It’s time for another How I’d Ruin It, the article series about how a writer who’s a huge fan of a certain work of fiction can still be absolutely garbage at writing for it, because loving something doesn’t mean you’re capable of reproducing it. The subject of this particular article will be Joss Whedon’s most famous television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This series was incredibly formative for me in my youth, and while I’m more aware of its faults as an adult, I still love it to pieces. Its influence can be seen on my writing quite a bit – but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t cock it up royally if I was, say, the showrunner of a Buffy reboot. How would said cock upping go? Well, read on!
I still feel there’s a lot to love in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It has terrific characters, quippy dialogue, and, in its best episodes, a wonderful balance of horror, comedy, and adolescent drama. Merging a Spider-Man style coming of age superhero narrative with various horror stories works way better than one might think, especially given how much horror of the 80’s and 90’s focused on teenage characters. The show gathered a cast of marvelous actors and (along with The X Files) pioneered the “myth arc” in television, quickly becoming something more than just a monster of the week show.
At the same time, though, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has some very large flaws. You’ve got your standard “literally all the main characters are white people” problem, of course, and while the show eventually had some LGBT representation, it also has a very dated idea of how sexuality works (Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t think bisexuality is a thing, for example). For all its reputation for girl power, the show’s protagonist constantly talks about her strength as if it’s a burden she would rather be rid of, and the more promiscuous a woman is on the show, the more likely she is to be evil. The show also struggles to criticize all but the most obvious forms of misogyny, with one of the main characters suffering from an extreme case of Nice Guy syndrome. There’s also a late season reveal that the whole Slayer lineage that Buffy is a part of began when several male wizards cursed a woman to be part demon so she could fight monsters as their weapon, and while that may have been intended as a dig at the patriarchy, in the end it comes off as saying that women who can fight back are unnatural and had to be literally empowered by men, which has some really unfortunate implications.
I don’t think anyone would object to fixing those issues. That might not be the case with some other aspects of the series I know I’d change, though. Joss Whedon, the showrunner of Buffy, is famous and infamous for his cruelty toward his characters, being vocal about hating happy endings. If Buffy is made in the Spider-Man mold (and it is), then it specifically draws from the part of that mold that spiraled into misery porn, where the young hero’s life is a never ending stream of mistakes and bad luck that just gets progressively worse as they go along. This is especially true in the later seasons of Buffy, which go out of their way to shit on the titular protagonist as much as possible, even to the point of forcing her supporting cast to act out of character on multiple occasions just to make her life more miserable. Indeed, another criticism of Joss Whedon’s work on the show is that his camera work is downright fetishistic in how it focuses on Buffy Summers when she’s having her many emotional breakdowns, lovingly taking in the sight of her tearful face as she sobs in misery. The bleak moments of the show are one of its most famous aspects, to the point that you’d definitely piss off a good portion of the fanbase if you, say, cut back on those significantly.
The show’s approach to monsters is also somewhat iconic. Though at first Buffy the Vampire Slayer threw basically everything at the wall – not just vampires and demons, but werewolves, Mr. Hydes, robots, Frankensteins, genetic mutants, practically every monster imaginable – by season four the mythology of the show solidified, and every monster of the week was basically just another demon. Vampires had been degraded from serious threats to easily slain mooks by that time as well, and overall the show was less focused on finding unique monster threats each episode, instead putting the soap opera element and seasonal overarching plots in the forefront. Additionally, the writers of the show operated on a rule that all the supernatural elements had to be metaphors for actual issues people face in real life, and while this generally resulted in superb storytelling, there are notable episodes where the story falls flat because the metaphor behind a certain monster doesn’t actually work in a literal sense, resulting in characters acting in ways that only make sense when you consider what things figuratively represent, rather than what they actually are.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also inconsistent on how “moral” the monsters in the show were. While the original intent was that all the monsters were pure evil so that we wouldn’t have any moral concerns about, y’know, the show focusing on a teenager killing sapient creatures who often look very human, as the show went on it had monsters who were recurring characters. These characters turned out to be more complicated than a “pure evil” creature could be. As a result, it can be hard to buy into the show’s general insistence that it’s ok to just murder these monsters willy nilly without consequence when, you know, we’ve seen that some can be kinda decent.
