[posted 03.20.2002]


ONE TRUISM ABOUT LONG-RUNNING television series is that the longer they run, the more the regular characters become like the actors playing them. And any smart person making a TV show learns to use this to their advantage. No one does this better than the wisest person making TV shows today, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel.

Not only does Whedon take into account his actors’ personalities — writing the character of Willow Rosenberg to match Alyson Hannigan’s peculiar but adorable speech patterns, giving Anya Emerson some of the actor Emma Caulfield’s capitalist zeal — but he goes a step further, letting the actors express not just their personalities but also often their real life emotions on-screen.

He does this best, and most poignantly, with his star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays the title character, Buffy Summers. Before landing the part of Buffy, Gellar worked on soaps — including playing Kendall Hart Lang Henry on All My Children for two years. She’s a good actor, but not the best one on TV, or even on Buffy (that’d be James Marsters, who plays the dreamy vampire Spike), but she brings such a delicious mixture of bemusement and passion and sorrow to the character that from the very first episode I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Playing Buffy is like Gellar’s birthright, just as being the Slayer is undeniably Buffy’s.

Since the beginning, Buffy hasn’t totally embraced her role as the chosen one, the one who would rid Sunnydale, California of evil vampires and save the world from various demony threats and not a few apocalypses. She has balked at her duties, wishing she could just lead a “normal” life like her friends. When she comes out to her mother, in the last episode of the series’ second season, she complains, “It doesn’t stop! Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you know how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or, god, even studying. But I have to save the world. Again.” And I can’t help hearing Sarah Michelle Gellar in those lines. OK, unlike Buffy, Gellar had a choice — she didn’t have to take the part and make millions of dollars and become famous (not that anyone could have predicted the show’s success when it debuted as a midseason replacement on the little-seen WB in 1997). But her job is more demanding than those of the show’s supporting cast. Being the Slayer is hard, and probably sometimes lonely, for Gellar, too. She doesn’t have to save the world, but she does have to carry the show.

In the show’s fourth season, Whedon penned an episode incorporating a classic TV gimmick — the body-switching trick. In “Who Are You?” Buffy and her dark-side analogue, the “rogue Slayer” Faith, trade bodies, forcing the two actresses — Gellar and Eliza Dushku — to assume each other’s characters. This episode came at a time when Gellar had been playing Buffy for three years. Any actor has to get kind of sick of pretending to be the same person for so long by then. And so Whedon gave Gellar a new role to play: Faith, someone diametrically opposed to the character she usually plays, someone who illustrates exactly what Buffy is not. Gellar got to play the bad girl and make someone else be the hero for a change.

You can feel the thrill Gellar gets when she’s playing Faith in Buffy’s body, allowed to parody the character she’s had to inhabit unironically for four seasons. Early in the episode, she looks in the mirror and mockingly delivers the lines: “You can’t do that. That would be wrong. Hey. I’m Buffy Summers. I’ll kick your ass with my righteous fiery Slayerness.” When her once-nemesis Spike asks, “You know why I really hate you, Summers?” Gellar replies, with relish, “I’m a stuck-up tight-ass with no sense of fun? ‘Cause I could do anything I want and instead I just pout and whine and feel the burden of Slayerness?” What a nice present Whedon gave his actress, letting her make fun of Buffy just when Buffy was starting to feel like a humorless stick in the mud, just when maybe Gellar herself was wondering why Buffy has to just pout and whine all the time, while Faith gets to raise hell.

By the fifth season, Gellar started to seem a little weary of being the Slayer. Her acting didn’t have the spontaneity of earlier seasons. Sometimes she seemed vacant, like she was walking through the part — blah blah blah, slay vampire, blah blah blah, witty repartee, kiss boy, save world, blah blah blah. But, like I said, Whedon is really smart. Instead of asking Gellar to act like she means it, he gave her something she really could mean. Buffy herself, in her own body, got sick of being the Slayer, too. She stopped believing wholeheartedly in her mission. She wanted out of her birthright, her hero status, her life. As Gellar’s acting lost some of its emotional potency, Buffy lost touch with her feelings. She spent most of one episode — “The Weight of the World” — literally in a state of catatonia.

And then…Whedon let her out. He gave her a perfect, gorgeous exit. In that season’s finale, Buffy’s job dissatisfaction reached a dizzying high, and she leapt to her death — saving the world once again and turning in her resignation in the most spectacular way (if you didn’t see it, find someone who taped it and borrow it; it’s too complicated to explain).

But Buffy’s friends couldn’t let her go so easily. They did some witchcraft mojo over her grave and brought her back from the dead. They needed her, they said. The world needed its Slayer just as much as the show needs its Slayer. There would be no Buffy without Buffy, and no Buffy without Gellar, and so she had to come back for another season.

And if we think of Buffy’s friends as more than just the Scooby gang, the people who help her fight against evil things every week, but also as the actors who play those characters and the entire crew that puts the show together, their situation makes sense on a non-fictional level as well. They can’t do the show without her. They need her. They can’t let her leave. And they convince themselves that she’s better off with them, too.

