“In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.” – Joss Whedon
I honestly can’t believe it has been 20 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the face of television as we knew it. Those who are unaware of the show’s brilliance balk at the notion that this show really did change the television landscape but anyone who has taken the time to get invested in the world created by Joss Whedon knows that Buffy set a new standard for genre television and pave the way for other shows that may not have seen the light of day had Buffy not been successful (The Vampire Diaries, which probably owes a big debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ends its 8 season run on the same day that Buffy celebrates its 20th anniversary).
I don’t totally blame anyone who may be a naysayer of the show and its concept. On paper, it sounds a bit silly and the beginnings of the franchise were rocky enough success didn’t really look like it was in the cards for the show when it premiered on March 10, 1997. Ignoring the fact that it was starting on new and fledging network (The WB), there was also the stigma of being based on film that didn’t receive the best notices from critics.
Joss Whedon first introduced us to Buffy in his 1992 film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The film starred Kristy Swanson as Buffy Summers and the original concept was based a bit on an idea he had called “Rhonda the Immortal Waitress”. Joss Whedon saw appeal in “the idea of some woman who seems to be completely insignificant who turns out to be extraordinary”. This early, unproduced idea evolved into Buffy, which Whedon developed to invert the Hollywood formula of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie”. He explained, “The very first mission statement of the show was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it.”
While this was his original mission statement and what would prove to run through the DNA of the TV show, it was not what the director of the film version had in mind back in 1992. Director Fred Rubel Kuzui saw it as a “pop culture comedy about what people think about vampires. Whedon would go on to say:
“I had written this scary film about an empowered woman, and they turned it into a broad comedy. It was crushing.”
Whedon”s script was actually praised within the industry but the final film was not. The film’s reviews were mostly mixed with a 48% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes and box office proved to be subpar with a final gross of $16.6 million. The low budget of $7 million bailed it out a bit but there was an overall feeling that money was left on the table and more could’ve been done with the project if the original intentions of the writer were fulfilled by the director.
Several years later, Gail Berman (later a Fox executive, but at that time President and CEO of the production company Sandollar Television, who owned the TV rights to the movie) approached Whedon to develop his Buffy concept into a television series. Whedon explained that “They said, ‘Do you want to do a show?’ And I thought, ‘High school as a horror movie.’ And so the metaphor became the central concept behind Buffy, and that’s how I sold it.” The supernatural elements in the series stood as metaphors for personal anxieties associated with adolescence and young adulthood. Early in its development, the series was going to be simply titled Slayer and Whedon went on to write and partly fund a 25-minute non-broadcast pilot that was shown to networks and eventually sold to the WB Network.
The WB proved to be a great home for Buffy, particularly in the early years. The network was launched on January 11, 1995 and it wasn’t a big destination for break out hits. Shows like The Wayans Bros, The Jamie Foxx Show, Sister, Sister, and The Steve Harvey Show moderately successful due to lowered expectations of the network’s ratings standards and at the time 7th Heaven was only a minor hit for them before it truly began to break out. The WB saw that Buffy could be something bigger and different for them. Since they weren’t a huge network, Whedon had a lot of creative freedom to toy with ideas and they allowed him to create a show that was true to his vision. He would finally be able to present the character how she was meant to be.
Now that the creative team behind the scenes was becoming assembled, it was time to find the right actors and actresses to bring his characters to life. The title role went to Sarah Michelle Gellar, who had appeared as Sydney Rutledge on Swans Crossing and Kendall Hart on All My Children. At age 18 in 1995, Gellar had already won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Younger Leading Actress in a Drama Series. In 1996, she was originally cast as Cordelia Chase during a week of auditioning. She decided to keep trying for the role of Buffy, and after several more auditions, she landed the lead. This is proof that some things are just to be. I can’t see anyone else in the role now because Gellar had a firm grasp on the humor of the show as well the drama and underlying themes that permeated throughout the series and her character. Since she was in her late teens at the time she could identify with everything the character was going through, including having the weight of the world on your shoulders at an early age (Gellar wasn’t saving the world but the pressures of growing up as a young actress is something that most people her age at time wouldn’t fully understand). The interesting thing about other actresses who auditioned for the title role is they ended up playing other characters on the show. These actresses include Julie Benz (Darla), Elizabeth Anne Allen (Amy Madison), Julia Lee (Chantarelle/Lily Houston), Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia Chase), and Mercedes McNab (Harmony Kendall). Bianca Lawson, who played vampire slayer Kendra Young in season 2 of the show, originally auditioned for the role of Cordelia Chase before Charisma Carpenter was cast in the role.
