“This show is quintessential postmodernism,” says Karen Francis-McWhite, a fourth-year graduate student in the Literature program at Duke. Be advised: she’s talking about Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The potentially scary thing is that she’s not the only one who thinks so.

About 25 people converged on the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Affairs at Duke University last Tuesday night to watch this season’s premiere. Mostly Duke professors and graduate students, they took a precious hour off from the grueling schedule of reading, teaching, writing, reading and grading to eat pizza, drink beer, and watch their favorite TV show.

While the Franklin Center hosts a variety of cutting edge art exhibits, lectures and screenings, Buffy might seem to be an unlikely part of the mix. But Executive Director Robert Sikorski says it fits right in. Buffy, in his view, is “intelligent enough to seem as if one is in conversation with what [show creator Joss] Whedon is producing.”

The “seminars” began last year when Sikorski, Duke English professor Priscilla Wald and poet Joe Donahue–all devoted fans–realized that the Center’s upstairs conference room with its high tech projector and adjoining kitchen would make a perfect screening room. So far there have been three Buffy nights, one per semester since last year.

There’s a reason why this show in particular draws such a strong audience among academics. “In some ways,” Francis-McWhite continues, “it’s the quintessential validation of postmodern cultural analysis and critique because it really does cross all sorts of genre lines.” The way Buffy fuses styles–horror, sci-fi, sitcom, drama–is an exercise in the very thing that cultural studies scholars write about.

And the academic audience goes well beyond Duke. Amid the fan fiction and mass market paperbacks, two critical books, Fighting The Forces: What’s At Stake In Buffy The Vampire Slayer? and Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion to Buffy and Angel, include essays on feminism, violence, race, class, and religion as explored in the text and subtext of the show.

Dozens of academic conferences have sprung up around it. Later this month at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, “Blood, Text and Fears: Reading Around Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will feature panels on “Tropes of Translation and Language,” “The Para-televisual” and “Death Duties: Theology and Destiny.”

Impressive. Still, aren’t people possibly reading just a little bit into what is, after all, a show about a teenage vampire killer?

Not according to creator Joss Whedon, whose original vision was to make Buffy an icon of female empowerment. After graduating in film and women’s studies at Wesleyan University, and becoming a successful TV and screenwriter in Hollywood, Whedon wrote the screenplay for the 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry. In repeated interviews Whedon’s insisted that producers gutted his ideas and made the movie into exactly the kind of bubble gum trash he despised.

Apparently this is true. In 1997, Whedon got the chance to produce the television version of Buffy, over which he still retains creative control. In the time since, he’s defined himself as something of an auteur. Now in its seventh season, the rating are beginning to decline–a mere 5 million people tuned in for last week’s premiere–and there are rumors that the show might end when the season closes. But the core audience is as devoted as ever, and despite its fringe niche on the outskirts of basic cable, its success has left a permanent mark on television culture.

For those who unfamiliar with the show, it runs on the not entirely surprising metaphor that adolescence really is hell.

Buffy, a cute, popular teenage girl, was told one day that she is a vampire slayer: a rare breed with supernatural fighting abilities, whose vocation in life is to kill vampires, demons, and other evil creeps. As it happens, her high school is filled with them, because her hometown is located at the mouth of the underworld. While dealing with supernatural problems, Buffy and her supporting cast are also dealing with the other scary things in life: love, parents and paying the bills, for example.

But Buffy has taken risks most shows wouldn’t or couldn’t get near. It deals with grief and sex in strikingly original ways. At the end of the fifth season, it even killed off its title character–she literally clawed her way back out of the grave. And the tough breaks didn’t end there: after that, she had to get a job slinging burgers because slaying vampires doesn’t pay.

It’s also a show not afraid to play with camp and parody. Last season, one episode was done as a musical, complete with original songs and choreographed big dance numbers.

While a lot of fans are keen to analyze Buffy through the lens of critical theory and cultural studies, there are also a lot of people who just want to watch for fun. “Buffy provides the occasion for taking certain of our skills and playing with them,” Sikorski says. “It allows one to relax without disengaging.”

Francis-McWhite thinks this is a big reason why the show draws such a strong audience in the academy. “There’s not a lot of room in academia to be silly, to feel like you have some humanity,” she notes. “With Buffy, it’s this incredible release. You can think about high school and first loves and first jobs and still feel like you’re using your intellect, because the show is doing so much work.”

The Duke graduate student doesn’t plan to use Buffy to teach a class or write a conference paper. “I really want to have Buffy and Angel be my fun stuff,” Francis-McWhite notes. “I like the way it draws upon these various horrors of growing up, first in high school and then college, and then all the work-related twenty-something angst. It really resonates with me. I don’t need to dissect it because I live it.”

Sikorski, last Tuesday evening’s host, read off the latest list of Buffy news: the DVD release of season two, and the release of the soundtrack to last year’s musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling.” During commercial breaks, people speculated about foreshadowed twists. Many of them have been watching since the first season, and as they brought each other up to speed, they demonstrated an impressive familiarity with the long complicated plot web that the show has spun in the past six years.

At the end of the episode, Spike, a vampire ally of Buffy’s now apparently turned human (in a very long story), crouches in the basement of the newly rebuilt Sunnydale High School. A creature behind him morphs into different evil characters that have been killed off, while warning of the hell about to be unleashed on earth.

“It’s not about right. It’s not about wrong,” it says. Then it changes into Buffy, and concludes, “It’s about power.”

Everyone gasps.

An audience member whispers to her friend, “Maybe it is Foucaultian.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer airs Tuesday nights on UPN. You can also catch reruns daily on FX. Angel airs Sunday nights on the WB.