Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the first television series created by Joss Whedon, turns 20 in just a few short weeks. While waxing nostalgic about Buffy, we started thinking about how innovative and brilliant the show truly was — we’d even go so far as to say that it may be the most underrated TV series of all time.
Yes, it’s a cult classic, and it continues to have a very loyal and passionate fan following, and yes, whenever magazines like Rolling Stone do their 100 Greatest Shows of all time lists, Buffy is always on them. But instead of coming in at, say, #38 on these lists, we’d argue that Whedon’s tale of the female defender of her small town (and later the world, which she saved — a lot) and her ragtag gang of outsiders should rank much higher — like top five shows in television history higher.
We get that shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad are extraordinary and worthy of every accolade they've received, but Buffy has been more influential and culturally significant than the vast majority of all-time great TV shows. Even The Wire’s creator David Simon, in response to whether his show was the best in recent memory, said it was Buffy that held that honor. With that in mind, here are 15 Reasons Why Buffy Is The Most Underrated TV Show Ever:
15 Its treatment of homosexuality was revolutionary
While some have criticized the show for not showing more of the physical aspects of Willow’s relationships with other females (both Tara and later Kennedy), when considering the time period, as well as a few other external factors, the show was actually quite groundbreaking in its portrayal of homosexuality. Both Joss Wheden and Amber Benson (Tara) have publicly stated they were limited in what sexual content they could include by the network (The WB, now known as The CW) and FCC rules and regulations. “Are we forced to cut things between Willow and Tara?” Whedon responded when asked about the topic. “Well, there are things the network will not allow us to show. As for example kissing,” he explained.
Things changed as Buffy progressed and moved over to the UPN, yet another newbie network the show called home. In the episode “Touched,” one of the final episodes of the series, Willow and Kennedy had the first lesbian sex scene ever on network television. Considering Ellen Degeneres came out publicly in 1997 — the same year Buffy premiered — the show took a somewhat taboo subject and handled it in a smart, real, and respectful manner, whereas many shows didn’t bother talking about it at all. Plus, we’re still discussing the impact this had storyline had, pop culturally speaking. Will anyone say that about True Blood or The Vampire Diaries?
14 Buffy spawned a successful spin-off series and a comics franchise
Many more successful and popular television shows have tried to spawn sequels and failed: Friends tried with Joey, Battlestar Galactica's spin-off, Caprica, didn’t make it past its first season, and even M*A*S*H, one of the most watched and critically lauded series in history, failed miserably with its follow-up, AfterMASH. But Buffy spawned Angel, which featured the continuing stories and adventures of several old favorites, including Wesley, Cordelia, Spike, and, of course, Angelus himself. Angel lasted five seasons, and was both a hit with critics and fans of Buffy alike, but it wasn’t the only creative endeavor that spun off from the show.
The show created a canon of sorts with its multiple comic book franchises, including comics featuring both Buffy and Angel, a few issues of which were written by Whedon himself, as well as the likes of other talented writers including Y: The Last Man's Brian K. Vaughn. Several trade paperbacks about various characters and plot lines were also written, and Dark Horse released its latest Buffy comic last fall.
13 It captured its era but it still holds up
Sure, the clothes, hair, and music all look and feel very late '90s/early aughts, and the overall look dates the show a bit. And we'll freely concede that some of the special effects were by no means special, and some of the fight scenes looked more like WWE bouts than life-or-death battles — but consider the meager budget Whedon and Co. were working with, as well as the network on which the show aired for five of its seven seasons.
Prior to Buffy, the WB was known for family-centric fodder like 7th Heaven and Sister, Sister, so when a butt-kicking vampire slayer with a sarcastic sense of humor joined the network’s lineup, well, as mentioned, there wasn’t much leeway where creativity and budget were concerned. Despite the lack of funds, Buffy still featured some of the best small screen battles we’ve seen, from the series’ final showdown to season three’s two-parter, “Graduation Day.” We can only imagine what Whedon would have done with even half of the budget that shows like Game of Thrones are granted.
