The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer looks cheap in the way movies and TV aren’t able to look cheap anymore, because to look this cheap would be too expensive. Technology has changed our conception of what cheap looks like: any handheld video camera you can buy at Target has a higher possible resolution than the cameras used in Buffy, and it’s easier than ever to create professional-looking editing and greenscreen using cheap (or even free) software on a computer. Cheap TV in 1997 meant that the artifice of TV was slightly more obvious than average, the monsters made of rubber suits, the sets static and confined, the stunt sequences obviously canned, or at least quickly-choreographed. Cheap TV in the 21st century is exemplified by shows like Tosh.0 and Jackass, where the costumes and sets are nonexistent, the characters are semi-autobiographical personas, and the material either improvised or crowdsourced. The tens of thousands of dollars it would take to construct and maintain even the most rudimentary types of sets are far beyond what many producers are willing to pay for cheap TV. Compared to a contemporary episode of ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer looks like a B-movie, but it cost far more than the average modern reality show.
For a first-time viewer like me, the subpar production values of the first season lent the show an endearing quality that transforms its most dated aspects from something eyeroll-worthy to something wonderful. I mean, look at the photo above these words! Look at those costumes! I (vaguely) remember when it was acceptable, nay, cool to dress like that, and it still looks like something from a distant and primitive era of human development. The crazy 90s fashions, sludgy alt-rock, kung-fu fights, and monster makeup worthy of 1960s Hammer Horror films, a combination that must have seemed edgy and “alternative” in the late 90s, today creates an effect of dislocated timelessness, comparable only to reading Archie comics. The world Joss Whedon creates here is dated in every imaginable way, but it’s also somehow pure, a self-contained B-movie universe where high school sophomores who look like fully-developed women band together with sarcastic nerds and severely Anglophilian librarians to high-kick the crap out of rubbery evil in a variety of dry-ice-bedecked underground locales.
Please note that my admiration for all of the above is completely sincere and earnest, even if watching Buffy Season One ironically would be the ultimate homage to the 1990s. I understand that the season is unpopular among die-hard fans of the show, and that a friend of mine who attempted to use it as a gateway into the rest of the series deemed it “unwatchable.” With all that in mind, I went into the first season expecting a rough ride, but instead found something irrepressibly fun. As with Archie comics (or Scooby-Doo, the more frequently-quoted reference point for Whedon’s gang of high school misfits), irony seems to bounce off Buffy, as the desire to watch something relentlessly uncool gradually gives way to an appreciation of show’s commitment to its own aesthetic. A good example of this phenomenon is the episode “I Robot, You Jane,” one of the most openly-reviled episodes of the whole series, and in my opinion one of the most entertaining. The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray sums up the slant of general criticism when he describes the episode as one “in which we learn that the world of 1997 is a whole new era where people get ‘jacked in’ and ‘go on line,’” and bemoans the sub-Wargames plausibility of the episode’s storyline, about an evil spirit that somehow gets scanned into a computer and begins wreaking havoc in cyberspace. What his review fails to appreciate is the utter abandon with which the script throws itself into the Daemon-Ex-Machina scenario, which is partly an artifact of the show’s origins in the 90s (a time when movie and TV producers were all too quick to believe that Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous quote was finally coming true), and partly a result of Whedon’s admirable willingness to follow any crazy conceit all the way down the rabbit hole (see also: Dollhouse). The world of dial-up modems and free plastic discs offering 1000 free hours of America Online seems so quaint today that it’s easy to forget how exciting and scary the whole world seemed to certain parts of the population- I remember a brief period in my childhood where I semi-unofficially collected those AOL discs, which seemed to come with radically different branding every time they showed up in our mail. If I recall correctly, my plan was to save up the discs until my dad was willing to shell out for a dial-up connection, and then use them all at once so I would get tens of thousands of hours of free internet. It was the perfect plan! PERFECT!
Ahem. The point being, scanning a demon from a cursed book into a machine , only to send it back with the help of a coven of “techno-pagans” was no doubt ridiculous even in 1997, but it seems an apt metaphor for the way I felt about the internet at the time, and how the magazines I was reading seemed to write about it (mostly “Family PC,” but also some “PC Magazine” that definitely went over my head). There was this whole parallel community beginning to take root, and who knew what wonders, what horrors lurked within?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s strengths, at the end of its first season, seem to most often reveal themselves in a sublime facility for summary and metaphor, establishing the norms of the high school experience and connecting them to supernatural phenomena in a way that rarely feels forced and often seems insightful. The witch-mother who literally decides to live vicariously through her daughter, the mad scientist student stuck in his older brother’s shadow (disappointing parental figures are a common theme throughout Whedon’s work, if you hadn’t realized that yet)- they all mirror the tendencies of human behavior that we hear about in the most depressing news items, and occasionally observe in the people around us, or even ourselves. Which is, of course, the whole point of the monster in fiction. I’m reminded of the dragon’s words to Grendel in John Gardner’s novel of the same name:
“You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shirk from—the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment—that’s what you make them recognize, embrace!”
If high school is where young adults begin to define themselves (it is) and improve themselves (in the best cases, it is), then it must have monsters to stimulate that self-definition. It does, and the great trick of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, up to the end of the first season, is the show’s ability to reveal those monsters, and in doing so dramatize the process of self-definition. Also, the alternative/grunge soundtrack fucking rocks.