On March 10 1997, a little-heralded comedy-action-fantasy show slipped onto US TV schedules as an emergency replacement for failing soap opera 'Savannah'. Based on a movie not many people saw and even fewer liked, and starring no one you'd ever heard of unless you were a serious Nescafé enthusiast, 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' must've seemed like a pretty desperate measure at the time. But within a year – by about the middle of the second season – 'Buffy' was already the best-regarded, most talked-about show on TV. And 20 years later, we're still talking about it.
There are some pretty obvious reasons why 'Buffy' worked: inverting the old ditzy-blonde-as-horror-movie-victim routine, it offered us a heroine who could battle vampires, demons, bullies and homework, and still have time for a trip to the mall. By re-imagining teenage problems as supernatural ones (the girl who feels invisible becomes invisible; the hyena-like pack of bullies turn into actual hyenas and eat the school principal), creator Joss Whedon allowed creaky old high-school plotlines to feel completely new.
The cast is still basically perfect: Sarah Michelle Gellar is a tower of strength, Nicholas Brendon and Alysson Hannigan provide heart, soul, comic relief and viewer identification, and ex-Nescafé-ad hunk Anthony Stewart Head manages to be bookish, goofy and Brosnan-smooth all at the same time. Oh, and the one-liners are glorious ('thank God we're hot chicks with superpowers!')
But there's so much more to the show than just funny, likeable people stabbing demons with sticks. Season five episode 'The Body' remains one of the most powerful statements in fiction about the nature of loss and grief. The show dedicated an entire year – the controversial season six – to exploring the harsh reality of depression, as experienced by its three central characters. And 'Buffy' was one of the few mainstream shows to let its characters be genuinely unlikeable when they needed to be: not only were two of the show's leading anti-heroes, Angel and Spike, both semi-reformed serial murderers, but the actual heroes could act like dicks, too. Xander was judgmental and selfish; Buffy irresponsible and self-isolating; Willow tried to destroy the world.
And lest we forget, 'Buffy' also led to what is perhaps the most creative hour of mainstream telly ever attempted: 'Once More With Feeling', the infamous musical episode. It sounds awful on paper, and probably should've been in practice, but somehow Whedon walked the high-wire act and created something affecting, hilarious, exciting, tender and crammed with belting tunes. Seriously, watch 'Once More' followed by 'La La Land' and tell me which one deserved the Oscars.
There are lingering rumours of Buffy's return, and with '90s series like 'Twin Peaks' getting the reboot treatment the appetite is probably there. But perhaps this one should stay in the ground: by the final year things were already getting overblown and silly, and it's hard to imagine they'd be able to recapture the simple magic of the show's best years.
Let's just remember 'Buffy' for what it was: a madly inventive, insightful, gripping, sweet, daring, cosy, surprising and ridiculous seven years of telly. Happy birthday, Buff.