“Well, there's nobody who didn't have a horrible high school experience except for, like, one guy I met once,” Joss Whedon said while sitting down with ET on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997.
At the time, the show was in production on its second season, with everyone -- including stars Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy), David Boreanaz (Angel) and Alyson Hannigan (Willow) -- returning to work on a bona fide hit for The WB. Whedon summed up his own high school experience as “constant humiliation and rejection,” an apt time period for a TV horror series. (Note: This was probably before they ever met, but I still like to believe the “one guy” he was referring to is Nathan Fillion.)
“I thought it would make a good show,” Whedon said. “I thought, I'll make a show about high school that's a horror movie just as my high school was, and that's something that I really wanted to talk about. I knew there would be a lot of fun there.”
Reflecting on Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20 years after it premiered on March 10, 1997, doesn’t take much effort, as the creators and fans have kept the series very much alive since it went off the air in May 2003 after seven seasons. There have been four canonical comic book “seasons” after the series wrapped, with Angel and Spike receiving their own respective runs. We soon realized the sun never truly sets on the Whedon empire and the many obvious influences he’s had on TV, none more important than throwing Tom Lenk into our lives.
Social media is also big on reunions. The cast loves reconnecting, be it Buffy and Willow; Buffy, Dawn, and Oz; Cordelia and Xander; or Angel and Buffy. Recently, we were treated to a public game of GIF tag between the slayer herself and fanboy Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show’s bold-at-best fashion choices are also documented on a popular Twitter account, and we can anticipate Hot Topic commemorating the anniversary with new merchandise inspired directly from the show. Hi, overalls.
The early ’90s were busy for Whedon. He wrote the Buffy feature film on which the show was based, worked as a writer for Roseanne, did extensive rewrites on the script for Speed, co-wrote the groundbreaking Toy Story and penned the fourth film in the Alien franchise. Having successfully looked into the Ark of the Covenant that was the legendary writers’ room of Roseanne and survived, Whedon took a look at his first movie. While the end result may not have captured everything he envisioned, the unique premise -- a Valley girl cheerleader whose fate is to hunt vampires -- held up well and he saw potential for a show he could call his own.
“Everyone was surprised when I wanted to do it, because I was working in movies and that was going well and this seemed like such a little project,” said Whedon, reminding us of the era where there was a stigma about working on TV as opposed to film. Today, we’re well accustomed to watching Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez go from sharing the screen in box office successes like The Wedding Planner to starring on critically acclaimed TV dramas. But even in the early ’00s, we saw James Lipton slam up-and-coming thespian Tobias Fünke (David Cross on Arrested Development) as a “television actor” as his real-life counterparts slowly broke down the barrier between film and TV.
“Nobody really took it seriously,” recalled Whedon, remembering how his agent first reacted to the idea. “'Look at all of these big movies you could do! It's exciting!’ I said, ‘No. I want to do this.’”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer would also afford him the opportunity to start his career as a director, which today stretches across TV (Dollhouse, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), film (The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, easily one of the most successful web series to date. “I just always wanted to speak the visual language,” said Whedon. “That’s something I've always wanted to do and that's part of why I did the shows.”
It was also an interesting period for a TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer to become not just a hit, but an out-of-nowhere success with a quickly growing base of devoted fans. The cast and producers often drew from current events to contextualize their answer to the question of what made the series such a success.
There was the Internet to consider. The series arrived on the heels of a (unsuccessful) web campaign by My-So-Called-Life fans to save the ABC dramedy from cancellation while chat rooms were overflowing with theories on the whereabouts of Mulder’s sister. And then there’s the fact, that in 1997, Gellar quickly became a star of the WB era, thanks to supporting roles in Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Whenever ET spoke to the cast, though, they had no problem simply pointing to the scripts. “When you read that pilot, you knew there was something special. There was something different there,” said Gellar. “I was originally cast as Cordelia and I would have done it as a lesser role at that point, because Joss had something.” Hannigan expressed similar sentiments: “It's not just vampires running around being crazy. There's a lot of humor and intelligence in the writing.”
It’s become almost standard now for the showrunner of a series to be as much of a household name as some of its actors -- just look at Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. After-shows like The Talking Dead, social media and Comic-Con panels often bring formerly unnoticed creatives like Whedon to public awareness. This was the late ’90s, though. It’s particularly telling that the cast would go out of their way to namecheck and give kudos to Whedon while promoting their show. Chris Carter, Kevin Williamson and David E. Kelly may have also been recognizable names at the time, but none of their fans felt the need to coin new words like “Whedonverse.” Stars now regularly go on talk shows and confidently sing the praises of Matthew Weiner or Vince Gilligan because they know we’ll know who they’re talking about.
“I was surprised that people seem to get it, that they take it seriously, which I do but I didn't expect the reviewers to, and they did. I was pleased,” said Whedon of the show’s critical response. “We just write what we love to please ourselves, and some of that is childish and some of that is hopefully very intelligent. So we're really reaching out for everyone. There's nobody saying, ‘Oh, they won't get this.’ I mean, I'm hoping there's something in there for everybody.”
The series, and Whedon’s work overall, maintained a reputation for sophisticated storytelling that other shows in the same genre might have shied away from. They also never held back from referencing pop culture or delegated it to a single character (see: Kevin on Riverdale). The writers were unapologetic about being pop culture fans themselves and acknowledged in their characters just how progressively nerdier audiences in every demographic were becoming. Coincidentally, this has not made the series any less evergreen, as we still live in a world heavily immersed in Star Wars and Harry Potter, something that will continue for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Xander’s impression of Tom Cruise in Magnolia may still only reach a select few.
Maybe it was the emergence of the Internet or Anne Rice being on the best-seller list, but the Occam’s razor approach to what made the show amazing comes back to Whedon. As a final creative master stroke, he hired a murderer’s row-in-the-making of writers to collaborate with, most of whom are still making some of our favorite TV and movies today (Jane Espenson, Once Upon a Time; Marti Noxon, Bravo’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce; and Drew Goddard, Cloverfield, to name a few).
The metaphor of monsters for real-life problems was a successful paradigm for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s difficult to name a TV series that consistently applied it better than they did each week. An enduring optimism in the face not just of vampires but also human tragedies made the series engaging and defined the term “genre-bending.” Buffy’s protagonists were a group of empowered youths who had the ability and courage to face those challenges together. What’s not to like about that -- as a kid or an adult, in 1997 or 2017? Whedon, from the beginning, saw Buffy and co. not just as fantasy characters, but as something to aspire to.
“We all have to take orders from everybody when we're teenagers, and here's somebody who, yeah, her mom tells her to clean up her room,” said Whedon. “Yeah, her teachers tell her to do her homework. But at the end of the day she gets to go save the world and we all like to think that we could.”