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Pilot Analysis… Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Updated: May 11

Analysing the all kicking, all slaying pilot of this campy cult favourite…

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a much beloved show running from 1997–2003, was a firm fan-favourite of the teen horror persuasion, created by Joss Whedon for the WB Network.


The show was such a hit it span off an entire universe, including popular series, Angel (1999–2004) starring David Boreanaz, and created many well-loved characters and a rabid fan-base that rages on to this day. As per its logline–

“A young woman, destined to slay vampires, demons and other infernal creatures, deals with her life fighting evil, with the help of her friends.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows the story of Buffy Summers, a 16-year-old LA girl who is imbued with supernatural powers, in order to embrace her calling of becoming “the chosen one” AKA a Vampire Slayer.


Based on the movie of the same name, in which Buffy fights off a horde of vampires by burning down her high school gymnasium, she finds herself in a new town looking for a fresh start with her mother, Joyce.


Unfortunately, Buffy quickly learns that a fresh start is out of the question, when it's revealed that her new home, Sunnydale, is a hotbed of mystical energy that will require her to accept her calling whether she likes it or not.


From then on Buffy is forced to lead a double-life, fighting evil while also trying to find time to date and study. Luckily, she has the help of Watcher, Giles, and her school friends, Xander and Willow.


The pilot, written by Joss Whedon, stars Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Head, Charisma Carpenter, Kristine Sutherland, David Boreanaz, Julie Benz, Mark Metcalf, Brian Thompson, Ken Lerner and Eric Balfour.



How Buffy beat development hell

What many don’t know is that the pilot episode that we all saw titled “Welcome to the Hellmouth” was not the original pilot of Buffy. There's an interesting story to how Buffy eventually made it to air, which is characteristic of many projects from Whedon’s oeuvre.


Whedon has always had a desire to subvert expectations, which is part of the reason his work is so groundbreaking. Unfortunately, going against the norm never plays well with network executives, who would rather emulate what has gone before than take a risk on anything new.


Whedon always envisioned Buffy for TV, but due to lack of faith at the WB, it was instead developed as a movie, staring teen-idols Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry, which as Whedon put it “got away from him”. The movie’s tone was completely changed to fit the teen horror ideal and bombed pretty spectacularly.


However, Whedon never gave up on his vision, and fought to get his TV show. Although, the WB still had reservations and only commissioned a 25-minute pilot, which meant the original script had to be cut down significantly. Luckily, Buffy was commissioned for a half-season, literally by the skin of its teeth, and the rest is history.



What type of pilot are we looking at?

Despite having a lot of lore and backstory, since the pilot follows on from the events of the movie, Whedon went for a soft premise pilot. This is where the audience is thrown into the action using clever story-telling mechanisms to help explain important plot points.


In the case of Buffy, she is the new girl in town, already chosen, and trying to leave her past behind her. There are light references to the movie, which help fill in some of the blanks so that the story can move ahead without wasting too much time setting up the premise.


The narrative is simple so we get a chance to establish character dynamics, as well as a hint of the season’s central antagonist, without overdoing it. They also made the clever decision of splitting the pilot into two-parts, so the story has time to breathe without being rushed.


As with many genre shows, despite being a 1-hour drama, Buffy has many of the same hallmarks of a 30-minute comedy, as it generally follows a “story of the week” format.


Where it differs is that there is always an overarching “big bad” who the characters beat back by foiling their evil schemes to ensure the chase continues with each new episode.



Before we start…

Going forward in this series, I will be adding in some references in the pilot analysis to point out certain mechanisms the writers have used to help explain why certain choices may have been made within the plot.


The intention of this series is to educate writers and help them take a critical view of pieces of work so they can identify these things within their own writing.


These include:

  • (F) foreshadowing - hints to future plot points

  • (Ex) Exposition - explanations of backstory, lore or important plot elements

  • (S) Subversion - this is where the writers play into a trope, only to subvert the viewer’s expectations

  • (L) logistical reasons - creative choices I think were made due to practical reasons (such as budget constraints, filming locations, actor schedules, etc.).


I may add more as we move forward, but these are the references as of now. 



So, without further ado, it's time for Pilot Analysis… Buffy the Vampire Slayer edition…


Spoilers graphic

Episode Structure
Teaser

A boy and girl break into Sunnydale High School. It's the typical horror trope of a wayward boy taking an innocent catholic school girl off the beaten track so they can hook up, blissfully unaware of the things that go bump in the night.


As they move through the school halls the girl, Darla (Benz), becomes frightened, believing she can hear things moving about in the dark, and asks her paramour “Is somebody here?”.


The bad-boy comforts her by saying “no, we’re completely alone…” (F).


"Good", she says before suddenly transforming into a hideous vampire and draining the boy of his blood (S). Moral of the story – things are not always as they seem in this town…


Act One

Cut to – Buffy Summers (Gellar), our leading lady, asleep in her bed but she's troubled by one of her prophetic dreams allowing her to witness all of the horrors she will encounter this season before they happen (F).


