Lately, I’ve been binge-watching the latest season of Teen Wolf (having sworn never to watch it again after the steaming turd that was Season 3A, but what can I say? The Olympics are giving my DVR an enema, cleaning out all the old shit I haven’t watched), which is going through its very own Dark Willow storyline in the form of trickster!Stiles. That, and the latest cover story in Entertainment Weekly, on the Veronica Mars movie, got me thinking about how many shows owe their existence and a huge debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the blueprint for supernatural and occult-influenced fantasy horror shows. If you’ll indulge me in a little pop culture riffing, I’ll share.
***Please note that the following contains mild spoilers for a host of television series, notably the most recent season of Teen Wolf. If you haven’t seen them and want to, tread carefully.***
While not the first television show to explore things that go bump in the night, Buffy weaves together the strengths of its predecessors without outright copying any of their elements, spinning these disparate strands into a strong, original yarn. Even The X-Files owes more to Kolchak the Night Stalker and the Twilight Zone than Buffy does to… well, to no television show I can think of. Buffy is a unique mix of action, horror, mythology, pathos, and humor, subverting archetypes and promoting girl power while resonant with emotion. Buffy, the cheerleader-turned-chosen one, is the nominal star, but she’s supported by a true ensemble. Unlike most eponymous characters, she’s not the loss-leader in that she’s just as interesting as everyone else. These qualities, along with the season-long big bad structure and the light flirtation with camp, would go on to be mirrored in every supernatural show that followed.
And some where the only demons are of the metaphoric variety. That EW article reminded me that Veronica Mars was, like Buffy before her, a mean girl forced to go good because she no longer fit in with the Plastics of the world. Like in Buffy, Veronica’s best cases of the week illuminate something about the emotional struggles of one of the characters, most often Veronica herself. But Veronica does Buffy one better in that she is much more capable, competent, and confident in her abilities where solving mysteries is concerned. Her love life is just as much of a train wreck, and the consequences of some of her bad decisions – like the show itself – are a bit more real, if no less visceral. Joss Whedon was an avowed fan of Veronica Mars, which is no surprise, because it’s basically a love letter to him.
It’s one thing, though, to be inspired by Buffy and create a whole new world as a consequence; it’s another to copy the format and approach wholesale, making only superficial changes. Like the gender of the lead character(s). Yes, kids, it’s time to play Buffy But With Boys, AKA Smallville, Supernatural, and Teen Wolf.
I can’t say I was ever an avid watcher of the first two, but I was persuaded (some might say peer-pressured) by my two long-time friends N. and A. to give Teen Wolf a try. Of course, they dangled the promise of slash in front of my nose like the proverbial carrot – how could I be expected to resist? Unfortunately, the slashy couple in question, nicknamed Sterek, wasn’t of particular interest to me, but I found myself entertained by the show all the same. It’s a fascinating case study, since the show gets at least as many things wrong as right in any given episode, but is still fun and watchable.
If anything, the writers might want to learn a few more things from Buffy, such as writing genuinely strong female characters with agency. They also have this frustrating tendency to manipulate their characters to fit the plots they have outlined, as opposed to letting the plots be inspired by their character’s inner struggles and shortcomings. The current Dark Willow ‘homage’ storyline is the perfect example. In Buffy, Willow went over to the dark side for a host of deeply emotional reasons: her irritation at not being allowed to explore her powers to the fullest, her resentment towards Buffy, her fear of how much magical potential was inside of her, and, most heartbreaking of all, the murder of her lover, Tara. On Teen Wolf, Stiles is possessed by a nihilistic trickster fox spirit, but I can’t think of one concrete emotional reason why this would happen to his character, other than to give the cast’s strongest actor, Dylan O’Brien, a chance to shine. Which he does. The storyline is fun, and thrilling, and engrossing by turns, but it’s all glossy artifice. On Buffy, the Dark Willow storyline hurt viewers where we lived.
To my mind, the true successor to Buffy’s throne is… wait for it… Fringe. Yes, it started off as an X-Files rip-off. I actually remember saying to someone that I’d stopped watching the first season after a few episodes because “I’ve seen The X-Files.” But then, at the end of that first season, something curious happened. Fringe learned how to go deep. It began to mine and mine and mine its characters, all the while bedazzling us with some diamond-quality mythology and sci-fi gems. Olivia Dunham out-Buffy’d Buffy in terms of emotional isolation and willingness to sacrifice herself to the cause. Her doomed romance with John Scott was like a mini-Angel situation, with Peter later cast as a gloomier, but no less sarcastic meld of Spike/Xander. With her very own Scooby Gang around her, each member so unique that that’s really where the direct comparison with the characters on Buffy ends, Olivia, like her mother slayer before her, came to understand that she was, in her own way, a chosen one. Then Fringe took some basic Whedon tropes psychedelic, and blew everyone’s mind, with its alternate universes, dopplegangers, and Observers.
While too derivative to be a blueprint in its own right, Fringe went where no sci-fi action show had gone before, while never losing its emotional core. Just saying certain characters’ names makes my heart sigh: Lincoln Lee, Astrid, September, Walter. Oh, Walter! I can cite Fringe episodes that moved me to tears the same way that I know the names of the Buffy episodes that cut deep: “White Tulip” and “The Bullet That Saved The World” in the former, “The Body” and “The Gift” from the latter. In spirit and execution, Fringe is Buffy’s spiritual daughter.
There are countless other shows whose creators undoubtedly double-dipped in the Buffy, er, dip – True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and Sleepy Hollow come to mind, and to a lesser degree Arrow. I keep hoping that one day an innovative showrunner will get the chance to bring his or her (preferably her) original spin on the action-horror genre to life, that someone will sketch a new blueprint for lesser shows to follow. Until then, I’m just grateful to have gotten in on the ground floor of Castle Whedonverse, when only the chosen few knew how special and how revolutionary their little show about a girl who slays vamps and saves the world a lot was.