Saturday, March 10, 2007

"The hardest thing in this world is to live in it": Buffy the Vampire Slayer at 10

If someone had told you in 1997 that the two most influential dramas to debut in the next 10 years would be a comedic horror tragedy about a girl who fought vampires and a slow-moving drama about a mobster who visited a psychiatrist, you might have hit them in the face for making no sense (doesn't everyone deal with the nonsensical this way?). But, somehow, that's just what happened. Sure there have been more influential dramas in television history (Hill Street Blues), but in the 90s and 2000s, somehow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos set the course for nearly everything to come.

In some ways, though, it's easy to see why The Sopranos was so thoroughly broken down and inserted into the DNA of every other show on TV -- it arrived with instant critical acclaim, was nominated for boatloads of Emmys and became a huge hit for HBO, turning pay cable into THE place to see quality drama. Buffy, on the other hand, arrived with critics not sure what to make of it (though they quickly jumped on board and sang its praises throughout the run -- the reviews of the series finale were mostly rapturous). It was never nominated for a major Emmy (coming closest with a writing nomination for Joss Whedon's teleplay for "Hush" -- ironically, in a show acclaimed for its dialogue, a mostly silent episode -- in season four), and it was never anything more than a tiny cult hit. But it built a network (Buffy and Dawson's Creek made The WB THE place to be for teens and young adults in the late 90s and early 00s), and its story turns became legend, even if no one watched them. At this point, who DOESN'T know that Buffy lost her virginity to Angel, only to find that he turned evil?

You can see Buffy's genetic code everywhere (indeed, the creator of the biggest drama on television -- Shonda Rhimes of Grey's Anatomy -- lists Buffy as perhaps her most important influence) these days, though, where more successful series have had little to no impact. The West Wing, graced with acclaim, Emmys and ratings, hasn't been as influential because it was, at its best, essentially a workplace drama elevated by Aaron Sorkin's way with romantic, theatrical dialogue. It did nothing new down at the structural level. But Buffy, almost by accident sometimes, completely reinvented a lot of television drama tropes.

To wit:

  • --Buffy made the pop culture reference as character shorthand a safe thing to do. Sure there had been topical jokes on TV before (and references to pop culture -- Reverend Jim Ignatowski on Taxi wore an E.T. button for what felt like three seasons and The Simpsons all but perfected the cultural reference in the early 90s), but Buffy found a way to use them to highlight who its characters were and how they reacted to the world around them. Willow had different things to say about the culture she lived in from Xander, whose references were often more nerdy. Now, obviously, this trend has become annoying in recent years, but it's hard to imagine, say, Gilmore Girls without Buffy.

  • --But you know what? There's another aspect of Gilmore Girls that's hard to imagine without Buffy -- the whip-smart, strong female at the center of the show. The 90s saw a lot of intelligent and kick-ass women on television (Scully and Xena for two), but Buffy one-upped them all. Her immediate wake kicked off Dark Angel and Alias, but the female protagonists on both of those shows were still subservient to men. Buffy wrote her own rules and made her own world (and the show even made a point to show that her leadership style often made her seem like a jackass) and everyone, even Giles, ostensibly her boss, had to keep in line with what she wanted. She was an uncompromised, strong woman, and characters like Veronica Mars and Lorelai Gilmore -- heck, even the women of Deadwood (though I somehow doubt David Milch ever watched Buffy) -- have followed in her wake. Joss Whedon's understanding of feminist theory, position paper-y as it could occasionally be, was the most nuanced portrayal of the abilities and potential of the feminine ever depicted on TV screens.

