The First Reported ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Book Is a Loving Critique of a Complicated Show

Evan Ross Katz excavates Buffy's legacy—including the Joss Whedon allegations—through new interviews with the cast, crew, and fans like Stacey Abrams.

The First Reported ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Book Is a Loving Critique of a Complicated Show
Image:Lia Clay Miller/Hachette

Evan Ross Katz was already at work on his book about the cult hit series Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Charisma Carpenter, one of the show’s stars, posted a statement to Twitter. In the account, which she published on February 10 of last year, she accused Buffy creator Joss Whedon of “abus[ing] his power on numerous occasions” during her run on the show and its spin-off, Angel. Carpenter had become pregnant while she appeared on Angel, and Whedon, she wrote, called her “fat,” asked if she was “going to keep it,” and fired her after she gave birth. Ross Katz had been scheduled to interview Carpenter’s former Buffy co-star Alyson Hannigan the following day. That interview, he writes in the book, was canceled. Not only that, the new allegations against Whedon “closed off access to several of the actors that I did previously have locked in,” Ross Katz told Jezebel.

Carpenter’s statement would reignite discussion of Whedon’s behavior towards the Buffy cast and crew, in ways that reshaped Ross Katz’s book Into Every Generation a Slayer Is Born, which is out today. The interview with Hannigan was never rescheduled, but other former members of Buffy world, including Dopesick showrunner Danny Strong, wanted to be re-interviewed to discuss the allegations and make clear their support for Whedon’s accusers. Ross Katz had always known that there would be a chapter in the book about Whedon, who’s been the subject of controversy after controversy in recent years. But, he said, “I did not know that that would be the longest chapter in the book.”

Buffy has inspired miles of spilled digital ink on Reddit and other fan forums, and an entire academic micro-discipline that has produced conferences, books, and journal articles with titles likeBuffy the Vampire Slayer: Technology, Mysticism, and the Constructed Body.” Still, Ross Katz’s effort is the first book-length reported treatment of the show. Arriving 25 years after the series’ premiere and hot on the heels of the latest Whedon controversy, it offers an in-depth look at the creation and legacy of one of television’s most beloved shows, through interviews with cast members like Carpenter and Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Buffy experts and fans including Stacey Abrams. It’s a reckoning with a show that changed television, and with its creator, who’s been accused again and again of serious professional misconduct.

Buffy cast members Emma Caulfield, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, James Marsters, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Michelle Trachtenberg in 2001. Image:Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

The odd thing about creations that reshape pop culture is that their influence renders their novelty almost invisible. TV since Buffy has featured so many “strong female leads,” quippy, mystery-solving friend groups, rapid-fire references, and salutes to nerd culture that it’s easy to forget when watching in 2022 that this was one of the series that set the mold. Debuting in 1997 when TV was still the boob tube and its Golden Age only a glimmer in David Chases eye, Buffy starred Gellar as its titular heroine, a 16-year-old former cheerleader turned vampire slayer who happens to be the only person capable of saving the world from a bevy of supernatural nasties. Buffy seemed to draw on aspects of the best popular films of the mid-’90s—the Valley girl redemption of Clueless, the self-aware horror narratives of Scream—and combine them with the long-form framework television provides.

Given the show’s popularity and the fact that Whedon can’t seem to stay out of the news, it’s a bit surprising that it took this long for a reported book about the series to be written. One factor that may have stymied earlier attempts to tell the full story of the series is that many people at the heart of the show don’t seem to be fans of talking about it. Ross Katz points out that the stars of some of Buffy’s most beloved contemporaries, like Charmed or Dawson’s Creek, are largely household names. The cast of Buffy, though it included a genuine movie star (SMG) and two of television’s most recognizable actors (Hannigan and David Boreanaz, who’d go onto appear in How I Met Your Mother and Bones), featured others whose careers never reached similar heights. They’ve had “a weird trajectory,” said Ross Katz, and for many, Buffy is either a project long in their rearview that they’re tired of talking about, or a potentially painful career high point that they’re tired of talking about.

When it came to booking those elusive interviews, Ross Katz was given a hand by Gellar herself. Growing up, he was a super fan—as he writes in Into Every Generation, he sent her a fan letter after the release of Cruel Intentions, which his parents hadn’t actually allowed him to watch. (He followed with another fan letter, in which he apologized for fibbing.) They’d later meet through a mutual friend, and he interviewed Gellar for Oprah Magazine in 2019.

“We have this wonderful friendship,” he said, noting he uses the word “friendship” because “she would use that word,” too. “Because of that, I think I was able to get from her an interview that was a little less guarded,” he said. “I think she and many others in this cast are very protective of not wanting to muddy people’s memories of the show, because this show holds a significance to a lot of people that’s quite unique.”

I think she and many others in this cast are very protective of not wanting to muddy people’s memories of the show.

If their friendship costs the book its journalistic objectivity—though Ross Katz, who jokingly calls himself “the world’s preeminent Sarah Michelle Gellar historian,” never purports to be anything but her biggest fan—it also helped secure interviews with cast members including Seth Green and Emma Caulfield, who gave interviews to Ross Katz only after Gellar intervened on his behalf.

Gellar’s participation also helped Ross Katz book an interview with one of the show’s most accomplished fans, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. One of the lessons Abrams took from the show was Buffy’s ability to rise to the occasion as the Slayer, despite the fact that her identity remained secret and her heroism went largely unrecognized. “Most people would never know about it and wouldn’t care if they knew, but that doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility,” Abrams, who knows a thing or two about under-heralded accomplishments, told Ross Katz. “And I think that’s the most important piece for me, that, regardless of the outcome, the responsibility to act is always present.”

