A hero with extraordinary powers. An inner circle of close companions, armed with their own unique skills. An overarching threat that’s part of an even larger mystery. A passionate fanbase keen on getting a fix of drama, comedy, romance and action on a weekly basis. Depending on your own viewing habits, those phrases might have conjured up images of the Flash or Agent Phil Coulson, Melinda May or Felicity Smoak, Arrow or Supergirl. If you’re me, and you’re specifically me writing this article right now, then those phrases also ring true for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” because, as far as you’re/I’m concerned, that show is directly responsible for the specific strain of superhero show that’s currently all over network TV.
“Buffy’s” importance in regards to the success of “The Flash,” “Arrow,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and newcomer “Supergirl” is not something I see tweeted about much. Of course, that might have something to do with the polarizing Joss Whedon-ness of “Buffy.” Depending on where you fall on the liberalism scale, Whedon’s either too progressive or not progressive enough. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” divided fans, and the Internet is pretty big on all-or-nothing style hot takes. Whedon’s a feminist hero, Whedon’s a sexist monster, Whedon’s not a feminist hero because he talked too much about being a feminist hero, Whedon’s actually a genius because it’s now contrarian to say something positive about him — finding a consensus is impossible when you’re getting your info from social media.
I say all that to get it out of the way. I’m aware that Whedon’s controversial, I’ve read the op-eds about “Buffy’s” shortcomings, and even I grew a little tired of the “we’re not worthy!”-ness of a lot of the press surrounding 2012’s massive “Avengers.” But as deified and/or vilified as “Buffy’s” creator/writer/director/executive producer may be, I do think it’s impossible to deny the massive affect that little WB (and later UPN) show had on superhero shows. After all, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” didn’t just have an effect on the television genre, it invented it.
I should also state my own bias up front, also because that bias can be read as credentials. I’m a massive “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan. Yeah, I’m big on talking about the pop culture things that Changed My Life, but I don’t think I’ve talked about “Buffy” here in that context. I first saw the show when I was in eighth grade, when the show was halfway through Season Two. I stuck with the show through to the end (and the end of its spinoff “Angel,” as well). I would say that the “Buffy” finale was the hardest a piece of pop culture has ever made me cry (although “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” could give it a run for its money). Interviewing Joss Whedon at SDCC this year was a life-defining experience for me — just look at that Joss-induced grin I have! What inspired such devotion, though? When I discovered it in Season Two, the show exploded my 13-year-old brain’s idea of what a TV show could be — because it showed me that a TV show can be a comic book.
This is also a topic I wrote about in college when I took a class called “Special Topics In Literature: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Yeah, Middle Tennessee State University became the birthplace for academic studies of “Buffy” while I was a student there thanks to a professor, David Lavery — who I just discovered has his own Wikipedia page! I know I titled my paper after a Xander quote: “It’s Cool, Buffy’s a Superhero.” In that paper, which was written at least three hard drives ago, I analyzed how the show utilized a number of superhero tropes to tell its stories on television. It was a great paper and I’m sure would make for fascinating reading today. Too bad I can’t find it!
It’s fitting, then, that a show that used so many superhero conventions during it’s seven-season run would in turn inspire a whole generation of superhero TV shows. Like “Buffy,” “Flash,” “Arrow” and “Supergirl” are all centered around a titular gifted and notable individual. Barry Allen and Kara Zor-El have superhuman abilities, as does Buffy Summers; Oliver Queen’s “power” amounts to being a super awesome archer, but his calling to be the vigilante hero his city needs is similar to the call Buffy answers when she accepts her role as the Slayer. These are three leads that all rise to the occasion, like a hero — like Buffy.
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” feels “Buffy”-esque when you look at the ensemble it’s created; the same goes for the aforementioned DC-based shows. These casts include Giles-esque mentors (Phil Coulson, Joe West, potentially Cat Grant), Xander-esque jokers (Daisy Johnson, Cisco Ramon, Winn Schott), broody Angel-faced boys (Grant Ward, Oliver Queen, parts of James Olsen), brainy Willow types (Jemma Simmons, Felicity Smoak, Caitlin Snow), Faith-like ass-kickers (Bobbi Morse, Melinda May, the Canaries) and some Buffy-like put-upon-yet-plucky leads (Barry Allen, Kara Zor-El, and again, Daisy Johnson). It’s not like “Buffy” invented these archetypes, but the show really perfected — and seemingly cemented — the formula of pairing an ass-kicking lead with a large-ish supporting cast. Modern superhero shows could easily go the “X-Files” or “Xena” route and keep the cast to a duo, but the ones showing legs with fans go for the full “Buffy.”
What really made “Buffy” feel like a comic to me back in the late ’90s, though, was its reliance on recurring characters that felt more dependent on story needs than contract obligations. Characters like Jenny Calendar, Harmony, Jonathan, Amy, Tara and more came and went as stories dictated; some, like Tara, were as important as the main cast. “Flash” has prominently featured non-regular characters like Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein, Sara Lance played a major part in “Arrow” Season Two while never being a series regular, and “S.H.I.E.L.D.” has done the same with characters like Andrew Garner and Raina while also bumping up Adrianne Palicki and Luke Mitchell from recurring roles to regular ones. These shows create a world and pull characters in as needed to tell heavily-serialized stories, something I rarely saw happen before “Buffy.”