So… how would I ruin it?
Well, firstly, I’m a much kinder writer than Joss Whedon is. Life can be unreasonably miserable, sure. If you have a pessimistic view of the real world, trust me, I am right there with you. However, the appeal of fiction to me is that it isn’t the real world. You don’t have to stay within the bounds of reality in fiction. I mean, we don’t have vampires and demons in reality either – why can’t fiction have happy endings? When it comes to Spider-Man style coming of age superhero stories, I prefer to use the earliest Spider-Man comics as an example – the ones where Peter Parker’s story wasn’t that of a hero constantly suffering setbacks, but rather of a young man slowly coming into his own. Two steps forward, one step back, repeat – a slow progression, fraught with mistakes, and yet unmistakably moving forward.
Yeah, sure, living in a world full of blood sucking supernatural monsters wouldn’t be a cakewalk, but if you had super powers and were able to fight them, wouldn’t it be kind of fun? I mean, it’s a far less depressing problem than spending five years getting an education degree only to find it doesn’t mean shit because you don’t have ten years of experience like all your competitors do. Also, if you did it for several years, eventually you’d get pretty good at it. That’s kind of what a coming of age story is supposed to be about, really – a person getting better and better at dealing with complicated problems.
Secondly, I’d violate many of the show’s rules on how it handles monsters. Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer became morally complicated anyway, why not make the monsters just as complex as they ended up being from the get go? The questionable morality of slaying vampires has been part of their mythology for a long time, dating at least back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A monster with a human shape is supposed to make you feel uneasy about fighting it, and you lose a lot of opportunities for horror and drama by reducing them to being just disposable villains.
The presentation of the monsters would harken back to the earlier seasons of Buffy, with a focus on giving a variety of different origins for an even greater variety of different monster types, and making each one feel, well, special. There would still be an overarching plot and Big Bad monster for each season, of course, but the monster of the week episodes that make up the bulk of each season wouldn’t be undercut in service of it. Ideally we’d create a setting that feels chaotic and wild, with dozens of different supernatural entities clashing each season as they vie for their own goals, all while Buffy and her team struggle to preserve humankind.
The resulting show would be less Teenage Drama Misery Porn with Monster Slaying and more of an exploration of identity, both in the “teenagers growing up into adults” sense and the “what does it mean to be human” sense. The Hellboy comics would be a pretty good example for how it would handle the latter – you can have a story with sympathetic monsters that doesn’t equate real life non-normativity with, like, eating people, you just have to be smart about it. The original Buffy was very much a “humans kill monsters and that’s good” show, and the few monsters that were exceptions to that rule didn’t do much to change it. My Buffy would be more of a “humans learn to coexist with the supernatural” story, and that’s going to cause some big differences in tone and plot. Very big differences, in fact – one might say heretical differences.
Casting for this hypothetical Buffy reboot would specifically aim for diversity. I don’t have any set race in mind for the characters – they could all be anything, but for the love of god we wouldn’t make them all white, how shitty would that be. That’s actually a good change and thus not a “ruinous” thing, but I want to note it regardless.
Ok, so, that’s the overall pitch. Here’s a character breakdown, since characters are my starting point for every story, and the characters really are the strongest aspect of Buffy.
Buffy Summers – Buffy was originally pitched as by Joss as (paraphrased) “the blond girl who always dies in Horror films, except this time she fights back.” This has caused some confusion among horror fans since often blond leads survive in Horror, and in many ways Buffy fits the archetype of the Final Girl, a character that almost ALWAYS survives their story. I think Joss probably meant for Buffy to be the other famous archetypal woman role in Horror stories: the promiscuous girl who gets naked and dies earlier than practically anyone else, a character that almost NEVER survives. Given Buffy’s occasional ditzy moments throughout the series (Buffy Summers was never book smart), there’s some credence to that, though she lacks most of the other character elements of the trope – mainly because Joss Whedon stories rarely treat promiscuous women nicely. She’s also a very angsty character in general – in 90’s Spider-Man style, 90% of Buffy’s life is composed of “God I hate having to save people’s lives I never get to have fun why do I exist only to feel pain” moments.