Buffy awakens with a start to a room full of moving boxes and her mother reminding her not to be late for her “first day of school”. Buffy's not thrilled by the prospect of this.


She's driven to school by Joyce (Sutherland), her mum, to the one and only Sunnydale High, where her mum wishes her a good day and tells her “try not to get kicked out” as Buffy heads into school (Ex).


Then, class clown Xander (Brendon) rolls in on his skateboard, but upon seeing Buffy he is so taken by her beauty that he ends up crashing into a railing. Luckily, his best friend, lovable nerd, Willow (Hannigan) is there to witness his fall.


Xander tells Willow that he's struggling in Math, and asks her to help him study, because Willow is such a good and diligent student (Ex). She tells Xander to pick up a textbook from the library so they can meet later that day to study (F).


Xander and Willow then run into their friend Jesse (Balfour), who asks if they’ve seen the new girl, to which Xander mentions he has and Willow explains that she has transferred part way through the year from another high school (Ex).


Buffy meets with Principal Flutie (Lerner) to discuss her school record, who explains that she will be given a “clean slate” at Sunnydale, despite burning down the gym at her previous school, which Buffy blames on “Vampir–asbestos” (Ex).


As she’s leaving the Principal’s office, Buffy drops her purse and Xander happens to be there to help her pick it up. He tries to charm her but fumbles it, Buffy is kind to him but quickly excuses herself to class. Xander realises she’s dropped her… “stake?”


Buffy finds herself in History class without a textbook, but luckily resident Queen Bee Cordelia (Carpenter) is there to share. Cordelia tells Buffy to get a textbook from the library and offers to take her. Cordelia conducts a “popular girl audition”, that former cheerleader, Buffy aces.


Cordelia invites Buffy to the Bronze, a local club, when they run into Willow, who Cordelia shamelessly bullies. She instructs Buffy to suss out who the losers are so she can avoid them. Buffy nods along but it’s clear she empathises with Willow, who flees the scene.


Having reached the library, Cordelia says bye to Buffy and tells her she’ll see her later in gym (F), Buffy quietly voices her displeasure at the thought before she heads into the library.


There Buffy meets studious Englishman, Giles (Head), who seems to know who she is already, and is eager to help. Buffy says she needs a book, only for Giles to present her with a tome on Vampyr lore (Ex). A freaked out Buffy tells Giles he is mistaken and flees.


Later, some of the popular girls are discussing Buffy in a locker-room, they gossip about why Buffy was made to transfer from her High School in LA. However, when Kora opens her locker the bad-boy from the Teaser falls out onto her – DEAD!



Act Two

At lunch Buffy approaches Willow, who having seen Buffy with Cordelia, assume she is there to move her along so cooler people can have the seat. However, Buffy has actually sought Willow out on purpose to ask if she can help her get caught up at school (Ex).


Willow is relieved and she and Buffy immediately strike up a good rapport with one another, but are crashed by Xander and Jesse, who want to know all about Buffy.


Xander gives Buffy her stake back, who explains it away by claiming people in LA use them for self-defence. While the group are talking, Cordelia appears to tell Buffy that gym is cancelled due to the dead guy.


With her Slayer senses tingling, Buffy asks questions about the state of the body, but Cordelia doesn’t have any more information, so Buffy excuses herself, while Jesse attempts to hit on Cordelia (F).


Buffy heads to the gym to investigate, where she uses her super strength to break a door-handle to get past a locked door. Once inside, she finds the body of the deceased bad-boy, who has fang marks on his neck.


Much to Buffy’s chagrin, he was indeed killed by a vampire… damn it.


Annoyed, Buffy heads to the library to vent to Giles about it, since he’s the only one who will understand. They discuss her calling, explaining how she is the “chosen one” whose job it is to kill the things that go bump in the night, but she doesn’t want to be.


Giles explains he's a Watcher whose job it is to train her, but Buffy says this Slayer nonsense already got expelled once for burning down a school gym (Ex). Buffy leaves, with Giles hot on her heels, only for Xander to appear having heard everything.


Giles catches up with Buffy and tells her there have been portents of evil and he doesn’t think her being in Sunnydale is a coincidence. The town is a nexus of dark energy that attracts evil things, but Buffy dismisses this saying “How bad can it be?” (F)


However, under the earth evil things are lurking, as vampire henchman, Luke (Thompson), is chanting as if preparing to bring forth some evil thing… (F)


Act Three

After school, Buffy gets ready to go to the Bronze, when her mum comes to talk to her. Unaware of Buffy’s calling, Joyce believes the trouble in LA to be a youthful mishap caused by distracted parenting. Buffy promises she’ll try to stay out of trouble (F).


Unfortunately, as Buffy walks to the Bronze, she's followed by a shadowy figure, who we assume intends to harm her. However, the ever ready Buffy senses this, and using her Slayer powers, prepares to ambush her stalker.


