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Women Behaving Smartly

Sarah Michelle Gellar
Like, Nosferatu: Sarah Michelle Gellar battles the undead in the TV version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."



Monday is female-empowerment
night with 'Buffy' and 'Daria'

By Zack Stentz

EVERY LEVEL of high school social status has its own attendant rewards in the adult world. The popular kids turn into CEOs and congressmen, and get to run the world. The nerds found software companies, and get to own the world. The stoners form rock bands, and get to ride in Gulfstream jets and date porn stars.

And the alienated intellectuals become writers for film and television shows, where they spend the rest of their lives getting back at the kids who tormented them in high school.

How else besides authorial wish fulfillment does one account for the sheer bulk of movies and television shows in which the gawky but sweet young guy gets to triumph over bullies and score with the prettiest girl in school (Friends, Happy Days, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Three O'Clock High, My Bodyguard and on and on)?

But now come two new programs, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Daria, which deliver a refreshing, distaff twist on the genre. Both shows present the rarely televised spectacle of intelligent, self-aware female protagonists trying to survive the myriad dangers of high school with minds and bodies intact.

Daria will already be familiar to Beavis and Butt-head fans as the wiseacre girl who verbally dressed down President Clinton and documented the boys' lack of genital endowment when she photographed the pair wearing eye patches as athletic supporters. Relocated from downmarket Highland to upscale Lawndale in her self-titled show, Daria now has an new cast of characters to spar with, but she's fortunately brought her bad attitude with her.

Idiotic jocks, catty cheerleaders, chirpy guidance counselors and school officials in bed with corporate America all have come in for abuse and ridicule so far, a promising choice of targets that bodes well for Daria's underdog appeal.

Despite the animated format, Daria sticks pretty close to social realism in its depiction of Lawndale High School and surrounding environment. Expecting humor of the over-the-top, almost Grand Guignol variety so often seen on Beavis and Butt-head, I had to watch several episodes to start appreciating Daria's drier, more droll approach to its material.

Daria's early portrayal as a walking bundle of passive-aggressiveness may have hewn closely to actual teen angst, but it didn't offer much in the way of entertainment value. However, the episode in which Daria and her equally jaded friends plotted to have a pair of Eurotrash modeling agents kicked off campus was a wonderfully constructed bit of comedy.

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Daria's official home page.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's official page.

A fan page devoted to Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of Buffy.

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THE SECOND "high school girl vs. the world" series that premiered this season is a creature even more rare than a TV cop who gets suspended after shooting someone. It is a movie-based television show that's far superior to its big-screen progenitor.

Like Daria, Buffy the Vampire Slayer opens with the heroine and her family moving to an upscale suburb (Lawndale in Daria, Sunnydale here). But Buffy's new hometown has the misfortune to be located at a "Hell Mouth," and before anyone can yell "Nosferatu," Buffy's up to her neck in malfeasance as she kickboxes vampiric hordes while struggling to defend her social status against the in crowd at her high school.

Series creator Joss Whedon, who wrote the Buffy film and went on to script-doctor megahits Speed, Twister and Toy Story, obviously feels that there was good material in the original that wasn't done properly the first time around.

He's right. The idea of mixing the more mundane terrors and humiliations of high school existence with X-Files-ish supernatural horror was an inspired one. In fact, USA Today's television critic glibly called Buffy "The PG-Files."

He must have missed the recent episode in which a pack of nasty teens gets collectively possessed by the spirit of a hyena and proceeds to devour first the high school's porcine mascot (a dead ringer for Babe) and then the hapless principal. It was one of those "they're not gonna--no, they couldn't--oh my God, am I actually seeing this" moments rarely seen outside the confines of When Animals Attack or Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.

The original Buffy film failed, paradoxically, by not taking its seemingly absurd subject matter seriously enough, and also by making the Buffy character a bubble-headed Valley Girl.

The series boasts a much darker, more serious tone (with impressively moody production values to match). Better still, the small-screen Buffy (played by 20-year-old Sarah Michelle Gellar) is tough, intelligent and savvy where her predecessor was, shall we say, cluefully challenged.

But despite Gellar's abundant charisma, sharp dialogue ("You look like DeBarge," Buffy tells a stuck-in-the-'80s vampire) and an able supporting cast, including a fussy mentor played by Anthony Stewart Head, a.k.a. the Taster's Choice guy, the series sometimes fails to make full use of its terrific premise to explore fully the hurts and horrors of teenage life.

In one recent episode, Buffy was faced with the reappearance of ex-boyfriend Angel, whose moody behavior and nocturnal hours were due not to working the graveyard shift at the 7-11 but to (gasp!) his being a centuries-old vampire.

By facing Buffy with the dilemma of whether to reconcile with Angel or drive a tent peg through his heart, the episode looked set to delve into the dangerous ground of adolescent female sexuality and its potential for exploitation by older men.

Instead, the hour veered off course and got mired in the muck of Anne Rice-ian tormented vampire soul-searching and redemption-seeking, though it did end with the truly arresting image of Buffy's cross searing Angel's flesh as the two kissed.

A few other kinks need to be worked out as well, such as an underpowered recurring villain (vampire overlord Mark Metcalf) and sketchily characterized secondary characters. But if Buffy can correctly blend its patented mix of horror, humor and angst, it has the potential to provide the best depiction of high school life since My So-Called Life (which might still be on the air if Angela had skewered a few undead monsters while not pining for Jordan Catalono.)

And at least one thing is certain. Now that teenage girls have the likes of Buffy and Daria as role models (not to mention X-Files' Agent Scully, warrior princess Xena and Star Trek: Voyager's Captain Janeway), it's going to be a lot harder for them to be force-fed the usual assortment of bitches and good girls as models to emulate.

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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro

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