'Buffy': TV's new family hour She's everything you could want in a teen role model - strong, smart, dutiful - and she has a vampire boyfriend and a werewolf buddy. How can any good father resist her?

November 15, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Like everyone else, my family is warmed by its rituals, and in the last year or so, we have relished a new one. Every Tuesday evening, we rush through dinner and dishes and make sure homework is done early. That way, when the grandfather clock )) chimes 8, all of us can be perched in front of the television set in anticipation of the one and only show we watch together.

Nope, it's not "Nova" or "Masterpiece Theatre." In our house, we're crazy for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"Buffy"?

Yes, "Buffy." For us, the world comes to a stop for a program in which a teen-age girl in micro-miniskirts goes to battle each week against bloodsucking monsters. We don't answer the phone. We put the cats out. We ignore the house burning down next door. We don't converse with one another or read the paper or pay the bills. We sit transfixed and delighted.

You will think that I have been dragged into this by the children. Sorry, but you may as well sic Social Services on me. It was I, a grown-up in a technical sense, who introduced "Buffy" to them.

Let me say from the start that "Buffy" is no mere guilty pleasure. It doesn't represent a lapse in good taste, like say, watching "Party of Five." The fact is, there isn't a smarter or more clever show on television than "Buffy." No kidding. Yes, "Buffy" is largely set in a hormonally charged high school, and vampires are staked with great frequency. In spite of all this - maybe because of all this - the show consistently delivers as much satisfaction as any hourlong drama on television. That includes the much more prestigious "E.R.," "Homicide" and "The X-Files." "Buffy", by the way, is wittier than all three of them.

For the uninitiated, here's a capsulated primer of "Buffy":

Every generation produces one young woman who, blessed with unusual strength and athleticism, is destined to save the world from a race of vampires. In our time, that woman happens to be a Valley Girl, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a senior this year at Sunnydale High School. She is counseled and coached by an adult named Rupert Giles, her so-called Watcher, who is learned in all manifestations of evil. And she is assisted by her chums, Xander, Willow, Cordelia and Oz, the last of whom becomes a werewolf (and what teen-ager doesn't?) several times a month but is otherwise a great guy as well as lead guitarist in a band called Dingoes Ate My Baby.

Oh, and Buffy is also alternately helped and mortally threatened by her boyfriend, Angel, a 300-year-old vampire who has sucked the blood of countless victims, prompting Xander's observation, "Man, that guy got some major neck in his day."

Silly? Sure it is, but exactly in the same way as the best horror stories. And like the best of horror, "Buffy" has ambitions beyond delivering chills, which it also manages quite ably. It deftly combines suspense and humor, a trick almost never done successfully. And without lapsing into sentiment or platitude, it captures teen-age sensibilities better than any of the more conventional teen-based dramas. The text of the show is destroying vampires. The subtext is the angst and darkness of adolescence, of not being comfortable in your own skin, of yearning to be carefree when the world won't let you.

As a character, Buffy has to face those issues more squarely than most. She might desire to compete for homecoming queen, but how can she work that in when she's also obliged to patrol graveyards for the undead? "Dates are things normal girls have," Buffy laments at one point. "Girls who have time to think about nail polish and facials. You know what I think about? Ambush tactics. Beheading. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of."

And if Juliet complicated her life by falling for a Montague, how much worse must it be to go steady with someone who was a serial murderer for centuries? He's not just from the wrong side of the tracks. He's from underneath them.

The acting on "Buffy" is uniformly wonderful, and the characters, including the monsters, are well-defined and idiosyncratic. The relationship among the friends is touching; they care about one another, but there is nothing saccharine about their feelings. It is simply the intensity of youth. And if role models are important, it's refreshing to have a young woman as the one who rides to the rescue with a stake in her fist. "Buffy" is also a show where things change. Students go from being juniors to seniors. Couples break up. Major characters have their necks broken by monsters.

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