And about those heavily serialized stories, “Buffy” kinda invented the formula that all these shows use. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” literally invented the term “Big Bad,” which is now used by creators and journalists to describe every villain that torments a show for a lengthy stretch of episodes. “Buffy” had the Master, Angelus, the Mayor, Adam, Glory, bad decisions (season six, everyone!) and the First Evil. “The Flash” has shifted from Reverse-Flash to Zoom; “Arrow” fought Slade Wilson and the League of Assassins and now has Damien Darhk. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” squared off against Bill Paxton for half of Season One before moving on to Hydra and a group of angry Inhumans. “Supergirl’s” just getting started, but it already has Astra locked in as the primary villain.
But “Buffy” didn’t just focus on those villains. No, the show would take a breather every other week or so and do a monster-of-the-week installment; “The X-Files” made this formula famous, but I think “Buffy” pushed it in new ways by devoting more episodes to the Big Bad and changing up the overarching plotline every season, thus keeping threats fresh. The modern batch of superhero shows lean much closer to “Buffy” than “X-Files” by pushing the bad guy reset button every season finale.
Those are the big fingerprints (thumbprints?) “Buffy’s” left on those shows, but there are even more pinkyprints on them. Most of those shows utilize a mixture of drama and quips, all of those shows are about found families, half of them air on the same network as “Buffy” (well, through the transformation of the WB and UPN into The CW), half of them air on “Buffy’s” night (Tuesday), and some of them have/will have spinoffs (like how “Buffy” spawned “Angel”). And, of course, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has Whedon connections through showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen (who worked on “Dollhouse”) and Jeffrey Bell (who wrote for “Angel”). Ex-“Buffy” writer Drew Z. Greenberg has also been on staff for both “Arrow” and “S.H.I.E.L.D.”
The thing is, a lot of these similarities make perfect sense for a superhero TV show. An ensemble cast? Recurring characters? Major villains? Done-in-one adventures? No-brainers when it comes to superheroes, right? But when you look at the superhero shows that preceded “Buffy,” you notice that it took a non-traditional super-show — one starring a vampire slayer — to get all of those things on TV at the same time. The ’60s “Batman” show (which I love) emphasized camp over continuity. “Wonder Woman” had no regular characters outside of Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” struggled to produce any long-term threats for the Man of Steel after Lex Luthor bailed in Season One. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” came along and proved that audiences are down with seeing the kind of long-running comic book style plots play out on television; they will tune in, week to week, and they will keep up. The “Buffy”-ication of superheroes most likely started when the WB launched “Smallville,” a debut that came just as the Sunnydale crew pulled up stakes and moved to UPN to finish out their run. “Smallville” gave Clark Kent a support group, overarching villain schemes and, by the time the show ended, plenty of recurring superheroes.
But as much as these shows pull from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I gotta say, I want to see them push that inspiration even further by testing the limitations of our expectations. This is maybe because I’m a “Buffy” fan from way back and it’s nigh impossible to feel those high school feels again, but none of these shows surprise and thrill me the way “Buffy” did when it was in tour de force mode (Seasons 3 and 5). I’m definitely aware of the “Things were better back in my day” attitude of that statement, and maybe “Buffy” felt that way because it was — as I’ve mentioned over and over again here — defining a new type of television show on a weekly basis. But it also messed with its format, doing silent episodes (“Hush”) and musical episodes (“Once More, With Feeling”) and best-television-episode-of-all-time episodes (“The Body”). Hindsight and nostalgia are indubitably in play here, and I do see glimmers of this greatness nowadays. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” just pulled it off with the all-Simmons, all-alien “4,722 Hours” episode a few weeks ago and “Flash” has taken the superhero show to the next level with its never-ending parade of super-powered individuals, special effects budget be damned (Hello, Gorilla Grodd).
The main “Buffy” thing that I miss with these new shows is the voice. “Buffy” was the first show where I could figure out who wrote the episode just by watching it. Jane Espenson brought the weird comedy, Marti Noxon brought the heartbreak, Douglas Petrie loved writing Faith, Steven S. DeKnight was dark. I still take note of every writer credit in every TV show I watch, but it’s become harder (maybe this is an in-my-30s thing?) for me to take note of those individual voices on these new shows. That’s not an intrinsically bad thing; “Flash” feels like “Flash” every episode because of it, but I wish I knew who “Flash’s” Jane Espenson was (and yes, I want to see “Flash’s” version of “Doublemeat Palace”). But I also blame this on potentially my own shortcoming; now that I’ve seen the “Buffy” parallel in these shows, I should try harder to hear those voices.
With its 20th anniversary coming up, it seems like the full influence of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” legacy is finally being felt now that there’s a real demand for superhero shows. As someone who spent pretty much every day from 1997 to 2003 totally emotionally tied up in the Slayer’s adventures, it’s rad seeing the show live on in this way. And if calling out this comparison leads any superhero fans to do the dance of joy, become new Scoobies, ship Xander and Anya or join the very small ranks of Riley apologists, then that’s rad too.
Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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