buffy the vampire slayer
(series)

1996-2003

Executive Producer and Creator: Joss Whedon

It's hard to say anything about this show that hasn't already been said. Strong writing and powerful ensemble acting lifted the show beyond its initial cult status and into mainstream success. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a pop-culture phenomenon and will be for many years to come, despite the first run of the series being completed.

Unless you were under a cultural rock for seven years you probably know that BtVS also featured the first long-term, lesbian relationship on network TV. The characters of Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay (played by Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson) have garnered a world-wide, obsessive fan base, and with good reason. Lesbians all over the world waited a long time for something like this: a healthy, normal (or as normal as anything can be in Joss Whedon's urban fantasy universe), happy relationship focussed on two women who were neither stereotypes nor evil.

Well, at least that was the way it started. Of course, as most (if not all) relationships do on BtVS, this twosome ended badly. The character of Tara was killed at the end of season six, causing an uproar as hasn't been seen since the WB tried to cancel "Roswell" after season two. (Remember the tobasco sauce bottle campaign?). The fans sent nasty letters, bombarded internet bulletin boards and threatened boycotts of the show unless Joss Whedon found a way to bring Tara back.

Not that lesbian fans didn't have a right to be angry. The death of Tara was explained as being necessary for the Willow-goes-bad story arc, but the existence of that arc at all angered fans as they watched Willow descend into a madness that seemed genuinely out of character. Also, at the time this death occurred, killing off characters on genre shows for shock value was becoming almost routine. It was also the second year in a row that BtVS had ended the season with a character death.

Lesbian critics branded Whedon as a coward for resorting to lesbian cliche; where the lesbians either die, turn evil or both as punishment for the transgression of lesbianism. Film and television history is littered with incidences of such characters and storylines. Despite his statements explaining his reasons for the story arc, Whedon was never fully able to shake the spectre of large scale fan disapproval.

Whedon did eventually attempt to bring Amber Benson back for one episode, playing an evil version of Tara sent to emotionally torture Willow and try to persuade her to kill herself. Benson declined the role. Many fans have speculated (and Benson's own comments have indicated) that she turned down the role so as not to add insult to injury to the fans of Tara who were already grieving over the loss of the character and the Willow/Tara relationship. Whedon's version is different. It doesn't really matter.

Willow Rosenberg continued though, with the producers deciding mid-season seven that Willow needed to shake off the guilt and horror of Tara's death and move on romantically, this time with a Slayer Potential named Kennedy. Kennedy, played by newcomer Iyari Limon, is in equal measure hated and loved by Buffy fans, for various reasons. I was ambivalent about the character. It seemed like a good idea, and the love scenes were sexy as hell, but at times Limon appears out of her depths amongst the seasoned actors of BtVS. If you are going to act opposite Alyson Hannigan you need to be on your toes, as the actress set the bar where genre television acting is concerned over the seven season BtVS was on the air.

The evolution of Willow Rosenberg has been one of the most fascinating I've ever seen on TV, both in terms of her story arc and her sexuality issues. Some have said that Willow was lost in the final two seasons, or at the very least since she became the big bad of season six. While I agree with that assessment in some respects, in other ways Hannigan (like all the main actors) worked around what were exceptionally poor scripts leading up to the series finale and dug up every bit of the character that she could find to, at the very least, bolster performance continuity.

The writers gave the actors no help in this regard, constantly throwing out or re-working the accepted and strong mythos of the show until suspension of disbelief became nigh impossible. In the end the story shifted focus away from the core characters and expanded the central cast to unworkable levels, to the point where the point was lost underneath a rubble of speechifying and moralising. It was a shame that such an interesting and original show, with such a strong ensemble cast, should at the end be thrown into plotline hell.

For all its faults, throughout its run BtVS did not shy away from human emotion and sexuality. As for the lesbian characters, Willow and Tara were not depicted in the same raw-sexuality mode that Buffy herself often was, but that would have been out of step with the characters in any case. Their relationship was always depicted as very tactile and sensual, without exploitation of what could have been shock value lesbianism. There were kisses, romantic slow dances, even low-key bedroom scenes. In its own quiet (and sometimes not-so-quiet) way, BtVS pushed the boundaries and TV is all the better for it.

It took bravery to take an established character like Willow and experiment with her sexuality. It took skill on the part of the actors and writers to do it with any amount of credibility. Regardless of the future steps Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson make in their careers, they will always be recognised as lesbian icons on the strength of this work alone.

Lesbian episodes to watch out for:

S3:

"The Wish", "Doppelgängland"

S4:

"Hush", "Who Are You?", "New Moon Rising", "Primeval", "Restless"

S5:

"Family", "Listening to Fear", "Triangle", "Checkpoint", "I Was Made To Love You", "The Body", "Forever", "Tough Love", "Spiral", "The Weight of the World", "The Gift"

S6:

"Bargaining", "Afterlife", "Once More With Feeling", "Tabula Rasa", "Older and Far Away", "Entropy", "Seeing Red"

S7:

"Him", "Conversations with Dead People", "The Killer in Me", "Orpheus" (Angel crossover), "Touched", "End of Days", "Chosen"

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com