Analysis: Bye-Bye, Buffy

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  May 22, 2003 at 5:40 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- She has impaled her last bloodsucker: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" hung up her sharpened stake Tuesday after seven spectacular TV seasons and an astonishing impact on the American psyche.

The show was technically innovative in no way. Despite its somewhat explicit subject matter it broke no taboos or so-called "new ground" that B horror movies have not done for many generations. Its acting, apart from its amazing star Sarah Michelle Gellar, was competent but not cosmic and was not required to be. Even its much-touted model of female empowerment, while highly significant, was an evolution rather than a revolution, building on the success of the equally alluring and martially invincible "Xena: Warrior Princess" with Lucy Lawless before it.

Yet "Buffy" rated a farewell editorial appreciation in the editorial column of the New York Times Wednesday and the tribute was not misplaced. For if fiction is, as the great European semiotics scholar and novelist Umberto Eco said, a machine to generate multiple meanings then "Buffy" qualifies triumphantly. No American television series over the past decade, not even Matt Groening's still-magical "Simpsons" on Fox, not even "Friends" captured the confident, post-modernist teenager Zeitgeist of the Nineties so unerringly well.

But "Buffy" with its perfect-proportion mix of comedy, satire and horror -- matched as skillfully as any bartender ever mixed a dry martini -- went far beyond that. The darker tone of the show's last few seasons perfectly matched the truly sinister shadows inexorably gathering over American life since the terrorist catastrophes of "9/11."

In that respect, let us pray that "Buffy's" season finale will not prove prophetic -- which would be yet another ironic twist for a show which regularly outraged the more humorless guardians of public morality, not with its content, but with its mythical horror themes and symbolism.

For Buffy's swan song did not disappoint. The show bowed out on an apocalyptic scale. The armies of hell in numbers sufficient to impress devotees of "Lord of the Rings" erupted in a final bid to engulf Sunnydale and the entire world. Buffy herself survived as did her Inner Circle supporting cast over the past seven seasons. But many Slayerettes did not. And the entire town of Sunnydale -- now as beloved and detailed a mythical location as the London of Sherlock Holmes or the Oxford of Inspector Morse -- instead went the way of J. R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth -- convulsed in cataclysm.

The end symbolism, with Buffy and her friends escaping to safety by the skin of their teeth in a school bus was indeed a potent mixture of nightmares: the Columbine school massacre mixed with the destruction of the World Trade Towers. Nothing was left of Sunnydale -- that quintessential California suburban community -- except a raw, ugly and gaping hole in the ground.

As the Hellmouth beneath the school imploded upon itself, Buffy herself survived only by leaping from building to building and then on to the top of rumbling old school bus while the earth swallowed all inches behind her. The images were eerily reflective of the crowds fleeing the crumbling dust clouds of the crumbling Twin Towers on Black Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

Like "The Simpsons"' Groening, Buffy's creator and guiding genius Joss Whedon never sacrificed the purity or consistency of his vision for anything. The biggest joke of the series was not a joke at all. As has been -- and no doubt will continue to be -- endlessly noted, the monstrous vampire, bloodsucking nightmares haunting Sunnydale High School were a perfect metaphor for the genuine death traps of AIDS, violence and drugs stalking America's children in the superficially idyllic 1990s.

For that decade, like the Fifties and the Twenties before it, saw superficial confidence, peace and prosperity rest uneasily like a thin crust over existential dread.

Whedon intuited this perfectly from the word go. The critical reward he harvested from this seedling insight was a series that distilled the angst generated by this contradiction and crystallized it in the petty, comfortable social realities of the time, just as Sinclair Lewis located Babbitt and Philip K. Dick his existential wanderers in time and place in their defining small town American locales.

At the end, this was all gone, as completely as the Great Depression annihilated Babbitt's Twenties Arcadia or one of Dick's innumerable nuclear holocausts was revealed to have obliterated the Fifties dream worlds of his protagonists. As Buffy and her friends noted in the shows surreal closing moments even the Starbucks and The Gap stores were gone. The Nineties were over at last!

The end of the show generated enough new meanings to gladden Umberto Eco's heart. Buffy lives! Yet she is Vampire-Slayer no more. And she has had to bury some of the most cherished relationships of adolescence behind her.

James Marsters haunting Spike died at the end, imploding the Hellmouth. Buffy finally told him she loved him. And Spike saw through the merciful lie, but thanked her for saying it anyway. Buffy, Willow and Xander were free at last to get on with their lives. But to do what? Surely everything else would be doomed forever to be a gray anti-climax after all that went before? That terrifying delusion is all too convincing when you are only 18 or 21 and about to step on the stage of your real life, as some of us still vaguely remember.

At the end, as indeed was true throughout the show's epic run, the values and social examples set were the opposite of subversive. They were surprisingly wholesome, and even heroic. (It was no coincidence or minor thing that Buffy always wore a crucifix. That symbolism was never subversive. It was meant to matter.)

Buffy saw her friends die in the horror of war, but not a meaningless war -- a war essential for the survival of all that was decent, just and good. It was an all too obvious and prescient metaphor for the evolving American zeitgeist since "9/11."

And -- in the most revealingly moving touch of all -- those spoiled, insular, ridiculously petty Valley kids fought, sacrificed and died with an amazing courage and grace that surprised even themselves. It was as if "Friends" or the Fab Four of "Seinfeld" had suddenly morphed into "Band of Brothers."

Now "Buffy" is gone while NBC's pompous, melodramatic, self-important "West Wing" staggers on for another season. "West Wing" reaped the critical plaudits and Emmies, yet its vision of the Executive Mansion was childishly self-indulgent and plain ludicrous. "Buffy", which never aspired to the imposing alleged factual accuracy of "West Wing" was obvious and unapologetic teen fantasy. Yet it caught and expressed inner truth. This is the way we lived.

These were our fears. And this is how we dealt with them.

One doubts whether coming generations of Americans will ever turn to reruns of "The West Wing" as they do to "The Honeymooners" or "Star Trek". But they will certainly watch "Buffy." Farewell, Vampire-Slayer! We won't forget you!

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