The Des Moines Register
By Mike Hughes
Brief mention of Xena in an article about BUFFY VAMPIRE SLAYER ("In many ways, "Buffy" is just a smaller and sweeter-looking variation of "Nikita" and "Xena," the tough-kicking stars of syndication and cable.")
Imagine an entire network being hoisted onto the downsized frame of one fictional teen-ager. That, roughly, is WB -the early years. It was boosted by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" played by Sarah Michelle Gellar (Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on WGN). "Sarah became our Johnny Depp," says network spokesman Brad Turell. "(She) sort of became symbolic of who the network is." Turell knows how that goes. He saw it happen once before at Fox. The network had started with bigger names, including George C. Scott and Patty Duke. Depp, an unknown with a teen-type face, became the first to draw an audience. A decade later, Gellar has done the same for WB. She's jumped quickly from oblivion. "I remember going on auditions and not knowing if I'd be able to pay the rent," Gellar says. Rent is no longer a factor. She recently bought a house, something she never had during her New York childhood. Other Firsts There have been other firsts for Gellar. "She got the first covers of magazines (for WB)," Turell says. She was the first WB star to host "Saturday Night Live," the first (along with James Van Der Beek of "Dawson's Creek") to be an Emmy presenter. "That, to me, was just horrifyingly scary," Gellar says of the Emmycast. There haven't been any Emmys for the show, but it made several critics' top- 10 lists, including the No. 1 spot from Entertainment Weekly. It has also drawn decent ratings and boosted other WB shows. All of that is surprising for the adaptation of a movie that did so-so business. "(It) was not a successful movie," Turell says. "You know, it was just kind of weird." Dean Valentine, head of the competing UPN, agrees with that assessment. His network used to top WB in the ratings. "Then this little show called 'Buffy' started doing some business," Valentine says. "And 'Dawson's Creek' came behind. And then there was this huge wash of teen-age girls watching that network." Older Viewers The bigger surprise, perhaps, is the fact that "Buffy" has gone beyond that teen-girl core. Here is a show in which almost every major character is (or looks like) a teen-ager. Still, some older people watch it. Is that odd? "You're not abnormal," WB chief Jamie Kellner assures a middle-aged "Buffy" buff. "That happens all the time on TV. Look at '90210.' When Kellner was at Fox, 'Beverly Hills, 90210' was a teen world. "At first, it was only the kids watching," he says. "But after a while, it got the adults, too. Now it has a very broad audience." Why would grownups watch a show about a teen who karate-kicks vampires? One reason is the wit of series creator Joss Whedon. Kevin Williamson, the " Dawson's Creek" creator, can tell you about that. "I love the way he's taken this high school situation . . . you know, you're dealing with pimples, but at the same time, you're saving the world," Williamson says. "I just like that. "I think it's a cool, cool show . . . It's the type of show I wish they had when I was 15 years old." Teen Memories But why would the plus-15 crowd watch it? Possibly because it deals with universal experiences. Long afterward, the teen years are the ones people recall with the most emotion. "It is the time when you really feel like you're becoming a person," Gellar says. Whedon puts it in larger terms: "For me, myths really took hold in adolescence. That's the most turgid time, and I love young adult fiction." In short, everything seems bigger and more changeable during the teen years. Then again, there's a simpler factor here: Guys, of any age, have this thing for women who can kick bad guys. In many ways, "Buffy" is just a smaller and sweeter-looking variation of " Nikita" and "Xena," the tough-kicking stars of syndication and cable. In the movie version, that was Kristy Swanson, who says she's now happy with her role on "Early Edition," on CBS. The TV show needed a teen-looking actress. That was Gellar, who ranges across many images. Inwardly, she's a sophisticated New Yorker who has (at 21) been working for almost 16 years. Outwardly, she's small, cute . . . and has studied tae kwon do for four years. Alongside all the karate-kicked bad guys, Gellar still sees "Buffy" as an exercise in angst. "Buffy's not the most popular," she says. "She's not the smartest in school. "She's an individual. And I think that the hardest thing to learn as a teen- ager is individuality." Now Gellar is roughly the most popular person at WB. "(She) has been the network cheerleader," Turell says. She has talked up "Dawson's Creek," the series by Williamson -who reciprocated by killing her in two movies, "Scream 2" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." Now she manages to stay alive in two upcoming movies. One (currently called "Simply Irresistible") is a romantic comedy-fantasy. The other, "Cruel Intentions," is tougher to describe. "It's a modernized version of 'Dangerous Liaisons,' '' Gellar says, "in which I play the Glenn Close role. She's very different than Buffy." Almost everyone is, actually. Few of us are Sunnydale teen-agers, required to save the world from vampires and save a network from extinction.
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