An evangelical father and church leader recently told me that his "must see TV" includes the news shows and weighty fare one would expect from an informed and discerning Christian. "And when no one is looking," he said, "I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer." He's not alone.
While never attracting a viewership comparable to Friends or other big network draws, Buffy has become a runaway cultural phenomenon. An aggressively loyal following discusses each episode online, debates future storylines, and buys merchandise from jewelry to action figures.
Buffy, which starts its seventh season Tuesday, has also crossed into mainstream influence and become a household name. (It's so ingrained into culture that earlier this year a chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies released a paper on terrorism called "Biological Warfare and the Buffy Paradigm.")
The teens and 20-somethings who watch the show say they do because it's well made and relevant to their lives. The show provides compelling stories with deeper meaning. They want top-notch entertainment but they also want to connect. Buffy takes their lives and struggles seriously. In addition, they are attracted to a world where, supernaturally, there's more than meets the eye.
Still, stigmas attached to the UPN show are enough to make any self-respecting adult hesitant to admit watching it. The silly name, the network (home of pro wrestling), and the fact that its about vampires can be hard to get past. But for Christians, there are added obstacles.
Last month the Parents Television Council (PTC) called Buffythe least family-friendly show on TV. This is nothing new. It was ranked third on last year's "worst" list, and other Christian parent groups often caution against it. Most complaints focus on the drama's frequent depictions of violence, sexuality, and witchcraft. It's obviously not a children's show.
However, as in the Harry Potter debate, sometimes it isn't enough merely to list the contents in a show or a book to determine its merit. How a taboo topic is dealt with can be just as important. In Buffy, the "how" is intriguing because of the show's honest portrayal of consequences. Those who drink beer act like (in fact, turn into) Neanderthals. Witchcraft seduces good people to evil. And there are rarely any positive results from pre-marital sex on Buffy: one character lost his soul from it.
This is not to say all is well in vampire slaying. The writing can slip into gratuitous violence and sexuality for its own sake, God isn't mentioned (although when Buffy returned from the dead last year she said she had somehow ended up in heaven), and some characters lead immoral lives.
What saves the show is its realistic grounding. Sure, it's about a skinny girl who throws demons around, but the writing honestly depicts how individuals struggle in their lives. Characters make mistakes and sin but pay consequences and change over time. In this way, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has consistently confronted human suffering and addressed compelling themes.
Serious issues, silly name
Creator Joss Whedon launched the series in 1997 after writing the flippant 1992 movie of the same name. Understandably, Whedon was unhappy with the film and wanted to take the franchise back into his own hands.
As director and head writer up until last season, Whedon crafted Buffy into one of TV's most socially relevant and well-crafted hours. Buffy's plot arcs, characterizations, and dialogue are some of the best on television. It is also the most experimental. When some critics claimed Buffy only had clever dialogue, Whedon wrote the almost entirely dialogue-free "Hush." Last season's most daring episode was a critically acclaimed musical.
Those who don't watch the show are at least familiar with its premise: In every generation, a chosen one—called the slayer—is born with gifts to face the world's evil. This time around, it is a blonde girl from L.A who likes to shop.
After her movie incarnation became the slayer and defeated a "big bad" at her school dance, the TV show's Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) moved to Sunnydale, California. At her new school she found a mentor in librarian Rupert Giles and two best friends in Xander and Willow. Together the four of them, with various other "Scooby Gang" members, have spent the last six years sleuthing, growing, and saving the world from demons and vampires.
Part drama, part horror and with a good dose of comedy, Buffy entertains while it handles issues allegorically. We all wrestle with demons (whether literally or figuratively). Buffy's have bumpy faces or scales. But her supernatural opponents are only a means to talk about struggles like fitting in, controlling urges, or developing an identity. And it does so without feeling like an after-school special.
For instance, Buffy's teenage sister, Dawn, turned to theft last season as a cry for attention. The consequences were heightened when she took a pendant that inadvertently betrothed her to a singing demon with an attitude. In an episode several years ago, a high school girl felt that she was so unaccepted by her peers that she became invisible. Characters wrestled with guilt, denial, and not knowing how to feel two seasons ago when Buffy and Dawn's mother died.
Grace, redemption, and agape
The show's handling of complex themes works on a grander scale as well. Entire seasons work around a central point, and long-term character arcs chronicle particular struggles. This is what makes the show tick: Realistic characters who grow, learn, and face the ramifications of their actions and ghosts of their past. Problems and temptations don't vanish each week when the music swells.
One of the series' frequently visited topics is redemption. Angel, Buffy's first love, is a century-old vampire plagued by guilt for the wrongs he committed. (Humans lose their souls when they become vampires, which makes it more convenient for them to commit brutality.) Decades ago, Angel was cursed with getting his soul back while still having the temptations and memories of a savage. In a constant search for redemption, Angel (now on his own WB show) does good deeds and fights for the wronged.
Other character developments and actions do not fit as nicely with Christianity. But to the show's credit, issues such as sex and witchcraft are handled (usually) honestly and without glorification.
As for witchcraft, last year's season finale capped off a long-running storyline tracing Willow's budding fascination with magic. At first, the bookworm found it innocent and enticing. Over a few years however, simple tinkering (like levitating pencils) led to darker business. Witchcraft consumed her and hurt those around her. A personal tragedy sent her off the deep end. She killed a human (something taken seriously on Buffy) and threatened others. Willow, with black eyes and dark clothes, raised a pagan temple to use its powers to end the world.
But someone stopped her. It wasn't the chosen one with her super strength. Nor was it someone fighting her witchcraft with more witchcraft. Instead, a friend since kindergarten stood in her way—not armed with a crossbow, but with love.
"You've been my best friend my whole life," Xander told her. "If we are all going to end, where else would I want to be? I know you are in pain and I know you are about to do something apocalyptically stupid but … it doesn't matter, I still love you."
Hatred, vengeance, and witchcraft turned Willow evil, but Xander's unconditional love showed that no sinner is beyond grace. Moments like this explain why Christians such as myself watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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