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Joss Whedon

TV Drama Week, Realism to Romanticism, Day 4 - Joss Whedon Part 1

Sunday 12 March 2006, by Webmaster

DISCLAIMER: Though many if not most of his fans do so, I will not refer to Joss Whedon anywhere in this post simply as Joss. He seems OK with that, but frankly, I don’t know the man, so I’ll just call him Whedon. Color me old-fashioned.

DISCLAIMER: Yes, this is a blatant attempt to get more readers stumbling through my lovely little blog by writing about a man with a large Internet fan base, especially the wonderful folks at Whedonesque (I lurk), but it also comes from genuine affection for the man’s work.

DISCLAIMER: Before I knew who Joss Whedon was, I once walked out of Alien Resurrection, which he wrote. It’s the only movie I’ve ever walked out of. I didn’t have much money then either. He claims the director botched it. I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt there seeing as, well, I’m about to start two days worth of posts praising his work.

"So who is this Joss guy anyway." (Oops! Well, you’re the one that said it, not me - see the quotation marks.) Very quickly, Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the film and the more successful TV series), Angel, and Firefly (see tomorrow’s post), has worked on screenplays for many films, including Toy Story, Speed, the aforementioned Alien Resurrection, and he wrote last year’s Serenity, which he also directed (see tomorrow’s post). He writes, directs, and executive produced three television series, though to my mind, he’s a writer first and foremost (he might disagree with that). He also writes Astonishing X-Men for Marvel Comics and is working on a screenplay for Wonder Woman, which he’ll also direct. Oh, and he wrote songs for a musical episode of Buffy, as well as the theme song for Firefly.

Like Aaron Sorkin, Whedon has a knack for combining romanticism and realism. His work, too, feels ever-so-slightly theatrical compared to shows like The Wire and Homicide, and not just because he writes genre work. It also feels theatrical compared to Battlestar Galactica (current version). Also like Sorkin, Whedon mixes up tones and genres within single scenes, sometimes within a passage of dialogue. He does this even more than Sorkin, and each of his shows’ concepts reflect this. Beyond that, Whedon knows how to combine the surface appearance and fun of genres - horror, science fiction, westerns, mysteries, romantic comedy - with emotions and characters grounded in reality, even the ones that have superpowers. These aspects define his work and define what his fans like to call The Whedonverse.

Though he’d had success both as a screenwriter and script doctor, Whedon made his name after being asked to revived Buffy as a TV series, an opportunity that allowed him to follow the core concept of the film and, well, make it work. From what he has said in DVD commentaries for the series, the original concept centered on turning horror movie clichés on their head, taking the vulnerable teenage girl and giving her the power to stop the monsters and, in the tradition of heroic fiction, having her grow or come of age through the experience. This concept remains in the series, but Whedon broadens that to growing up (or being a teenager or being in high school) is hell, going as far as setting Sunnydale High School on top of a hellmouth, a portal to hell that makes the town a center for monstery goings on. Pretty basic, but it works because it’s true. At the very least, the audience can remember being a teenager and say, "Yeah, that’s right," but it goes farther because really we don’t stop growing up, we don’t stop feeling many of those insecurities and conflicts, and so we can still see ourselves.

The genre aspects make it work, too. If you set a TV show in everyday high school, you soon find yourself giving everyone diseases, having them commit crimes, having them raped, maimed, etc. It just doesn’t work week after week because not that much bad stuff happens to the same few people every week of high school. It strains credibility. This is why so many shows are about cops and doctors and lawyers and not about families. Who didn’t have a major health crisis on Party of Five? So in a very odd way, weekly fights with vampires, demons, and other things that go bump in the night make the "drama" of high school more believable. Why? Plenty of shows have copied this formula and remain simply teenagers fighting monsters. Whedon and his writers deftly combine the monsters, the evil with essentially everyday struggles of teenagers and later twenty-somethings. The monsters and their threat become a metaphor for a recognizable pain or sometimes emerge out of it as personifications of those pains or desires - the way they do in dreams.

Examples (SPOILERS HO!!!):

In the first three seasons, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), our titular vampire slayer, a powered teenage girl, ends up dating Angel (David Boreanz), a vampire with a soul (in the Buffyverse, vampires are robbed of their souls when they’re turned - thus they lack morals, and thus they’re even more creepy instead of romantic figures, and thus they’re sort of like animals, and thus it’s best to kill them, and thus people like me who really don’t care for vampires can enjoy the show). So long before he met Buffy, Angel killed a gypsy girl, and her people cursed him with a soul, essentially damning him to an immortal life of remembering every horrible deed he committed as a vampire (and he committed a lot). Yet if he experiences one true moment of happiness, he’ll lose his soul. Seems a little strange, but I guess they were banking on him becoming so guilt-ridden that the last thing he’d want was to lose his soul again. They guessed right. Anyway, he’s a broody, remote, tall, dark, and handsome type. Eventually in season two, Buffy gives in to temptation and loses her virginity to him, and here the metaphor rears its ugly head. Angel experiences that one true moment of happiness with her, and he turns evil. In other words, a guy sleeps with a girl and turns into a dick (not a literal one - that would just be weird). He acts like a jerk, blames it on her, makes her feel inadequate, and becomes the season’s major villain. And it’s heartbreaking to see this powerful young woman reduced to despair and self-loathing and guilt, but at the same time, the writers don’t let her off the hook. We feel bad for her, but they also make it clear that she made a mistake, she made a bad choice, and she’s reaping the consequences. She’s growing up.

