The last 'Vampire Slayer'
written by Ellen Gray; from philly.com

Buffy and her friends - and enemies - have made TV worth watching

One of television's smartest dramas ever ends its seven-season run tomorrow night, and even if you've never seen a minute of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - and think the name's idiotic - you'll just have to take my word for it that TV is better for its having been here.

At the peak of its popularity, before it moved from the WB to UPN, "Buffy," a show about a girl whose destiny was to fight the undead, averaged just 5.26 million viewers a week. But the show created by third-generation television writer Joss Whedon kicked far more butt than its numbers would suggest, drawing an audience that ranged from urban teens to ivory tower academics and inspiring any number of discussions about the nature of good and evil, situational ethics and the price women pay for wielding power.

All while making its adult viewers, at least, feel more in step with their teenage children than with their own often-scornful peers.

Not bad for a show about a girl who never seemed to know enough to come in out of the cold, frequently sporting spaghetti straps when those around her were bundled up in fuzzy sweaters and flannel shirts. Yet unlike certain contestants on "Survivor," she never seemed to use sex as a weapon.

Rather, in a medium steeped in sexual innuendo but too often devoid of real passion, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) dared to bare not just her shoulders but her own desires.

Her first sexual encounter, while she was still in high school, resulted in catastrophe, as her vampire-with-a-soul lover, Angel, turned back into a monster.

Those who argue that "true love waits" couldn't have asked for a scarier object lesson, and even the most liberal viewers would agree that the metaphor was an apt one for many a high school relationship.

But Whedon and his writing staff, who also specialized in fast and funny word play long before most viewers ever heard of "The West Wing's" Aaron Sorkin, weren't stopping there.

Over the past several seasons, a maturing Buffy has explored both her mission - to kill vampires - and her sexuality with nearly equal fervor, last season in particular producing some of the steamiest, most unsettling depictions of male-female coupling on broadcast TV.

At the same time, her best friend, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), has evolved from a nerd with an unrequited crush on her childhood buddy Xander (Nicholas Brendon) to an extremely powerful witch and a remarkably unconflicted lesbian.

So that while NBC's "Will & Grace," one of the most popular shows on television, continues to dither about whether Will (Eric McCormack) will ever be allowed to really land a man, Willow has already loved - deeply - and lost. What's more, she's lived not only to tell the tale, but to have more hot sex.

How'd they get away with that?

Well, being on the WB and UPN apparently means not having to please all of the people all of the time.

In fact, if ever there was an argument for the existence of more than three or four broadcast networks, it was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which got to take the kinds of chances that none of the Big Four networks would likely tolerate.

Until, of course, it didn't look quite so chancy.

Not that the WB wasn't pushed to the wall a few times. In 1999, in the wake of the massacre at Columbine, it postponed an episode about the threat of school violence as well as "Buffy's" season finale, which featured the destruction of her high school, the latter decision one that in retrospect seemed slightly absurd.

In "Buffy's" case, after all, the school was blown up to destroy the town's evil mayor, who'd turned into a giant serpent while delivering a commencement address. (Oh, never mind. You had to be there.)

But despite the often over-the-top nature of the evil Buffy and her friends encountered, first in high school and later out in the "real" world, the emotions they dealt with were all too real: fear, love, loathing, longing (some all at the same time).

In its high school years, "Buffy" was the most realistic show about teenagers since ABC canceled "My So-Called Life" (a show that might have benefited from the introduction of vampires).

More recently, in an evolution that's turned off some viewers, it's been taking a hard look at the extended adolescence that passes for young adulthood in America. Buffy's made mistakes - assuming you can call them mistakes - discovering and acknowledging parts of herself that few of us would want to admit aloud.

Evil's still evil, but the line between conventional good and bad has been blurred considerably.

Tomorrow's satisfying finale, written and directed by Whedon, puts those in the Buffyverse might call "the big bad" back on the front burner.

Funny, poignant, biting and packed with action, it does what "Buffy" has always done best, giving its fans something to chew on for years to come.

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