What we have with Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the hourlong drama response to The Simpsons. The only significant difference is that, unlike Matt Groening, Joss Whedon knew it was past time to call his favorite project quits. It's one of the primary reasons we should probably be glad for the cancellation of Firefly.
As everyone knows - or should know, anyway - Buffy the Vampire Slayer was based on an early 90's movie which had the same title. The movie was also written by Buffy TV creator Whedon and starred Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry, and it had an irreverent feel. Whedon was obviously a blade fan, and he created the concept of a regular, average high school girl who just happened to be one of those Chosen Ones, the only girl in the world gifted with the extra strength necessary to slay vampires. The movie didn't work out very well, and it took Whedon a couple of other screenwriting credits for him to get a pilot accepted about the same concept. And even when it was finally bought, it was bought by The WB (now the CW), a fledgling network whose ratings - if they could even be called ratings at all - came from family drama Seventh Heaven, which was basically the hourlong drama version of Full House. (Albeit better done, and a show I actually enjoyed for both intentional and unintentional hilarity…. Yes, that whooshing sound was my credibility flying out the open window, I know.) Yeah, The WB was barely on the map back then; its best-known shows at the time were radar blips that included Smart Guy; Nick Freno, Licensed Teacher; and The Steve Harvey Show, which became known best for the show where rappers Puff Daddy and Snoop Doggy Dogg appeared to officially make their peace and call off that ridiculous rap feud. Also, Jerry Springer got his start there. So it's pretty safe to assume that when Buffy was bought, no one counted on it becoming any kind of ratings contender or iconoclast.
Buffy on TV, though, came out much different from Buffy the movie. Instead of being an irreverent comedy, it was transformed into a drama about a girl struggling to make sense of who and what she is. The show picks up basically where the movie left off - Buffy has been thrown out of school for the little gymnasium disaster. The pilot episode references her burning the gym in her old school to the ground, something which didn't happen in the movie but was apparently in the original script of the movie version. In any case, Buffy (played to a ton of critical acclaim in the TV version by Sarah Michelle Gellar in her star making role) and her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) have moved to the small town of Sunnydale. Buffy is enrolling in high school. Since her old Watcher, Merrick (who WAS a movie character, played by Donald Sutherland), was killed by the movie's villain, Buffy thinks her slaying days are behind her when the school librarian, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) slams the Big Book of Vampires down in front of her. Giles is her new Watcher. Buffy is plenty pissed and refuses to heed her call until she makes a couple of new friends, Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) and Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan, who is also extremely well-known for her role as Lily on How I Met Your Mother) who nearly get killed as sacrificial vamp lambs. See, it so happens that Sunnydale is on something called a Hellmouth, which means there's a rather severe vampire problem there. Buffy's gonna have lots to do!
The original magic of Buffy the Vampire Slayer popped out of the stellar writing, setting, and the way the characters bounced off one another. Everyone is familiar with the popular idea of high school being hell, and Buffy was a brilliant show because it based its entire method of operation on that very concept. The first season of the show was a little uneven, but it worked, and it set up exactly what it was going to be. Concepts were taken to literal extremes that season; there was one episode where the girl in school that everyone forgot existed - the proverbial invisible girl - became an ACTUAL invisible girl. There was another episode where the idea that boys becoming raging monsters at puberty was taken literally when a zoo trip resulted in Xander and a bunch of other boys taking on the qualities of the hyenas. The supernatural is a thin veil for the show to deal with some very heavy themes in the first three seasons: The boyfriend who becomes a monster after having sex with the girl; abusive parents; suicide; and that desire every teenager gets at some time to embarrass the crush after being humiliated by said crush were covered.
That went on through three of the most magnificent seasons of television, ever, with the characters growing and developing in realistic ways while warding off the occasional apocalypse. The first three seasons follow Buffy through her last three years of high school. In the process her, Willow, and Xander see her form a working relationship with a vampire named Angel (David Boreanaz); Willow develops the same with a werewolf named Oz (short for Daniel Osbourne; played by Seth Green); and Xander pulls it off with the school's popular girl and head cheerleader, Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter). There are characters who come and go, but the three of them and whoever else is their ally at the moment live in their own bubble, saving the world constantly while facing high school together. They don't care what others think of them; as long as they're with each other, they have each other's back, no matter what.