In "Hush," one of the most lauded episodes, written and directed by Whedon, some incredibly creepy demons called The Gentlemen come to town and steal everyone’s voices. The majority of the episode takes place in silence, but what could have been a simple trick again becomes emotionally powerful. We see characters who haven’t been communicating when they can talk forced to communicate when they can’t, forced to reveal secrets to others and themselves. Buffy has no choice but to reveal who she really is - slayer - to her new boyfriend, who happens to be part of a secret military unit that hunts monsters. Her friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) has a powerful, unspoken moment with a girl named Tara (Amber Benson), which is the beginning of a romantic relationship, something the audience certainly didn’t know about Willow. In a similar episode "Once More With Feeling," the musical episode, a character makes a wish for everyone to be happy, and it conjures a demon who makes everyone sing and dance - the dancers usually burning up. They sing their true feelings, again revealing secrets, and setting in motion the rest of a pretty dark season by having Buffy reveal a horrible secret she’s only revealed to one person.

Buffy at its best balances the pure fun of the genres it plays in with real-life emotions. It relies on both action and the failure of action, as well as sharp, witty dialogue and strong performances from all its cast. It doesn’t take itself seriously and yet does. Like David Simon and the writers of The Wire, Whedon and his writers also revel in the unexpected, changing the nature of the show, keeping it fresh and dynamic and original, rarely bowing to the fans’ wishes for the same thing, challenging the audience.

One episode above the others makes this clear, an episode that eschews almost all the genre aspects of the show, as well as most of the humor in favor of real, grounded emotion. Written and directed by Whedon and called "The Body," it tells the story of the death of Buffy’s mother. She didn’t die from some demon or vampire attack. She just died. Again, we see Buffy forced to be human, forced to deal with a problem she can’t fix by punching something or driving a wooden stake into it. Throughout the episode, the other characters deal with the loss in different ways, and when the genre aspects come into it, they do so for emotional effect. Anya (Emma Caulfield), who once forsook a human life to become a demon, has become human again after hundreds of years. She doesn’t understand what it means to be human, and usually this provides comedy because she has the habit of saying exactly what she thinks all the time, but in this episode, it becomes a source of great pain and honesty as she asks the big questions that haunt us all - why does death happen, how do we deal with it, why does losing someone hurt so much? To me "The Body" is Buffy’s finest hour, and like Homicide’s "Three Men and Adena" one of the best hours of television I’ve seen.

After seven seasons, Buffy ended on an optimistic note that brought it back to its original concept - the empowerment of women. The finale had its flaws, but it also had moments of transcendence connected to this theme, sending the show out with a strong statement and position. All the way to the end, Whedon, his writers, and his cast provided emotion, intelligence, wit, and - meeting expectations - the unexpected.

Angel eventually left Buffy (and Buffy) for his own show called, yup, Angel, and it’s a little more problematic. Basically, Angel - who eventually recovered his soul and returned to the path of penance - has a sort of paranormal detective agency in L.A., and he tries to help the helpless. In the first couple seasons, this mostly involved responding to visions by first a character named Doyle () and later Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who also left Buffy for Angel. I like the show quite a bit, but Angel is a harder character to connect to. The operating metaphor seems to be regret, but when you get into the specifics of his regrets - hundreds of murders, including his own family - it’s hard to say, "Oh, I know what that guy is feeling." Luckily, he has plenty of regular folks around him to help ease that burden and let the audience in.

Angel is often darker and more adult than Buffy, focusing nominally on life in one’s twenties, a time of self-discovery and often just as much pain as teen years. However, its central theme emerges as one of ethics. At the end of the first season, Angel learns of a prophecy that says, essentially, he will one day earn his humanity back, not just the soul he has but a human life, a life where he can go outside during the day, a life where he can be with Buffy, have children (well, he somehow manages that one anyway), be happy, grow old, die. For the next four seasons this seemed to be the hook, the thing the audience could hope for him, but in the last season, that changed, and the message became something different - the point of doing the right thing, fighting the good fight, being a decent human being is not some final reward but rather because it’s what needs to be done. The desire for a reward devalues the act. The act itself holds importance. And that idea, especially in the way it’s dramatized in the series finale "Not Fade Away" (written by Whedon and Jeffrey Bell and directed by Bell), does resonate, does suggest a sense of purpose, does have relevance to the real world, and does, like Buffy’s finale, sum up the show.

*Lots and lots of other writers to mention - one of Whedon’s other talents is choosing good writers and letting them express his concepts their own points of view. Most of these folks have moved on to other high-profile shows like Lost, Smallville, and 24. In no particular order: Marti Noxin, David Fury, Tim Minear, David Greenwalt (co-creator of Angel), Steven S. DeKnight, Rebecca Kirshner, Drew Goddard, Drew Greenberg, Mere Smith, Elizabeth Craft, Sara Fain, Doug Petrie, Jeffrey Bell, and the incomparable Jane Espenson (who has a very cool blog about writing for television and what she ate for lunch).