Anthony Stewart Head had already led a prolific acting and singing career, but remained best known in the United States for a series of twelve coffee commercials with Sharon Maughan for Nescafe. He accepted the role of Rupert Giles, Buffy’s Watcher and mentor.
Nicholas Brendon, unlike other Buffy regulars, had little acting experience, instead working various jobs—including production assistant, plumber’s assistant, veterinary janitor, food delivery, script delivery, day care counselor, and waiter—before breaking into acting and overcoming his stutter. He landed his Xander Harris role following only four days of auditioning. Ryan Reynolds and Danny Strong also auditioned for the part. Strong later played the role of Jonathan Levinson, a recurring character for much of the series run
Nathan Fillion originally auditioned for the role of Angel back in early 1996 but David Boreanaz had already been cast at the time of the unaired Buffy pilot, but did not appear. Boreanaz was originally set as a guest star for a few episodes but the evident chemistry between He and Gellar led to his part being expanded throughout season one.
When it came to role of Buffy’s best friend Willow, Alyson Hannigan was the last of the original six to be cast. Following her role in My Stepmother Is an Alien, she appeared in commercials and supporting roles on television shows throughout the early 1990s. In 1996, the role of Willow Rosenberg was originally played by Riff Regan for the unaired Buffy pilot, but Hannigan auditioned when the role was being recast for the series proper. Hannigan described her approach to the character through Willow’s reaction to a particular moment: Willow sadly tells Buffy that her Barbie doll was taken from her as a child. Buffy asks her if she ever got it back. Willow’s line was to reply “most of it.” Hannigan decided on an upbeat and happy delivery of the line “most of it,” as opposed to a sad, depressed delivery. Hannigan figured Willow would be happy and proud that she got “most of it” back. That indicated how she was going to play the rest of the scene, and the role, for that matter, and defined the character. Her approach subsequently got her the role.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on March 10, 1997 it was the first taste of real success The WB experienced. The show became a hit with critics when it premiered as a mid-season replacement and it debuted with the highest Monday night ratings in the network’s history, attracting not only new teenage viewers, but new advertisers as well. The show will became the identity of the network and the future home of other youth skewing shows like Dawson’s Creek, Charmed and Felicity. The series shot all 12 of its season one episodes before the show aired so if anything they had a self contained 12 episode series that had a beginning, middle and end, just in case things didn’t work out but as we know, things worked out in a big way but by the end of season one, the show was more of a cult hit. Season 2 is when the show started to expand beyond its niche audience into more of a worldwide phenomenon.
The storytelling is probably the strongest aspect of the show and each season takes various stages of growing up and hashes them out in this supernatural world of vampires and demons. Season one exemplifies the “high school is hell” concept. Buffy Summers has just moved to Sunnydals after burning down her old school’s gym, and hopes to escape her Slayer duties. Her plans are complicated by Rupert Giles, her new Watcher, who reminds her of the inescapable presence of evil. Sunnydale High is built atop a Hellmouth, a portal to demon dimensions that attracts supernatural phenomena to the area. Buffy befriends two schoolmates, Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg, who help her fight evil throughout the series, but they must first prevent The Master (Mark Metcalf), an ancient and especially threatening vampire, from opening the Hellmouth and taking over Sunnydale.
Season one adopts a more monster of the week motif and this is mostly due to the shorter first season one of 12 episodes. There is a bit of an arc with The Master and also the building love story between Buffy (The Slayer) and Angel (the vampire with the soul). The best episodes of season one are the ones that drive the narrative forward (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”, “The Harvest”, “Never Kill A Boy On The First Date”, “Angel”, “Nightmares” & “Prophecy Girl” are best season one episodes to show you how great this show was about to become). That being said, even the other filler episodes have their charm and also serve as episodes that show the growth of the characters and the shows wicked sense of humor.