Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 18 years later ... a sideways riff about the franchise as an end unto itself after it reached its end


Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a fun show when it came out.  I watched it up through about the end of season 3.  Then I intermittently watched from seasons 4 to the end and had largely given up on the series by about season 5.

The general conceit of the show is wonderful and charming, literalizing the apocalyptic sense of horror at the injustices and hostilities in the caste systems of American public high schools.  This was done in a way that managed to evoke both the triviality of the setting but also take the emotional weight assigned to that setting by teenagers within it seriously. I.e. not being able to do something you wanted to do all year could sure feel like the end of the world and in the context of Sunnydale it could literally be the end of the world, too. 

Once everyone graduated from high school that delicately, wonderfully balanced sense of proportion was lost.  The more "grown up" the ideas and themes the show attempted to engage became the more it became what might not have been immediately accessible to all fans of the show, that Buffy was becoming a fairly standard issue superheroine and that the more seriously the universe was taken the less unique she became. 

There were inspired moments after the high school graduation, to be sure, but the momentum of the show began to feel as though it was to keep the show going. 

Whether we're talking Star Trek, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Terminator, Game of Thrones, endless iterations of Transformers or, yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it seems the franchise can become an end unto itself regardless of whether or not the idea may have played out to its reasonable end.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a great show while it anchored itself to the high school horror/teen milieu.  But it began to feel as though as season after season moved along it became self-serious.  Self-seriousness was a toxin for that show.  Self-seriousness in Batman?  Sure, fine.  Self-seriousness in Christopher Nolan Batman?  Heh heh, that's honestly part of what I love about that franchise.  Nolan managed to give us the closest thing I think we'll see to a cinematic variation on a Dostoevsky novel.  But Buffy?  That same level of apocalyptic angst saps the franchise of its evanescent charms.  It was possible to love a series that didn't take itself too seriously precisely by trafficking in the most earnest and self-serious of ages ... though truthfully we never stop being earnest and self-serious after adolescence, do we?  Still, it seems adolescence is an age of life in American culture where our place in the pecking order takes on the significance of a Delphic oracle. 

Even if it's to save the world every weekend, having an inescapable destiny still really sucks.  Then again, what else can you do?  A good deal of what made Buffy Summers fun and funny was her resignation to the tawdry inevitability of her destiny while having enough humor to be indigant about the increasingly inconvenient details. In the earlier seasons the show struck this tone well, such as when Giles, upon discovering a vampire with a soul was in love with the slayer noted that it was poetic, if in a terribly maudlin way.

For all the verve of Buffy it can seem, nearly twenty years on, that Whedon is some kind of one-tricky pony.  That one trick is truly impressive, especially in light of the art forum that is not usually recognized as television.  The problem isn't exactly that people keep asking why Joss Whedon writes strong female characters, it's that they all kind of seamlessly bleed together into an uber-woman at some point.  The plucky nerd, the world-weary cortesan and the invincible waif keep emerging.  It'd be nice to think Whedon's fully aware of how much he recycles his themes, but sometimes it seems as though he's given more credit than he has earned. Even though I enjoyed Firefly alright, I found the movie to be kind of lame and disappointing.  It was when the preacher and Wash died but River was kept around to be the plot device girl to stop the nameless monsters that it began to seem that Whedon's idea of the most compelling characters in his narratives and my idea of the most compelling characters had diverged, possibly permanently. 

There was a time when I was hoping he'd just get a shot at a Wonder Woman movie but when I read his take on the character it was not hard to see why it foundered.  Proposing that as a demigod Wonder Woman would wonder why humans were so cruel to each other skips too many obvious points about the Hellenistic pantheon. 

On the other hand, him helming the Avengers didn't worry me.  Some creators are better at tweaking and innovating the existing properties of others than sustaining narrative mileage with their own creations.  Gerard Jones ... can't remember much of what he did with Green Lantern and while "Run Riddler, Run" was a very fun story, all that pales compared to the glorious work he did helping adapt Rumiko Takahashi's stories into the English language.  I was inspired to write a sonata based on a character from Ranma 1/2, thanks to Jones' work.  Whedon's approach suits itself to the Avengers nicely.  After so many years of refining team dynamics in which the players frequently don't or can't get along but can't help liking each other anyway, Whedon was the right choice for the franchise, at least here's hoping that guess is right after Age of Ultron debuts.

Meanwhile, Buffy may be old enough to order drinks now, and it was a fun show, but even the best stuff can be said to have come up short here and there.  It's not ripping on the boundless charm of Whedon's creation to suggest that maybe it would be more precious if it weren't made to run the marathom of every other super-powered franchise and go on saving the world every weekend world without end.  It's okay for the apocalyptic spoof of the high school caste system to have ended at graduation. 

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