Tribute to The Zeppo: How Buffy's Xander taught me to be a nerd out loud

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Mar 7, 2017

Xander Harris is not my favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer character.

I know, not the first thing you expect to read in an article that's ostensibly a tribute to the guy, but it's true. When the chips are down, I'm taking Willow Rosenberg over anyone else on that show, but when our intrepid Editor-in-Chief asked the Syfy Wire writers to re-examine Buffy on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, my thoughts immediately turned to Xander, and I had to reckon with why.

I mean, he's a very entertaining character, but of the original four leads on the show, he's almost inarguably the most expendable. Take Willow away and you lose a good bit of potency in the back half of the show. Take Giles away and you remove Buffy's father figure and, often, her motivation for rebellion. Take Xander away and you get ... fewer jokes, I guess? Not that I'd ever want him to be gone, but without Xander, Buffy still could've been a damn good, if less enjoyable, show.

So, why did he spring to my mind when asked to ponder what Buffy means to me? Because, if I'm being really honest with myself, Xander -- more than any other part of that show -- helped me become who I am. And no, it's not just because he was the dude.

I first discovered Buffy through channel surfing. I didn't ever hear about it from classmates (more on that in a minute) and we lived in the boondocks where the Internet hadn't really spread yet, so the only way I could find this amazing show was through randomly encountering it on my crappy little bedroom TV one night. It was a big night for me, as I'd discovered an elusive fifth channel (my rabbit ears had only previously picked up ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX), grainy and spotty but unmistakably a local WB carrier. And there was Buffy, and Willow, and Giles, and Xander, ready to transport me to their world.

I was, of course, instantly hooked, and I wanted to tell all of my friends about this brilliant show ... but they were mostly not listening. In fact, I honestly couldn't tell you what TV shows most of my classmates did watch. I was a budding pop culture savant, spouting lines from the Pulp Fiction screenplay and regularly recalling my favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, but I went to a tiny, tiny rural high school where the primary interests were ... well, not Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm not saying no one was into anything nerdy, nor am I saying I hung out with a bunch of jerks, but most of the time, whenever I brought up something like Buffy ... well, remember that scene in The Avengers where Thor slams his hammer into Captain America's shield?

Unstoppable Force, meet Immovable Object.

I was a relentless dervish of geekdom, and most of my friends just weren't having it. Something like that, as I'm sure many of you know first-hand, can be a little isolating, and it can also create a disconnect between who you really are and who you think you're supposed to be.

Which brings us back to Xander.

Xander is a huge nerd, but that doesn't exactly make him unique on the show. Xander's also funny, but again, that doesn't really make him unique among that cast of characters. I would even argue that Xander's loyalty and friendship aren't what set him apart, as I think that also applies to Willow (particularly in the early seasons) just as much as it does to him. For me, what makes Xander stand out is his willingness to be all of those things, plus an unrestrained goofball, loudly and without a lot of regard for the consequences. Not because he doesn't care about the consequences but because he just can't help himself.

Xander's the guy who will take time out of a serious conversation to lecture you about Godzilla, who'll come out of a fight that almost got him killed and make a Jimmy Olsen joke, and who'll say something stupidly childish or just plain inappropriate when faced with imminent injury just because it's the only thing he can think to do at the time. There are moments in Buffy when Xander is the funniest and quickest person in the room by far, and then there are times when Xander says something so stupid and jaw-droppingly ill-timed that he brings everyone and everything to a halt.

I was certainly not as funny as Xander in high school, but I was always trying to be, and I was definitely a guy with the power to say the dumbest things at the worst times. I used humor as a defense mechanism for everything, including my nerdiness when it wasn't well-received, and sometimes it got me in more trouble than it was designed to get me out of. In that way, Xander and I clicked in my brain almost immediately.

Xander was also the guy who would stick around for his friends when a lot of other people would have run in the opposite direction. He's the guy who would simply invent ways to help out as his two best friends evolved into a pair of incredibly powerful beings. He struggled to grow up more than anyone else on the show (except maybe Dawn), but when he did, he found something he was legitimately good at. He became a carpenter, and while that served him well professionally, it also served him personally. He became the unofficial Fixer of the Scoobies, the guy who held everything together and cleaned up after the mess was made. Oh yeah, and then there was that time he literally saved the world with the power of love.

Again, all things that connected Xander and me, or at least the kind of me I aspired to, but even that's not what really sealed the deal in connecting Xander Harris directly to my heart. It's this:

Xander is there from the very beginning, alongside Willow, Giles and Buffy. He's a charter member of the Scoobies, and I think the other three know that he wouldn't abandon them for anything. And yet through most of the show, he still spends time struggling to feel that he really belongs.

There's a reason that the famous Xander-centric episode of the series is called "The Zeppo." Xander's a guy who constantly sees his best friends morphing into living legends while he never gets powers or sees his name written into the annals of magical lore. Xander keeps thinking that, like Zeppo, he'll be that guy who was in the group for a while and then faded out. He's the guy who thinks his name will have an asterisk next to it. And yet, he sticks around anyway, because he knows he loves these people.

As a nerdy goofball at a tiny school, as a nerdy goofball in a big city, and yes even as a nerdy goofball writing for a website full of nerdy goofballs, I still struggle with feeling like I belong. I get Imposter Syndrome like nobody's business. It's this little piece of background radiation that's been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I've learned to fight it and keep living. I can't stop being the nerdy goofball. I couldn't even if I wanted to now, and part of the reason I figured out that was OK is because I saw Xander do it first.

By the end of Buffy, Xander's not struggling to belong any more. He's essential, and more importantly, he knows why he's essential. I might still struggle with the 'why' part, but like Xander, I figured out how to celebrate being the nerd who can't stop cracking jokes, and I fit into my little Scooby Gang just fine.