  • --Perhaps Buffy's biggest level of influence was in the plotting department. Before Buffy, huge story turns rarely happened on shows. Sure, The X-Files and Twin Peaks had both set out big, over-arching narratives, but X-Files never altered the status quo that much (going to ridiculous lengths to keep Scully a skeptic) and fans turned on Twin Peaks when it altered the status quo. Perhaps because it was a tiny show on a tiny channel, Buffy was never afraid to create big, dramatic story turns. Angel was evil, and then he wasn't, but Buffy had to send him to Hell anyway. Faith was conflicted, and then she was evil, and then she was in jail, and then she was saving the world. Willow was a nerd, and then she was a sexy nerd, and then she was a witch, and then she was gay, and then she was evil. And so on. Whedon and his writers were unafraid to have their characters change, to have the increasingly dire circumstances they found themselves in alter their very beings (as would happen in real life). A Buffy season finale was an event to anticipate all year long, just because so much would happen -- lives would change, friendships would be put to the test, all of that. The serials that are all over television now live or die by this kind of plotting, but few of them do it as well as Buffy, which understood that these kinds of major changes could only work if the characters made them work. And Buffy made it OK to kill beloved characters who weren't leaving the show. When Buffy's mother, Joyce, died in season five, it was, assuredly, a part of her hero's journey, but it was also a chance to ruminate on death and the holes it leaves in our lives. Admittedly, Buffy didn't kill any regulars until the series finale (a trend that's en vogue now) and occasionally went in for the shock death (I'm still not sure Tara's death was completely necessary, especially in the way it was carried out -- though I can see why others think it was), but its influence in this regard was even felt during its run (24 killed Jack's wife; West Wing killed Mrs. Landingham). In particular, Buffy has influenced genre TV, where there's always a shot at resurrection, in this regard.

  • --Buffy mixed genres in bizarre and dazzling ways. It was a horror movie every week, but it was also the funniest show on TV. Its story turns resembled a tragedy at times, but it also had a huge romantic heart. It was created by an atheist, but it had an almost religious quality, a faith in both monsters and otherworldly powers, at its center.

  • --In its own way, Buffy made genre TV feel safe about being cinematic, furthering the stylistic ground broken by The X-Files. Whedon himself directed a nearly silent episode, a musical and an austere episode almost like a European film. And the fourth season finale, Restless, is one of the more cinematic offerings in the history of television, brimming with gorgeous shots, esoteric scripting and camera moves to die for. It's all in service of a dream episode (one of the few places where TV shows feel they can be cinematic), but the direction adds a level of drama to the proceedings that caused buzz across the show's fandom for seasons to come (you still see dissertations on the ultimate meaning of the cheese man). But Buffy didn't stop its cinematic qualities there -- The Gift, season five's finale, is full of the same sorts of things, this time in service of a coherent storyline.
And, of course, I could go on -- the show, after all, has been roundly deconstructed in scholarly circles and the subject of a linguistics book on how its dialogue influenced teen patois and other television shows (I still say that the rise to prominence of "Not so much" started here). And its "one season tells one story" structure has been copied by show after show (24 and Heroes, for two). But those five points seem to me to be the reasons Buffy continues to linger.

Assuredly, all five of those things had been done before by other shows, but never all at once and never so well (a short-lived SF series called Dark Skies was also fond of huge, jaw-dropping reversals, but it was a pretty horrible show). Without Buffy, you don't get any of the shows listed above, but you also don't get things like The O.C. or Lost or the new Doctor Who (whose creator is another professed Buffy fan). Obviously, a lot of crappy shows have cribbed from Buffy, but so have a lot of great shows.

And the show's writers, directors and actors have spread across the television landscape, landing on some of the most prestigious shows around (to go to the show's IMDB page is to see just how far-flung the Buffy alumni are).

And yet, there's still resistance to the show in many quarters. Buffy, of course, is never going to be for everyone. The sheer number of things it does (and does well) are so all over the map that it sounds like it shouldn't work. Plus, it has often horrible effects and makeup (despite the sincere attempts by the craftsmen in these areas), and it can be cheesy. And it's based on an awful, awful movie! But, at its best, Buffy was a deeply moral work about the cost of being a good person in a rotten world and the value, above all else, of the family you create for yourself. There hasn't been a show like it since, nor will there ever be.

There have been better shows since Buffy's heyday, but there have been few riskier. Watching it now, it's amazing just how much it dared and how much it succeeded. It felt ahead of its time in 1997, and, in many ways, it still does now.

Happy birthday, Buffy. Here's hoping you bring good TV to many generations to come.


Edward Copeland said...