(Buffy’s gang stands in for the viewers here, as well. We weren’t ready to let Buffy go, either. I myself freaked out when she died, convinced that the show was over and that the much-publicized move to UPN was a hoax. My boyfriend had to spend hours on the phone, talking me down.)

The Scoobies went forward with their resurrection plan (which, we were repeatedly told, was ill-conceived and all kinds of dangerous — as foolhardy, perhaps, as trying to sell a TV character’s resurrection to an audience with high standards) with the assumption that after she offed herself Buffy was trapped in some unimaginably horrible hell dimension, one that only they could (or would) save her from. The saddest revelation on the series so far is that Buffy, in truth, had gone to heaven. She’d been happy, and content. The parallel here is obvious: Maybe life after Buffy wouldn’t be bad for Gellar. Maybe she’d get to stop doing TV, which means hard work and long hours, especially for a star, and get into movies, where she could work less and do projects that would be consistently new and interesting to her, where she’d get to stretch herself more as an actor — where she wouldn’t have to be the Slayer anymore.

The sad thing is, while Buffy’s friends are getting jobs, almost getting married, doing all the things one does when one becomes an adult — even her little sister talks about how many opportunities are available to her in the future — what else is Buffy going to do? What’s higher than hero? What’s bigger than saving the world? What job does having slain vampires since you were 15 years old qualify you for? And what’s next for Sarah Michelle Gellar? What do you do for an encore when you’ve already been the star of arguably the best show in television history? This season Buffy’s working at a fast-food restaurant called, humiliatingly, the Doublemeat Palace. I hope the future works out better for Gellar, though it’s hard to imagine she could do anything as well as she does Buffy. I worry that it’s all downhill from here for her, too. She’s done a few movies, and was effectively wicked and funny in one of them (_Cruel Intentions_), but they’ve all pretty much flopped; she has yet to choose — or be chosen for — a film project as brilliant as the TV show that made her a star.

On the other hand, Buffy did surprise her family and friends when she scored high enough on her SATs to get into her choice of good schools. But she wasn’t able to go away to college — her Slayer duties wouldn’t let her leave Sunnydale. This is how I prefer to think of Buffy and Gellar — they can do great things, great non-_Buffy_-related things, once the slaying is over.

The best episode this season has been “Once More, With Feeling,” the Buffy musical. (This one you have to borrow if you haven’t seen it. I command you. You will not be sorry. It’s the best hour of television maybe ever. Actually it’s one hour, 10 minutes. But that’s beside the point.) Whedon wrote the whole show, including all the songs, and he gave Gellar some great lines, in which she gets to express her own and Buffy’s weariness with their jobs. She sings lyrics like, “I’ve been making shows of trading blows, just hoping no one knows that I’ve been going through the motions, walking through the part. Nothing seems to penetrate my heart.” The episode’s biggest number is so fiercely meta, you don’t have to buy into my crazy theory to hear that it’s not just Buffy singing, it’s Gellar, too: “Life’s a show, and we all play our parts. And when the music starts, we open up our hearts.” Later, she sings: “Still my friends don’t know why I ignore the million things or more I should be dancing for: all the joy life sends, family and friends, all the twists and bends, knowing that it ends. Well that depends — on if they let you go, or if they know enough to know that when you’ve bowed, you leave the crowd.” At that lament she’s not the only one who seems to be wishing the rest of the cast would just let her take her final bow, for chrissakes. And in that song’s crescendo, it’s like Gellar’s singing right to Whedon: “Don’t give me songs. Give me something to sing about.”

What’s so brilliant is that he is giving her something to sing about. He’s taken what any other TV producer would see as a real disaster — his star’s growing restlessness with playing her part — and written that problem right into the script, thus making Gellar’s performance real again (Buffy seems emotionally present again lately in a way we haven’t seen since early in season three). Whedon is letting her give voice — through Buffy — to her own mixed feelings about the gift he gave her five years ago by casting her in the role of a lifetime.

“Once More, With Feeling” ends with the Scooby gang and Giles wondering, “God knows, you can tell the end is near — where do we go from here?” And the end is near for all of them — the characters, the people playing them, the whole Buffy crew (next season is rumored to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s last). While her friends are wondering about the future, though, Buffy has run off to make out with Spike in secret. Her compatriots are left to ponder the big picture, their mission and the show’s, while she is off seeking her own private, personal fulfillment. The music crescendoes under Buffy and Spike’s kiss, and it just seems so hopeful — seeing Buffy finally act selfishly, choosing happiness over heroism.

I’ve got high hopes for the end of the series: I want Spike to transcend his inherent evilness. I want Dawn, Buffy’s little sister, to save the day, just once. I want Angel to come back and tie up some loose ends. I want Willow to be Buffy’s best friend and confidante again, and I want Anya to grow into her intelligence and her gigantic heart. And, most of all, I want Joss Whedon to give Buffy, and Gellar, as graceful an exit as both of them have earned.

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anaheed alani is a copy editor and writer living in chicago. she has physically touched james marsters.