Buffy Summers did away with an army of vampires and assorted demons during her time in Sunnydale, but those numbers are piddling compared to the legions of fans that followed her through seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). Created by Joss Whedon and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy), Nicholas Brendon (Xander), Alyson Hannigan (Willow), and Anthony Stewart Head (Giles), the show only got better over the years (well, except season four…) and established Whedon as a major talent.
There was nothing to suggest that it would gather such a strong following, however, when the show first debuted as a mid-season replacement with an order for only 12 episodes. The very first episode, ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth,’ may not be the best of the series, but it definitely offers a strong start. Within the first two minutes it becomes clear that this is not a typical horror series, which is exactly what Whedon set out to create.
“The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy the movie was…the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie,” he says on the DVD commentary. “The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise, that element of genre-busting is very much at the heart of both the movie and the series” (00:00:40).
Presumably because of Whedon’s focused vision and attention to detail, that genre-busting approach is even evident in the show’s opening credit sequence. It opens in classic horror style—a scary organ and a wolfish howl—then instantly snaps into rock-and-roll in an attempt “to tell people exactly what the show is in the credits, which is here’s a girl who has no patience for a horror movie, who is not going to be the victim, who is not going to be in the scary-organ horror movie. She’s going to bring her own youth and rockin’ attitude to it” (00:02:30). (Incidentally, the song is played by Nerf Herder, a band that takes its name from a Star Wars reference and that Whedon was introduced to by Alyson Hannigan.)
Whedon’s determination to divert from genre stereotypes is also reflected in the show’s portrayal of adults. “One of the things we’ve really tried not to do in this show was make all the grown-ups complete morons…,” he says. “We didn’t feel like demonizing and alienating the grown-ups in this show. It seemed a little single-minded, and immature” (00:22:05).
This helps to explain why the show’s two main adult characters—Buffy’s mom, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), and Watcher, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head)—are such engaging characters in their own right. Of Sutherland as Joyce, Whedon says “she is—like [Anthony Stewart Head]—somebody who’s clearly still searching in her own life, who doesn’t have all the answers” (00:22:05).
Whedon mentions a similar point while discussing the process of casting Giles. “Most of the people who came in to read for Giles the Watcher would read him as so old and stuffy that he was only there to be boring exposition guy, to be just the one thing. [Anthony Stewart Head] brought this undercurrent of, kind of youth and sexiness and great acting chops to the role, so it was clear this is a guy who’s still trying to figure out his own life, while the kids are as well, and that really works for us because it gives us places to go with Giles, and we ended up going to a lot of very strange places with him” (00:12:00).
Whedon clearly has a lot to say about this episode, and it’s more than I can fit in one post without making it as overfull as I feel this time of year after my second turkey dinner. Next time we’ll hear what Whedon has to say about the limitations he faced while shooting the episode and the series in general, and how they influenced the show’s direction.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 1, ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ | Directed by Charles Martin Smith | Written by Joss Whedon | Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head
What do you think? What was it about Buffy that made you (dis)interested in it? Do you agree that the show’s portrayal of adults differs from most teen-focused horror shows/movies? Do you think the show has held up well over the years? Leave some comments below and let us know!