When future critics ask whether turn-of-the-century American TV produced any works of genius, the verdict on the entire medium--all 128 channels of it--is likely to depend on their assessment of a cult teen hit currently airing on UPN, with syndicated reruns on FX.
At first glance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems indistinguishable from the WB's rancid Dawson's Creek or the American Pie movies: An all-white cast of impossibly nubile women and muscular men (they call themselves "the Scooby gang") pretend to be teenagers while modeling the latest in Southern California teen slang and sportswear. But there's a difference: The other shows paste a veneer of realism over a fantasy of adolescence; Buffy adopts a facade of fantasy to cover a portrayal of the teen years as they really are. The show is a worthy successor to school stories like Nicholas Nickleby, Stalky & Co., and The Catcher in the Rye.
When I was 12, I stumbled across George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys," a scathing memoir of his days at a minor British prep school. I was transfixed: As a student at a segregated southern boys' day school that self-consciously modeled itself on the English public schools (except, as Buffy might say, for the whole "education" part), I was amazed that an adult really understood. Such a small place--with its snobbery of wealth and station, its sadistic teachers and bullying classmates, its cult of team sports, and its unremitting anti-intellectualism--becomes, for children immured in it, an entire cosmos of danger and significance, to be survived, if at all, only by guile, silence, and inner escape. Like Orwell's essay, the best of the school-story genre exert a horrid fascination that even much great adult narrative cannot match.
No matter what kind of school they attend, teenagers live in a world resembling that of ancient Greek mythology: Uncaring and capricious adults, like the Olympian gods, hold arbitrary power over their lives, ritual mistakes may bring irrevocable ruin, and each day offers a chance to answer the riddle of the Sphinx and learn, for good or ill, who they really are. In that world, "small" things--first loves and best friends, small successes and seemingly monstrous failures--matter as much as or more than the larger crises that lie ahead in adulthood. The overwhelming fact that teens know and adults seek to ignore is that what happens in those years does matter almost as much as it seems to at the time. The identities we take on then--class brain, prom queen, rebel, popular jock, geeky misfit--play out insistently under the surface of our later lives.
Most pop-culture re-creations of adolescence focus on the electric sexuality that teens swim in--the obsession with dating and looks, music and dancing, making out and scoring. But Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and its precursor, the 1992 theatrical film, focuses instead on his characters' all-encompassing fear. For Whedon, high school literally is the mouth of hell, and the ill-equipped teens must rely on their own resources to survive such perils as a seductive substitute teacher (she's actually a huge praying mantis), a bullying potential stepfather (he's a homicidal robot), or a demon who persuades the local chapter of "Mothers Opposed to the Occult" to move from locker searches and a school-library purge at Sunnydale High to full-fledged witch burnings at city hall.
Whedon's dramatic triumph is Buffy's tortured romance with Angel, played by the gifted comic actor David Boreanaz. Angel was my own high-school nightmare, the "older guy" who bewitched the girls with mystery, muscles, and menace--and just a hint of a heart of gold. Whedon's older guy is a 245-year-old vampire cursed by Gypsies with a soul. He fights evil and then wanders off in search of babes to lure to his graveyard bachelor's lair. On Buffy's 16th birthday, matters proceed to their inevitable consummation, and the curse truly kicks in: The loving, gentle Angel reverts to vile vampirehood, spreading terror among the Scoobys and--even worse--vicious gossip among the boys of Sunnydale. As a depiction of male sexual ambivalence and fecklessness, the story surpasses anything ever shown on HBO's Sex and the City.
The dimwitted adults in Sunnydale carry on as if the fate of the entire cosmos were not at stake in each weekly episode. Only Giles, the kindly librarian (Anthony Stewart Head), treats the Scoobys with respect, helping them find their way through each tiny apocalypse with a mixture of kindness, erudition, and wry mockery.
Though it has links to Dickens and Kipling, Buffy is, of course, different in one important regard: It is a story of female self-discovery. Buffy, the heroine, discovers that underneath her silly first name and petite cheerleader looks she is really what every teenager longs to be: a unique and important being with gifts that matter to the world. In her postfeminist case, the talents are superstrength and killer reflexes, and her life's mission is to save the universe while looking fabulous. For most of us, the discoveries are more mundane. But what matters to surviving adolescence is that the moment of self-recognition does come.
