Sunday, February 15, 2015

Re-exploring the Whedonverse

I just watched one of the best ever episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Now, if for any reason you just turned up your nose, or perhaps snorked milk through it, I will assume you’ve found it difficult to appreciate Buffy for what it is.  Let’s start with its pedigree: there are essentially three television show creators for whom I will watch basically anything they create:1 Alan Ball, Aaron Sorkin, and Joss Whedon.  At this point, I’ve watched almost everything those three gentlemen have ever done,2 although sometimes I have to go fill in gaps.  A couple of years ago I had to sit down and watch/rewatch the entire 7-year run of West Wing.  And, currently, I’m embarked on the same mission for Buffy.

Now, as it happens, I saw most of the Buffy episodes when they went into re-runs the first time, which I believe would have been before its original run was even complete.  But that was 15 years (and three children) ago, and I certainly don’t remember all the ones I watched, and I never watched them all.  Plus I never watched a single episode of Angel, which means I totally missed out on all the crossover fun.3  And, somewhere in my various and sundry pokings around the Internet, I discovered the excellent Watcher’s Council viewing guide, which tells you exactly what order to watch every episode in, and, as it mentioned, the entire run of both series is available streaming on Netflix, so it doesn’t even cost me anything.4

Buffy is an interesting story in Whedonosophy.  First there was the movie, which Whedon wrote but then didn’t have much else to do with.  I had seen it: I thought it was an interesting enough piece of fluff entertainment ... nothing to write home about, perhaps, but a not unenjoyable way to kill an hour and a half.  If nothing else, it’s always fun to see Pee-Wee Herman playing a vampire.

Reportedly, Whedon said he didn’t like the studio’s treatment of the Buffy movie because they had made it too campy.5  Which is kind of funny, because there is no way to take Buffy completely seriously.  The trick is to understand that you don’t have to take it completely seriously to have fun with it, come to love and empathize with its characters, and appreciate the genius of its creator.  When I first saw my roommates gathered around the television, excitedly watching a show based on a movie about a cheerleader who chased down vampires, I thought, man, that’s silly ... how can you really get into something like that?  But the more they watched, the more dialogue I heard just passing through the room, and the more I got sucked in.

See, dialogue is Whedon’s true talent.  Very like Sorkin, and to a lesser extent like Ball, Whedon writes sharp, clever, engaging dialogue.  Oh, it’s completely unrealistic: listening to a conversation between two Whedon characters is like listening to two people re-enacting a conversation they had yesterday, only now they’ve had time to think of all the witty comebacks they couldn’t come up with at the time.  No one really talks like that, but it’s oh so entertaining to listen to.  Just as Sorkin sucked me into Sports Night even though I hate sports, the words that Whedon put into the mouths of his characters easily overcame my reservations about the subject matter.

Now, this was Whedon’s first show, and you can tell.  It’s great, but it does take a little time to get there.  The first two seasons are good, definitely, but you have to stick with it until season 3 for the greatness to kick in.  Once it does, though, it becomes a bit of a thrill ride, and it’s difficult not to binge watch it.

While the snappy dialogue is the most often cited evidence of Whedon’s genius, it’s certainly not the only one.  Another thing his shows have is organic relationships amongst the characters.  His shows tend to have large casts of central characters (Buffy season 3 has 7, for instance), not to mention many more recurring characters.6  And yet all these people have particular relationships with each other that somehow never seem forced.  The best example is when he needs to introduce a new character.  In most shows, character A disappears at the end of season X, and character B magically appears in season X + 1, and everyone just accepts them with minimal adjustment.  One of the most egregious examples of this would be Criminal Minds (another show with a large cast), where Mandy Patinkin’s Gideon never really returns after season 2 and Joe Mantegna’s Rossi shows up out of nowhere in season 3 to replace him, and the team dynamic changes not a whit.  The writers attempted to explain this by giving Rossi the backstory of being Gideon’s old partner—the cofounder of the whole unit, in fact—so he was well-known to all the existing characters on the show.  Unfortunately, this sort of thing is easy to overdo: Rossi was apparently so well-known that, in nearly 50 hour-long episodes, no one ever thought to mention him before Joe Mantegna showed up on set.  The truth is, this is just the shit that happens when one actor leaves the show and is replaced by another.  We in the viewing audience just accept it.  What’s the alternative?

Well, Whedon has an alternative.  He doesn’t always have time to build a logical story arc around an actor’s exit,7 but a character’s entrance is always under his control. Let’s take Seth Green’s Oz.  Oz first appears in season 2, episode 4, for about 30 seconds.  He then shows up again in episodes 6, 9, and 10 for equally brief amounts of screentime, before becoming a pretty regular guest star in episode 13 and finally a series regular in season 3.  So, by the time you need to accept him as a full-fledged member of the group, you’re already used to having him around.  He didn’t just show up one day and become an integral part of the story.  He’s that guy we kept bumping into and then he struck up a relationship with one member of the group and then he started having plots revolve primarily around his character and he just naturally became part of the gang.  It’s all very organic and feels very real, which, if you think about it, is pretty bizarre for a show with highly stylized, unrealistic dialogue about high school kids fighting supernatural monsters.  But the reality of characters is something you just can’t fuck with.  You can have outlandish situations, and you can have over-the-top dialogue, but the people on the show must feel very real, even when they’re vampires.  If the audience doesn’t identify with your characters—doesn’t see in them people they know and love, or even themselves—then you’re done.  No amount of cleverness and ingenuity can save that show.