12 The show’s speech patterns/dialogue became part of the cultural zeitgeist
Buffy, like Friends, featured characters that said hilarious things in fun new ways, developing its own slanguage fans couldn’t help but emulate. The characters spoke in very self-aware, often deprecating ways, usually including fun, nerd-centric pop culture references for good measure. The show’s dialogue and speech patterns have been studied by numerous academics (a professor in the UK wrote a journal article about the show’s use of the y-suffix alone, though we'll dive deeper into this overwhelming academic interest later) and the fast-talking Scoobies were always fun to listen in on.
The characters’ speech was always colorful, and the show’s use of suffixes and its continuous use of wordplay were somewhat revolutionary. For example, vampires were called “vampiry,” malcontents bent on destruction were “apocalypsy,” and when Willow felt like she’d seen the same thing twice, she says: “I think we already de’ja’d this vu.” Few shows — if any — have featured more fun wordplay than Buffy.
11 Its use of symbolism and metaphors were off the charts
Another stellar element of the show’s writing was its consistent use of symbolism and metaphor — once again, few other shows can compare. High school as a metaphor for hell is the show’s most obvious one, and many demons in the series were representative of other struggles young adults face, but it doesn’t end there. Buffy losing her virginity to Angel, who in turn loses his soul and turns on her, reverting to his evil former self, became one of the show’s most resonant metaphors for how many teenage girls have been discarded by cads only interested in that one thing.
Symbolism was also a constant. The character of Riley, who chastises Willow for dating the “demon” Oz, was used to examine intolerance, telling Buffy later over an apology that he was sorry for seeing things “in black and white.” The symbolism in “Restless,” the finale of season four, is endless. Each character meets the first slayer in his or her dreams, and each is confronted with a personal and private fear that comes in the form of something (or someone) else. Perhaps the most impressive thing about all of this is that symbolism and/or metaphor were present in nearly every single episode throughout the show's seven seasons.
10 Its finale remains one of the top series finales of all time
The very last episode of Buffy was as epic as it needed to be without going over the top and falling into ridiculousness. Several huge, arguably all-time great TV shows have aired finales that have divided their fanbases (hello, LOST!). Not Buffy. Truly great series finales don’t divide their fans down the middle, they unite them, and that’s precisely what “Chosen,” Buffy’s finale, did. Not that there weren’t moments that made us extremely unhappy — like when we lost our beloved Anya because she chose to do the stupid thing — but all loose ends were tied up, the final battle between the Scoobies and The First was epic, everything that happened felt organic, and every moment was tense and action-packed.
The series finale managed to give loyal viewers of the show everything they wanted while still honoring the previous six-plus seasons worth of material, and it tied everything together while still offering up some of the show’s finest moments (Spike’s sacrificial final moments on Buffy were arguably some of his character’s most memorable and moving).
9 It was the first time Joss was Boss
Perhaps one of Buffy’s most impressive feats is that it has achieved such a high degree of success after being such a Little Engine That Could-type of show. When it first aired in March of 1997, on the infrequently viewed WB, the series' most famous cast members were Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy and Anthony Steward Head as Giles — everyone else in the cast was a virtual newbie. And at the time, Gellar was best known for her work on All My Children, and Anthony Head’s Giles was best known for his work in Taster’s Choice coffee commercials. They weren't exactly A-listers.
Whedon had established credibility as a writer, writing for Roseanne and penning the scripts for both the original film on which Buffy is based and the smash hit Toy Story. Buffy was his first foray into running and creating a television series, and we’d say he did an incredible job considering his inexperience. We’d also venture to say he has done pretty well for himself since, creating another cult franchise with Firefly/Serenity, and directing a tiny little movie no one’s heard of called The Avengers. They're supposedly Earth's Mightiest Heroes, or something?
