The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Fast-Acting Long-Lasting Bathroom Reader.
Many people have a favorite book, movie, or TV show that nobody seems to appreciate. And then one day it’s considered a “classic.” Here’s the story of an underrated television show that became a cult and critical smash.
After graduating from Wesleyan University in 1987 with a degree in filmmaking, Joss Whedon went to Hollywood to write for television. Doors were already open for him -his grandfather wrote for Leave It to Beaver and his father wrote for The Golden Girls and Benson- so Whedon was able to land jobs on the sitcoms Roseanne and Parenthood. But he found the work dull and uncreative. He wanted to develop his own characters, in his own style. He wanted to do something different. (Image credit: Gage Skidmore)
So he decided to write a movie script that would follow a classic horror film formula, but with a couple of major differences.
* First, it would be funny and the dialogue was snappy and fast-paced.
* Second, Whedon flipped the character structure. The young blond girl who typically appeared in horror movies as a hysterical, screaming victim, was the hero. Men were helpless victims, not the heroes.
* To make it even more ironic, Whedon named his heroine the cutsiest, anti-action hero name he could imagine: Buffy Summers.
* The plot of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer: a high school cheerleader dates boys, attends class …and fights vampires, demons, and werewolves. And at the end, Buffy ends up not a hero, but an outcast when she burns down her school gym because it’s full of vampires.
A LOT AT STAKE
Twentieth Century Fox bought Whedon’s script, but it perplexed them. It wasn’t a straight horror or action movie and it wasn’t a straight comedy, either. It was about seemingly ditzy teenagers, but they talked like sophisticates from a 1940s Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movie. It also had an unhappy ending and an unlikely hero. Result: they made Whedon rewrite Buffy as a light comedy with cartoonish violence, no edge, and a weak, ditzy heroine. In other words, it became exactly the kind of movie Whedon was trying to parody. Fox’s changes didn’t work. Released in the summer of 1992, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer bombed.
BIG SCREEN, LITTLE SCREEN
Whedon was bitter that Hollywood had ruined his creation. He stopped trying to pitch ideas to the studios and became a screenwriter-for-hire, doing script-doctor work through the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Buffy was selling well on home video and Fox wanted to capitalize on its success. Fox executive Gail Berman remembered reading Whedon’s original script in 1992 and asked Whedon if he’d be interested in resurrecting Buffy as a TV show. He was, but on one condition: he would be head writer and executive producer, ensuring the series wouldn’t again stray from his original darkly comic, feminist angle. Berman agreed and a new series -a sequel to the film- was begun. Buffy (now played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) attends high school in Sunnydale, California, which sits on a “hell mouth,” a gateway to the world of demons and vampires.
Eleven episodes were filmed in 1996. The only problem: the show didn’t fit any category, so no network wanted to air it. After months of lobbying both broadcast and cable networks, the young WB Network agreed to air Buffy as a mid-season replacement. It premiered in March 1997 to 3.3 million viewers -the WB’s biggest audience ever at the time. Buffy became the WB’s first big hit and actually kept the struggling network afloat.
THE FORMULA: NO FORMULA
While the original movie was so fluffy that teenagers rejected it, the series followed Whedon’s vision and became one of the most influential and talked-about shows on TV. Young viewers liked it because it was hip and never condescending. Viewers of all ages appreciated its originality: no other show at the time combined comedy, horror, melodrama, romance, and action as well as philosophy, feminism, and mythology. Even critics liked it. Joe Queenan of TV Guide wrote: “Buffy is far from being the stuff of fantasy or mere satire, it is the most realistic portrayal of contemporary teenage life on television today.”
After Buffy's success, dozens of teen-oriented shows hit the airwaves in the late 1990s and early 2000s, all heavy on dialogue and wit, and many with a supernatural element. Buffy also showed that a woman could be the center of an action-oriented series. Among the shows that owe a debt: Alias, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, The O.C., Tru Calling, Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Roswell, Joan of Arcadia, Point Pleasant, Popular, Veronica Mars, Smallville, Gilmore Girls, and Charmed.
THE DEAD SHALL WALK AGAIN
Because Buffy was on a very small network, it couldn’t draw huge audiences like American Idol or CSI. (It never finished higher than 62nd in the ratings.) And because of that, the WB cancelled Buffy, the Vampire Slayer in 2001. Though it had saved the network in its infancy, the show was unceremoniously dropped -not even allowed a final episode to wrap up four years of stories. Fortunately, another small network, UPN, immediately picked it up and ran it for two more years. The modest but loyal audience followed. They’ve made Buffy a pop cultural phenomenon: there are countless Buffy books, comics, and websites. There’s even talk of another big screen version, featuring the TV series’ cast.
Joss Whedon got the last laugh. While Fox tinkered with his movie script and failed, he got to do Buffy the way he wanted and it was a huge success. And because Buffy worked so well, Whedon now gets creative control on everything he does, which was what he wanted all along.
* In the 1998 season, Buffy, ironically, falls in love with a vampire. That character named Angel (played by David Boreanaz), was so popular he got his own show, Angel. It aired from 1999 to 2004.
* Among the actors who launched their careers on Buffy: Sarah Michelle Gellar (Scooby-Doo), Seth Green (Austin Powers), And Alyson Hannigan (American Pie).
* In the episode “Hush,” demons that can only be killed by a human scream steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale, leaving them free to run wild. More than half the episode is dialogue-free. Whedon received Buffy’s only major Emmy nomination for this nearly wordless episode -in the writing category.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Fast-Acting Long-Lasting Bathroom Reader.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.
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