I've enjoyed--I admire--"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" more than anything I've ever seen from television.
I was slow getting around to "Buffy." It sounded too silly (cheerleader? vampire slayer? really?) to be worth watching. That was until I took my teenage kids to see "The Avengers"--eight times, and I confess the last three were my idea. It was the quality of the performances (directing and acting), and even more than that the script, which never condescended to its audience, and the obsessive attention to quality, for which no detail was too small, that kept me coming back. I admire artists who have the self-confidence to take "escapist" forms seriously, by which I mean not that they hang them with Ingmar-Bergman-style crepe (I'm talking about you, DC), but that they are willing to give them every measure of their skill, intelligence and commitment, without apology or reserve. With "The Avengers," Joss Whedon won my admiration for all that and more. So when the much-earlier Buffy (his first major project) showed up on Prime, I gave it a try.
I'd never binge-watched anything in my life (who has the time, right?). I was a little surprised, then, to find myself streaming Seasons 1 through 7 every moment I could find until several weeks later, when I reached the end of Season 7. And started all over again.
That was a couple of years ago. I recently went through the whole series again, and find myself having to pay homage to Whedon's extraordinary achievement. It's extraordinary for being his first major project. It's extraordinary because he manages to elevate a premise as silly as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to a level of narrative complexity, emotional power, and conceptual depth that places it above anything I've ever seen on television, and above most feature films as well. The time I've spent watching "Buffy" is simply the most rewarding I've spent in front of a small screen.
What is it about "Buffy" that has me raving this way? It's difficult to do it justice without spoiling the plot or just becoming a bore, but here are a few things that come to mind. First, there's that seriousness thing. In a medium where success too often demands the least effort necessary to attract the least common denominator, Whedon's whole-hearted commitment (along with the rest of the cast and crew) makes "Buffy" by turns moving, thrilling, thought-provoking, memorable, and consistently hilarious. That's another thing I like about it: for all his commitment, Whedon keeps the plot and dialog consistently funny, in a way that never undercuts the emotional impact of the story. The writing--dialog, characterizations, plotting--is so good that it keeps you riveted even when the material is just ludicrously goofy: in Whedon's hands, goofy becomes art, and as the narrative arc bends toward Big and Important Questions, Buffy reaches toward the sublime. Whedon does things with that narrative arc--twists it and bends it--that are so daring, so breathtakingly imaginative, that you would think you were watching the work of a seasoned craftsman at the top of his form. OK, there is perhaps one season where the goofiness of the premise burdens the story perhaps a little more than it should, but even at its weakest the story never loses sight of where it's going. The progression from beginning to end is skillfully controlled, assured, and in the end overwhelmingly powerful. The characterizations--writing, direction, performance--especially Buffy and Spike, but the entire cast (with perhaps one exception, a lapse in casting that does not last through the series), are consistently convincing at the level of "I know that person." Or "I wish I knew that person." The characters are so good that, after you finish the last episode, you miss having them in your life. Finally, I mentioned Big and Important Questions. A lot of film and video offerings address questions of moral responsibility, duty, mortality, what it means to be human. Whedon attacks these and more--and the complex relations among them--with the honesty, energy and intelligence they deserve. And rather than being some kind of decorative intellectual bric-a-brac, these questions arise inevitably from the unfolding of the story, and are a crucial part of the emotional matrix that makes this series so deeply memorable.
If you haven't seen "Buffy," if, like me, you dismissed it simply because the premise is (and it really is) so completely silly, give it a try. You won't regret a minute of it. Except, of course, that it has to end.