What Buffy the Vampire Slayer Taught Me

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday. Today, our deep-fried food is served with a blood cocktail, to honor the vampires and other paranormal creatures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some of my friends know that I’ve been watching through the entire Buffy series on Netflix. (All seasons are available through streaming episodes.)

I missed this TV show when it was on from 1997 to 2003. Why? Those were the years of early parenthood for me, so my television set was tuned in to shows like Yes, Dear and Blue’s Clues instead. I finally decided to figure out what all the hype was about and started watching the series a few months ago.

As I watched all seven seasons, I made a few interesting observations which apply to TV and other sources of fiction (books, movies, etc.). Other than the obvious conclusions that karate moves are still cool and fighting evil doesn’t preclude dressing fashionably, here’s what Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught or reminded me.

Genre is just the setting; the story is about the characters. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer about vampires or Buffy? Well, yes. But the vampires, demons, prophecies, ninja fighting, etc. are all background to simply tell the story of teenagers growing into adulthood.

Buffy with her mentor Giles

Ditto for Harry Potter. The Twilight series is about lovers couched in vampire/werewolf legends. Mysteries are about the sleuth solving the case. Horror is about someone we’re rooting for making it out alive. Fantasy is about the journey of a questor. And so on and so on.

While I believe that world-building and plots are important, ultimately who cares how clever you are with that unless there is some underlying struggle for a character we can relate to or root for. We cheer for Buffy to kill the bad demons because she embodies struggles we face — such as wanting to be special versus wanting to be normal; needing to stand up to bullies and wanting to take a backseat; dealing with the complications of relationships; and moving from protection by parents and mentors to making our own way in the world. The reason Buffy resonates is because we all have our demons to fight; we understand why her story matters.

Xander, Anya & Willow

Sometimes your favorite character isn’t the protagonist. Buffy Summers is the main character, and the series is about her. Thus, the name: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yet often the protagonist is a person in constant conflict who needs a little support or humor from others around her. Buffy’s closest friends, Willow and Xander, provide that — Willow with compassionate support and Xander with humorous quips. There are plenty of other famous sidekicks in fiction. These characters have their own appeal.

As the series progressed, my favorite character became Anya, an ex-vengeance demon, who ends up working with Buffy’s mentor Giles at his magic shop, having a romantic relationship with Xander, and fighting alongside the good guys even when her motivation is a bit unclear. Why do I love her? She says exactly what she thinks. I love such characters in fiction — the ones who speak with no filter whatsoever, who say what we wish we could say but have too much restraint to, and whose charm lies in their optimism that truth is always best.

If you start a fantastical story, you have to get really inventive to keep it going. I noted to my husband that Buffy and Chuck share this in common: Since they begin with such a far-fetched premise (hellmouth under your town and teenage vampire slayer; all-knowing Intersect stuck in Chuck’s brain and spies to protect him), where do you go from there? You have to keep coming up with bigger and better stories, several of which can get a little, well, unbelievable.

Yes, we’re already in the territory of unbelievable, but sometimes it reached, “Ah, c’mon!” I think this is one of the reasons why long fiction series don’t often work well. The author must either regurgitate plot lines dressed up in other attire or get more and more out there in raising the stakes to keep the conflict and tension up. How far we’ll go with the writer likely depends on how much we like the characters and feel invested in their story.

Romances do not always work the way we wish. Team Spike or Team Angel? I think that predated the perpetual Jacob vs. Edward argument. Maybe you’re even willing to go out on a limb and suggest Team Riley. I know exactly who I think Buffy should end up with, but others have their own ideas. And I doubt anyone was fully satisfied by the end of the series on the romance front.

Interestingly enough, two of my beta readers on my mystery, Grace & Fire, were upset that the romantic portion of my novel didn’t go the way they wanted. I stick by my decision, and more readers than not agreed with me, but I can understand the disappointment of the couple you root for not getting together in that “ain’t it all great” happily ever after. I’m more willing than most to deal with such a proposition — given that among my favorite novels are such depressers as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary — but it still irks me a little. Why can’t it all work out the way we envisioned in our pretty little heads? Maybe like life, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

David Boreanaz is my “type.” That has nothing to do with fiction. It’s just another take-away. Actually, the actor who played Angel, the vampire with a soul, reminds me a bit of my husband:  Tall, dark-headed, broad-shouldered, hard to read, and not a big talker. My hubby does need fangs and a long black leather coat to complete the look. I understand that I can keep gazing at David Boreanz now that he’s in the Bones series. I’ll have to check that one out.

So are you a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan? Why did you like the series? Who was your favorite character? What are some of your favorite TV series and what were your take-aways?

What I’m Watching and Why

Every week, I follow Tiffany A. White‘s Tele-Tuesday posts and Tiffany’s and Amber West‘s What to Watch Wednesday posts on their blogs. They have done an excellent job of breaking down television series, classics, and specials so that readers can discern what might be worth their time.

