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Buffy The Vampire SlayerBuffy phenom strikes a blow for mythic adolescence
By John Beifuss
Thursday 23 January 2003, by Webmaster
The characters sometimes gnash their teeth and froth at the mouth, but it’s the fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer who are really rabid.
They maintain Buffy Web sites, trade Buffy collectibles, watch the spinoff series, Angel, buy the collected episodes on DVD and talk about Buffy, renegade slayer Faith, mousy witch Willow, werewolf Oz and the other inhabitants of Buffy’s grave new world as if these series regulars were both lifelong best friends and awe-inspiring rock idols.
Thanks to this fan loyalty, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has evolved from a one-joke 1992 movie starring trivia-quiz answer Kristy Swanson to a hip, popular and even critically acclaimed television landmark now in its seventh season, with Sarah Michelle Gellar staking a claim to TV immortality.
The saga of a high school cheerleader who becomes a fearless vampire killer may seem an unlikely formula for success, but there’s one person who claims not to be surprised by the Buffy phenomenon: Joss Whedon, creator of the character, the series and the fantasy universe that fans call the "Jossverse."
"I always took it for granted it would be huge," said Whedon, 38, in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles, coordinated to promote the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD release of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Complete Third Season, a six-disc, 22-episode set. As of Monday, the collection was ranked No. 7 in sales out of the thousands of DVDs available at http://www.amazon.com.
"Whenever you’re making anything, you have 90 people telling you it can’t possibly work, so you have to become an arrogant monster," said Whedon, who obviously knows quite a bit about people transforming into monsters. "It’s kind of strange, but Buffy wasn’t designed to be a cult item or something ’alternative.’ It was designed to be no less than a giant icon."
Whedon - a third-generation TV writer - said his arrogance was not hubristic but logical: He was certain the vast teen audience would respond positively to a sympathetic, intelligent depiction of their lives, even in a wildly outrageous fantasy context. Whedon refers to this strategy as "mythologizing adolescence."
"I knew young audiences would like anything that took teenagers seriously and was well produced and wasn’t written by really old people trying to teach teenagers what they (the old people) think they (the teenagers) ought to think about," he said. "There’s certain things that the show does that are very necessary, that are really important and really empowering."
Among those "empowering" elements is Buffy herself. Said Whedon: "She’s the kind of heroine I’d been looking for for so long and the kind you rarely see: a girl who could really take care of herself."
The TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer chronicles the adventures of Buffy Summers, who was a typical teenager until she discovered she was "The Chosen One," part of a lineage of "Slayers" who must dedicate themselves to destroying vampires, demons and other monsters. As it happens, these creatures exist in abundance in Buffy’s hometown of Sunny dale, Calif., which was built atop a portal to the netherworld known as "Hellmouth."
Whedon’s Van Helsing-in-a-cheerleader-skirt was introduced to viewers in the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer - written by Whedon when the Wesleyan University graduate was 25 - and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, who later directed several episodes in the series. The modestly amusing film, which featured Paul ’Pee-wee Herman’ Reubens as a goateed vampire, wasn’t even successful enough to spawn a sequel, and it seemed Buffy - unlike her undead foes - would never experience a resurrection.
But the young WB network was looking for edgy, youth-oriented material. In 1997, Buffy rose from the dead as a weekly series. This time, the mix of dysfunctional romance, family crisis, peer-group pressure, supernatural derring-do and high school apocalypse was just right, and Buffy took off like a bat out of Hellmouth.
In its sixth season, the highly rated but expensive series moved from The WB to the UPN network. Locally, first-run Buffy episodes air 7 p.m. Tuesdays on WLMT-TV Channel 30.
Whedon said he loves the horror genre, not because he’s a "gore buff" but because "I love the function that horror performs, the metaphors. I don’t like gore, I don’t like mi sogyny, I don’t like many of the things you find in bad horror movies. In the early days, people would send me severed doll’s heads, vampire things - I’m not one of those kinds of aficionados."
Before the Buffy movie, Whedon had worked as a story editor and scripter on the hit Roseanne and as a writer and co-producer on the short-lived NBC series Parenthood. However, "I never wanted to work in TV, I always thought that TV was sort of lame," Whedon admits, a confession that is perhaps not so much a criticism of the medium as an expression of rebellion. His father, Tom Whedon, wrote for The Dick Cavett Show, Alice, The Golden Girls, The Electric Company and even Captain Kangaroo, and his late grandfather, John Whedon, wrote for such classics as The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Now Joss Whedon praises the virtues of television, especially since his Buffy schedule doesn’t prevent his working on movies: He wrote the Alien sequel Alien: Resurrection (1997) and the Fox animated feature Titan A.E. (2000) and was one of seven writers who earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for their work on Disney’s Toy Story (1995).
He’s mainly been busy in TV, however. His Buffy spinoff, Angel, appeared in 1999; and last fall, Whedon debuted the series Firefly, a futuristic science-fiction adventure that was canceled after the Fox network aired only 10 hours of the series.
The future of Buffy also is uncertain, mainly because Gellar - who is achieving success in such movies as Scooby-Doo and Cruel Intentions - seems unlikely to sign up for an eighth season. The show may return without its title character or morph into some sort of sequel/spinoff.
In any event, Whedon says he’s not ready to abandon Sunnydale, or Buffy.
"Am I still in love with my first child? Yes I am. I get together with my writers and we just get giddy at what we’re going to do. We treat this show as if it were the highest-rated, most-watched show in the world, every single day. We never make an hour of TV just to get through an hour and get it over with.
"If you do your work with love, if you care, you can make mistakes and feel your way, and the fans will forgive you. If you don’t care, they’ll smell it, and you’re dead."