How can one sci-fi show from the late ’90s about girl who kills vampires for a living still be thought of so fondly 20 years after it first aired? It’s all about its humanity.

It was always difficult to explain to people growing up why Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my favourite TV show. On the surface, Buffy looks like a silly horror show about a high-schooler killing vampires and demons. Buffy Summers, the 16-year-old “chosen one”, is a twist on the idea that the blonde girl is always the victim in these shows. Buffy and the “Scooby Gang” fight vampires and stop the end of the world. But beneath the surface it had some of the smartest plot lines, nuanced characters, unique presentation and wittiest dialogue of any TV show ever mad.

Buffy was genre-bending. The showrunners created a whole episode where there was almost no dialogue, another one that went all David Lynch in TV dream form, and another where there was no incidental music (so the audience would feel the full gravity of the episode). Buffy also did a musical episode years before Glee made it a thing.

Buffy-speak, as it was referred to — this sort of pop culture-y, snappy and sarcastic way of dealing with the world — had a profound influence on the language of those who were fans of the show. Many shows have since attempted to replicate the form, but no one can out-Joss Buffy creator Joss Whedon.

Buffy, for the most part, didn’t treat its audience as idiots, and was a precursor to what people call “prestige television” nowadays. I imagine if it were launched today, Buffy would be more likely to appear on Netflix or HBO than Warner Brothers.

In Australia, it was always shabbily treated (as most shows were, before Australian TV networks worked out people would find other ways to watch their shows if they didn’t broadcast them in a timely manner). Buffy received late-night slots and was delayed about six months from when it first aired in the US. It was a struggle. Today, we worry about same-day spoilers for Game of Thrones appearing on Twitter. In Buffy’s day, Australia could almost have the whole season spoiled if you happened to look at fan site.

Even with Australia’s disadvantaged time zone, Buffy brought together an incredible community online at a time when the internet was really just kicking off. Whole forums, MySpace pages, and journal sites were dedicated to the show.

For me, as a quiet, closeted kid in high school, who got good report cards but was always told he was too quiet, it helped me find my voice. I met the first boy I ever kissed through our shared appreciation of Buffy. The first people I ever told I was gay were people with whom I had a shared interest with Buffy. It was online and it was safe. I knew they would get it, and it wouldn’t be an issue. Buffy did LGBTI storylines when it was still taboo for network TV to do so. 

I first learned how to use Photoshop when I wanted to figure out how to make decent pictures for these sites. My speaking-English-good came from wanting to connect to people just as nerdy about Buffy as I was. Despite all this, probably the most surprising thing in recent years has been just how many people I’ve discovered have had their lives profoundly impacted and shaped by the show.

My best friend in high school who first introduced me to the show met his wife through Buffy fan groups. As 20th birthday celebrations arrived, many friends of friends recounted stories of meeting their partner through shared appreciation for everyone’s favourite slayer.

The life lessons of Buffy have stuck with me through my teens and through adulthood. Dealing with the reality of life, going to university, getting a job, dating, break-ups, moving towns, new friendships. All these things were reflected painfully accurately in Buffy, and its spin-off, Angel.

In a time when most shows were reliant on a steady cast where nothing ever changed, and everyone lived happily ever after, before the days when Game of Thrones was the show for killing off your favourite character, Whedon was brutal. When you bring up Tara, or Jenny Calendar with most Buffy fans, it is still a sore point. Hell, he even killed off Buffy. Twice. Whedon let the characters grow. When they finished high school, he blew it up. When Buffy needed to grow up, he killed off her mum.

As part of preparation for a Buffy trivia event in our nation’s capital recently (we came equal second, thank you) I committed myself to rewatching the series. Apart from some unique late-’90s fashion choices, the use of floppy disks and super large computers, the series holds up. Although watching with adult eyes some of the decisions the characters make in the early years, I have some reservations. My appreciation of Xander — outside of the Yellow Crayon speech — has tumbled as I realise his behaviour towards not only his female friends but his girlfriends was way too Nice Guy behaviour. And I question now how Buffy absolutely can’t have casual sex without terrible consequences, nor do I understand now why she beats herself up over Spike in season six. And his attempted rape of Buffy, and his subsequent redemption, didn’t do justice to either Buffy or Spike. A more feminist critique of the show can be found in this Slate piece, but that a reassessment of the show as an adult can cause me to realise some of these things are an issue now is probably a credit to Buffy planting the seeds of feminism in my mind at a formative age.

As I’ve grown up with the show, I’ve also developed an appreciation for what the adults in Buffy’s life did for her, and, in particular, the relationship between Buffy and her “watcher” (read: mentor) Giles. I hated when he left Buffy (so she could “find her feet”) in season 6, but now it makes complete sense. And his lesson to her from the start was that while she is a force for good triumphing over evil, light over darkness, life exists almost completely in shades of grey. While the fashion and pop culture references have dated, the stories remain as strong, and resonate as deeply, as they did 20 years ago.

When my grandmother died suddenly in late 2015, it was the first time I’d ever lost a close family member. Buffy was my go-to. In The Body, the episode where Buffy’s mother dies, the 1000-year-old ex-demon Anya — who is always the most literal person in the room — doesn’t know how it works, and is frustrated that it isn’t explained to her. When I was processing my grief, I could only recall her words in my head:

“I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. “

Out of the mouth of a fictional ex-demon I found comfort in one of the most human things we ever go through. The normal in the abnormal. That remains the strength of Buffy. It isn’t the literal monsters and demons that are ever the biggest problem. The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.