Well said, Todd. Don't know if you've seen it, but someone has posted an angry defense of Season 4 and Marc Blucas. I'm willing to grant that maybe I'm harder on Season 4 and 5 than I should be (Season 5 albatross, thy name is Dawn), but I just don't understand people who still think Season 6 is a mixed bag when I think it only gets better and better. Thankfully, no one disagrees about Season 3. Again, well done Todd, especially in pointing out Buffy's influences in ways that might not be readily apparent or acknowledged.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Yes, I went over and commented to him.

I don't hate season four, but it's my least favorite of the middle seasons -- when I think Buffy was at its best. Still, many of the episodes are hilariously funny.

Wally said...

Didn't mean to come off as angry - more surprised than anything. Maybe 'miffed' as well.

As for Dawn...she presented an interesting structural problem for the show. Because her job was to be 'too young' (she was the replacement damsel after Willow gets too strong and Anya gets her balls back) but the other actors wee playing highly abstracted ages (Xander's 23 in Season Seven but had aged, Hamlet-in-Act-Five style, at least ten years since Dawn first appeared), poor damn Michelle Trachtenberg had to play a little kid (to stay young relative to everyone else) even though her physical maturation made Dawn's complaints more plausible and her whining less palatable. I think Trachtenberg did a lovely job with the part, never better than at the end of Season Five - cf. her speech to Spike late in the proceedings about being the cause of everyone's suffering - but because of the inorganic nature of the character's relationship to everyone else on the show, she ended up catching shit from fans that was was identical to the shit she caught from her onscreen companions.

Which is dramatically interesting and even powerful - when Dawn was lovable, everyone in the audience really loved her ('Seeing Red') - but it seems unfair to blame Trachtenberg for roughness on the show.

Particularly since Season Five is the show's actual best season. :)

(Edward - you've raised some interesting questions about Season Six, and though I think 'Normal Again' is something of a blunt instrument I agree that the season's first third is as strong a stretch as the show ever produced. But 'Smashed' and 'Wrecked' are tiresome, 'Gone' is unsubtle and mixed, and...

...and the finale, say what you want about its emotional heft, is unusually sloppily written for a Fury script. He's a dependable writer, sometimes dazzling ('Checkpoint' or even 'Walkabout' anyone?), but that's an uneasy, overwrought hour. Shame, too: Marti Noxon's 'Villains' is one of the season's best episodes, and 'Two to Go' is reasonably strong.

On another note: I just wanna say how much I enjoy reading your writing - both of you. It's so good to read dedicated, informed, passionate film/TV criticism that doesn't have to preen for an Arts section editor and faux-boho audience. Not that Seitz isn't a little goddamn faux-boho at times. :)

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I've never ragged on Dawn because I really liked Trachtenberg in season five, and she was completely necessary to the story (ask me on any given day what my favorite season is, and I'll say either three or five -- I suspect many fans are the same way). In seasons six and seven, she had her moments, but it was mostly as if they didn't know what to do with her (that lovely moment at the end of Potential in season seven aside). It might have been fun if they had followed through with giving her her own Scoobies (though cumbersome structurally), but, by and large, she became just a way to tie Buffy into the larger reality of living in the world.

I like season six a lot, but it has some of the weakest episodes -- the Willow's on magic and it's drugs episodes, Entropy and its teen soapiness, etc. -- but the first eight are so great and the February sweeps episodes too (especially that one where Buffy breaks down on the stairs with Tara) that I'll forgive the rough patches. Plus, it's a hell of a conceit for a genre show -- real life sucks literally as well as metaphorically.

And thanks for the props!

Josh said...

I enjoyed reading this! I don't understand how people can love something like The Host (which I love, too) and fail to appreciate all that is Buffy.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Josh -- agreed.

And I need to see The Host! Last weekend, car troubles kept me from it, and this weekend, my parents are in town -- and they are not all about the mutated fish monsters.

J at said...

I came very late to this discussion, as I was just searching for Buffy stuff and wandered here. I don't have much scholarly to add, either. Just glad there are so many Buffy fans out there. I think each season had strengths and weaknesses, and season 4 was probably my least favorite (Adam was boring to me, and so was Riley), and season 7, kinda too bleak...even though they were trying to get away from bleak. But wow, what a show. A bad episode of Buffy was still better than anything else on TV at the time. No exceptions.