So what if we said, y’know, fuck that?
Imagine if you will a young woman who discovers she’s got super powers, that there are monsters in the world, and that she can kick all kinds of ass. What if her reaction to being a monster slayer wasn’t “Aw man, I wanted to be a cheerleader though?” and instead was “Bitchin’, let’s kick some ass!” What if she ignores the mundane calls of working for wealth and fame – what if action was her own reward?
In many ways my Buffy would be a bit more like Faith, the “evil” slayer who loves killing monsters and is less enthused about being a typical teenager. I think there’s something to be said about having a teenage protagonist who knows for a fact that she’s dealing with more important shit than standardized testing and high school cliques, even when most of the authority figures in her life don’t believe her. I think it would be fun to see a Buffy who just loves her job – she loves dealing with the supernatural, loves learning about all the weird shit in the world, and really, REALLY loves beating the shit out of big slobbering monsters that try to eat her peers. It would be an inversion of her original character – again, heresy, this is How I’d Ruin It after all – but wouldn’t it be kind of fun?
Buffy would still have trouble balancing her normal life and her superhero life, but over time she’d get better at it. Her arc would be less about a young woman slowly being torn apart by her supernatural nature, and more about a young woman who finds a way to become a full time Monster Fighter. She wouldn’t be crushed by the two opposing forces that vie for control of her life – she would challenge and defeat those forces, forging her own path. Being open minded and naturally rebellious, Buffy would also recognize that the various supernatural forces she faces aren’t inherently evil, and eventually becomes less of a monster slayer and more of a diplomat for humanity – albeit one that’s not afraid to shove a stake through the heart of monsters that aren’t willing to offer humanity the same courtesy.
As for the promiscuity of the archetype Buffy was theoretically a play on… well, I’m of two minds on that. On the one hand, the way Horror fiction (and fiction in general really) sexualizes teenagers is skeezy as hell and I wouldn’t want to play into it. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with teenagers, you know, dating a lot, and having premarital sex isn’t a moral failing, so there’s something to be said for having a protagonist who actively goes against the “Good girls don’t have sex” rule in fiction. I’m pretty sure we could find a happy medium where we buck the “girls have to be chaste virgins” aspects of the original show without sexualizing teenagers in a skeevy way. That’s a problem for the nonexistent predominately female writing staff of this hypothetical heretical Buffy reboot to figure out.
Willow: Willow began as Buffy’s nerdy computer geek friend before becoming a witch and a Lesbian. The show was very insistent on that last label, despite the fact that she was shown to feel sexual attraction to both men AND women throughout its seven seasons. Again, the show didn’t believe Bisexuality was a thing – you either like women or men, not both. Willow also got hit with some particularly nasty character development in later seasons for the sake of mining drama – while she started out as one of the most emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and selfless characters in the series, she eventually became one of the most self-centered, selfish, and often thoughtlessly cruel characters. Oddly, the change started around the same time the writing staff decided she was a Lesbian.
So with Willow my revisions wouldn’t be the total reversal I gave Buffy, but rather a blending of her best parts with a more modern understanding of sexuality for good measure. Willow would be bisexual because DUH, she’s attracted to men and women – maybe even pansexual if the producers of this nonexistent hypothetical reboot allow us to go into more genderqueer places. She would still be a powerful wicca and computer nerd – perhaps even developing shades of mad scientist as the series goes on. She’d keep her empathetic traits as the show goes on, because again, this Buffy wouldn’t be an endless slide into greater misery – it would be a story of people becoming stronger and better the more they face adversity, coming into their own as they leave adolescence.
Xander: Oh, Xander, you fucking shitheel. Xander Harris was based on Joss Whedon himself by the writer’s own admission, and man, that certainly explains a lot. I can think of few other characters who have a worse case of Nice Guy Syndrome than Xander. Throughout the series Xander shows immense entitlement towards his female friends and acquaintances, seething with jealously when they show interest in other guys (even if he’s dating someone else at the time), sniping at anyone they date, and all the while complaining about how girls never go for nice geeky guys like him. He’s the most xenophobic of the core cast where non-humans are concerned, treated the few ladies he dated pretty poorly, and is just overall a real piece of shit. The show had the audacity to claim he was the heart of the group in the later seasons, which is laughable since Xander was by far the most emotionally stunted of all the leads – there were vampire and demon characters who showed more understanding of other people’s feelings than he did.
