Monday, March 6, 2017

All I Really Need to Know I Re-learned from Buffy

Ok, not really. But it is a less silly statement than one might think. I’m choosing this moment for it because a few days from now (March 10) marks the 20th anniversary of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Writer/director Joss Whedon grew up with outer-office Hollywood connections a couple of generations deep. His grandfather, for example, wrote for The Donna Reed Show. This background helped to get a hearing and a green light for Whedon’s youthful screenplay Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), but wasn’t enough to give him the director’s chair or creative control over the production. The result, much to his distress, was a far goofier movie than he intended – the line between campy and goofy may be fuzzy but it is real. Nonetheless, it was popular enough that the WB network offered to let Joss try his hand at a TV series based on it in which he would be in full control. Joss had his chance to mix horror, comedy, romance, dry wit, and melodrama (plus, yes, a little goofiness) as he liked, which is to say in a less broad manner than in the film. The combination worked. It worked for seven seasons and generated a spinoff series (Angel) that lasted for five.

I won’t go into lengthy detail about why this is a show adults can enjoy. The vlogger whose video is posted below does this most effectively. I cannot find anything in his argument with which to take issue. In brief, however, the primary point is that the monsters, demons, and vampires in the show are not just what they seem to be. They are metaphors for the troubles and demons we all face in life, particularly while growing up. Facing them, in fact, is how we grow up. Nor does Whedon lapse into a simpleminded morality. All his characters are more complex than that. There isn’t a single major character in the series who at some point doesn’t respond to some temptation or provocation by acting against type, as all of us do sometimes. After all, fundamentally good people can be destructive – even murderous – if triggered in the right way while villains can be kind. Moreover, villains can be truthful. Nearly always Whedon puts the most important (and therefore uncomfortable) truths into the mouths of his villainstruths politely avoided by the “good guys.” Yet, he tells us there are such things as moral choices. Lest all that begins to sound too heavy, did I mention the show also is both fun and funny?

I didn’t watch Buffy during its original 1997-2003 run. Those particular years were filled with my own troubles (a failed marriage, financial woes, loss of my parents, and much else) sucking the life out of me as effectually as any vampire. I didn’t need to seek out any more horror on TV and film. Besides, the movie had struck me as so-so, and I wasn’t inclined to give any of my then sparse downtime to a so-so show apparently aimed at teenagers. Only several years after the series ended did a smattering of re-runs convince me that I had prejudged the series wrongly. I have all seven seasons on DVD and recommend them. There is also a comic book series that continues to this day, though the first volume (the so-called Season 8) written by Joss Whedon is the one that ties up loose ends of the TV series. 

While he does enjoy dry wit, Whedon doesn’t ever rely on this alone. In Buffy and in his later scripts and movies he is never afraid to be sentimental, darkly humorous, grief-stricken, joyful, and passionate. His work is better for it. In a time of cynicism about everything except (regrettably) politics, in which true believers abound, it is well to be reminded that those adjectives are not properly just reserved for adolescents. They are human. Thanks for the reminder, Buff.


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