Greatest TV Pilots – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy Pilot

Buffy the Vampire Slayer logo

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Unaired Pilot
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

Season 1, Episodes 1-2, “Welcome to the Hellmouth”/”The Harvest”
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Charles Martin Smith/John T. Kretchmer
Aired March 10th, 1997

When it comes to the modern evolution of vampires in popular culture, everything started with a blonde girl arriving in a seemingly boring town, destined to fight the forces of evil while surviving the troubles of high school.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer began as a usurpation of the classic tale of monsters chasing young blonde women – this time, she chased them. The original 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry was met with mixed reviews (though it has since gained a cult following) and five years later when its scriptwriter Joss Whedon reviewed and revived Ms. Summers back from the world of the undead, the show’s success was far from certain.

The two part series premiere, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest”, was actually the second version of the pilot; the original unaired version differs greatly, mainly due to changes in featured characters, casting, and storyline. Whedon extends the plot to accommodate two episodes and changes to the cast are reflected in the staging and scripting, such as the casting of Alyson Hannigan as Willow and the inclusion of redeemed vampire Angel (David Boreanaz). Although perhaps not the most complex of plots, the series premiere certainly benefits from Whedon’s now-trademark sharp wit and carefully observed comments on popular culture.

Original Scooby Gang from the unaired Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot
Buffy, Xander, and Willow in the unaired pilot

As a result, Buffy quickly caught people’s attention, from the first chords of the sit-up-and-take-notice theme tune to the obvious appeal of Sarah Michelle Gellar in the lead role. It is in her that teenage girls, already trying to find their own identity and place in a male-dominated world, have a role-model they can relate to, particularly as Gellar was only a few years older than them at the time. Yes, Buffy‘s characters are shown to be at times weak, annoying, confused, or lost in their own skin, but this is what makes them both believable and likeable.

It is also perhaps the first television show that uses the alienation, pain, misery, and confusion the show’s audience felt every day growing up as metaphors for what Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles faced in each episode. In the Buffyverse, pairing off with a stranger at a club could not only be unwise – it could get you killed. And as those watching the show grew up and started to take their first, uncertain steps into the world of dating and clubbing, the unspoken lessons didn’t go unnoticed.

Scooby Gang from the Buffy pilot, Welcome to the Hellmouth

Whedon’s modern reinterpretation of the vampire is fresh and original. Gone are the capes and neo-Victorian imagery of Dracula pastiches or Anne Rice. These vamps are dark, born of demonic possession of dead human bodies and – perhaps most importantly – actually dangerous. The vampires of Sunnydale, CA are cool yet mysterious and monstrous killers. Furthermore, Whedon planted the seeds of an intricate and interesting mythology integral to vampires, which grew in the following seasons.

In truth, the appeal of Buffy isn’t solely the excellent script or the fresh and original plotlines, it’s that it speaks to teenagers. Buffy Summers is a young woman with a great responsibility she never asked for, unable to tell her mother what she is going through because she wouldn’t understand and because Buffy fears rejection – in other words, what almost every teenager feels. The vampires too, while evil beyond redemption, represent something about the mindset of all of us in youth: immortal, immune to disease and sickness, possessed of great strength and always utterly, über cool. Teenagers have no concept of their mortality or physicality and they’re desperate to hide their vulnerability and insecurities in a persona of bravado and brooding ‘depth’.

Maybe then, the secret behind the success of Buffy‘s pilot episodes and the subsequent success of the show as a whole is not so much that it relates to us in our awkward, baffling teenage years but because it was us onscreen. The failings, flaws, and weaknesses of the Scooby Gang were ours, but then again, so were their triumphs.

– Katie Wong

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.  


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