When Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on the WB Network in 1996, American culture was in trouble.
Americans were bowling alone, pursuing individual interests to the detriment of the communal good. Business leaders were celebrating creativity and neglecting discipline.
Nike's "Just do it" ads were teaching young people to break the rules. Hollywood was turning out "nightmares of depravity."
Americans had forgotten bourgeois virtue. Freedom and affluence had made us soft.
We were self-indulgent moral nihilists—materialistic, selfish, and impulsive. We might have been having fun, but we'd created a culture no one would fight for.
At least that's what the wise men said.
On September 11, 2001, they shut up. Ordinary Americans, it turned out, were not only brave but resilient and creative, even lethal, when it mattered.
Buffy was right all along.
For those who somehow missed its cult success, Buffy tells the story of an unlikely hero—a pert, blonde teenager whom fate has destined to be the Slayer, the "one girl in all the world" endowed with the supernatural strength to protect humanity against the demon hordes.
Buffy would rather be a cheerleader and prom queen, but a normal life is not to be. "No chess club and football games for me," she says. "I spend my free time in graveyards and dark alleys."
The show, which ended its seven-season run in May, began as a reification of the horrors of high school.
What if that ambitious cheerleader wannabe really was a witch? What if the girl no one paid attention to really turned invisible?
What if the swim coach really would do anything to win? What if sleeping with your boyfriend made him act like a different person, turned your Angel into a cruel and vicious monster?
The mere existence of Buffy proves the declinists wrong about one thing: Hollywood commercialism can produce great art. Complex and evolving characters. Playful language. Joy and sorrow, pathos and elation.
Episodes that dare to be different—to tell stories in silence or in song. Big themes and terrible choices. In the show's most wrenching moment, Buffy kisses her one true love and saves the world by sending him to hell.
Buffy assumes and enacts the consensus moral understanding of contemporary American culture, the moral understanding that the wise men ignored or forgot.
This understanding depends on no particular religious tradition. It's informed not by revelation but by experience. It is inclusive and humane, without denying distinctions or the tough facts of life.
There are lots of jokes in Buffy—humor itself is a moral imperative—but no psychobabble and no excuses. Here are some of the show's precepts, a sample of what Americans believe: