Over the summer, one of my favorite writers explored how it was possible that some movies felt so prescient regarding The Big Bad Virus. Spoiler: While everything felt so “unprecedented,” in many ways, the pandemic just strained existing realities and anxieties—the same common ones stories often depict.
And so, three shows I’ve especially enjoyed while shut in are probably just really good regardless: Derry Girls, Teenage Bounty Hunters, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But like everything, I have to ruin these by dissecting why I find them so fun.
One thing these shows have in common, besides leading blonde high school girls, is high school stakes. Crushes, parent drama, grades, and extracurriculars feel like life-and-death when you’re fifteen, and these shows add in actual life-and-death situations to navigate the same way. The shows don’t just follow high schoolers, but are told from their perspective. It’s fun and surprisingly relaxing. All levels of fear and concern are flattened and elevated.
Derry Girls, the lightest of these three, is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 90s. The Girls being late to a concert or embarrassing themselves at a talent show feels just as serious as the bombing reports their parents watch on TV. Teenage Bounty Hunters is what it sounds like, following twin sisters Sterling and Blair who otherwise attend a Christian private school within Atlanta’s uppercrust. Despite the obvious danger of the job they wind up in, family tensions, petty or not, are weaponized more than any gun. It’s not that these characters are self-absorbed—they recognize the very adult dangers that surround them. But it doesn’t replace or squash their own angst.
Now I’m watching Buffy, which is a bit different. It runs on making the same contrasts explicit. Nighttime evils literally invade the daylight scenes, which otherwise play like a quippy 90s sitcom. Each monster-of-the-week is a metaphor made literal: an ignored girl becomes literally invisible and seeks violent and ironic revenge. Buffy’s new step-dad, who’s cheerfully patriarchal while secretly abusive, turns out to be (spoiler) a literal robot from the 50s. Peer-pressuring bullies get possessed by a pack of hyenas. All the while, Buffy laments balancing the burdens of being the divinely appointed Slayer and a regular high school girl at once.
Maybe this is why I can actually put Buffy in the “horror” genre, which has a history of meta-commentary like this (Buffy’s showrunner, Joss Whedon, would go on to make Cabin in the Woods, a slasher movie-as-commentary with a plot run by naming its genre’s tropes). Luckily, the horror is old enough to mostly be campy, which is why I can stand to watch it. (Jumpscares used to take twice as much time!)
Still, the show’s drama and comedy are driven by the whole breadth of high school anxiety, not just its extremes. Buffy whines about missing dates to kill demons. Teachers talk about safe sex while students’ bodies pile up in the gym. Otherwise, everything still works out in the end, so far.
The main concern of the everyday routine goes on, and it is occasionally horrifying, and sometimes fantastical. The piling bodies are not the show’s focus, of course. Is the flippant denial of the principal meant to make him disgusting, or is it a coping mechanism, or just another implausible fantasy element?
In Intimations, Zadie Smith’s incredible book of essays released this spring, she writes on the temptation to diminish one’s own sensation of suffering while acknowledging relative privilege. These shows’ characters span social classes and varieties of comfort, but their suffering is, as Smith calls it, absolute. The scripts make the contrast comedic by throwing real death and danger to already anxious high schoolers. In a light and funny way, that’s another thing these shows get right: Even when there’s a murderer in the doorway, teenage problems are still problems. It all feels like life-and-death, and sometimes that’s okay. Watching, it can actually be a nice headspace, from a safe distance post-grad.
Derry Girls was one of the first shows my girlfriend and I tore through in April, when The Virus was most novel and dreadful. Now, with The Virus at its worst, we’re working our way through something more heavy-handed. But Buffy is seven seasons of twenty-two hour-long episodes. It’s all a lot slower now. To me, the scariest thing about The Virus is how routine it is. It’s tempting to personify it as something to fight, or use the language of a communal society at war. But protecting ourselves and our loved ones is much less cinematic and much more lonely. Hormonal teens might better understand the feeling of everyday death-defying.