“The screenwriter of ‘Alien: Resurrection’ has a show about vampires?” was my first thought when I’d overhear classmates chatting excitedly about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” My next thought was: “why did they make a TV series based on a not very good movie?”
I didn’t get the adoration the show inspired. I was still enough of a former Jehovah’s Witness to feel skittish about watching something so “occult.” More importantly, I was a teenager who detested being one. I disliked my peers almost as much as I disliked myself and in the middle of the “Dawson’s Creek”/”American Pie” boom of teen shows and movies I made a point of barely watching any of them. (I made a notable exception for “Roswell,” which answered the question “What if what crashed at Roswell was a group of moody, sexy teens?”) And somehow, I still had the nerve to look down at people at school for watching something as silly as “Buffy.” But now that I’m in my thirties, this show I once turned my nose up at has since become one of my favorites.
I was surprised when I saw the complete box sets for “Buffy” and its spin-off “Angel” on my boyfriend’s DVD shelves. He is not the type I would have pinged a fan, as his tastes in horror run to the genuinely horrific and we share a similar dislike for the teen-centric culture of our respective youths. But he suggested dipping into a few episodes to see if I couldn’t find a few I liked. I found out quickly I’d underestimated this universe. “Band Candy” from season three of “Buffy” was a riff on “Freaky Friday,” with adults eating enchanted candy bars and turning into mouthy, vandalism prone teens. The episode gave the priceless moments of Anthony Stewart Head, who normally played the decidedly staid mentor figure Giles, the chance to act like a teenage dirtbag complete with lecturing a girl about the finer points of acid rock. There was The Mayor (Harry Groener), a villain who was all the more unsettling for genuinely being cheery and believing in the importance of eating breakfast and washing your hands. And there was the greatest monster of all, Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman), the center of what is the most difficult part of the show to sit through for me. He is the petty tyranny of every terrible teacher and administrator I was unlucky enough to stumble across in school and a preview of every awful boss and middle manager I’ve had to negotiate through in adulthood.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I fell hard for both “Buffy,” or the the L.A. noir, societies of monsters-vibe of “Buffy” spin-off “Angel.” It was more a wave of building affection for both shows and loving the characters even when they were terrible, sometimes especially when they were terrible. Because there have been few characters I’ve recognized myself in more than the ex-vengeance demon Anya, played by Emma Caulfield. Caulfield is blessed with a comic timing that makes comic gold out of almost every word that comes out of her mouth. More than that, it was her prickliness, her need for affection and her simultaneous status of being her own worst enemy that I saw in myself. And there was comfort in watching her relationship with Xander (Nicholas Brandon), the closest thing to a “normal” in the core cast group. No one is unworthy of love. You could be falling apart and someone would accept that and make you laugh. Even when their relationship ended, it was another important reminder that life is about getting your heart broken repeatedly and still showing up for the next adventure.
I wonder what my reaction would have been if I had watched these shows while they aired. How much would I have broken from fandom orthodoxy like I do now? Would I have found season four love interest Riley (Marc Blucas) intolerably boring as a teenager? Or did it take living in a cultural moment deformed by attention-seeking scoundrels and monsters to make me appreciate how sexy quiet decency can be? I wonder if watching Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) snap at each other would have served as a rebuke and reminder for me and my sister to get along better at a moment when we desperately needed to. Or would have I have just rolled my eyes at Dawn’s petulance while quietly nursing every grudge and tallying up every wrong done to me?
And finally, there’s that ever-present burden of feeling like a hostile alien in your own teenage skin. Would seeing a group of misfits make a family, a home for each other, alleviate some of that terrible loneliness in my adolescence? Would it have felt like there might be a place for me, even an imaginary one? Or would I have rejected the show when it went on to underline in its last two seasons the one foe Buffy could not defeat, adulthood? Would I have been grateful for the honesty of a genre show asking what happens to a Chosen One when she has to consider the costs of replacing coffee tables smashed in monster fights? Or would I have been angry the fantasy had been taken away?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I’m very grateful I finally got around to “Buffy” and “Angel” and waited so long to do so. It is a terrible time in the world, and it feels like the Apocalypse has never been able to live tweet itself before like it does now. So I need things like the fragile, pragmatic hope offered in the “Angel” episode “Epiphany,” in which one character tells another “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today … all I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”
I don’t believe anymore in the idea of ultimate justice in the universe. But I can believe that what we do matters. That, ultimately, prophecies and grand designs get scrapped, and we’re left with how we treated each other and who we helped as a measure of who we are and what gave our lives meaning. And getting that message in a musical episode that includes a chorus of backup singing demons is no mean feat.