8 Buffy nailed every one of its major moments — and it had several
Once again, most television series don’t even attempt the kinds of episodes Buffy tackled—and once again, Buffy handled majorly difficult material beautifully every time. Whether dealing with the deaths of major characters, writing entire episodes that feature only a few choice minutes of dialogue (like season four’s masterful “Hush”) or tackling the notoriously difficult musical episode, Whedon and Buffy repeatedly nailed every one of the show’s huge moments.
“The Body,” a devastating, soul-crushing episode where Buffy deals with the sudden death of her mother Joyce, was a pivotal point in the series, forcing her to grow up and become the primary caretaker for kid sister Dawn. Then there was the time where Buffy actually died, and when Willow uses magic to bring her back to life, everything that ensued fit snugly within the realm of the show, and it felt completely believable. Also worth noting is season six’s “Once More, with Feeling,” the much-beloved musical episode that became an instant classic. “Once More” is a perfect illustration of how the show managed to seamlessly weave a familiar TV trope (the musical episode) into its world of demons and vampires in sunny California without coming off like a gimmick. Plus, Anya belts out a song about bunnies, and Giles’ voice is smooth as honey.
7 It’s way more intelligent than people give it credit for
Buffy is so dense, and packed with so many layers and interesting themes, that college courses are still dissecting the show today. “Buffy Studies” is an actual thing -- it has its own Wikipedia page and everything. In fact, Buffy is one of the most studied television programs ever by academics. Sample titles of published academic work include “Staking Her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior,” and “Slaying the Patriarchy: Transfusions."
Of the Vampire Metaphor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” There’s also Slayage: The Journal of Whedon Studies, an online journal chock full of academic articles and papers featuring various degrees of Buffy analysis. And that’s just the collegiate and academic side.
Critics and fans of the show alike have debated and pondered its numerous aforementioned metaphors and allegories for decades now, and with the show available to binge/stream on Netflix and Hulu, this will only likely continue for decades to come.
6 Its use of structure
This was another early sign of Whedon’s greatness. The show featured season-long arcs paired with episode-long ones, so every episode contained both a different monster-every-week battle while also leading up to a larger, more significant season-long fight. Each episode built off the previous one, which resulted in a growing tension throughout every season. Each season, then, also built off the next, leading to an ultimate series-ending showdown only one side could win — which is also why it was so noteworthy that the finale was so stellar.
Perhaps the most amazing feat Whedon accomplished with Buffy is that the narrative structure of the show — all the plots, the reveals, the devastating deaths — served the overall arc of the show, and felt organic. So when Willow went nuts, skinned Warren, and almost destroyed the world singlehandedly, it made complete sense, because everything leading up to that point brought her there (she and Tara fighting for an entire season prior about her potentially destructive use of magic, for example).
5 We’re still seeing its influence in pop culture today
The Vampire Diaries. True Blood. Veronica Mars. Doctor Who. The Twilight series. We’ve seen Buffy’s influence everywhere in the pop culture-verse, both in movies and television. Way before True Blood was using vampire discrimination (“God Hates Fangs,” remember?) as an on-the-nose metaphor for racism and homophobia, Buffy was doing the exact same thing. And while Bella Swan couldn’t fill any female character on Buffy’s shoes, it was Buffy that brought vampire lore and stories to the forefront again.
Whedon’s mastery of the season-long arc coupled with the monster-every-week tactic was also wildly influential, and can be seen in shows like Sleepy Hollow, Grimm, Doctor Who, and Fringe. The show’s playfulness (perhaps coupled with its success) was also something many subsequent shows tried to emulate, particularly when it came to Buffy’s delicious sense of humor. This, coupled with its genre mash-ups, and its strong, female butt-kicking lead, were things we have seen recycled again — to much lesser effect — in the pop culture-verse nearly every year since.
