TV UK, 20 April

Dolan's last word on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Dolan Cummings

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TV only really comes into its own when it is allowed to establish characters and situations over time. The ideal form of TV, then, is the soap opera.

Of course, most soap opera is rubbish, because it is difficult to maintain quality indefinitely, but the best TV programmes are long-running series like NYPD Blue and Ally McBeal. (With the exception of sitcoms, only American TV companies seem willing to make the commitment necessary for this sort of thing.)

People who watch a couple of episodes and then decide whether or not a programme is ‘quality’ never get the best of TV, because they don’t know the characters, they don’t understand the concept and they generally don’t know what the hell is going on. TV adaptations work best for people who already know the book. Long-running series are the same but better, because you get surprises, too.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a real mystery to people who don’t watch TV properly. Here is a programme about vampires and demons and a teenage girl who does battle with them. So it’s a spoof, right? A tongue-in-cheek pastiche of terrible B-movies. Well, not really. In fact there are moments of tragedy and profundity. What? You mean it’s a teen-angst snoozefest like Dawson’s Creek? Again, not really.

I mean Buffy is funny, but funny in a clever plot and smart line way, not in a this-is-so-bad-it’s-good way. And it is serious, but serious in a thoughtful and witty way, not in a pompous or melodramatic way. In its stories about vampires in love, conflicts within, and evil foiled by blundering virtue, Buffy actually explores the human condition in an interesting and imaginative way. (I saw that look of disdain, haughty reader, and I will return to this point in due course.)

That brings me to the third and most serious charge against the programme: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a metaphor. Eugh! Apparent fans of the show will give you a spiel about how the vampires are an allegorical representation of the trials and tribulations of teenage life, and Buffy herself is a clever reworking of the traditional woman-as-victim. Well, who would’ve thunk it? All this is partly true, but true in an inane way, not in a clever way.

So, how can I justify my monstrous assertion that ‘Buffy actually explores the human condition in an interesting and imaginative way’? Well, because it does. Buffy’s makers have discovered that TV lends itself to stereotype, but then allows those stereotypes to come to life. The current transformation of Spike builds beautifully on the established ‘vampire in love with the Slayer’ story and is proof (to those who know who Spike is) that this is a quality product.

How impertinent of this mere TV show, this overblown Scooby Doo, to aspire to such heights! Impertinent indeed, because Buffy is not a novel adaptation or a TV play or any of the ‘quality’ formats beloved of British TV. It is a sprawling, multi-season beast, currently showing three different seasons on three different nights in the UK. It is full of puerile jokes, teenage vernacular and high-kicking action. In short, this programme exploits the medium fully and properly.

One last thing – Angel is good, too. Don’t let anybody tell you ‘they’ve lost it’ just because a couple of episodes seem a bit duff. This is TV – pay attention.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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