She has spawned a spinoff and imitators, scholarly conferences and books, hundreds of academic papers, thousands of Web sites and millions of hard-core fans. Nonviewers may be baffled why a show that never cracked the top 50 in ratings had such a big cultural impact, but mere numbers could never reflect the intense appeal of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which ends its glorious seven-year run tonight.
"She saved the world a lot." Those words were carved into Buffy's tombstone at the end of the fifth season. She was resurrected later, but the epitaph was a mirror of the show's sensibility, an inspired blend of sly humor and pathos.
In the beginning, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), cheerleader by day, vampire killer by night, arrived in Sunnydale, Calif. It's a lovely town that happens to sit on the mouth of hell, from which all manner of evil spews forth on a weekly basis.
The show's elegant metaphor, that growing up is hell, was rich territory for the trials that adolescents face. Peer pressure, friendship, loneliness, dating, abusive boyfriends, betrayal, the generation gap, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll -- it was all fodder for demonizing, and battling those demons made for surprisingly realistic drama.
Buffy was the first young woman on television who was both empowered and realistically portrayed. She never patronized her audience.
Joss Whedon, creator of the show (and the 1992 film of the same name), deliberately set out to design an icon, not a character, and over the show's long run, it has stayed largely true to his original vision.
"People cared for her because she fulfilled a need for a female hero, which is distinctly different from a heroine," said Whedon, whose credits include the screenplays to "Toy Story" and "Alien: Resurrection," the fourth film in that franchise. "While a heroine is the protagonist, generally speaking, somebody swoops in and saves her. A hero is a more complex figure and has to deal with all the traditional rites of passage. Everything Luke Skywalker had to go through, Buffy had to go through, and then some."
Fantasy meets reality
"Science fiction, horror and musicals, the most 'fantastic' kinds of genres, are sometimes best able to deal with social or emotional problems in ways that would be less palatable if they were not disguised," said Vivian Sobchack. The professor of critical studies in the department of film, television and digital media at UCLA started watching because her son played in a band on the show. She was immediately hooked.
"It's comic, satiric and moving at the same time," Sobchack said, adding that, at a young 62, she's not in the expected demographic. "It's also about power and the sacrifices and responsibilities that power imposes, a woman's issue in the contemporary world that resonates a lot."
The show's breadth of appeal is such that younger viewers could ignore the depth and concentrate on the character's fighting prowess and fashion sense. (At one point during the run, a popular college frat drinking game involved chugging every time a bra strap was spotted. In Buffyspeak: Beer bad.) Witty references to pop cultural issues appealed to one demographic, while more veiled allusions to classic novels (Whedon cites "A Little Princess" as his favorite book) and surrealist Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel appealed to another.
Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the film department at Wesleyan University, who taught Whedon as an undergraduate, also praised the show's cross-generational appeal.
"My daughter, who's in her early 30s and a mother, is a gigantic Buffy fan who would have eaten her young before she would have missed an episode." Basinger, in her 60s, is equally devoted.
For Basinger, as well as for many other Buffy fans, the show works on so many strata -- mythical, psychological, philosophical, political, sexual and theological -- it wouldn't be surprising if geologists were among its admirers. "Buffy," like all great art, is inclusive.
But the show also had some insurmountable hurdles. A title that instantly struck some as too cartoonish or juvenile was one.
The location didn't help either. The WB could never promote it like one of the big four networks. (After five seasons on the WB, the show moved to UPN for the last two, where it fared even worse.) And the show itself, with its complex characters and multilayered mythology, was too hard for some viewers to follow.
But for those who embraced it, the rewards were great. Whedon and the assortment of writers and directors who've worked with him over the years set unimaginably high standards, and the results are landmarks of great television. The episode "Hush," filmed almost entirely without dialogue, was one of TV's most terrifying hours. (It was also the only episode to be nominated for an Emmy.) "The Body" dealt with Buffy's mother's death and the immediate aftermath in a manner shocking in its realism. No music, effects or nice life lessons came between the audience and the raw pain and bafflement of the characters. "Smashed" had one of the sexiest scenes anywhere, in which Buffy and Spike (James Marsters) destroy a house as they literally rage with passion. And "Once More With Feeling," the musical, was a slice of Sondheim-esque heaven.
Laughter and tears
Even without singing, the show reached operatic heights as its hero loved and killed and died to save the world. And it broke viewers' hearts on a regular basis, to Whedon's delight. "I like making people laugh," he said. "But people can laugh mildly. People don't cry mildly." He geared the show toward "how can I make this as painful as possible, for at least somebody in the audience to say 'oh, that gets me.' "
And yet, despite the suffering it inflicted, it managed to be funnier than most comedies on the air today.
Journalists like Mary Kaye Schilling, L.A. bureau chief for Entertainment Weekly; Robert Bianco, TV critic at USA Today; and Matt Roush, senior critic at TV Guide, account for some of the show's cultural resonance. They were among the first to see and champion the show, so even if people weren't watching it, they were hearing about it. The Times' television critic, Howard Rosenberg, has described the show as "endearing, smart and effortlessly witty."
Though Whedon and his crew had worked hard on creating the strong metaphor and mission statement, he hadn't thought anyone would notice them.
"We hoped that people would watch the show, but we sort of assumed that nobody would get it," Whedon said, expecting reviews along the lines of " 'dumb genre show, but surprisingly watchable.' Right away, all the reviewers completely got what we were doing. That shocked me."
In Entertainment Weekly alone, "Buffy" was featured on 12 covers and showed up in 53 features and reviews and dozens of other passing references.
Also, Wesleyan's Basinger explained, "if you have a small, loyal audience of a high level of intelligence across age groups, you have a cult hit, and that influences the culture." The Internet extended that influence, as fans deconstructed the show weekly. "The people Buffy touched, she touched hard enough that it sent out ripples," Whedon said.
Ending on a high note
Objectively, fans realize that shows have a natural lifespan, and Whedon is given praise for ending on a high note rather than dragging the process out. But as fans, they're inconsolable. "It's like we're grieving in advance of the death we know is coming," said Basinger. Schilling plans to wear black today and has already arranged for a friend to watch the show with her so she has someone to cry to when it ends. "It's just going to be a horrible night for me," Schilling said.
Bianco said last week, "I haven't seen the final show yet, but I want it to end as happily as a show about a girl in love with two 200-year-old vampires can end."
Sobchack put her sense of devastation in defiant terms: "My passionate care for the show and this sense of loss is something I'm perfectly happy to express and do not feel my integrity or objectivity as a scholar compromised in any way."
Buffy will rule on in DVD and syndication, where she will be forever young, heroic and well-coifed. Perhaps she'll even make a few visits to the WB spinoff, "Angel." It won't be enough; it'll have to be enough. The rest of the world might not get it, but to fans, "Buffy" saved television a lot.
'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
What: Series finale
When: 8-9 tonight
Rating: The network has rated tonight's episode TV-14V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with an advisory for violence).
Sarah Michelle Gellar...Buffy Summers
Nicholas Brendon...Xander Harris
Alyson Hannigan...Willow Rosenberg
Michelle Trachtenberg...Dawn Summers
Anthony Stewart Head...Rupert Giles