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Los Angeles City Beat - Heroes

By Nathalie Nichols

Saturday 4 October 2003

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon liked to torture his audience, and I, for one, enjoyed every second of the pain. Before I became a true believer, I thought it was a dumb title for a show that had to be stupid. But then I watched Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), then still in high school, destroy her true love, Angel (David Boreanaz), to save the world. Angel eventually got better, but I was hooked for life.

Ironically, now Buffy is gone, and the spinoff series Angel lives on. But more on that in a minute.

Kelley Deal of alt-rock band the Breeders once affectionately called Buffy "Friends with vampires," riffing on the supernatural drama’s funny-to-moving way of blending smart fashion, snappy dialogue, perfect hair, demon-killing, and life crises. During her seven seasons, Buffy suffered loads of emotional trauma. Whedon and his writers told human tales through a supernatural filter, making the sundry evils she and her pals fought metaphorically equal to - and often no match for - life’s fiendishness : peers, classes, parents, romance, adulthood. Ordinary travails were never beside the point - they were the point. Dispatching vampires was easy for Buffy ; hiding her true calling from her mom, passing psychology, and keeping a boyfriend were way harder.

The Buffy gang faced danger with relentless wisecracks, bantering in a unique pop-culture-driven lexicon that was readily absorbed by the show’s global following. And Buffy unflinchingly pushed the boundaries of its eight-o’clock time slot with stories involving school violence, parental death, lesbian romance, hot sex, and even some song and dance.

Sure, the show developed a mythology so complex that outsiders find it impenetrable. But I’ve seen enough newbies devour videotapes and DVDs to know that the convoluted character relationships and plot developments don’t deter viewers willing to suspend disbelief and discover the delights of what fans call the Buffyverse.

To me, the appeal was simple : the thrill of watching tiny Buffy march up to kick the ass of any given dark thing, inevitably getting slammed around in a frenzy of martial-arts moves, but never failing to hammer home her trusty stake, Mr. Pointy. Her fearless conviction that she would prevail made me feel powerful, too.

Buffy was special, and who doesn’t wanna be special ? Well, she didn’t. Whedon conceived her as a sort of feminist revenge fantasy : What if the stereotypical blonde victim in countless horror flicks got to deal out the death instead ? He turned this simple-yet-stunning paradigm shift into a myth of Draculaic proportions, creating the super-strong Slayer, "one girl in all the world, a Chosen One," the creature no vampire wanted to meet in a dark alley. But Buffy was never too happy with her position behind the supernatural velvet rope.

The emphasis, however, is on "a" Chosen One. Slayers tend to die young, and suddenly. The second a Slayer expires, the ancient mystical mechanism spits out another one. Buffy was just one link in a long chain of highly divergent Slayers - from prepared since birth to utterly clueless - that would stretch into infinity.

Buffy wasn’t a warrior-in-training but a suburban teen in Sunnydale, California, conveniently positioned above a "Hellmouth," a conduit to the netherworld that naturally attracted evil things. She also tended to attract evil things, having had not one but two vampire lovers : Angel, cursed with a soul (and thus an agonizing awareness of his own evil nature), who proved so popular he got his own series, and Spike (James Marsters), Angel’s erstwhile partner/rival in fangy crime, who started out super-evil but eventually got his own soul and became a hero himself.

In Buffy’s final season, the First Evil itself attempted to wipe out every girl who could become a Slayer, to break the chain forever. Naturally, Buffy had to save both these potential Slayers (unofficially dubbed Slayerettes) and the world. Following in Whedon’s footsteps, she turned the tables on her own myth, enlisting her powerful witch friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) to imbue Slayer powers into every potential Slayer on earth.

The moment when Slayer essence is funneled into girls around the globe - from a preadolescent softball player to a teenager taking what you know is her last parental beating - was a startling realization of Slayer potential indeed. Now, everyone was special. The notion of legions of girls not physically intimidated by the world felt profoundly generous and beautiful. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking that the Slayerettes fought so splendidly with Buffy in the final confrontation because they’d already been trained to fight. When they got the power, they knew exactly what to do with it.

As for Buffy, she got to win. (With a little help from Spike and a mysterious amulet delivered to her by Angel.) And she also got to share the wealth, therefore feeling less alone.

Transformation was a big theme on Buffy as well as Angel, which premiered its fifth season last Wednesday (October 1). The first of a two-parter written and directed by Whedon has Angel and his L.A-based gang of evil-fighters undergoing some radical changes. Still, there’s bitter irony in knowing that, at least for now, the Buffyverse revolves around a broody white guy who runs the L.A. branch of a giant law firm.

OK, so it’s an evil interdimensional law firm. And he’s an undead broody white guy. Big deal.

Angel is now in charge of Wolfram & Hart and the diabolical attorneys he’d formerly battled. The situation creates much hilarity and moral confusion among the gang, but Angel is convinced he can use this powerful new weapon to do good. The production design reflects his change of heart : Previously set in a dark, menacing Los Angeles, Angel is now practically Melrose Place, what with the sleek, modern architecture of the firm’s vast offices, more action taking place in daylight, and Angel himself moving from his shadowy gothic hotel digs into a luminescent penthouse. Behind the firm’s "necro-tempered glass," he can even stand in sunlight without burning up. But the light is still outside, beyond Angel’s reach. It remains to be seen whether he’ll ever actually get to it.

Especially since Spike has crossed over to Angel. In part two, airing October 8, he immediately laughs the idea of fighting evil from within the belly of the beast right off the screen. So, maybe this season will be all about these undead rivals - both with souls, both with a thing for the Slayer (who, rumor has it, will be dropping by) - scuffling over how to battle the evil of which neither is entirely free. Half the fun’s going to be watching Spike & Angel verbally (and eventually, let’s hope, physically) bitch-slap each other like some snarky, undead Starsky & Hutch.

Buffy did address the banality of evil, but the Slayer’s certainty in destroying hairy/scaly wickedness was undeniably appealing in this non-black-&-white world of ours, where evil can be hidden, or so institutionally embedded it seems more undefeatable than any bloodsucker.

Angel has always blurred the lines, making neither good nor evil so obvious. Indeed, that ambiguity has infected its original premise, which brought the souled vampire to L.A. to "help the helpless" and redeem himself for the centuries of suffering he caused. Yet, as Spike’s plight unfolds, Whedon seems to be saying that remorse is possible, changing from evil to good is possible, but absolution is not - even if you save the world, as Spike grandly declares he did. (So much for the big feminist-hero moment.) It’s unsettling, the thought that one can never be redeemed. But it’s entirely Joss to upset us and make us beg for more. V

Angel, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on the WB.