'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' at 20: How a Monster-Killing Teen Changed TV Forever

Two decades ago, Joss Whedon took a campy premise and turned it into a female-empowerment epic – and paved the way for Peak TV

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' turned a campy premise into a female-empowerment epic – why Joss Whedon's 20-year-old show is ground zero for Peak TV. Credit: Photofest

Dear female high school student: You have been chosen to fight the dark, never-ending forces of evil. You're likely to die young and alone, because you're supposed to keep your calling a secret. Sounds awesome, right? Oh, wait, you don't have a choice. Happy hunting!

Admittedly, it's a lousy sales pitch to give a perky blonde who just wants to make it through her midterms in one piece. But in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon's landmark television series, the girl in question doesn't exactly get much say in the matter regarding her duty. So it was that plucky Buffy Summers, the reformed SoCal shopaholic played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, set out to claim her birthright and banish bloodsuckers a remarkable 20 years ago. She, alone, was the one chosen to defend humankind from vampires – as well as werewolves, demons, cyborgs, clones and a menagerie of unimaginable beasties. From 1997-2003, she saved the world. A lot.

Two decades have passed since Whedon's grand, glorious pop culture touchstone debuted as a small screen reboot (before those were in vogue) of a 1992 movie deemed a misfire, on an upstart network known as the WB. But for a television artifact from the mid-to-late 1990s, Buffy still plays like gangbusters – largely thanks to its genius marriage of horror and comedy, drama and romance, genre-based fantasy and fearless exploration of the pain of adolescence and the healing power of connection. It's a show that remains tailor-made for binge-watching despite having come of age in the last gasp of the VHS era, and one that fearlessly experimented with form before the age of Peak TV gifted showrunners with untold creative opportunities.

In the hands of Whedon and his writing team – which included the likes of Marti Noxon (Unreal) and Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time) – Buffy became an inspirational chronicle of female empowerment brimming with raw, profound emotion and a wicked sense of humor. Behind that knowing, winking title lurked a masterfully constructed story about a young woman learning to harness her internal power and, ultimately, determining how to best share it with the world.

Not that it was an easy task. For Buffy, high school is quite literally hell – Sunnydale High sits perched on the mouth of the ultimate demon dimension. That leaves precious little in the way of downtime for the Slayer, what with her having to repel the evil attracted to the site's mystical energy. Her friends and confidantes – bookish future witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan), goofy jokester Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and one frightfully English Watcher, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) – prove to be key allies in her crusade. So, too, does Buffy's broody first love Angel, the cradle-robbing vampire with a soul played by David Boreanaz. (Conceived years before Twilight, the Buffy/Angel romance remains one for the ages – yep, the show got the jump on Hollywood's dreamy-creature-of-the-night YA craze, too.)

Although some unfairly dismissed the series as little more than a glossy high-school soap with a side of special effects, Whedon and his writing team routinely pulled off audacious feats of storytelling, beautifully capturing real-world truths within the show's zany-to-terrifying framework. When Buffy sleeps with Angel on her 17th birthday, triggering a curse that causes him to lose his soul, it's the perfect distillation of every teen girl's nightmare: a moment of intimacy could turn your boyfriend into a monster. Nor is Buffy the only one dealing with love and loss – Willow and Xander wrestle with an attraction that jeopardizes the happiness of their respective relationships, the former with werewolf boyfriend Oz (Seth Green) and the latter with the campus Queen Bee, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter).

And once the so-called Scooby Gang heads to college, things get especially interesting – on the precipice of adulthood, there's simply more at, well, stake. Buffy gains a younger sister named Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg); Willow comes out of the closet and embarks on an ill-fated romance with fellow witch Tara (Amber Benson); and vampire Spike (James Marsters) develops a dangerously unhealthy obsession with Buffy that eventually arrives at something resembling love. The creative team, too, upped its game with episodes like "Hush," which stripped the cast members of their voices for a largely silent haunted fairytale. The following year, when Buffy unexpectedly loses her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) to an aneurysm, the episode – titled "The Body" – chronicles her grief in real time. For Season Six, Whedon wrote a full-on musical, "Once More with Feeling." And just like that, so many sing-a-long screenings were born.

Throughout, Gellar's nuanced portrayal of Buffy gives the Slayer unexpected depth and dimension. She's defined less by her physical strength and more by her internal resolve. While she's unfailingly quick on her feet, she also can be quick-tempered and reckless. At other moments, she's funny and sensitive, and evidently a very poor driver (should we say confirmed pedestrian?). But our hero, and by extension the show she anchors, is magnetic because she exists as a fully realized human being – she's more than a powerful warrior, she's a powerfully well-drawn woman.

Revisiting Buffy some two decades on, the series feels alive in entirely surprising ways. Maybe it's the vaguely apocalyptic feeling in the air, or a bit of prescience on the part of Whedon and the team. But seen now, the later, more controversial seasons bristle with a sharp, unexpected relevance that's occasionally unnerving, dealing as they do with, among other topics, issues of consent and toxic masculinity. Season Six antagonist Warren (Adam Busch) relies on his computer prowess to devise inventive ways to torture and victimize women – he's a prototypical modern-day troll with access to dark-magic mojo. Nathan Fillion's evil preacher Caleb, one of the last foes Buffy ever faced, also was possessed by an overt blinding misogyny that drove him to murder all the young women who stood to be called as potential Slayers.

But it's not all darkness at the end of the world: Buffy's guiding light shines through plenty brightly, too. It's visible in the moment she rejects the ancient rules governing the traditional sorority she belongs to and takes control of both her own destiny and her young charges' future. She and Willow unleash in every potential Slayer the strength, speed and agility that lies dormant within them, empowering an entire sisterhood of valiant girls to fight alongside one another. Never again will there be only one to stand against the vampires. That undaunted, revolutionary spirit exists, too, in the genre heroines who carry forward Buffy's feminist legacy – from Jyn Erso to Jessica Jones, Daeneyrs Targaryen to Katniss Everdeen. No matter what new Big Bad the universe conjures, they resist, they persist in the face of insurmountable odds.

Here's hoping that, 20 years from now, we all have that same kind of moxie.