Given the vitriol I have for the character, you probably assume I hated him from the getgo. Here’s the rub, though: as a teenage boy, I loved Xander. I though his quips were hilarious, I sympathized with his nerdiness and his inability to get girls, I even felt his jealousy was justified. In many ways, Xander was authentic – he was, truly, a shitty teenage nerd boy, and when I was a shitty teenage nerd boy, I saw myself in him. However, I am now a shitty adult nerd man, and as a shitty adult nerd man, I have deep seated self-loathing for my shitty teenager nerd boy past. What once made Xander loveable now makes him odious. Characters like Xander shouldn’t be presented as aspirational figures – shitty teenage nerd boys shouldn’t be encouraged.
Xander has positive traits, though. He’s the only member of the main trio that has no super powers – Xander is the normal human, the Jimmy Olsen of this story, and that’s valuable in a fantastical tale. You need someone to represent the average joe. He was also pretty funny – not as funny as I remember, since a lot of his jokes are really mean spirited and awful and born from his entitled feelings towards women, but many of his other jokes are just good fun. Xander’s actor also elevated a lot of the material he was given – Nicholas Brendon should be commended for making the character more likable than he was written to be. Xander is salvageable.
So let’s make a Xander who isn’t an entitled Nice Guy shitmouth douche canoe. Let’s make a Xander who is nerdy, yes, unlucky in love, certainly, but, contrary to general tendencies of teenage boys, is NOT a goddamn dick about it. It’s less realistic, but dammit, SOMEONE should teach teenage boys that they should treat girls with more respect, and by god, why not let it be reboot Xander?
Giles: I don’t have anything I really want to change about Giles. He works excellently as a Van Helsing stand-in and surrogate father figure to Buffy, and while their dynamic would change because our reboot Buffy is far more gung ho about vampire-fighting, I wouldn’t do too much different with Giles himself. Really, the only big change I’d make is that I wouldn’t have Giles abandon Buffy because she needs to grow up without him like he did late in the original show’s run, because that was a stupid out of character decision that the show made him do simply for the sake of making Buffy’s life worse.
Cordelia: Cordelia was a vain Mean Girl queen of the school cheerleader – you know the archetype, it’s in every story about high school ever written – who we slowly learn is more complex than her archetype lets on, and that made her an interesting foil to Buffy. There really isn’t much that needs to change with her – just remove the show’s constant slut shaming of her and she works just fine.
Oz: A teenage werewolf in a crappy rock band who’s soft-spoken yet incredibly funny and insightful, Oz was an excellent character who the writing staff struggled to find material for, which led to his inglorious exit from the show (and one of a few cases where the figurative symbolism of a character was directly at odds with what they literally were). Like Cordelia, there’s not a lot about Oz that needs to change – just aspects of how the show treats/uses him. He’s a werewolf IN A ROCK BAND, that’s gotta give us at least a few cool plotlines. Why was there never a Battle of the Monster Bands episode?
Spike: Ok, so, before we dive into Spike, we’re gonna talk about Angel first. One of the most iconic characters in the show, Angel was one of the most horrible vampires of all time until he was cursed to have a soul once more, which made him realize how horrible his crimes were and become deeply repentant. What exactly a soul is in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s lore is never quite clear – one could say it’s a conscience, but in that case, why do human serial killers do what they do? And hell, we later see that some vampires WITHOUT souls can feel guilt and remorse, so, uh… well, the show never even attempted to fix the mess it made. Regardless at how little Angel’s situation makes sense in the grander scheme of the show’s mythos, it was nonetheless compelling to have this one good guy vampire who was trying to atone for literally centuries of killing and eating people. Angel is an excellent character, his spinoff show was really good, and I have a great deal of fondness for him.
But this is How I’d Ruin It.