So the characters are the main thing I praise Buffy8 for, but not the only thing.  Being that it is a show about high school kids fighting supernatural monsters, it could either be a cool high school show, or a cool monster show.  But, with Whedon at the helm, it’s somehow both.  Sometimes it takes turns going from one to the other and sometimes it really does pull off doing both at once.9  It’s also a fun action-thriller show at the same time it’s a clever (not broad) comedy.  When it’s doing action, it’s blood-pumping, edge-of-your-seat thrilling.  And when it’s doing comedy, it’s tickle-your-funnybone funny.  And, again: he can even do both at once, sometimes. 

One thing it’s generally not, though, is scary.  With a premise like “high school cheerleader takes on vampires”10 you can do funny pretty easily, and you can do thrilling if you work at it, but scary requires taking the show way too seriously.  I said up at the top that you can’t take Buffy seriously and you don’t need to, and that’s true.  It’s also true that Whedon doesn’t try to take the show too seriously (just seriously enough to make it awesome), and for the most part that’s the right choice.  When creators try to take their stories too seriously, that’s when they become silly.  So with the writer not being entirely serious and the audience just in it for the fun (and the awesome), actual scary is a pretty unlikely outcome.

And yet, the episode I watched recently, that inspired me to write this post, is actually totally creepy.  It’s not going to give me nightmares or anything, but damn if the monsters in this particular episode creep me right the fuck out and give me a serious case of the shivers.  The episode is called “Hush”, and, while following that link will show you a picture of the monsters in question, it’s not just their appearance that made them so damn freaky.  It was also the way they moved, and their expressions—one of the main monsters is played by Doug Jones, and, if you don’t know who that is, go back and watch Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies again.  So we’re talking actors who are gifted at expressing emotion without talking, which is handy, because the gimmick of these monsters is that they steal everyone’s voices.  After the first 15 minutes or so of the episode, no one gets to talk any more.  And that just makes the whole thing even creepier.

Which is not to say that Whedon shorts us on the funny, though.  The Buffyverse wiki article linked above says that one of Whedon’s inspirations for writing this episode was constantly hearing that his scripts hinged on the dialogue.  Well, if his intention was to show that an episode of his could succeed without the clever dialogue, he failed abysmally.  The scene where Giles explains the nature of the danger and how to defeat it (using visual aids since he can’t talk), is one of the funniest Buffy scenes in the series, in my opinion, and it’s all because of the painstakingly crafted11 pictures, gestures, facial expressions, phrases hastily scrawled on signs, and artfully placed silent mouthings of words, few enough that you can read their lips without any issues.  All Whedon managed to prove is that he can even write clever dialogue without using a single spoken word.

And on top of the creepy and the funny, there are still plenty of great character moments, including an unexpectedly sweet gesture between two characters just starting a romantic relationship, and the first appearance of a character who I happen to know will become a crucial part of the show in later seasons.  I’d missed this episdoe the first time around, and, now that I’ve had the opportunity to see it, my faith in the genius of Whedon is only reinforced.

So, if you’ve never thought to give Buffy a try, but perhaps you appreciate some of the other Whedon properties, such as Firefly or The Avengers, let me encourage you to fire up your Netflix and take it out for a spin.  For a show about high school kids fighting vampires and demons, it’s surprisingly enjoyable for adults and kids alike.


1 Barring premature cancellation.  Television network executives being as moronic as they are, I often have to wait a season or so to make sure they’re not going to cancel the show out from under me before I get too invested.

2 Except for the premature cancellations (see previous footnote).  Specifically, Oh, Grow Up, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Dollhouse, respectively.  I don’t count Firefly because of Serenity (natch).

3 Not to mention I never understood where Cordelia went.  Now I get it.

4 Well, above and beyond what I’m already paying Netflix every month.  Which is a bargain, really.

5 Specifically what he said, according to Wikipedia, was: “I had written this scary film about an empowered woman, and they turned it into a broad comedy.  It was crushing.”

6 This is another characteristic he shares with Sorkin and Ball, actually.

7 Although sometimes he does.  The character who leaves in season 4 (no spoilers!) was a real blow, but I thought the exit was handled gracefully.  Less so the first actor to depart Angel, but, as I say: sometimes things are just out of your control.

8 And Angel.  From now on, let’s just pretend they’re a single entity, and every time I say “Buffy,” you translate that as “Buffy and Angel.”

9 See?  Balance and paradox.  No wonder I love this show.

10 Although, to be fair, Buffy was only really a cheerleader in the movie version.  By the time she hit the series, she realized her life was never going to allow her to do something as normal as cheerleading.

11 Obviously I don’t know that for sure, but as an aspirational fellow writer, I’d put money on that assessment.

No comments:

Post a Comment