Maybe it's the name that doesn't get Joss Whedon any respect.

Not his name, but the name of the television series he produces. The moniker is one part supernatural, one part high school cheerleader:

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

It doesn't exactly sound like "Masterpiece Theatre.

Even the show's star says the title wasn't warmly embraced at first.

"People didn't want the show named 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' because they were afraid it would turn people off," said Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays the title character.

But the series (7 p.m. Tuesdays, WPWR-Ch. 50) has garnered the devotion of a legion of hard-core fans and TV critics around the country, even as the blond demon-slayer and her posse struggle to break through to mainstream recognition.

"It's always had a respect on the fringe, where people are saying, 'Oh, this is a cool show,' " said Anthony C. Ferrante, editor and publisher of genre entertainment magazine Cinescape.

Whedon himself is respected in Hollywood as a writer, producer and director who shepherds a smartly written, well-executed show that is as scary as it is wise, and that uses its sci-fi/supernatural/action elements as metaphors for the frightening trials and tribulations that all people -- young or old -- encounter in life.

But even though the series is coming off what may be its best season yet, last spring the show was essentially let go by its former network, the WB. "Buffy's" sixth season will debut Tuesday on UPN, which picked up the show after the WB dropped it last spring over money issues.

Worse yet, in July "Buffy" and its cast were snubbed completely by members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The lack of a single Emmy nomination this year was a shock to many who thought the show had reached a high point last years on.

"I'm not saying I threw a party," laughed Whedon, 37, while on a break from production in his offices in Los Angeles.

The show was considered a lock for a writing nomination for Whedon's emotionally charged episode "The Body," in which Buffy finds her mother (Kristine Sutherland) dead. Gellar herself also seemed destined for a best actress Emmy nod for her remarkable performance in the episode.

"The thing about awards are you know exactly how much of it, quite frankly, is (garbage), and how much of it is actually meaningful and is your peers honoring you," Whedon said.

"It's something we all want, it's recognition we all want. It's also good business. It helps a show, it helps the companies I work for and work with if the show is honored like that.

"It's disappointing," Whedon added, "but at the end of the day, the critics treat us with enormous respect. Our fans love our show, we love our show. And so it's not really that important."

Flying under radar

Whedon thinks the lack of an Emmy nomination this year (he got a nod last year for writing the haunting, mostly dialogue-free episode "Hush") is due to factors beyond his control -- chiefly, the network not making enough noise about the show.

"Last year's campaign was based on, `Don't say what the show is, and people will watch it unsuspecting.' And it worked," Whedon said.