Please note: This article does contain spoilers - you have been warned.
The chances are, if you were a teenager growing up in the late nineties, you will have at some point experienced the sheer brilliance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most intelligent, witty and snarky programmes on television. Known for its humour, complex storylines and interesting characters, Buffy had a strong following in the gay community by the time it reached the end of the third season; stories which dealt with feeling like an outsider or hiding a secret resonated with LGBT viewers and Buffy's 'coming out' as a vampire slayer drew obvious parallels with gay viewers. Its creator, Joss Whedon, had long been an advocate of gay rights and it seemed only natural that at some point in the rich, layered universe of the show, a gay character would be introduced.
Cue season four and the central characters (known collectively as 'the Scooby gang') had graduated from high school and had begun to find their way in the world, either through college or starting a career. The character of Willow (played to perfection by Alyson Hannigan, in a role which helped to launch her career), conflicted after the end of a long term relationship with Oz (Seth Green), begins to discover an interest in magic. Excited by this interest but unable to share it with her uninterested friends, Willow seeks out others on campus who share her passion; it's here that she meets the character of Tara Maclay (Amber Benson). The pair grow quickly close to each other and are soon in one of the most stable and positive relationships in the show.
The relationship between Willow and Tara was hugely important for so many reasons; chief among them being that this was one of the earliest, positive portrayals of an LGBT couple on American mainstream television. At the time, portrayals of gay characters were more often than not the preserve of soap operas or cable channels (paid for channels on the likes of Sky or Virgin in the UK); those characters on mainstream television shows often felt like horrible caricatures or an attempt to grab ratings. Willow was different; here was a character whose sexuality had evolved naturally over the course of the show. As she entered college and the close-knit dynamics of the group were disrupted, Willow was free to explore her own wants and desires more fully. Whedon had even seeded the idea in the previous season where Willow meets her evil vampire alter-ego from an alternate reality. On discovering that her doppelganger is, as she puts it, 'kinda gay', there's a knowing look from another character who hints that the real Willow may also have hidden desires.
Whedon cleverly uses magic as a neat analogy for sexuality: as well as Willow's discovery of her passion for magic acting as a parallel for the discovery of her own latent sexuality, scenes where Willow and Tara perform magic often acted in lieu of the show being able to broadcast any physical aspects of their relationship (network restrictions prevented them from even kissing in the early part of their relationship) - in one memorable episode, Willow and Tara perform a spell before collapsing, drenched in sweat and gasping for air, backwards. In fact, it took an entire season and a half of the couple's relationship before Whedon was able to broadcast a kiss between the couple, and then this only occurred because the weighty emotional power of the episode (in which a prominent character dies) meant that the attentions of the network's censors were diverted elsewhere.
Thankfully, when the show changed networks, the restrictions placed on Whedon were relaxed and the couple's relationship was able to be shown in the same way as the other relationships on the show. This also lead to one of the series' best visual puns which occurred during the musical episode Once More With Feeling, in which Willow moves off-screen and it is hinted that she is pleasuring Tara who is repeatedly singing 'You make me complete', before being cut off mid-word - 'you make me com...'.
As well as being important for its portrayal of a loving relationship between the two women, the show is also important for its portrayal of the reactions of the other characters. Willow's friends, despite the initial shock at this new relationship, are quick to accept Tara's place within the group and within Willow's life; the pair are even called upon to act as surrogate parents to Buffy's sister Dawn after Buffy's apparent death at the end of season 5. It's significant also that neither character in the show identifies themselves as being a lesbian, the decision suggested that any such labelling is simply a non-issue; these are two characters who are in love, why should it matter what anyone else chooses to label it? Evidence of the strength of their relationship comes in season 4 with the return of Willow's previous romance, Oz, seeking to renew their relationship; Willow, heartbroken after their break-up, realises the strength of her new relationship with Tara and chooses to remain with her rather than return to her previous love.
Their relationship is also probably the most consistently stable and loving on the show. Even Willow's betrayal of Tara, using a spell to modify her memory, in a later season doesn't permanently end their relationship due to the strong bond between them. When Tara is murdered in season 6 of the show, the death affects Willow deeply. So much so that the character, despite eventually moving on to a new relationship with Kennedy (Iyari Limon), never truly recovers and continues to blame herself for the death.
As well as Willow and Tara being one of the first lesbian couples to be shown on mainstream television, the positive portrayal of their relationship helped to pave the way for greater equality in the way that LGBT couples are portrayed on television today. Whedon's sensitive characterisation of the pair, combined with the utterly compelling performances by both Benson and Hannigan helped to make them one of the most accurate and believable portrayals of a gay couple on television to this date.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available to purchase on DVD from Amazon.