My So-Called Life, the greatest show ever, knew three indivisible things about adolescence. One, the wonder years are a checklist of inevitable “significant” events so distressingly predictable as to be, from the outside, banal. Two, these moments feel, from the inside, so extreme the world really seems to be ending every couple weeks. Three, living in the gap between One and Two makes you feel freakish. Exterior flatness, interior intensity, everyone always weirded out—that was the show. An exchange early in the second season walks us through it. “This isn’t some fairy tale,” says Jordan Catalano. “When I kiss you, you don’t wake up from a deep sleep and live happily ever after.” I thought I would weep from his awkwardly soulful anti-romanticity. And Angela Chase, practically catatonic with passion, confusion, and terror, hesitates barely a moment: “When you kiss me, I wanna die.”
Except there was no second season; it was slain by the network after just one. That exchange is from the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just released on DVD. Now entering its seventh season, the series remakes MSCL with the interior intensity projected outward to the characters’ daily lives. At Sunnydale High, sleeping with a guy doesn’t just leave him acting like a soulless creep; a soulless creep he becomes. And the world really does threaten to end every couple of weeks. Aside from that, it’s about the same. The gay best friend turns out to be a girl, not a boy.
So why does the allegory survive where the brilliant literal never saw summer? I have read many very difficult books by French persons, and I believe the answer is that television viewers dig vampires, and ass-kicking, and chicks who deliver one to the other. It’s all there in the title. Not only are these things decisively cool, they also divert attention from marketing buzzkills. MSCL deceded because it was emotionally difficult and, moreover, it didn’t think very highly of boys and couldn’t have cared less about grown-ups. These do not boffo advertising bait make. Buffy actually amplifies these qualities, but somehow, with the demons and Hellmouth and paff! that vamp just got staked! no one seems to worry.
After a shaky first year, the 22-part sophomore storyline is the real foundation of the show’s interpersonal relations. Oz, the senior werewolf played by adorably perplexed Seth Green, is introduced with implausible, witty patience. Also entering is Spike, vamp-stone fox who will turn out to be the show’s perverse heart. But the new boys scarcely ripple the rising teen gynocracy: In season two, Willow finds both her shy charisma and substantial witchiness; Cordelia becomes far more than a bitchy foil. Buffy comes out as a Slayer to mom (who promptly asks if she’s going on a killing spree. “I’m a Slayer,” retorts impatient Buffy, “not a postal worker”). And it’s season two in which Buffy actually does Angel, starting the long trail of tragedies (including the unfortunate spin-off). Even before then, she hints at her particular kink, four years pre-fruition: “Come on,” she suggests to Angel while they’re still in the snarling phase. “Kick my ass.” Yeah right.
“I believe the subtext here is rapidly becoming the text,” frets the lone sympathetic adult at one point. But that’s the charm—the collapse of normalcy and extremity makes everyone feel less weird. In spooky Sunnydale, adolescence’s intensity briefly makes sense, the way it never did on MSCL; that’s why they, and the show, endure. If this leaves a bloody trail across the gang’s hometown, well, that’s a small price to pay.