4 The show has an incredible sense of humor
Sample dialogue: “Hey, I know you,” Willow tells the original slayer during a ritual. “You’re the first original slayer who tried killing us all in our dreams … how’ve you been?” A little niche and offbeat, perhaps, but the humor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was found in every single episode, regardless of seriousness or brevity. Just about every character on the show had a wicked sense of humor — even watcher Giles and Joyce Summers were given a chance to shine in the comedy department (go watch season three’s “Band Candy” for proof).
It also helped that the majority of the series’ big bads were super hilarious. Whether it was Mr. Trick, Drucilla, Glory and her “Hobbits with palsy,” or Mayor Richard Wilkins and his world-ending threats encased in witticisms, Buffy’s nemeses were often as funny as her gang was. Maybe the most praiseworthy element of the show’s sense of humor was that it tended to make you laugh right before terrifying you, like Caleb's neck-snapping approach to Buffy for their final confrontation: “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that last part on account of her neck snappin’ and all. Did she say the end was near, or here?” Laughter! Shudder! Brilliant.
3 It perfected the genre mash-up
Another feat few other shows have attempted (much less accomplished) is a successful interweaving of genres. All at once, Buffy can be described as a horror, sci-fi, comedy, fantasy, or drama series, to name but a few. There haven't been many shows that have been audacious enough to even try mashing two genres, much less an endless amount.
There were also multiple elements of romance, with Buffy having three significant loves -- two of whom were vampires with major dark sides -- but all of whom were wildly different from each other. The show also had moments of romantic love shattered by dramatic and/or otherworldly beings, or by people themselves. (Tara and Willow reuniting is romantic, until Warren kills Tara and shoots Buffy, sending Willow on a terrifying descent, with Xander quipping all the while in the background. Genres, consider yourself blended.) Throw in the musical episode, the ever-present sense of humor, and the elements of death and horror — few shows have heaped so much on their plates. But Buffy did, and it did so with a greater degree of success than any other series we can think of.
2 Its female characters remain stellar even by today’s standards
We actually wish more shows today would emulate Buffy in this manner. Every female character on the show was multi-dimensional, fun, and interesting — not to mention strong and complicated. Buffy had a bevy of female characters who were very different from each other: Buffy, Willow, Anya, Tara, Faith, Kennedy...the list goes on and on. Willow Rosenberg alone wielded power few female characters before or since have been allowed. She tried to destroy the world before playing a key role in saving it. She also held her own against Glory, a god who liked to make an entrance by tearing off the sides of houses. Katniss, schmatniss. We’re on #TeamWillow.
Buffy herself was incredibly complicated. She wasn’t one-dimensional at all. She had insecurities, flaws, endless stress and worry, and the series also allowed her to grow. The issues young women face in high school, college, and beyond were represented in the character of Buffy, and in many characters on the show. In fact, every female character on Buffy was given both a unique personality, as well as agency, which is something that's still lacking in the entertainment industry today.
1 Lack of Award Show Love
All of this revolutionary, influential greatness, and not one Emmy in any major category. No SAG awards, no Director’s or Writer’s Guild Awards, and no Golden Globes. The show was a critical darling with a fiercely devoted fan following, yet it never got any love come awards season, and we weren’t the only ones who noticed. Everyone from Entertainment Weekly to TV Guide was annoyed by Buffy’s repeated Emmy snubs. EW seemed to think that perhaps its silly title, perceived association with teenaged programming, and mash-up of genres might have actually hurt the show, because it may have made it difficult to categorize. Which is odd, because part of Buffy’s greatness IS this inability to be categorized as just one thing.
While Whedon did score a writing nod for the brilliant “Hush,” and the show won Emmys for makeup and music composition, that’s about all the show ever accrued in the awards department. “Once More, with Feeling” didn’t even win Outstanding Music Direction. This is a series that changed television. It's hard to rationalize, and we’re not over it.
What do you think? Is Buffy the most underrated show ever? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.