After trying out various series and being well into the fall season, I wanted to give my two cents on what I’m watching and why. For Deep-Fried Friday, I hope you’ll add your own recommendations.

The Big Bang Theory. Perhaps the funniest sitcom on television right now, this show tracks four brilliant but geeky scientists attempting to make it in a world where they don’t fit in. When beautiful but shallow Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in next door to Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki), their lives are permanently altered. We have all known someone like these nerds. They are not understood and socially awkward, and yet we feel for them trying to navigate social situations and find love and meaning in their lives. Still, there is enough to mock there. I also have to credit this series with introducing the word “Bazinga!”

Castle. Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is a bestselling author who has killed off his long-running series main character and needs a new idea. Maybe that alone endeared me to him, since there are some writers out there who need to kill off their cash-cow star and write something else for a change. But when a killer begins to copycat murders from Castle’s novels, detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) brings him in to assist. The partnership turns permanent and Castle finds his idea (Beckett inspires his Nikki Heat series), even though there is tension of all kinds between the two and their differing backgrounds and personalities. Another great supporting cast here with fellow detectives Ryan (Seamus Dever) and Esposito (Jon Huertas) and Castle’s mother (Susan Sullivan) and daughter (Molly C. Quinn). The plot lines are intriguing, the relationships are complicated, and the script-writing is excellent. In addition, Castle has featured real-life writers playing poker with Richard Castle – Stephen J. Cannell, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, and Michael Connelly.

Grimm. I have initially enjoyed how this series presents the original Grimm’s fairy tales brought to life in modern day. Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) is a police detective who is informed by his mysterious aunt that he is a Grimm – a descendent of the family that has fought against the evil fairy tale characters for generations. He must now balance his own police work with the new knowledge of odd creatures living in their community, which he can see but other humans cannot. Of course, there is the solving of a crime each week, alongside his partner Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby). But the crimes weave a tale into them (e.g., Red Riding Hood, the Pied Piper). So far, a supporting character is outshining the rest in this series – Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), a reformed Bludbad (wolf creature) who helps Nick navigate the fairy tale world. I don’t know if I’ll stick with Grimm. It’s interesting, but not yet a must-see on my list.

Hart of Dixie. New York doctor Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson) must complete a year of family medicine before she can obtain the position she has wanted for . . . well, ever. As it turns out, she ends up in Bluebell, Georgia, where her practice partner and a few other townspeople don’t want her. In addition, she struggles to adjust to small-town Southern life. Like other favorite series set in small towns – Northern Exposure, Gilmore Girls, Jericho – the rich characterization carries the storyline. The residents’ charm and quirkiness pull me in, and their conflict, both internal and interpersonal, keep me engaged.

How I Met Your Mother. Main character Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) tells his children the story of how he met their mother. Being long-winded, he also tells about a thousand stories that led up to that moment. The ensemble cast – with Marshall and Lily (couple friends from college, Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan), Barney (a womanizer and opportunist, Neil Patrick Harris), and Robin (a tough-minded, tender-hearted newcomer, Cobie Smulders) – is the focus of the show. Each character has a distinct personality, but the viewer can understand how these people would gravitate to one another. The slapping phenomenon of several shows is one of the best running gags. My only complaint is that the show has recently had a few sad episodes in a row. I’m ready for the comedy to return.

Psych. Break out the pineapple, it’s fun-time with Psych! Shawn Spencer (James Roday) is a slacker whose detective father trained him from an early age to notice every teeny, tiny detail in his environment so that he can solve crimes. He’s so good at it that he catches what others miss and then claims a psychic vision. The police end up hiring him as a psychic police consultant. Shawn drags along his best buddy, Burton “Gus” Guster (Dulé Hill), and their antics alone are worth the price of admission. Psych has done a particularly good job of borrowing from other series and films (Twin Peaks, Hitchcock). That tongue-in-cheek humor treats the audience with a clever wink-wink. Best recurring one-liner? Perhaps it’s Shawn’s “I’ve heard it both ways.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am catching up on the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer series years after it aired. Thanks to my Netflix account, I am currently in the third season. I can see why it was such a popular series. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a California high school student chosen as the One to slay demonic vampires in their midst. Armed with her wits, physical prowess, a knowledgeable and caring mentor, and supportive friends, she battles the forces of evil. It’s interesting to watch her shift between the intense end-of-world rescues and her daily concerns as a high school student and teen. The characterization and acting are good enough that I believe just about anything they throw at me. With as far as I’ve gotten, I can honestly say, forget Team Jacob or Team Edward; I’m on Team Angel (David Boreanaz).

In addition, I look forward to continuing to watch Downton Abbey, Sherlock, The Glades, and Necessary Roughness when they return in 2012.

It’s your turn! What are you watching and why?