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The series received critical and popular acclaim, frequently being listed as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and usually reached between four and six million viewers on original airings. Although such ratings are lower than successful shows on the "big four" networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox), they were a success for the relatively new and smaller WB Television Network.
The success of Buffy' has led to hundreds of tie-in products, including novels, comics, and video games. The series has received attention in fandom (including fan films), parody, and academia, and has influenced the direction of other television series. The series, as well as its spinoff series Angel, and extensions thereof, have been collectively termed the "Buffyverse".
Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is "the Slayer", one in a long line of young women chosen by fate to battle evil forces. This mystical calling endows her with powers that dramatically increase physical strength, endurance, agility, accelerated healing, intuition, and a limited degree of clairvoyance, usually in the form of prophetic dreams. She has returned from death twice and is known as a reluctant hero who wants to live a normal life. However, she learns to embrace her destiny as the vampire slayer.
Buffy receives guidance from her Watcher, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). Giles, rarely referred to by his first name (it is later revealed that in his misspent younger days he went by "Ripper"), is a member of the Watchers' Council, whose job is to train and guide the Slayers. Giles researches the supernatural creatures that Buffy must face, offers insights into their origins and advice on how to defeat them, and helps her stay in fighting form.
Buffy is also helped by friends she meets at Sunnydale High: Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon). Willow is originally a wallflower who excels at academics, providing a contrast to Buffy's outgoing personality and less-than-stellar educational record. They share the social isolation that comes with being different, and especially from being exceptional young women. As the series progresses, Willow becomes a more assertive character and a powerful witch, and comes out as a lesbian. In contrast, Xander, with no supernatural skills but very athletic, provides comic relief and a grounded perspective. It is Xander who often provides the heart to the series, and in season six, becomes the hero in place of Buffy who defeats the "Big Bad." Buffy and Willow are the only characters who appear in all 144 episodes; Xander is missing in only one.
The cast of characters grew over the course of the series. Buffy first arrives in Sunnydale with her mother, Joyce Summers (portrayed by Kristine Sutherland), who functions as an anchor of normality in the Summers' lives even after she learns of Buffy's role in the supernatural world ("Becoming, Part Two"). Buffy's younger sister Dawn Summers (Michelle Trachtenberg) is introduced in season five ("Buffy vs. Dracula"). A vampire tortured with a soul in return for horrific deeds committed in the past to many, including a young gypsy girl and her family, Angel (portrayed by David Boreanaz), is Buffy's love interest throughout the first three seasons. He leaves Buffy as he believes he isn't good enough for her. He goes on to make amends for his sins and to search for redemption in his own spin-off, Angel. He makes several guest appearances in the remaining seasons, including the last episode.
At Sunnydale High, Buffy meets several other students besides Willow and Xander willing to join her fight for good, an informal group eventually tagged the "Scooby Gang" or "Scoobies." Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter), the archetypal shallow cheerleader, reluctantly becomes involved. Daniel "Oz" Osbourne (Seth Green), a fellow student, rock guitarist and werewolf, joins the group through his relationship with Willow. Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), Sunnydale's computer science teacher, joins the group after helping destroy a demon trapped in cyberspace during season 1. She later becomes Giles' love interest. Anya (Emma Caulfield), a former vengeance demon (Anyanka) who specialized in avenging scorned women, becomes Xander's lover after losing her powers and joins the group in season four.
In Buffy's senior year at high school, she meets Faith (Eliza Dushku), the other current Slayer, who was "called" forth when Slayer Kendra Young (Bianca Lawson) was killed by vampire Drusilla (Juliet Landau), in season two. Although Faith initially fights on the side of good with Buffy and the rest of the group, she comes to stand against them and sides with Mayor Richard Wilkins (Harry Groener) after accidentally killing a human in season three. She reappears briefly in the fourth season, looking for vengeance, and moves to Angel where she voluntarily goes to jail for her murders. Faith reappears in season seven of Buffy, after having helped Angel and his crew, and fights alongside Buffy against The First Evil.
Buffy gathers other allies: Spike (James Marsters), a vampire, is an old companion of Angelus (Angel) and one of Buffy's major enemies in early seasons, although they later become allies and lovers. At the end of season six, Spike regains his soul. Spike is known for his Billy Idol-style peroxide blond hair and his black leather coat, stolen from a previous Slayer, Nikki Wood; her son, Robin Wood (D. B. Woodside), joined the group in the final season. Tara Maclay (Amber Benson) is a fellow member of Willow's Wicca group during season four, and their friendship eventually turns into a romantic relationship. Buffy becomes involved personally and professionally with Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), a military operative in "the Initiative," which hunts demons using science and technology. The final season sees geeky wannabe-villain Andrew Wells (Tom Lenk) come to side with the Scoobies after initially being their captive/hostage; they regard him more as a nuisance than an ally.
Buffy featured dozens of recurring characters, both major and minor. For example, the "Big Bad" (villain) characters were featured for at least one season (for example, Glorificus was a character who appeared in 12 episodes, spanning much of season five). Similarly, characters who allied themselves to the group and characters which attended the same institutions were sometimes featured in multiple episodes.