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Why Netflix Thinks ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Is a “Guilty Pleasure” — And Why It Isn’t

For all of its virtues, Netflix isn’t always so hot at classifying movies and television shows; it tends to either go comically super-specific (“Based on your interest in Girl Walk // All Day: All-dance New York movies with strong female leads and hip-hop mash-up soundtracks”) or utterly inaccurate. For example: As a member of the fan site Whedonesque has pointed out, the streaming service’s first annual “Flixie Awards” (“honoring the ways you really watch Netflix”) has nominated Buffy the Vampire Slayer for “Best Guilty Pleasure,” alongside such fare as Gossip Girl, Toddlers & Tiaras, the revamped 90210, and the sequels to Transformers and Bad Boys. To be clear, we’re talking about the (long-running, critically acclaimed, widely celebrated) television show, not the (important because it led to the show, but for no other reason and not terribly good in and of itself) movie. Buffy is a “guilty pleasure”? Say what now?

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Putting aside this viewer’s prejudice against the term “guilty pleasure” in general (here’s a long version of why; the short version, as stated by Dave Grohl in a recent WTF interview, is “I don’t believe in guilty pleasures — if you like something, like it!”), here’s the question: Has anyone, post-’97, ever felt guilty about watching and enjoying Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Sure, when the film first came out, and even when the show debuted, it was hard to so much as say the title without a self-satisfied smirk and a chuckle. But that lasted a couple of months, maybe. The show quickly overcame the stigma of being a genre series, or being a show about a high-school girl, or being a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which, c’mon, you think Joss Whedon didn’t know what he was doing with that moniker?).

So it hardly seems revolutionary to come to the defense of a show that was confirmed long ago as one of the finest television programs of the modern era — on one hand. On the other, what’s it doing on a list like this? Are there still people out there who think it’s just a dumb teen drama? Or another entry in the lusty vampire sweepstakes? Simply put, it’s not. It’s a whip-smart ensemble comedy. It’s an honest examination of the growing pains of adolescence. It’s a thankfully unpredictable discombobulation of gender roles and sexual identity. It’s an unblinking consideration of mortality. It revels in the relationships of one of television’s most compelling surrogate families. Oh, plus, bonus: hot blonde killing monsters.

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That last part seems to be the sticking point, both now and then — never forget, Buffy was all but ignored by the Emmy folks during its run (a single major nomination–for writing–and some tech noms, along with one win each for make-up and music). But Whedon has spent his entire career subverting and transcending genre, from the pulp motifs of Angel to the sci-fi trappings of Firefly and Dollhouse to the meta madness of The Cabin in the Woods to, best of all, The Avengers, a mega-budget superhero movie more interested in inter-personal dynamics than blowing shit up (though it delivered more than adequately on the latter score). But we’ve heard snickers of derision when praising something like The Avengers, as though a superhero movie that cost something like the GDP of a small Latin American country couldn’t also be funny, smart, and self-aware.

The point is, not everything fits in a box, and not every genre film or television show is something you have to “feel bad” about deriving pleasure or intellectual stimulation from. But for some people, a genre show can only be a genre show — and, indeed, those seem to be the same kind of people who throw around a dunderheaded phrase like “guilty pleasure” with abandon.

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