The full seven-season run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available on DVD for $69.99 today at Amazon; if you haven't already seen the show, you should not hesitate to buy it. Usually when I mention these things I carry on about how great the show is, why it was important, that kind of thing. Well, those things apply here; it really is one of the great TV shows. But there's a whole shelf of books (not to mention a crazed fan community and large pack of TV-critic boosters) that'll tell you all about it.
I'll just address four common criticisms of the show and be done with it.
Monsters are stupid. You might say, no one knows this better than Joss Whedon. Or you might say: monster movies and TV might be stupid, but monsters - which is to say anxieties - definitely are not.
BtVS started out as a show about a demon-hunting teenager, but that subject was always meant primarily as an allegory - (initially) for kids 'wrestling with their demons' and so forth. My college mentor asked, annoyed, why the show wasn't satisfied being a sharply-observed domestic drama; I'd now answer that BtVS's emotional spectrum wouldn't be as vast and various, its intensities so unpredictable and complex, without some kind of genre-based magnification going on in any case.
BtVS is a horror-comedy that always chooses emotional seriousness over thrills'n'chills, though it does provide those in mixed measure. The show get darker as it went along, but it stayed funny - hysterically funny much of the time. (For a while it might've been the best comedy on network TV.) But Whedon and his writers usually found a way to treat their onscreen horrors both ironically, knowingly - as their audience no doubt would - and empathetically, by taking the characters' fears totally seriously. The show is all about (overcoming) private terrors: possession by hyena spirits models an obsession with 'fitting in'; Jekyll/Hyde's girlfriend ('I bring it out of him') metaphorizes a kind of battered-wife syndrome; 'He's changed. He's not the same guy you fell for' is made hauntingly literal; mom's waaaaay too-perfect boyfriend wants something from her that maybe it isn't the daughter's place to comment on; the girl who's tired of being 'Old Reliable' ('Old Faithful'? 'Old Yeller'?) accidentally warps her vampire self in from an alternate dimension and everyone gets to see what things are like with the new unreliable girl around; etc., etc., etc.
The demons/vampires/ghosts metaphors grant the writers an evocative, familiar shorthand with which to explore the emotional crises of high school. They're good fun in their own right, usually, but they're often hoary or played ironically. Here's the promise: if you give yourself to the characters, the show will always, without exception, play straight with you.
Few shows have had Buffy's emotional integrity.
It's a kids' show. This is simply incorrect - or rather incomplete. First, subject matter: It's not actually about kids, not even kids-in-adult-bodies. Season One is about high school sophomores, and really does feel like a very chaste teen horror-comedy. S2 explores the erotic side of its central metaphors; it's a gothic romance and very much set the template for several successor shows. S3 takes the admirable, unusual step of working its way back from the apocalyptic climax of S2, and its tone of weary resignation is in some ways its most 'grownup' feature. S4, set at U.C. Sunnydale, explicitly recalls the show's opening - the gang are freshmen now! - but the unmistakeable message is that you can't go back. One suspects that Joss Whedon had to learn that lesson himself, to an extent.
Seasons 5-7 are explicitly adult in tone and content, with the main characters moving to caretaker roles in a much-expanded narrative universe.
As for its treatment of its material:
In the second half of the series premiere, Buffy gets grounded - she's forbidden from going out and partying (she'd actually planned on fighting vampires and such). Her mom ignores her complaints: 'I know. You have to go out or it'll be the end of the world. Everything is life or death when you're a sixteen year old girl.' From the script:
Joyce leaves, closing the door quietly but firmly behind her. After a moment, Buffy reaches into the truck.
ANGLE: IN THE TRUNK
Girl stuff, memorabilia, Teen Beat magazines.
Buffy reaches in and lifts out the inside -- the trunk has a false bottom. Below it stakes, crosses, host, garlic, and a widemouthed jar of holy water.
Buffy takes out a particularly deadly looking stake. It fits in her hand like it's part of it. She stuffs it into a bag, along with a few other items.
She stands, goes to the door. Listens by it.
She gets to the window, opens it. Starts crawling out.
Joyce's line seems like a knowing wink at the audience, and the image of the trunk's hidden contents as as on-the-nose as metaphors get. But this is the key to understanding Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon: both moments are meant both ironically and in total seriousness. You're supposed to laugh and die of a broken heart. In other words, even though we recognize that it's ridiculous that being a teenager feels this way...being a teenager does feel this way. And Whedon never, ever laughs at his characters' pain, only through it.
It's cheesy. Really? Does that sound cheesy to you?
It's a low-budget horror-comedy TV show on a fledgling network. There's plenty of hammy acting and tacky monster makeup, and the vampire-fang prosthetics make the actors lisp, and it's hard to play vampires straight these days.
But while the show makes light of its own cheesiness all the time, this winking and nudging never comes at the expense of the characters' inner continuity. Do you realize how goddamn rare that is? (I'm not only looking at you, Lost fans, but I am indeed looking at you...)
Season One is rubbish. It's inconsistent and has the show's only terrible episodes, but the material is stronger than detractors claim. Strong episodes: 1-2, 6 ('The Pack')(!!!!), 9-12. 'Nightmares' and 'Prophecy Girl,' in particular, suggest the operatic intensity and thematic complexity of later seasons, and the way Season Two leaps off from 'Prophecy Girl' is a clear indication of how much Whedon's understanding of the show had deepened over time. Season Two moves the show decisively forward toward late-adolescence and adulthood.
Plus Season One is short.
Go buy it. I'm serious. In a world containing The Wire and Deadwood it's weird to say that Buffy is one of the best TV shows yet made, but it is. At worst it was diverting, unusually honest teen-horror-dramedy. At its best, nobody could touch it.