At a time when our screens are flooded with big budget television productions, gritty storylines and shows that have high profile actors banging on the door to be on, it's easy to forget that twenty years ago, TV was considered a movie stars graveyard because let's face it, the standard wasn't all that high.
It was during this time, that Buffy the Vampire Slayer first arrived on our screens, a TV show based on a movie we hadn't even heard about and initially airing on a low-profile American network (The WB) as a mid-season replacement for a night-time soap. Little could we have known then the iconic status the series would go on to become, with its groundbreaking storylines and subverting pretty much every TV trope going at the time.
Buffy's influence on television and indeed movies is immeasurable at this stage - it was the show that literally launched a thousand teen dramas, it forced feminism up a gear or two by showing the world that a female superhero doesn't need to save the world in a scantily clad number, it wasn't afraid to take on long story arcs in a TV landscape that was largely episodic while still keeping up with the 'monster-of-the-week', it took on homosexuality in a subtle heartfelt way leading to one of the most sincere and real lesbian relationships ever seen on television, and it was funny, but incredibly smart in its humour too. The quick wit of the characters and the numerous on-the-money pop culture references simply wasn't the dialogue of television at the time, with the show even now known for its own language - Buffy Speak.
All of this is of course down to the show's creator Joss Whedon, who has made no secret of the success he wanted the show to be: "I always intended for this to be a cultural phenomenon. That’s how I wrote it. In the back of my mind, I was always picking up an Oscar or a Saturn Award and everyone was playing with Buffy dolls."
Whedon told Empire recently where his inspiration for Buffy came from:
"In the mid-1980s, I’d gotten so tired of slasher film cliches, especially the dumb, oversexed blond stumbling into a dark place to have sex with a boyfriend, only to be killed. I began thinking that I would love to see a scene where a ditsy blond walks into a dark alley, a monster attacks her and she kicks its ass. After all those times the poor girl had sex and got herself killed for it, I just wanted her to be able to take care of herself. So I had this character before I had the idea of using vampires. I wanted to create a special person who desperately wants to fit in, but who has a higher calling. I decided to use vampires, because I’ve always thought vampires were cool."
And so Buffy the Vampire Slayer was born, but no doubt despite Whedon's initial hopes for the success of the show, he would surely agree it exceeded all expectations. As well as the accolades and the millions of dollars worth of merchandise, the show has gone on to become the most studied pop culture work by academics who are fascinated with the show's use of social commentary, narrative structure and of course, metaphor.
Joss Whedon has said how he was clear in wanting to make the literal depiction of 'high school as hell' but the allegory was there throughout, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We all knew the lesson that was there to be learned when Angel turned into an evil vampire after Buffy slept with him, or that Willow's magic addiction was clearly the Buffyverse way of dealing with substance abuse, but the message was delivered, not in an after-school-special way, but in a destructive and downright heartbreaking style.
For as many times as we laughed at Buffy, we cried too, and not just when her romance with Angel ended or when she sacrificed herself to save her sister, to this day, the episode where Joyce died (The Body) is up there with one of the most accurate and emotive depictions of a sudden death ever shown on television, as Buffy, for all her powers, could not save her sick mother. The episode, which was shot in a real-time format from the moment her body was discovered, featured no music, no 'big bad', just the sheer raw emotion of a daughter faced with the loss of her mother.
It wasn't afraid to go off script at times and take itself out of its comfort zone. The Emmy-nominated episode 'Hush' feature an extended sequence with no character dialogue that still managed to remain as funny and action-driven as ever, while the musical episode, which we know wasn't to everyone's taste, also received much critical praise.
20 years have passed since we first saw Buffy Summers walk the halls of Sunnydale High but its enduring influence is still felt, and yes, it may not be of the highbrow standard we are used to today, nor will it ever be rated as highly as The Sopranos or The Wire for elevating the standard of TV, but this low-budget high school drama extended the realm of what was possible in TV and paved the way for so many of the shows we know and love today. When Russell T Davies revived Doctor Who back in 2005, he openly credited Joss Whedon and Buffy as his inspiration: "It showed the whole world that writing monsters and demons and end-of-the-world isn’t hackwork,” Davies said. "It can challenge the best. Joss Whedon raised the bar, not just for genre writers but for every one of us."