When Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on the WB Network in 1996, American culture was in trouble. Americans were bowling alone, pursuing individual interests to the detriment of the communal good. Business leaders were celebrating creativity and neglecting discipline. Nike's "Just do it" ads were teaching young people to break the rules. Hollywood was turning out "nightmares of depravity."
Americans had forgotten bourgeois virtue. Freedom and affluence had made us soft. We were self-indulgent moral nihilists -- materialistic, selfish, and impulsive. We might have been having fun, but we'd created a culture no one would fight for.
At least that's what the wise men said.
On September 11, 2001, they shut up. Ordinary Americans, it turned out, were not only brave but resilient and creative, even lethal, when it mattered.
Buffy was right all along.
For those who somehow missed its cult success, Buffy tells the story of an unlikely hero -- a pert, blonde teenager whom fate has destined to be the Slayer, the "one girl in all the world" endowed with the supernatural strength to protect humanity against the demon hordes. Buffy would rather be a cheerleader and prom queen, but a normal life is not to be. "No chess club and football games for me," she says. "I spend my free time in graveyards and dark alleys."
The show, which ended its seven-season run in May, began as a reification of the horrors of high school. What if that ambitious cheerleader wannabe really was a witch? What if the girl no one paid attention to really turned invisible? What if the swim coach really would do anything to win? What if sleeping with your boyfriend made him act like a different person, turned your Angel into a cruel and vicious monster?
The mere existence of Buffy proves the declinists wrong about one thing: Hollywood commercialism can produce great art. Complex and evolving characters. Playful language. Joy and sorrow, pathos and elation. Episodes that dare to be different -- to tell stories in silence or in song. Big themes and terrible choices. In the show's most wrenching moment, Buffy kisses her one true love and saves the world by sending him to hell.
Buffy assumes and enacts the consensus moral understanding of contemporary American culture, the moral understanding that the wise men ignored or forgot. This understanding depends on no particular religious tradition. It's informed not by revelation but by experience. It is inclusive and humane, without denying distinctions or the tough facts of life. There are lots of jokes in Buffy -- humor itself is a moral imperative -- but no psychobabble and no excuses. Here are some of the show's precepts, a sample of what Americans believe:
Evil exists. Evildoers deliberately inflict pain on others. Sometimes they do so because they enjoy watching others suffer. Sometimes they do so to assert or gather power. Often they seek both immediate pleasure and long-term gain. Whether they seek to rule the world or to humiliate high school losers, evildoers lack empathy. They lie. They manipulate the vulnerabilities of others. The truly evil are abetted by the weak and venal, who assist them out of fear, ambition, anger, or hate. The servants of evil are evil as well.
Redemption is possible. The once-evil can change. Vampires can reclaim their souls. Catty alpha girl Cordelia can learn to be nice. But true redemption exacts a price. Penitents must face what they've done. They must suffer. Faith, a second Slayer (long story there) who "went all evil and started killing people," must willingly go to prison for her crimes. Andrew, the nerd manipulated by grandiose dreams of godhood, must admit that he, not some outside force, killed his best friend. There's no cheap grace in the Buffyverse.
Evil must be fought -- sometimes literally, with lives and weapons. Most evildoers are beyond redemption. They are certainly beyond persuasion. War is stupid and wasteful and cruel and necessary. "People die," says Buffy. "You lead them into battle, they're going to die. It doesn't matter how ready you are or how smart you are. War is about death. Needless, stupid death." The next day, she goes to war. And good people die.
Evil never goes away. Individual evildoers can be defeated; the current manifestation of evil can be destroyed. But, says Buffy, "There's always more."
We don't get to choose our reality. Life's not fair. There's no point in whining. "I hate this," Buffy tells her small band before their final battle. "I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there's evil and that I was chosen to fight it….I know a lot of you wish that I hadn't been either. This isn't about wishes. This is about choices."
We do get to choose what we do. Buffy doesn't choose to be the Slayer, but she chooses how to be the Slayer. She chooses to have friends and to share her mission with them. She chooses to wear cool clothes. She chooses to improvise, to break rules, to find loopholes. If prophecies decree that no sword can slay a certain demon, she gets a rocket launcher. She is pragmatic, creative, and incredibly effective.
"It flies in the face of everything we've ever -- every generation has ever done in the fight against evil," says Giles, her former Watcher and father figure, when Buffy lays out her plan in the finale. "I think it's bloody brilliant."
Life's pleasures are precious. Buffy maintains her sense of humor, her great hair, and her love of ice cream. She has fun with the friends she loves. The jokes and playful language are as essential to the Buffyverse as the earnest sentiments they cut across.
"So what do you guys want to do tomorrow?" Buffy asks her best friends as they walk to their final battle, a battle none expects to survive. "I was thinking of shopping, as per usual." Banter ensues about shoe cravings and the right look for a guy with an eye patch.
"Aren't we going to discuss this?" asks Giles, befuddled and a tad disapproving. "Save the world, and go to the mall?"
Well, yes. That's the world they're fighting for.