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by Todd Hertz

What Would Buffy Do?

Is it possible to call for help ironically—and really mean it?

When writer director M. Night Shyamalan released his alien-invasion movie Signs in 2002, he explained that he used such a populist, blockbuster plotline (as he also did with Sixth Sense's ghost story and Unbreakable's superhero tale) to open heady themes to audiences who normally wouldn't watch introspective movies. The Matrix also used this tactic: lure audiences with slick special effects and explosions and then ask deep philosophical questions.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, went in another direction. His cult favorite TV show certainly explored the Big Questions, but he didn't want just anyone to watch it. He says he gave the show a ridiculous name because if people couldn't get past it, he didn't want them watching. If viewers could accept the ironic name and the incongruous plot (about a California girl hunting vampires), Whedon figured, they must have the ironic sensibilities and openness needed to get what he was doing. He wanted viewers to have to work to get the show: to dedicate themselves to consistent watching and to get past the outward appearance that this was Dawson's Creek with demons.

Apparently, he found the right audience. During its seven-season run (ending in May 2003), Buffy never had big ratings. But it did win critics' raves and an aggressively loyal following that made it a cultural phenomenon. In perhaps exactly the reaction Whedon wanted from his viewers, fans didn't just watch episodes—they devoured and digested them. (For example, check out Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies.)

Whedon's baby began as a flippant 1992 movie of the same name, in which an L.A. cheerleader is told that she is her generation's chosen one, a slayer born with supernatural abilities to fight the very real demons that walk our earth. Serving as only the film's writer, Whedon was unhappy with the cheesiness of its execution and took the story back into his own hands for the 1997 launch of the TV series.

The show started with Buffy ...

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