Buffy attacks only to learn the handsome stranger (Boreanaz) has come to warn her about something bad rising in Sunnydale. He's horribly vague then rushes off into the night leaving Buffy baffled, although, he does gift her a nice silver crucifix as he leaves (F).


Next, Buffy arrives at the Bronze, where she again runs into Willow who's waiting there for Xander. Buffy asks if Xander is her boyfriend, and we learn that he isn't, and that Willow isn’t great at the whole dating malarky.


Seeing an opportunity to pump up her new friend, Buffy tells Willow that she ought to throw caution to the wind and just talk to guys since she “might be dead tomorrow” (F). Buffy then sees Giles stood on the mezzanine and excuses herself to go talk to him.


Buffy asks Giles why he’s there and he says he’s trying to work out what the evil scheme is and figures this is a good place to look. During which time, Jesse arrives and again attempts to hit on Cordelia, who rebuffs him with disgust (F).


Giles impresses upon Buffy to take her calling seriously saying she must learn to sense Vampires using her powers, only for Buffy to pick a Vamp out of the crowd based solely on his terrible dress sense. Feeling smug, she’s quickly brought back to earth when she sees Willow leave with said vampire.


Buffy rushes off to intervene, heading into a back room, where she accidentally threatens Cordelia with a stake. Buffy excuses herself, although everyone at school will know about the incident by morning, thanks to Cordelia.


Buffy heads back into the Bronze to tell Giles she hasn’t found the vampire and heads out to see if she can find them. As Buffy leaves, we find Jesse trying to hit on another girl – it’s none other than vampire femme fatale, Darla (F).


Underneath Sunnydale, über-vamp henchman, Luke, successfully raises the Master (Metcalf), an ancient vampire, back from the dead to bring about a bloody reckoning on the unsuspecting town.


Unfortunately, the Master is too weak to escape the lair, and needs sustenance (Ex). He asks Luke to “bring him a fresh one” (F).


Back above ground, Willow is headed to an ice-cream parlour with the vampire, but he’s starting to creep her out. Unfortunately Willow is far too nice to argue with him, even when Mr Vamp convinces her to take a shortcut through… the cemetery.


En route, Buffy runs into Xander and asks him if he’s seen Willow, at which point he makes a sly remark regarding what he heard in the Library. Buffy is aghast “was there a school bulletin!” wondering how everyone knows about her calling.


Xander, however, isn’t buying it saying that he doesn’t believe that she's this mythical Slayer. Buffy doesn’t have time for games and tells Xander he needs to help her find Willow or she’s toast by morning, still uncertain, he tags along to help look for Willow.


Back at the cemetery, Mr badly-dressed Vampire forces Willow into a Mausoleum, where they are intercepted by Darla who has brought Jesse along for an evening snack.


Darla and her sartorially-challenged comrade discuss this mission to bring humans back to the Master, although there isn’t any harm in sampling the merchandise first, right? (Ex). Just as Willow and Jesse are about to be malled, Buffy and Xander arrive to join the fun.


In typical Buffy fashion, she throws around some trash talk, knowing the unsuspecting vampires have absolutely no idea that such a small package is capable of dealing quite such a massive punch.


The vampires attack Buffy, only for her to do away with Willow’s date swiftly by plunging a stake through his heart. Darla is all caught up now, squaring up to face Buffy, while Xander escapes with Willow and Jesse.


As Buffy closes in on the cowering Darla, Luke appears and lifts her up by the neck like she is no more than a dry leaf. Luke throws Buffy across the mausoleum and scolds Darla for letting the humans go.


Darla warns Luke that Buffy is strong, before she flees, leaving Luke to clean up her mess.


While Buffy puts up a good fight, she’s not yet good enough to best Luke, who throws her into a casket with ease. Buffy, thinking Luke has fled, sits up only for him to jump on top of her ready to bite …oh, crap!


To be continued…



Conclusion

This pilot is quite unique in the sense that it both follows a movie, based on the same material, as well as being a two-part episode.


This means they have to walk a tight-rope of giving enough exposition without overburdening the narrative, entice an audience to watch part-two without having a resolution to the original story, while also having a strong enough narrative to support an entire episode. That is no mean feat.


There are lots of instances of foreshadowing that play out both within the episode, as well as hinting to events in part-two, such as the fate of Jesse. There is also effective uses of exposition that are very cleverly employed by referencing the events of the movie and then filling in the blanks.


They were quite smart in creating the character of Giles, who is for all intents and purposes an “exposition machine”, whose entire function is to deliver pertinent plot information every episode.


The British know-it-all librarian tasked with trying to rein-in a wayward American teenager adds some essential conflict while serving a vital narrative function within the show going forward.


Despite all the hubbub surrounding Joss Whedon, I am still a huge fan of Buffy, and think that this pilot is incredibly well-crafted. It delivers upon the assignment of establishing a story world, central conflict, characters, as well as being entertaining.


If you haven’t seen it, I more than recommend you check out Buffy the Vampire Slayer.



 

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Graphic for justwatch.com

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