20 Years Ago, 'Buffy' Welcomed Us All To The Hellmouth (aka High School) | KUOW News and Information

20 Years Ago, 'Buffy' Welcomed Us All To The Hellmouth (aka High School)

Mar 10, 2017
Originally published on March 10, 2017 10:03 am

Twenty years ago, on March 10, 1997, TV audiences were introduced to Buffy Summers, a pint-sized blonde who could hold her own against the undead. Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran for seven seasons from 1997 to 2003. It had witty dialogue and used monsters as a metaphor for everyday high school problems like bullies, catfishing and feeling invisible.

If that wasn't enough to make high school seem hellish, the characters went to school on top of a literal Hellmouth. "So many people at the time sent us letters saying, 'I'm only getting through high school because of Buffy,' " says Buffy writer and producer Jane Espenson.

The show earned a cult following — and made a lasting impact. "You see a lot more female protagonists on TV," Espenson says. "I think you see a lot more genre stuff now, even on network."

Much of that is thanks to creator Joss Whedon's high standards for show plotlines. Espenson recalls how Whedon would test a plot's merit: "He would always ask, 'Is that true? Is it needed? Is it urgent? Does it feel real?' And if something didn't rise to that level, he wouldn't do it."

For example, when Espenson learned that actor Nicholas Brendon (who played Scooby Gang member Xander Harris) had a twin brother, she proposed an episode in which Xander gets split in two. Whedon challenged the idea: "That's not what the character of Xander is going through right now," she recalls him saying. "We can't tell that story until there's an emotional need in Xander for us to tell that story."

Eventually, that episode was made, but the conversation left Espenson particularly impressed with Whedon's discipline. "You aren't going to jump at just something that would be an amazing episode of ordinary television," she says. "You wait until it's an amazing episode of Buffy."

Twenty years later, not every aspect of the show has aged well (the special effects, for one) but its message that anyone can be a hero is timeless. Espenson says she knew that when she was working on the final season.

"I remember literally saying, '20 years from now, we're going to be ... looking back on this and we're gonna remember that we were part of a classic show that changed a lot of things. We gotta remember this time.' "

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Rachel, I'm taking us back to high school for a minute. Our big problems are not detention, not homework. Instead, they are demons, the undead and vampires that need to be slayed.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERF HERDER'S "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER THEME")

GREENE: Oh, love it.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Love it.

GREENE: The theme music for "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," which debuted 20 - 20 years ago today.

MARTIN: Don't tell me.

GREENE: Yeah.

MARTIN: It was on TV for seven seasons and has become a cult classic. The main character Buffy, of course, was played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. In the show, she's this pint-sized blonde high schooler with lots of witty comebacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER")

SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: (As Buffy Summers) Now, we can do this the hard way or, well, actually there's just the hard way.

JULIE BENZ: (As Darla) That's fine with me.

GELLAR: (As Buffy Summers) Are you sure? Now, this is not going to be pretty. We're talking violence, strong language, adult content.

MARTIN: That's Buffy holding her own against monsters, who often stand in as metaphors for high school problems. "Buffy" still has an audience, even though she hasn't slayed any new vampires since 2003.

JANE ESPENSON: I heard someone say recently it's not just that all TV now shows the impact of "Buffy," it's that all TV now is "Buffy." You see a lot more female protagonists on TV. I think you see a lot more genre stuff now.

GREENE: That is Jane Espenson, who was a writer and producer on the show. She says there's still plenty for viewers to take away from "Buffy."

ESPENSON: There are a lot of ways in which maybe "Buffy" shows its age, you know, the technology in the episodes. But I think there are so many ways in which it's really quite timeless. Every generation needs to hear that anyone can be a hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERF HERDER'S "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER THEME")

GREENE: Anyone can be a hero. Love the message. Writer Jane Espenson talking to us 20 years after Buffy Summers began slaying vampires at Sunnydale High.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERF HERDER'S "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.