‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Anniversary: Joss Whedon Looks Back — And Forward

Leading up to the 20th anniversary of the March 10, 1997 premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Yahoo TV is celebrating “Why Genre Shows Matter” and the history of how these shows have tackled universal themes (i.e. how much high school sucks) and broader social issues.

“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.”

Those are the first words viewers heard when they tuned in to the March 10, 1997 premiere of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which introduced them to Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a 16-year-old who would go on to save the world, a lot, while reminding us that high school is hell.

Related: ‘Battlestar Galactica’ EP David Eick on 5 Episodes That Remain Relevant

Of course, there were obstacles: drowning on spring fling night was bad; sacrificing herself years later only to be pulled out of heaven by her well-meaning friends was worse. But she persisted. And in the 2003 series finale, she rewrote the rules: “From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power, can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us.”

To kick off our week-long celebration of “Why Genre Shows Matter,” Yahoo TV spoke with Whedon to discuss the show’s legacy.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy (Credit: Everett Collection)
Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy (Credit: Everett Collection)

You’ve had 20 years of Buffy fans telling you how much the show resonated with them. What are you most proud of?
It’s happened lately. They say they grew up with it, which always makes me feel old. I’m most proud of people coming up and saying, “That’s the girl I think about when I think about strength.” Strength as in leadership and the ability to deal with a crisis and the decisions they make going forward. When I was still making the show, I had a woman come up to me in the commissary of Fox who was in her late 30s, and she was like, “I was able to move cities and get this particular job that I was after because of her. Because I could use her power as mine.” I thought I was, at that time, still just talking to young people, and that was an amazing moment.

What issue were you personally most invested in while making the show?
The issue is always gonna be women’s rights and feminism and the basic respect that we all need to pay to each other. It turns out that there were other things. Obviously the Willow/Tara romance was very important for a lot of people. But I did not set out to do that. I did not think of the world and everything I did that carefully. Obviously we were careful about what we said about people, but I only had a gay romance in it because it was college and I thought, “This is a good way to follow up Oz. It’s a tough act.” And then later on, I was like, “Oh. Representation matters. I’m a white guy.”

Amber Benson as Tara, Alyson Hannigan as Willow (Credit: Everett Collection)
Amber Benson as Tara, Alyson Hannigan as Willow (Credit: Everett Collection)

Why do you think genre shows continue to matter today, especially with the climate we have in the country right now?
The climate we are at right now, I just want, like, isolation baths that play Barney. The idea of getting as far away from this world as possible would be amazingly good. Genre shows matter and have always mattered (he yelled at the ghost of his stepfather) because they give you a chance to examine your world very carefully, a chance to step outside of it just enough to really look at it. You can lecture somebody about feminism or gay rights or whatever, or you can create a story that even people who disagree with you enjoy, and then they have that respect incorporated into them. It allows people to accept and enjoy things that they might not necessarily approach or want to hear about, without having to be didactic or divisive. You can reframe the argument. The morality plays of Everyman from the Middle Ages, and the Greek myths, and Hamlet, and all these things — they work the way they do because they give themselves license to embrace the strange and therein lies the humanity.

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Anyone who follows you on Twitter knows that in January, you were at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and at LAX to protest the immigration ban. In February, after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary, you tweeted, “I think I’m broken…” As you referenced earlier with Barney, some people need total escapism in their entertainment now, and some people want to watch something where, for a lack of a better term, their side wins. It made me wonder if a writer like you has found himself — just in your mind, not even on paper — thinking of such a scenario using genre metaphors.
Democrats versus Republicans, conservative versus liberal, those are actual arguments. This is just an evil clown show. You know, usually I don’t think of anything this terrible, and as a man who loves and has written horror movies that’s kind of amazing. If Angel had gone on for a sixth season, the premise was going to be that the war they fought at the end of Season 5 they lost, and it was gonna be a little post-apocalyptic fun time. That is definitely how I feel right now, except they were gonna have monsters and dragons and jokes, and we have plenty of dragons but I’ve run out of jokes.

I think, honestly, the best work about this administration and the dangers of it was done by George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels, which is not a thing or a sentence I ever thought I’d say. [Laughs] But really, as the movies got worse, they got more politically astute, and he was very clear on the banality of evil, how it all started very dull, and you know the trade routes, and then gradually all freedom got taken away, and people themselves voted for a megalomaniac dictator because they thought he could solve the problems that he himself had created. Since the GOP is run largely on a platform of saying things that are not true or to hate people we should not hate, I think that he’s already nailed that.

Related: #BuffySlays20: See ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Merch Celebrating the Show’s 20th Anniversary

Are there any genre shows today that you think are tackling issues particularly well or that have resonated with you?
First of all, I watch very little, since there are 98,000 shows on at any given moment and I freeze up. I don’t have that much free time. I have been watching Legion, but not because they have a message yet, just because it’s so amazingly beautiful. Between that and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I tend to deal with things that are about personal politics, or about, you know, how do you stay a moral person in a world with conflicting instructions? If you live comfortably long enough, the thing tends to get bigger, you tend to get into a Harry Potter situation, which obviously [J.K. Rowling] was planning from the start, but you want to make the stakes bigger, and you want to say, “Okay, well, we’ve known this person for a while. What are they like in an extreme world?” But usually I’m very focused on one person’s journey or one small part of a person’s journey. Both Legion and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have a bit of that. But I’m missing the other 97,998 shows.

