What sets BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER apart from most other shows, apart from the individual brilliant scripts that graced most of the episodes, is that the show over the course of seven seasons tells a story. What the casual viewer of the show could easily miss is the semi-tragic themes underlying the series: young, happy cheerleader and inevitable prom queen is pulled away by destiny from the life she loves to unwillingly undertake the burden of being her generation's Chosen One: a super-empowered heroine to fight against the powers of darkness. This is a responsibility she has neither sought nor desired, and one of the persistent themes of the show is that destiny basically dealt Buffy a nasty set of cards. Sure, she has super strength and agility and recuperative powers, but she also knows how she became The Slayer: someone else died. For one becomes the Slayer only by the death of another Slayer, which calls attention to the fact that she, too, is destined to die to make way for another Slayer. As she puts it in one episode, "Every slayer comes with an expiration date." She goes from a carefree, happy young girl to someone who wonders if she will make it to the age of 25.
Ultimately, however, the show isn't about a girl with super powers, but about taking responsibility for one's life, for accepting the cards that life has dealt one and making the most of that. Over the course of seven seasons all of the major characters struggle with this precise issue. All of them continually have to face up to the demands of the moral, and what is unusual for a genre show, they all have to work hard to be better people. More than about fighting vampires, the show is ultimately about the fighting of one's inner demons, with the external monsters being mere metaphors for that which lies within. As a result, all of the major characters changed dramatically over the course of seven seasons.
A second great theme of the show is that of community. The show actually contains a bit of a lie in the famous opening words that introduced the show in the first season: it says that unto each generation a Slayer is born and that SHE ALONE possesses the strength to fight the vampires and demons. Only, that isn't at all the case on the show. In fact, Buffy becomes less, not more, effective when she becomes a loner. As Spike, an evil vampire who has killed two Slayers in the past, said at the beginning of Season Two: "A Slayer with family and friends. That sure as hell wasn't in the brochure." And it isn't! Says so right at the beginning of the show. The Intro should read "She and her extensive support network" will fight the demons. And showing that no one understands this better than Spike, in Season Four he attempts to help a demon destroy the Slayer by sowing discord among the Scoobies, as the demon fighting buddies referred to themselves (this was before Sarah Michelle Gellar's unfortunate forays into the SCOOBY DOO movies). He fails when the four key members respond by forging a stronger bond than ever.
Over the seven seasons, Buffy struggles constantly against her destiny, initially fighting and resisting it, gradually accepting it, frequently resenting it, and eventually embracing it before the magnificent resolution in the final episode. While there is always only one Slayer (though on Buffy, there are two, but that is a different though very interesting story), there are always many potential Slayers. In the final episode of the series, Buffy realizes how they can make all the potential Slayers into actual Slayers, and after they do so they are able to defeat the baddies and save the world from evil, again. In literally the last five seconds of the series, Faith, the other Slayer, asks Buffy what she's going to do now that she's no longer the only Slayer. In a beautiful resolution of the central tragedy in the series, a blissful, contented, expectant smile breaks out over Buffy's face. Her life has been given back to her. The expiration date has been repealed.
Those who have only occasionally dipped into the show will not be able to appreciate how brilliantly written the show is. It is as if every individual writer knew every other line ever written in the show, and the result is a self-consciousness in the series that is highly unusual for TV. At the very end of Season Six, for instance, Buffy's best friend Willow utters the words, "Bored now," which is not merely a reference to something she said in Season Three, but brilliantly explains where her character is at that point in the show. The scripts are, in my opinion, simply the best TV has ever seen. They are dramatic, they are believable (astonishing in a show about vampires), they are profoundly emotional, and they are funny. In fact, the show really did manage to be several things at once. I think this ability to stride several fences is one of the reasons why BUFFY, though easily the finest show on television for most of its run, never won or even received an Emmy nomination for Best Show. Should it have been nominated as Best Drama or Best Comedy? (The complete neglect by the extraordinarily conservative Emmys of BUFFY has inspired Salon to create a new TV award, the Buffy, for the most unjustly neglected show on TV, with THE WIRE as the first recipient.)
The writing really was the key. I don't want to imply that other things weren't done as well. Though not one of the great casts in TV history, all of the actors did a great job and there were some truly memorable characters, from Buffy to Willow, Xander, Spike, Giles, Cordy, Anya, and Angel (who went on to star in his own spin off). The sets were always first rate and it was one of the few shows on TV to have its own utterly unique look, merely from the lighting and camerawork. Speaking of camerawork, few TV shows have ever taken so much care with the way scenes were shot. There was even their own unique blend of camp. For instance, fighting vampires is tough work, but Buffy inevitably went on patrol wearing some incredibly stylish outfits. My favorite is when she goes to the graveyard in Season Six wearing an ankle length white cashmere duster. I'm sure anyone about to engage in physical combat would decide to wear such an expensive and delicate item. But as good as all of these elements were, it all came in the end back to the writing. The show was brilliantly written on multiple levels. Many of the episodes were astonishingly good, but within them the individual lines were simply astonishing. I have many shows that I love, but in the history of television there are only two that contains dozens of lines that I can recall with ease: MONTY PYTHON and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. But apart from the individual episodes and the huge panoply of memorable lines, the seasons were almost always well conceived and executed. And even when individual seasons contained flaws in their, such as Seasons 4 and 7, these were more than made up for by the way they all fit into a larger story.
In the end, no series that I know of had a better story to tell than BUFFY. As much as I loved THE X-FILES, the series was always better on the individual episode level than it was as a whole. Lone episodes of THE X-FILES are as good as any in the history of TV, but the deep back story by the end of the series ended up being more than a little muddled and incomplete. When BUFFY ended, there was a single brilliant and marvelously develop tale of a young girl who was forced to give up her life for the greater good, but who in the end managed to get her life back again. I honestly believe that BUFFY will be the gold standard for television shows in the future. It has raised the bar for what can be done and should be done on television, so in the end Buffy might not have saved the world from the powers of evil; she just might have saved television as well.