In season 3, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had controversy to thank for its exposure. The 1998-1999 season was its most entertaining one so far, but spurious attempts to connect the show to real-life teenage violence brought it into the limelight.
It was mired squarely in the kneejerk criticisms and political finger-pointing that followed the horrific school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and Conyers, Georgia. Every episode of Buffy dealt with heroism and duty in the face of cruelty and evil. But critics ignored that. Buffy featured young people in violent situations, so whatever the context, that was enough for critics to look at it askance.
The WB pulled from the schedule two episodes it felt would have offended viewers: "Earshot" had a plot to murder students in the school, and "Graduation Day, Part Two," featured a plot to attack the school's graduation. Both episodes aired after long postponements.
The CEO of the WB, Jamie Kellner, defended the postponement online, in a chat with Buffy fans that night, but even he joined creator Joss Whedon in admiring fans' attempts to obtain bootleg copies of the postponed episode. "I think it's fantastic. It's against the law, but it's fantastic."
Sarah Michelle Gellar and Nicholas Brendan complained to Kellner when the decision was made. Whedon disagreed with but did not condemn the decision to pull the episodes. As he told Entertainment Weekly Online: "I think children SHOULD be protected . . . from psychotic children whose parents don't know they're building bombs in their garage. I don't think they need to be protected from the WB on Tuesday nights at 8."
The long postponement of "Earshot" caused less of a stir. It was not a momentous cliffhanger such as "Graduation Day," but it was crucial. The episode dealt with Buffy's reaction to Angel's Angelus act in "Enemies," where Buffy and Angel tricked Faith into betraying her allegiance to the Mayor. It addressed Buffy's discovery of her mother's drug-induced dalliance with Giles from "Band Candy," and provided hilarious glimpses into the thinking of Oz and Cordelia, two characters who are less in the spotlight than Buffy, Willow, and Xander.
Some dialog in the episode indeed cut uncomfortably close to home in the aftermath of the school shootings.
Xander: "I'm still having trouble with the fact that one of us is just going to gun everyone down for no reason."
Cordelia: "Yeah, that never happens in American high schools."
Oz: "It's bordering on trendy at this point."
Ten years from now Whedon will put me in a show about WHAT?
The year was about transitions, as laboriously stated by the Mayor of Sunnydale in the season finale. Buffy and Angel faced the implications of their relationship. Relationships and characters deepened, particularly between Buffy and Giles and between Willow and Oz. Perpetual extra Jonathan gained emotional depth in "Earshot."
Mister Trick, a 1990s-savvy vampire in over his head as the plans of the Mayor neared fruition, was almost squandered. Mayor Wilkins, Harry Groener as a Father Knows Best-style family man with diabolical designs for immortality, was the main antagonist, while renegade Slayer Faith provided a moral foil.
Buffy's relationship with Giles was crucial. Giles took the role of surrogate father for Buffy. Whedon and the other writers frequently returned to the notion of the Bad Parent to address authority and responsibility; in Buffy, children are left to fend for themselves.
Buffy's own divorced parents are typical: her father is absent, while her mother, Joyce (played with remarkable sensitivity by Kristine Sutherland) encapsulates the best qualities of parents depicted in the show. But that's only in that she trusts her daughter and tries to understand her, not because she provides consistent leadership. Giles took on that role, defending and challenging Buffy.
Faith and the Mayor
The flip side of parenting in the Buffy
universe was represented by Mayor Wilkins, a perversely entertaining villain. The Mayor became a surrogate father for Faith, a renegade Slayer in the nadir of a moral degeneration depicted gracefully across the season. He gave her affection, purpose, and an outlet for fear and rage in exchange for her loyalty. His relationship with Faith was a clever antithesis to Giles' relationship with Buffy.
Giles struggled to maintain a stoic demeanor while guiding Buffy. Meanwhile, the Mayor was a jovial figure drawing Faith to cruelty and betrayal.
Buffy contrasted directly with Faith, a Slayer driven by fear until she only found solace in violence. Faith's was the most natural and understandable evil yet portrayed, but it could have been explained better. It is too easy to assume she was bad from the start, ignoring the fear that filled her first appearance.
The focus was Buffy and Angel, leading to Angel's departure (to his spinoff) in the face of the danger their relationship posed to both of them. The length of this series-long storyline lent dramatic weight to their last moments together. The goofy tenderness of Willow and Oz developed into a deep romance. Only the shallow Cordelia, and geeky but brave every-teen Xander remained in stasis by the end of the season.
Buffy:You had sex with Giles? You had SEX with GILES?
Buffy's Mom: It was the candy. We were teenagers.
Buffy: On the hood of a police car?
Buffy's Mom: I'll be downstairs. You feel better.