Gellar and Joss Whedon on set (Photo by Robert Gauthier/Getty Images)
Gellar and Joss Whedon on set (Photo by Robert Gauthier/Getty Images)

On March 10, we’ll be running a collection of tributes to Buffy from showrunners of current genre series. It’s amazing to hear people like Timeless‘s Eric Kripke say that you taught him how to effectively use metaphor in genre, something he took to heart during his run of Supernatural with the mantra “family is hell (literally).” Jessica Jones‘ Melissa Rosenberg speaks about how Buffy‘s become a kind of shorthand in writers’ rooms, where they can say, “This relationship is kind of like a Buffy/Angel thing,’ or ‘like the Spike thing.'” How do you look at that honor, having inspired a generation of writers? And is there pressure that comes with that?
Well, I think the pressure is, “Oh god, an entire generation of people that knows all my tricks. I’ll have to not do the same ones.” [Laughs] The pressure, once one becomes eld, is really, “I don’t need to write stories that aren’t about adolescent girls with superpowers. I’m entirely comfortable if that’s all I do. But can I find a new in, a new statement, a new rhythm, a new reason to speak?” I was working on something that takes place during the Holocaust, and that was another project that I may become involved with, which I unfortunately can’t speak about, but the way the world is right now and who needs to be speaking, who needs to take the floor, is very much in my mind. It can’t not be. When the world has gone mad, it’s very both soothing and challenging to write about the young people who are going to inherit this mad world, or are inheriting it right now, and not the motherf***ers who blew it. Oh wait, that’s us.

Related: From ‘Buffy’ to ‘Once’: Jane Espenson on Creating TV’s Best Female Friends

In honor of everyone always wishing Buffy had received more Emmy love, we’re asking showrunners to name one Emmy nomination they’d have loved to see a genre show receive over the years. Battlestar Galactica is being mentioned a lot.
Battlestar, I still think, is the greatest show ever made. It’s The West Wing with rockets, and some of the most brilliantly subversive storytelling. The kind where that’s the feeling I had when I saw The Matrix: “I’m going to put down my pencil for a while until I learn more about writing and structure.” Battlestar would definitely be my pick.

Related: ‘Battlestar Galactica’ EP David Eick Revisits 5 Episodes That Remain Relevant

We’re also asking showrunners to name the first genre show that opened their eyes. What was it for you?
There’s plenty I’m sure, but The Twilight Zone is the sacred jewel for me. Very political, but besides the fact that they were able to do stuff that was very much about the time that they were in and it was great, twisty science fiction, they also had that anthology feeling that you didn’t know was it gonna be sappy and sentimental, was it gonna be absolutely terrifying, was there gonna be a little didactic moral … you just didn’t know what mood you were going to be in, what you were going to be handed, and that’s something that I loved in the show.

I know that shows thrive sometimes because they give people exactly what they expect to get, and I love those shows, too, the Murder, She Wrote of it, but the idea of Greek tragedy this week and next week it’s Hee Haw is really where the fun is for me, because it keeps people on their toes. And being able to surprise an audience in the days of spoilers and three-minute trailers and everybody having all the behind-the-scenes information … the few days you can genuinely surprise people, either by making them feel something they didn’t expect or by twisting a plot, for a reason, that’s a joy. That is to me the greatest joy.

A lot of Buffy fans want Buffy to be that gateway show for their children, or in my case, for my niece, who’s eight. I know I need to wait a few more years. What do you think is the proper age to introduce someone to Buffy, and what do you hope they see when they watch it, 20 years after it premiered?
I hope everybody sees a version of the same thing within themselves, which is just that it’s going to be a very difficult ride to get through those [adolescent] years, but it can be done. I think the appropriate age, really, you can start a girl watching Buffy when she’s 12. Season 6, 21 and over obviously, because it’s a pornie. It’s tough, because it used to be you’d watch the show and you’d grow up with it, like the Potter books. And now it’s like, okay, they’re gonna watch the show. They’re 13. They’re gonna watch all of it in one year. And you’re like, “It’s not really meant for that.” But you know, I’ve never had any complaints. Nobody’s ever come up and said, “Joss, you all ruined my child!”

Related: ‘Buffy’ Oral History: Thanksgiving, Vampire Slayer Style

I think my other favorite thing is people coming up and saying that they watched it with their children, or that they watched it with their parents when they watched it, and that it was something that the whole family could enjoy. It sounds like the hokiest thing, but for me, knowing how contentious families can be, especially when you’re an adolescent, having people say, “This was literally the only thing we all did together,” means a great deal. Because although I said I thought it would reach young people, it wasn’t designed to alienate everyone else. I was raised by teachers, and that’s why Giles was an important part of the mix, because I knew that they were struggling just as hard, if not harder than we were to figure their things out. And also, they just worked a lot harder than we did. And I didn’t want to do the Ferris Bueller us against them; I wanted it to be everybody’s invited to the party. Because of the title, not everybody is going to show up to the party, which The WB reminded me of 4,000 times.

I’m sure you’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary in many ways, so thank you for spending a little time with us.
No, just one. Drinking.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s seven seasons are streaming on Netflix and Hulu.

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