In addition to recounting first-hand stories of the series’ creation, rumored on-set feuds, contract battles, and network changes, Ross Katz analyzes Buffy on its artistic merits, from its signature voicey writing and fantastic ‘90s fashions, to its treatment of gender, race, and sexuality. While the series broke ground with its depiction of a loving and long-term lesbian relationship, it also killed one participant off with a callousness that shocked fans and that, within a show so determined to chart new territory, fit neatly into the “bury your gays” trope. The show had hardly any characters of color, and fewer still that were fleshed out or appeared in more than a handful of episodes. Ross Katz’s book offers as much of a corrective as is possible all these years later, featuring interviews with Black supporting actors and guest stars like Bianca Lawson, who played the slayer Kendra in three episodes of the show.

Despite its shortcomings, Buffy would probably still be enjoying its long and largely untroubled afterlife of conventions and musical episode sing-alongs if it weren’t for Whedon, whose reputation has suffered a death by a thousand cuts over the last seven years. Before Ross Katz started writing Into Every Generation, Justice League star Ray Fisher had accused Whedon of “abusive” behavior once he replaced Zack Snyder as the film’s director, and would later say that he’d been subjected to racist treatment while working for Whedon. Whedon’s once-vaunted reputation as a male feminist nerd king took a particular beating amid criticism of misogyny in his depiction of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron and in his unproduced Wonder Woman movie, whose script noted that the heroine’s body was to be “curvaceous, but taut as a drawn bow.” In 2017, the same year Justice League was released, Whedon’s ex-wife published an essay calling out the “hypocrisy” of his “being out in the world preaching feminist ideals” while he was allegedly having affairs with young women who worked on his shows.

Carpenter’s statement sparked a new round of allegations. Many of her former colleagues, including Gellar, publicly supported her and Whedon’s other accusers, with cast member Amber Benson tweeting, “Buffy was a toxic environment and it starts at the top.” Another disturbing allegation came from Michelle Trachtenberg, who joined the cast of Buffy when she was just 14, and claimed that there had been a rule on set barring Whedon from being alone with her in the wake of his “not appropriate behavior.”

Ross Katz was prepared to tackle the Whedon question, in addition to Buffy’s on-screen failings. “There were aspects of the show that I was keen to look at through the prism of today,” he said. “I write about the ways in which I think the show holds up terrifically and ways it doesn’t. I am someone who loves muddy, muddy feelings—I like the idea that something can be multiple things, two thoughts can occur in tandem. I had a lot of those about Buffy, and I was eager to explore them.”

Whedon, who wrote and directed many of the series’ most beloved episodes, can’t be separated from Buffy’s legacy. But Ross Katz singles out Gellar’s wide-ranging and Golden Globe-nominated performance, which anchored the show throughout seven years of evolving cast changes and plot lines, as an under-sung contributor to Buffy’s success. At least one academic article in the Buffy studies canon makes the argument that “the primary cast of Buffy constitutes a fundamental component of the series’ authorship.” By analyzing the artistry of Gellar’s performance, Ross Katz’s makes a case for Gellar being as integral to Buffy as Whedon was. “I joke with people, but I’m not joking,” he said, “but it’s like I regard her as high as I would a Meryl Streep or a Viola Davis. Like, I really feel like she is on that caliber of actor. And I feel like it all comes through in this role.”

A promotional portrait of the Buffy cast circa 1997. Photo:Fotos International (Getty Images)

Whedon is not the only member of the Buffy world with a troubled reputation. Nicholas Brendon, who played Buffy’s hapless friend Xander, has been arrested multiple times since the series finale on charges that include domestic violence. Ross Katz was aware that the decision to interview Brendon for the book could be controversial, and debated whether or not to give him a platform. In the end, he decided to go through with it—Brendon appears in every Buffy episode save one, and his effect on the show would be impossible to deny. Ross Katz also noted that it seemed unlikely that the interview, in which Brendon decries cancel culture and evinces a bizarre-sounding and possibly one-sided feud with David Boreanaz, would “inspire any casting directors out there to be like, ‘What’s Nicholas Brendon up to?’”

Finally, there’s the fact that in some ways, Brendon was the closest Ross Katz could get to interviewing Whedon, who declined to participate in the book. Whedon modeled Xander—nerdy, talkative, unpopular, and full of sexually frustrated resentment—on himself, and chose Brendon to play his stand in. When he created Buffy, Whedon was already a third-generation television writer but, as his recent, disastrous interview in New York Magazine made clear, was never able to shake off his sense that he was the underdog, the guy who people counted out, who wouldn’t get the beautiful girl.

Into Every Generation doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s possible to separate the art from the artist, but it does love—and lovingly critique—the art without letting the artist off the hook. Even if it were possible to ignore Whedon’s alleged misdeeds, his sense of misplaced and endless empathy for cruel, usually male outcasts was pervasive on Buffy. Today, it is the show’s most dated quality. Few characters have aged more poorly than Xander, an unrepentant sex pest, whose harassment of Buffy was treated as worthy of nothing more than an eye roll. For the series’ outcast men, underdog status could redeem every misdeed, and though the show is an undisputed TV classic, it’s also a time capsule of white nerd angst. To viewers from a future where many of those same nerds—Whedon, Musk, Zuckerberg—wield frightening amounts of power, it’s a lot harder to pity them. “No one deserves to be picked on,” said Ross Katz, “but some nerds were picked on, and that’s awful, and they’re awful people.”

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