When Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) sacrificed her own life, for the second time, to save Earth from the fiends of hell, her epitaph was simple but to the point:
"She Saved the World - a Lot."
Returned to life (again), she kept doing just that for the past two years, aided by bumbling pal Xander (Nicholas Brendon), lesbian witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan), on-again-off-again sex partner and reformed vampire Spike (James Marsters) and her proper British watcher Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head).
As "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" rips through its last four episodes on the way to its May 20 series-ending finale, some of the show's devoted fans wonder whether Buffy will meet the Grim Reaper for yet a third time, even as they celebrate a seven-year love affair that was more than just a TV show.
"Buffy was designed to be a pop culture icon," says Joss Whedon, the show's creator. "She became that, and so she exists beyond her ratings. It's true we've never found an enormous audience. At the same time, we've retained our cult status in that our viewership has never been as large as the awareness of us."
And so we come to praise "Buffy," not to bury her, as she and the whole Scooby Gang head into the syndicated and DVD sunset, leaving Sunnydale (and the greater TV landscape) a much better place.
When Whedon turned "Buffy" into a WB series in 1997 (after a botched 1992 feature version starring Kristy Swanson), he had no idea that his silly-sounding premise would expand into a metaphorically rich, funny-scary saga that stretched television's imaginative boundaries.
"I just sort of had the basic notion: That it's tough to make it in high school, and it will be funny," Whedon says. "The basic idea - the empowerment of girls and the toughness of this life - was always there, but it grew beyond my best intentions."
Beneath the series' glib-prickly dialogue and chopsocky fight scenes, there dwelt surprising emotional depths. In the first three seasons, Buffy's secret identity as protector of Sunnydale, and the dork status of Willow and Xander, spoke to the social ostracism many people experience in high school. The show cast supernatural metaphors over other topics: surging teenage hormones (Seth Green's werewolf), addiction (Willow's dangerous jones for black magic), and codependent relations (Buffy and Spike, Xander and Anya, and the list goes on).
Some of the series highlights:
The doomed love affair between Buffy and the knightly vampire Angel (David Boreanaz), almost Wagnerian in its emotional intensity.
The musical episode "Once More With Feeling," in which the spellbound Scoobies burst into songs that revealed feelings they wanted to keep secret.
The nearly silent, creepy "Hush" that summoned the hallucinatory power of a nightmare.
The wrenching "The Body," about the death of Buffy's mother, an episode that launched Buffy and friends into the bleak world of adult responsibility for the feel-bad sixth season.
Although the ratings have never been stellar, fans have connected to "Buffy" with an intensity that surpasses most TV watching. Thousands of them write their own versions of ``Buffy'' stories on the Internet; at the archive www.fanfiction.net, there are almost 16,000 stories about ``Buffy'' characters, far more than on any other topic.
The Buffy mythology and story is so sprawling and complex that the show's fans and writers have a word for it - the "Buffyverse"- as if this TV show encompasses an entire universe.
"It's a really good example of a rich text," says Rhonda V. Wilcox of Decatur, Ga., who teaches English at Gordon College and runs a Web site for the academic study of "Buffy" (www.slayage.tv).
"There is wonderful literature that is simple and straightforward, but many of the great works of literature have multiple levels of meaning, and I think "Buffy" has that," Wilcox continues. "You can go deep or you can go long."
At a recent Popular Culture Association conference in New Orleans, "Buffy" was a favored topic among the college professors, who value the show's mythic qualities.
"For academics, there's being able to enjoy it on a fan level, but then being able to deconstruct it is even more pleasurable," says Tanya Cochran, assistant professor of English at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tenn. At the conference, she presented a paper titled "The Fate of Sapphic Love on 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'"
Other papers at the conference compared "Buffy" to the work of Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot and Soren Kierkegaard, as well as to Marvel comic books.
While there is sadness that the series is ending, there's also an acknowledgment among fans that it's better to go out in a burst of glory than to overstay your welcome as some shows do.
"It's better than what happened with 'The X Files'," says Cochran. "We were going, 'Oh, brother, just wrap it up already.'"
While the decision to end the series hinged on star Gellar's decision not to return for an eighth season, Whedon always knew this year would be his last. "That's not for lack of love or lack of stories, just pure physical exhaustion," he says. "I was afraid I was gonna flip and compromise and not care. And it always shows."
Um, did someone mention "The X-Files?"
"Fans are going to be angry if Joss doesn't pull something grand off," Cochran says. "I think there's going to be a bittersweet ending, because the whole show has been bittersweet. But ultimately it will be a triumph of the human soul."
Whedon isn't leaking much. "We do not destroy the entire fabric of the universe," he says, but his show has never shied away from bumping off characters unexpectedly. He teasingly adds, "Some people live."
Summing up his show's goal and possible legacy, Whedon says, ``The thing we were trying to do was to tell epic, timeless stories on a small emotional scale. That sort of thing, when it's done right, certainly can live on. Will it? I don't know. I do know the character as a concept has affected the way people think about heroines and heroes, and who can front a show and what boys will watch and a lot of different things. That's more important a legacy to me than that they're still watching the episodes."
So bye-bye, "Buffy."
And if you're wondering what that strange noise is, it's the sound of the show's fans imitating the cartoon monster that's the mascot for Whedon's Mutant Enemy production company: "Grrrr! Arrrrgh!"
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