The Big Picture
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer faced censorship due to an episode that depicted a potential school massacre with an assault rifle, which was set to air in the aftermath of the Columbine High School Massacre.
- The Season 3 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which featured a major battle at a high school, was also censored due to concerns about violence at a school during graduation season.
- The censorship of these episodes angered fans and sparked outcry from the show’s cast, crew, and political pundits, who criticized blaming entertainment media instead of focusing on gun legislation.
To say that the legacy of the coming-of-age fantasy horror adventure series Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been a controversial one would be a dramatic understatement. The series was seemingly doomed to fail from the beginning; showrunner Joss Whedon had desperately tried to gain interest in his vampire universe in the wake of the failure of the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a critical and commercial disappointment that he felt didn’t represent his vision. Despite a rocky first season, the characters of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), Angel/Angelus (David Boreanaz), and even the vampire Spike (James Marsters) soon grew past their initial archetypes and generated an immediate emotional reaction from the show’s fans. This made it particularly challenging for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s network owner, the WB, when two episodes were hit with censorship.
What Got ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Censored on TV?
While Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly had a lot of episodes dedicated to “monsters of the week,” the third season of the series was ramping up towards two major events. One of these was the plot by the evil Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener) to unleash Hellmouth on Sunnydale, releasing all the underworld’s most depraved creatures on the school. However, the series was also wrestling with the characters’ interpersonal drama; Buffy, Willow, and Xander had to contemplate what their lives would look like after graduation, and Buffy begins to look at some of the students that she had initially never bonded with as she prepares for a future where she may never see them again.
In the episode “Earshot,” Buffy temporarily inherits the powers of a mouthless dragon that allows her to hear others’ thoughts. Initially, this is played up for comedic effect, as Buffy can now hear the crude ways that her male classmates objectify her behind her back. However, Buffy’s newfound Daredevil-esque abilities allow her to pick up on a disturbing threat; she hears that someone in the building is intent on conducting a mass murder at the school using an assault rifle. Given that a modern rifle isn’t the type of weapon that most of Buffy’s mythological antagonists use, she realizes that the intended killer is actually another student.
It’s revealed that the student with the rifle is none other than Jonathan Levinson (Danny Strong), a timid, geeky kid who had been mocked and bullied throughout his four years in high school. While Buffy attempts to reason with Jonathan to prevent him from going through with a massacre, he reveals that the only person that Jonathan intended to kill was himself; fed up with the abuse and unable to ward off feelings of doubt and his lack of self-confidence, Jonathan had intended to die by suicide. Buffy is ultimately able to reason with him and convince Jonathan to spare his own life after a heartfelt conversation. It’s one of the show’s most touching moments and one that has nothing to do with undead creatures or fighting.
Unfortunately, this earnest episode intended to celebrate life coincided with a real-life tragedy. Due to the tragic Columbine High School Massacre, The WB felt that it would be inappropriate to air an episode that suggested the threat of a school massacre with an assault weapon. The episode was pushed aside towards a later date and ended up airing two weeks before the fourth season’s premiere. However, it wasn’t the only Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode that had to make a change that season.
The ‘Buffy’ Season 3 Finale Was Censored
While the change of “Earshot” had gone over without too much controversy, the same could not be said for the season finale episode. With the entire series headed toward the confrontation between Buffy’s “Scooby Gang” and the Mayor’s army, fans were excited about the two-part concluding episode “Graduation Day,” which featured a major battle at Sunnydale High School. While the first part of the episode aired as intended on May 18, 1999, “Graduation Day, Part 2” was removed from the schedule at the last minute and replaced with a rerun of the episode “Band Candy” from earlier in the season.
“Graduation Day, Part 2” was centered around violence at a school, and with so many actual graduation ceremonies coming up, WB was once again concerned about what their role should be. This move enraged the fan base, and many fans took it upon themselves to leak the episode before it was eventually broadcast two months later in July. The decision made less sense, as the network had already aired the first part of the finale, and the context couldn’t be more different. While “Earshot” had specifically mentioned assault rifles and student targets, “Graduation Day, Part 2” featured the same sort of fantasy violence that had been part of the show since the beginning.
The move also invoked outcry from the show’s cast and crew, as well as many critical political pundits. Seth Green, whose character Oz became a regular in the third season, spoke out about the censorship, saying that “the actual episode has nothing to do with school violence, it’s a red herring in the story,” and that “It’s a growing problem, and Colorado isn’t the only place it’s happened. We just don’t want to think these things happen, but they happen all the time.” He went on to criticize those who would blame entertainment media for the violence instead of focusing on changes in gun legislation, an opinion shared by Jon Stewart during a segment of The Daily Show. Whedon even went out of his way to encourage fans to bootleg and distribute the episode.
Even if these episodes eventually aired, it’s not the only setback that fans of the series have had to deal with while watching the show. There are a lot of reasons that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was controversial, and in recent years, it’s become a tougher show to recommend due to the allegations of misconduct that have been leveled against Whedon. Context is key, and any new Buffy the Vampire Slayer viewer will need to familiarize themselves with the reasons the series is so often in the headlines for the wrong reasons.