'Buffy's' last battle
written by Rick Kushman; from sacbee.com

Tonight it ends. Not "American Idol" -- technically, that's tonight and tomorrow, anyway. Tonight it's the last we'll see of that dopey-named, all-too-human, once-in-a-generation hero, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

So while 25 million-plus viewers watch to see if it will be Ruben or Clay -- and that will be a tough choice -- perhaps one-third as many will watch the series finale of "Buffy" (at 8 on Channel 31), as she again explores the depths of evil and irony and, one last time, battles to save, you know, pretty much everything.

Those ratings are far below what Buffy and the rest of the gang deserve. This series is smarter, funnier and more literate than almost anything on TV, but its notion and its name -- one last time: it's ironic -- have kept many viewers away and gotten it classified as a "cult hit."

The truth is, "Buffy" is no cult series. Its fans don't fit one category, stretching from teens to midrange adults to, honestly, my mom. All it takes to appreciate this show is a developed sense of humor and some kind of brain.

The hour finale tonight shows everything this series has offered -- genuine emotion, the potential of youth, a strong streak of feminism and a lightning, culturally-clued-in wit. Plus some serious action, though the battle itself, despite the casualty count, is a bit anticlimactic.

But in the end, we get a satisfying sense of closure in that un-Hollywood, iconoclastic manner that is classic "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

And if this final apocalyptic battle will be less than a major television-ratings event, "Buffy" has been a pop culture icon and a powerful force in entertainment, in a way opening the door for more super-tough female heroes such as Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in "Alias."

Creator Joss Whedon, who wrote the 1992 feature film of the same name, only to watch it get dumbed down by studio execs, went on to fashion a TV show that's an imaginative, engaging mix of comedy, drama, fantasy, horror and soap, all wrapped in both romance and resonant coming-of-age tales.

On the surface, it's about a young woman (Sarah Michelle Gellar) empowered to fight all the traditional forms of evil, including the undead and bad clothes.

But that's the surface. "Buffy's" human and cultural awareness run layers deep and have always been multigenerational.

It starts with "Buffy" as an inspired take on youth and life, a metaphor for the teen experience of facing inner demons, of high-school-as-hell, of a looming, uncontrollable world threatening everything you know.

Buffy's little town of Sunnydale, and the high school itself, sit on a hellmouth, a gateway to fear and evil and unknown change, which is exactly how serious high school can feel at that age.

But the series also has offered morality tales of hope, endurance and even faith, as we've seen young people, especially women, learn what they can achieve, and we've seen the power of friendship, the rewards of redemption and the value of sacrifice.

And throughout it all, "Buffy" has dissected concepts of good and evil with a clear moral compass, despite periodic protests from over-the-top religious groups that displayed ignorance about the show and a complete unwillingness to think.

Buffy herself is a hero for the 21st century, a post-post-feminist, anti-Ally McBeal who is strong, smart, independent and fully capable of emotions and being normal. She is never any one thing, but mixes cares, fears and maybe anger with a sense of obligation -- sometimes reluctantly -- and some rear-end kicking.

Maybe most impressive for the show is how Buffy, her friends Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and the rest have evolved. Even Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) has grown and learned, and having characters change is a tough trick for any show because it often means losing the chemistry that made the series click.

But Buffy and her gang graduated from high school, went to college and embarked on real (more or less) lives, figuring out along the way the realities of loss, the demands of sacrifice, the responsibilities of an aware person in an adult word. They even changed networks, switching from WB to UPN two seasons ago for money reasons you really don't want to get into.

And Buffy loved the vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) and watched him leave -- in part because he got his own show but also as another metaphor for those usually disappointing dangerous loves. She found a sister, watched her mom die, died herself then un-died (if you don't watch, it's a long story). She froze emotionally and struck up a relationship, mostly physical, with Spike (James Marsters), another creature frozen emotionally who endured major torture so he could reclaim his soul to love Buffy fully.

This stuff isn't just melodrama, it's biblical, and it's all bubbling while Buffy and company battle time and again against vampires, demons and various evil critters of some sort or other.

Through it all is a sense of whimsy and a streaming, brilliantly clever patter. Even the vampires are in on it. During the college phase, we watched them feast on some nerdy freshmen, pilfer their lame CDs, them grumble, "We have to kill some cooler people."

There is no one cooler, however, than ol' Buffy Summers, and tonight the evil trying to kill her and, naturally, destroy the world is a malevolent force called The First.

Whedon, who wrote and directed the final episode, titled "The Chosen," has asked that we keep the details to a minimum, but if you need some background, just know that this one last evil is raising an army, that Angel has returned to help, and Buffy, her gang and a flock of slayers-in-training are trying to find some way to stop them.

We can also tell you that no one loses their sense of humor, though there is a death or two, and that Buffy faces her romantic triangle with Angel and Spike -- and who doesn't love a triangle when two sides are vampires -- with the usual semi-grace.

"I'm cookie dough," she tells Angel at one point, trying to explain her uncertainty. "I'm not done baking. I'm not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I'm going to be."

Angel says he understands. "But," he says, "do I have to go with the cookie analogy?"

We can also tell you that the four core characters -- Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles -- all step up, and that enough questions remain in case someone needs to visit Angel during sweeps, or even maybe make a movie.

But for now, you can't say more than that epitaph from the first time we thought we'd seen the last of Buffy: "She saved the world. A lot."

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