Saturday, March 11, 2017

An Anniversary

This is the 20th anniversary of the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which, in contrast to so many other television shows, actually stands up pretty well. The Spectator has a couple of essays devoted to the show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer transformed pop culture and Buffy the Vampire Slayer made me the man I am.
Joss Whedon’s generation-defining TV hit debuted 20 years ago tonight. Its anniversary is being marked by the fans who adored it and the critics whose cool detachment it drove a stake through. It is fourteen years since Sunnydale collapsed into the Hellmouth and Buffy left the airwaves after seven seasons. But far from turning to dust, this unlikeliest of cultural landmarks has enjoyed an afterlife through graphic novels, fan fiction, merchandise, conventions and the long-running chatter about a Hollywood adaptation, a rumour that has proved harder to kill than the show’s durable lead. (She died twice.)
I only discovered the show after it was in re-runs. One day, by accident, I watched one of the early episodes from season six, when Buffy is actually dead and has been temporarily replaced by a robot (played, of course, by the actress who plays Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar). For some reason, probably the humor, I got the urge to watch more and finally ended up buying everything Joss Whedon ever did including Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly and even Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. What a remarkable congeries of creative genius! Of course nowadays his soul has been trapped in an urn by the implacable forces of Hollywood blockbuster commercialism...

But Buffy (and Angel) still stand out because of their brilliant originality, not because of their feminism or social justice or whatever. One of the remarkable aspects is the lack of moral relativism, though the moral ambiguities develop in interesting ways. There is always a price to be paid for evil. Angel has one of the most gripping finales ever with the remaining characters faced with an impossible battle they cannot win, but must fight anyway. Angel's last lines are "personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon, let's go to work." Fade to black.

Out of many remarkable Buffy episodes, I think my favorites include the homage to Hollywood musicals, "Once More With Feeling" and "Hush" where the characters, for most of the episode, lose the ability to speak. One of the few clips available on YouTube is this one, from season five:

The context would help--for example, this scene plays better if you know just how truly insufferable Quentin and the Watcher's Council had been over the previous seasons--but I think it still comes across well. This is a writer's show: it's not about the special effects or the cinematography or all of the other things that distract us from the usual bad writing on television. It's about the writing and how brilliantly we can be fooled as to where the story is going. Whedon was a master at playing the varying conventions of drama, horror, action and comedy against one another and changing the mood in an instant.


Will Wilkin said...

I don't have a television and see fewer than 1 movie a year, so this article has no reference to my experience. But I like how you recognize moral ambiguities yet still seem to reject excessive moral relativism. There is a perspective in your writings, Bryan, that makes them pleasant to me no matter what the subject.

Bryan Townsend said...

Like yourself, I don't have a television and I go to about one movie a year. But there are some television shows I find enjoyable and I watch on DVDs. Thanks for your compliment!