buffy the vampire slayer
TV, 1996, 4.5 stars
Creator: Joss Whedon
First Run: 1996-2003
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 (BtVS) was a pop-culture phenomenon and will be for many years to come, despite the first run of the series being long since completed.
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) garnered a world-wide, obsessive fan base. We 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 lesbian relationship focussed on two women who were neither stereotypes nor evil.
Well, at least that was the way it started. The character of Tara was killed at the end of season six, causing an uproar. 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.
The death of Tara was explained as 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. Also, at the time this death occurred, killing off characters on genre shows for shock value was becoming routine. It was 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. Film and television history is littered with incidences of lesbian characters who die or turn evil. 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 try to bring Amber Benson back for one episode, playing an evil version of Tara sent to emotionally torture Willow. Benson declined the role, her own public comments indicating that she turned it down so as not to add insult to injury to the fans. Whedon's version is different.
Willow continued though, with the producers deciding mid-season seven that Willow needed to move on romantically, this time with a Slayer Potential named Kennedy. Kennedy is in equal measure hated and loved by Buffy fans, for various reasons. I was ambivalent, it seemed like a good idea, and the love scenes were sexy as hell, but at times Iyari Limon appears out of her depth amongst the seasoned actors of BtVS. Alyson Hannigan in particular set the bar where genre television acting was concerned over seven seasons.
The evolution of Willow Rosenberg has been one of the most fascinating on TV, both in terms of her story arc and her sexuality. Some have said that Willow was lost in the final two seasons. While I agree in many ways, Hannigan 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.
The writers gave the actors no help, throwing out or re-working the accepted mythos of the show until suspension of disbelief became nigh impossible. In the end, the story shifted focus away from the core and expanded to unworkable levels, to the point where the point was lost underneath the rubble. It was a shame that such an interesting and original show should at the end be thrown into plotline hell.
For all its faults, BtVS did not shy away from sexuality. 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 depicted as very tactile, without exploitation of what could have been shock value lesbianism. There were kisses, romantic slow dances, even low-key bedroom scenes.
It did take bravery in the first place to take an established character like Willow and experiment with her sexuality. The characters and the show are iconic. Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson will always be recognised as lesbian icons on the strength of this work alone.
Willow/Tara/Kennedy 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"