Hellmouth," a nexus for supernatural evil.
As Buffy's secret slayer life recasts her as an outsider, she naturally veers toward people who have been excluded from the neocon social contract. Reflecting the battle lines that were neatly drawn by Jerry Falwell when he blamed Sept. 11 on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians," Buffy becomes best friends with Willow (Alyson Hannigan) who becomes a pagan and a lesbian. Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), meanwhile, is an attitudinal rich girl who knows the real deal about demons but wants to deny that knowledge.
Ironically for a show predicated on supernatural mayhem, Buffy prefers reasoned talk to violence. Faith (Eliza Dushku), another slayer, is the only series regular who shoots first and asks questions later. Significantly, she also turns out to be insane.
The men of Buffy, unlike the current White House occupant, gain stature by admitting to their flaws. They become heroic via their willingness to confront their personal demons when they're not dealing with the literal variety. So blue-collar Xander (Nicholas Brendon) fights vampires and the effects of his alcoholic parents' abuse. Way-cool guitarist Oz (Seth Green) is humbled by a monthly problem: He turns werewolf.
Buffy's mentor/father figure is a starched-but-soulful Brit named Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) who would seem immune to the consequences of social inequity. But his employers, "The Council" a group of inflexible dogmatists with no idea of the realities of the war on (otherworldly) evil fire him for the crime of rejecting ideology in favor of basic decency. Like many 50-something folks in a marketplace dominated by youth-oriented corporatism, he finds himself jobless and with a murky future. (Undaunted, Giles tries his hand at entrepreneurship and opens a magic shop which gets destroyed.)
The one male characteristic that's consistently shown to be useless in Buffy is arrogant, empty machismo. Though demons always boast impressive lethality, our 5-foot-3-inch heroine promptly cuts them down to size with a parting bon mot. (A personal favorite: Buffy confronts a demon who's enslaving street kids as unpaid laborers. "Want to see my impression of Gandhi?" she inquires. He looks perplexed; Buffy lops off his head. "Well, you know, if he was really pissed off.")
A typical Buffy episode presents the "Scoobies" (the aforementioned heroic core group) with a supernatural threat that's also a metaphor for larger themes. The episode "Gingerbread" is a barely veiled update of the McCarthy era, with the murder of two children incorrectly attributed to witchcraft. Sunnydale's adults go bug-eyed with paranoia, leading to the formation of MOO, Mothers Opposed to the Occult. As the police snatch up "dangerous" reading material, Patriot Act-style, Xander moans, "Aw, man, it's Nazi Germany, and I've got Playboys in my locker!" Like other episodes that reference China's Boxer Rebellion and Native American genocide, "Gingerbread" demonstrates Buffy's acute sense of history. While neocons deny history insisting, for example, that we forget the lessons of Vietnam because Iraq is "different" nobody in the Buffyverse escapes the past. Memory persists, history is real. Learn or pay the consequences.
In the context of a real-world regime that's intent on limiting human rights by banning gay unions, Buffy's treatment of sex is radically pragmatic. It's an activity that can be either healthy like the lovemaking between Willow and the awkwardly sweet Tara (Amber Benson) or unhealthy, like Buffy's ill-advised tryst with Spike (James Marsters), the show's resident punk vampire. While sex is just something that people do, the show argues, redemption is available only to those who work for it.
Though Brent Bozell, the far-right president of the Parents Television Council, has constantly demonized the show (excuse the expression), the more reasonable Christianity Today admired its insistence that "no sinner is beyond grace." CT's approval makes sense, considering the show's obsession with atonement. Angel (David Boreanaz), a sort of recovering vampire, spends centuries committing good deeds to make up for his past evils. Faith regains her sanity and her soul by committing herself to prison; in an ironic anti-capital-punishment flourish, her rehab keeps her alive long enough to help save the world in Season 7. Meanwhile, when Willow (justifiably) kills a serial murderer, there's only a sick sense of sadness at her lowering herself to his standard. She's then shipped off to Britain in hope of spiritual healing.
All of which leads to the show's prime ethical directive: Humans are flawed and therefore don't own the right to judge to say nothing of kill one another. The ideology holds no matter the profit potential involved. Halliburton, are you listening?
At a time when neocon think tanks were simmering with dreams of empire that were fated to find bloody realization in Iraq, Season 4 dealt with another black op, "The Initiative," that was meant to harness the supernatural for the sake of U.S. geopolitical dominance. Just as Season 3's rise of demonic Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener) whose Bush-like homilies obscure his murderous ambitions led to a high-casualty battle between his vampire army and Sunnydale's youth, "The Initiative" ends in the mass deaths of military personnel, civilians and demons. The latter, we've learned, can be morally neutral or even heroic despite their foreign ways. The far right occludes our sense of decency by turning "foreigners" into abstracted nonhumans it's OK to slaughter; Whedon's crew seeks to humanize even the apparently nonhuman as long as they're willing to work for redemption.
In a New York Times interview, Whedon said, "I'm very much more interested in the created family than I am in actual families." What he meant becomes explicit in an episode titled, um, "Family." Shown at about the same time the Bush administration was posting its first job-loss statistics, the Season-6 installment finds Buffy in debt, working a minimum-wage job flipping burgers. Xander's wedding hopes have been dashed due to the effects of his biological family's abuse; Willow, however, has finally found true love with Tara. The latter is the new kid on the Hellmouth, and the Scoobies aren't sure about her. But then her father a red-state hardnose shows up, claiming that the girls in Tara's family turn "evil" on their 21st birthday. She'd better return home with him, or else.
Buffy tumbles to the fact that he's just a garden-variety prick, and tells him that he'll have to deal with her if he wants Tara. Disgusted, Tara's bio-Dad spouts, "We're her blood kin! Who the hell are you?" Buffy, with firm backup from the Scoobies, states, "We're family."
Yes, it's hokey. But it points to why people don't just like but love this show. Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles, the whole motley crew they're us, a fact that becomes ever clearer as the extremist right continues its social-Darwinism crusade for profit and power at the expense of single women, working people, gays and the unemployed. But in the Buffyverse, qualified trust trumps cynicism. Fear-mongering, blind acceptance of authority and pre-emptive violence are the Big Bads. Fighting real evils from demons to a banker who won't grant Buffy a second mortgage, even after she saves his life leaves little spare time for the moral nihilism that infects the current U.S. regime.
With only the slightest shift of pronouns, a monologue from the series' finale works as call-to-arms to all of us as we approach this most important of elections. Ending her term as the "chosen one" in favor of democracy, Buffy pronounces, "From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer ... will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power ... will have the power. Slayers ... every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?"