So let’s say this reboot exists in a world where vampires aren’t necessarily evil. They need to drink blood, yes, and since they essentially reproduce by turning humans into more vampires via blood drinking, they have an inherent desire to drink human blood in particular. By nature, they’re inclined to be antagonistic/predatory toward humankind, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently malicious.
In the original show, Spike was another infamous vampire, having killed TWO slayers in his undeath. Yet he was complicated – Spike felt romantic love, first for his partner Drusilla, and eventually for Buffy herself. While Spike was decidedly amoral and liked to start shit, he could at times be compassionate and selfless, and generally did everything he could to do right by those he cared about. He was evil for most of the show, but he wasn’t pure evil – there was good in him too. One demon noted that he had more humanity than was normal for a vampire – moreso than Angel’s soulless vampire persona did.
Since vampires in this reboot aren’t inherently evil, Angel’s whole “vampire with a soul” arc doesn’t really work. So why not just, like, skip it? Let’s jump straight to a better version of Spike – a vampire who accepts his monstrousness, who revels in being wild and uncivilized, but has a heart despite it all. He has no qualms about eating people at first, and yes, he has killed two Vampire Slayers before (to be fair, their job description gives him a reason to), but over time he’s, well, tamed slightly. Just as Buffy comes to learn the monster situation isn’t strictly Good vs. Evil, so Spike would learn that monsters don’t HAVE to prey upon humanity.
Also none of the stuff in season six would ever happen. Well, ok, “Rest In Peace” would because that song kicks ass, but all the rest of it? No.
I could go on and on – there’s a lot of great characters in Buffy, but as much as I’d like to dive into what we could do with people like Jenny Calendar and Harmony, I also want to publish this eventually, so let’s end on two characters I absolutely hate and call it a day.
Riley Finn: Riley was Buffy’s second big love interest and actually beats Xander in the “Jos Whedon never criticized this guy for his super-prevalent misogyny because Joss Whedon related too much to him” race. Riley is a soldier in a top secret government agency devoted to fighting monsters, and the bulk of his drama with Buffy stems from how emasculated he feels because Buffy is stronger than him and doesn’t dote on his every waking moment. The show, horrifically, treats this as Buffy’s fault, even having Xander “Heart of the group my ass” Harris call her out for how she drove Riley to cheat on her by, uh, trying to deal with her mother’s death and never acknowledging that her strength made him feel weak or whatever. Oh, yeah, that’s a plot point: Riley cheated on Buffy with vampire hookers, and somehow this was Buffy’s fault. Would it surprise you if I told you Joss Whedon was cheating on his own wife when making this show?
Oh, oh! Also! Riley is the only character on Buffy to get a happy ending. While Buffy’s life goes to shit, Riley meets another woman – one who’s strong but not stronger than him, beautiful, and follows his orders – and lives happily ever after as a badass, well financed, globetrotting demon killer. Of all fucking characters, fucking RILEY FINN is the one who gets a happy ending.
Riley fucking sucks. I wouldn’t change that – I’d keep him entirely intact. What I would change is his relationship with Buffy – beyond a brief flirtation, they would never get together, as Buffy would quickly recognize him for the hypocritical lying piece of shit he is, and when Buffy comes into conflict with his organization, they would come to blows only for Buffy to whup his ass. Then he’d get eaten by a monster and die forever.
Dawn Summers: To make Buffy’s life extra shitty, the later seasons retconned things so that she would have a younger sister, just in time for Buffy’s mom to die, which in turn forced Buffy to drop out of college so she could work shitty jobs to try and provide for Dawn. Dawn, in turn, is basically every awful strident teenager in fiction rolled into a pile of tropes. It’s actually really weird to see – after three seasons of writing complex, thoughtful, sympathetic teenage characters, the writing staff then created Dawn, who is less a “real” teenager and more the horrific caricature of teenagers that adults see when they write articles about how millennials are evil for not buying enough diamonds and fabric softener. Dawn existed for no reason save to make Buffy’s life suck. She resented her sister for everything, even after Buffy died specifically to save Dawn’s life as well as the entire world. She had no common sense, blundering into every trap set for her despite everyone around her telling her how dumb that would be. Dawn was Buffy’s Gilligan, except she replaced Gilligan’s kindness with shrieking cruelty.