It's a common TV trope that the transition to college can frequently change things for the show, and it rarely happens in a good way. Granted, the setting didn't necessarily instigate it. Buffy had survived radical shifting of the show dynamic in the past many time by then, and always came out stronger for it. College, though, is the point where Joss Whedon became JOSS WHEDON and introduced all his own terrible tropes that his fans learned to hate him for. The fourth season started out with several high notes, and even though Angel had moved to Los Angeles for his own series and taken Cordelia with him, Buffy the Vampire Slayer looked for about half the season like it would recover again. Buffy found herself a bland but otherwise decent and normal boyfriend named Riley (Marc Blucas) who cared for her and had none of Angel's baggage. There was also a group of monster hunters called The Initiative that was up to something big and mysterious. Easily handle-able, those things.
Fucking Riley turned out to be a member of The Fucking Initiative. Even the shark winced.
If you were looking for the exact moment to blame for the emergence of everything wrong about Joss Whedon, this is it. Riley's part in The Initiative immediately wiped out any misgivings we had about the world of The Slayer being a place the Scooby Gang desperately had to keep secret. Sunnydale morphed into a place where it looked like Average Joe could walk down the street and think nothing of a giant leopard-man ripping out someone else's intestines in plain daylight.
That was merely the derailment of the setting. The characters got smacked pretty hard too. Computer geek Willow completed her transformation into spell casting witch and fell in love with a woman for seemingly no reason other than her being in the right place at the right time. Buffy became more like Angel - brooding, mopey, and crying a lot of the time. Perhaps none of the characters tell the derailment story better than second season villain Spike (James Marsters). When Spike arrived, he was a fun-loving, straight-up badass bad guy. He was creative, nasty, and cruel, but he also had an interesting past which made him a more full character. Him and Buffy fought a few legendary duels, but Spike was always resourceful enough to figure out when to stand and when to run. Spike was turned into a full cast member by the fourth season, and by then his fangs had apparently been removed. Granted, The Initiative had put a chip in his head which sent zingers across his brain whenever he thought of killing people, but he gradually fell in love with Buffy. Even worse, Buffy gradually fell in love with him too. Second season Buffy would have shoved a stake through his heart immediately after learning he was newly helpless. Sixth season Buffy is sleeping with him!
Buffy's thoughtful metaphor was turned into fantastical melodrama. The show was privy to soap opera twists. At the beginning of season five, we met Buffy's sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), and she became a major character in the show's final three seasons. I liked the concept of Buffy suddenly gaining a little sister. While the show retconned her in and all the characters treated her like she had always been there, the audience understood Whedon only did as part of a larger story arc, and that's exactly how Dawn played out. While Dawn did turn out to be a supernatural being, she was also a flesh and blood character and a real girl with real memories of a childhood that never happened. Unfortunately, by her introduction, the series was plagued by weird twists and turns and Dawn was left on the afterburner half the time. The fifth season included things like Spike finally confessing his love for Buffy, Joyce dying of a surprisingly non-supernatural cause, and Xander's hotheaded ex-demon girlfriend having to deal with a troll - a LITERAL troll - she once dated. That last one is what finally put me off the show.
Oh, I still tuned in after that, but with much less regularity. Apparently things that happened in my absence were Spike having a robot Buffy built for him; Willow turning to dark magic; and a group of Slayers called The Potentials. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious about what I missed, but considering some of the things I've seen since tuning out, I'm not in the greatest rush. I hated fifth season villain Glory (Clare Kramer) and thought Spike's crush on Buffy was just creepy.
Gellar was a real trooper about playing Buffy, and the entire ensemble cast is one of the show's greatest strengths. In its best days, it gave us some of television's best villains, like Angelus - Angel's demonic side - Spike, and Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener). The third season introduced Faith (Eliza Dushku), another Slayer who is basically there to explore the idea of a Slayer who goes rogue. She went through the show's most interesting character arc, was part of the finale, and was one of my favorite characters ever since her first appearance.
Despite all the strengths, though, I have to score Buffy the Vampire Slayer lower than I wanted to. Like The Simpsons, it jumped the shark in a spectacular way and closed having aired more bad seasons than good ones. But the good ones were just about flawless.