This brings us to the other brute teenage fact: sex. I first began watching Buffy because its star, Sarah Michelle Gellar--known to the faithful as "SMG"--is hypnotically beautiful. But soon I began corralling my children ("Watch Buffy or I won't let you do your homework") because the program treats teen sexuality with a moral seriousness missing in the rest of the teen-exploitation genre.
It goes without saying that our infatuation with vampires derives from the unholy power of sex to unbalance the human soul. The original Dracula was the quintessential Victorian-era seducer. With his continental accent and bedroom eyes, he stood for the return of the repressed--big time. What is interesting is that the myth survived the repression that spawned it. By the dawn of the 1970s, Count Yorga, played by Robert Quarry, appeared as the consummate swinger, soullessly pursuing pleasure across a landscape of emotional entropy. (I discovered vampires at this low point. As an undergraduate, I kept inviting young women to vampire flicks, hoping that terror would drive them into my manly arms. Wise girls, they invariably fled back to their dorm rooms, knowing that what I really wanted was to bite their necks.)
Sex is omnipresent in Buffy, but it has been transformed for the era of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In Sunnydale the vampire's kiss offers no pleasure, only loneliness and death. The bodily-fluids metaphor is patent; but the lesson goes deeper. Advocates of "abstinence" clothe their message to the young in religious, economic, or public-policy terms that are, to most teens, utterly irrelevant. In a society where Viagra poster child Bob Dole barks after Britney Spears in commercials, by far the most consistent adult pressure on teens is not to abstain from anything but to score early and often.
For cultural reasons I cannot pretend to fathom, our society has eroticized the adolescent body more thoroughly than any previous one of which I am aware. In advertising, in popular entertainment, and even in the lubricious piety of media prophets like William Bennett, American adults betray an unbecoming obsession about what children may be up to underneath the sheets.
Though their glands are unquestionably supercharged, many teens are reluctant, frightened, or even repulsed by sex. But too often they are coerced by conformism and pop culture into experimenting before they are ready. (The only other convincing portrayal of this painful rite of passage I've seen came during the too-short run of the magnificent TV series My So-Called Life.) Buffy dramatizes the case for waiting in the only terms the adolescent mind can grasp: If it doesn't feel good, don't do it. Sunnydale is packed with largely male bloodsuckers who will do almost anything to get into a girl's veins; a moment's weakness or inattention will leave her dead--a physical death that is a powerful metaphor for the inner necrosis of unfeeling promiscuity. (Female bloodsuckers also lurk in Sunnydale's shadows, though we see less of the havoc they wreak.)
But Buffy's triumph during its early seasons is its problem today. "Where do we go from here?" sang the cast at the end of a special musical episode this fall. Adolescents grow up: Those awkward bundles of promise slowly congeal into more defined, and sometimes duller, adults. That's happening to the Scoobys now. Two years ago, they graduated from Sunnydale High after a moving ceremony at which Mayor Wilkins ate Principal Snyder. Now the gang are young adults. Willow Rosenberg, valedictorian and computer geek (played by the unlikely sex star Allyson "Band Camp" Hannigan) has become a powerful witch; her troubled romance with the vulnerable Tara (Amber Benson) is the most complex lesbian relationship a TV series has ever attempted. Class clown Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) is uneasily facing marriage to the terrifyingly monogamous former revenge demon Anya (Emma Caulfield). Their concerns are now less I Was a Teenage Werewolf than I Dream of Jeannie. The danger is that the show--like Fox's once electrifying X-Files--will drift into ignominious self-parody.
But where there's undeath, there's hope. Last season, a league of monks from another dimension created a "sister" for Buffy. (Has any older sibling ever not suspected that a younger one is a supernatural interloper?) The new character, Dawn--played by the winsome Michelle Trachtenberg--is now a freshman at Sunnydale High, dealing hesitantly with peer pressure, shoplifting, gym class, and really cute vampires. If Joss Whedon can surround this new potential slayer with a suitable crowd of Scoobinis, there's hope for the series.
For each of us, adolescence mercifully ends; the drama itself rolls on, with new tearstained, pimply faces in the archetypal roles. Growing up entails loss as well as gain; it will be sad if the passing years rob us of Buffy's brilliant satire.