I would not have Dawn in my show. She would be cut and the world would be thankful.
And that’s how I’d ruin Buffy the Vampire Slayer!
I saw fairly little of the original series, so your changes to Xander are “wait, he wasn’t that way before?”, your changes to Willow are great (kind, caring mad scientist character! Squee! Also she recognizes that both boys and girls can be physically attractive, which is a sign of maturity, I think), and Buffy… well, I sort of think premarital sex is a moral failing, but of morals that American culture is not well set up to support, and less on a girl’s part than on a guy’s. And this Buffy certainly seems no more objectionable than her original incarnation, while attracting more of my interest. The others seem like good calls as well. (Although giving Buffy a sister who isn’t ridiculously awful might be fun. Fuse Dawn with Tara, maybe? Disclaimer: I don’t remember episodes with either one in them, I just think Final Girl Archetype/Morally Questionable Slayer as your Buffy’s younger sister could be fun.
I do have one major concern with this article, however: you seem to want (Doylistically) to Represent Minorities, with little thought to the series’ Watsonian logic.
Now, a minority-heavy cast can certainly work if you put some thought into it – Willow at least is brilliant enough to be worth recruiting from well outside one’s regular circles – but if you don’t put in the effort, it’ll cause issues. (And if you do put in the effort, teens might finally get a role model who goes outside their clique and befriends people, which is a great theme for teenage coming-of-age stuff. I should use that.)
Finally, I think you’d be able to recruit better actors if you recruited for ability first, and I always think it’s a pity when writing/acting/music/whatever is subpar because the directors wanted to Represent Minorities at the expense of quality.
Oh wait, one more thing. From what I saw, Giles, Willow, and Xander weren’t necessarily minorities to start with, but they seemed to deal with most of the same problems, being social outcasts. That’s worth something, I think.
*I meant “I should use that” as “I should use that in my own work”, not an imperative idiom for “that would be a good idea”. Just caught that now.
“Recruiting for ability first” sounds well and good on paper, but it’s rather telling that this approach tends to end up with casts made entirely of white people. I live in a small mid-Western town – one that is INCREDIBLY white – and our community theaters still have many talented actors of color. Since a show like this would film in Hollywood, a MUCH more diverse city than my own, you’d think that “recruiting for ability first” would still result in casts that are, well, diverse, right? But that’s not the case, because the mostly white people who run all the major studios seem to have an odd tendency to value the abilities of white actors more than those of non-white actors.
So yeah, I’m gonna stand by the idea of specifically seeking to have a diverse cast for this hypothetical reboot. If I can find talented non-white actors in a mid-Western American small town, then I could damn well find them in a huge city like Los Angeles.
Why wouldn’t you recruit from small community theaters or something, then? I strongly suspect Hollywood is set up to find good actors among the relatively small group that will work with Hollywood despite its many vices, rather than from everyone with skill. So the searching further afield might be a better idea period.
Hollywood is situated in Los Angeles, one of the largest cities in the United States. It is filled with more people wanting to be actors than can FIT in a small town. There’s not a lack of diverse talent there, whereas in small towns you 1. don’t have have the money to make a television show and 2. don’t have a the capital – shooting lots, sound stages, trained technicians, etc. – to make a television show. So not only is there no reason this would work BETTER in a small town, but there’s also a plethora of reasons why doing so would undercut the production. It would be significantly easier just to tell sit in on a casting meeting (which directors and producers often do) and say, “I’m gonna cast some non-white people” than it would be to recreate the television and film industry in a small town.
(By the way, I’ve just noticed that we’re probably thinking of different examples of studio casting here. My examples were Disney and Netflix Originals. Yours probably have considerably more breadth.
Oh, I just meant recruit actors from amateur enthusiast groups, not move the studio there. But that is a lot of work for not necessarily a lot of payoff, so it’s up to you, I suppose.
(I don’t see a way to reply to your latest comment more directly, I’m afraid. Also, I worry I have started an argument by accident, and am not even sure of the point under debate. Sorry, no offence was intended.)