September 22, 2021

Reflections on Joss Whedon and “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”

By Stuart Mitchner

I don’t want to create responsible shows with lawyers in them. I want to invade people’s dreams.

—Joss Whedon

No doubt about it, Joss Whedon’s extraordinary series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) suffers from Laughable Title Syndrome. Even now, all these years later when it’s become a pop culture fact of life, I hesitate to tell someone how much I’m enjoying the show. Even now, I’m asking myself “How did I get into this?” But I said the same thing after binging on Friday Night Lights and Battlestar Galactica. It all goes back to Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised, where Joss Whedon’s Buffy has its own chapter among the 12 series that “changed TV drama forever.”

“Never Camp”

Sepinwall immediately differentiates the WB series from the 1992 feature film, which was “too camp,” according to Whedon’s colleague David Greenwalt: “Joss does a lot of things. He does funny, he does serious, he does break your heart, but it’s never camp.”

Worse yet, the victim of the camping was Whedon himself, since the film was a travesty of his own screenplay, his creation, his Buffy. Television critic Emily Nussbaum describes what he went through in her piece “Must-See Metaphysics” (New York Times Magazine September 22, 2002). Watching his vision of “populist feminism” turned into “a schlocky comedy,” he “sat in the theater, crying. ‘I really thought I’d never work again … It was that devastating.’ “ Yet he was able to resurrect Buffy on television, “restoring the show’s powerful central metaphor: adolescence is hell, and any girl who makes it through is a superhero.”

The title remained — and still remains — an issue. But, as Whedon said in the same article, “if I’d made Buffy the Lesbian Separatist, a series of lectures on PBS on why there should be feminism, no one would be coming to the party, and it would be boring — the idea of changing culture is important to me, and it can only be done in a popular medium.’’

Buffy’s Impact

As it happens, generations of viewers have come to the party, including scholars and fans undeterred by the lowbrow absurdity of the title. NPR has noted Buffy’s special following among academics, some of whom have “staked a claim in what they call ‘Buffy Studies.’ “ The show has inspired the publication of as many as 20 books and hundreds of articles examining its themes from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, including sociology, speech communication, psychology, philosophy, and women’s studies. Among the books is The Truth of Buffy: Essays On Fiction Illuminating Reality (McFarland 2008), a collection featuring papers that sound almost as deadly as Whedon’s hypothetical Lesbian Separatist; to name a few, “Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs: Brechtian Techniques in Buffy,” “Lord Acton is Alive and Well in Sunnydale,” and “Is It Art? The Artful ‘Hush’ of St. Francis and the Gentlemen Blue Meanies.”

Shakespearean Fun

The latter essay’s oblique allusion to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine comes in reference to the “Hush” episode, a tour de force that Sepinwall found “magnificently daring,” with “several cast members proving to be wonderfully expressive silent comedians.” As Sepinwall’s Star Ledger review suggests, even the show’s lesser episodes are buoyed by the witty dialogue and verbal interplay between the central characters, all part of an abiding sense of fun, albeit amid the vampires and demons infesting Sunnydale High, which happens to be built atop The Hellmouth. In fact, “fun” doesn’t do justice to the euphoria you feel during those anything-goes moments when Buffy has you thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with all its farcical, surreal transformations.

Buffy and Willow

Clearly the most important person in Whedon’s enterprise is Buffy Anne Summers, who took on her mission as Slayer at the age of 15. Sarah Michelle Gellar handles the role with great charm, spirit, strength, and  humanity; she’s so good at it that you may take her for granted at times, especially since she’s usually in the luminous company of her brilliant best friend, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), who has a style all her own, mixed with an endearing diffidence, although her abilities as a scholar of the occult inevitably lead to witchcraft. Willow is probably the single most impressive of Whedon’s creations. And like her mates in “the Scooby gang” — Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), and her guitar-playing, lycanthropic boyfriend Oz — she has her share of funny lines.

Finally, the most important adult in the room is Buffy’s designated watcher, trainer, and father figure, the at-first deceptively dithery Sunnydale High librarian, Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), aka “Ripper,” as he was known among his old mates in the London underworld. If I haven’t given any more than a passing mention of Angel (David Boreanaz), the vampire love of Buffy’s life, or the blonde, David-Bowiesque vampire Spike (James Marsters), it’s because I’m only a little more than halfway through the series, and I know some of its finest moments are still to come.

Whedon and Borzage

In a March 6, 2021 SFX magazine interview on the subject of “Heroes and Inspirations,” Joss Whedon mentions some significant influences on his work. Along with choreographer Jerome Robbins (“West Side Story was my first real taste of taking two different worlds and smashing them together. Seeing these gang kids … doing ballet!”) and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (“Death walking around as a character in what is, in most other terms, a very realistic movie, again quite a juxtaposition”), Whedon paid a surprising tribute to the great American director Frank Borzage, who is “largely forgotten by the greater community, but a lot of his movies were very big — 7th Heaven, The Mortal Storm, and Three Comrades in particular are still regarded as absolute classics.” Whedon makes special mention of the “uncompromising transcendence about his work that unified everything he did,” as well as “an extraordinary amount of humor and life and texture …. He did a noir, Moonrise, that was just heartbreaking. He was always very, very attuned to the idea of the human soul, and what it meant. And his work was gorgeous.”

Whedon’s appreciation of Borzage helps explain why the love scenes between Buffy and the vampire hunk Angel are both convincing and moving, thanks also to Geller’s beautfully felt performance. Numerous close-ups of Willow, especially in the “Hush” episode, recall the eloquent close-ups of Janet Gaynor in the silent 7th Heaven and Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades.

Whedon and Bochco

In the same interview, Whedon offers insight into the special, what-next joyride fun of Buffy when he explains why Stephen Bochco’s landmark series Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) was “more of a template” for it “than anything else,” because “you never knew if a scene was going to be dramatic, or funny, or violent …. Bochco would mix it up all the time, every time. And there wasn’t really a show that did that before. The audience would sit down and not know who the hero was going to be, who was going to come through, who was going to fail, who was going to suddenly make you laugh, what you were going to end with or what feeling you were going to take away …. There’s nothing more exciting to me than not knowing what I’m going to get. And that’s the kind of TV that I ended up trying to make.”

Years of Life

Asked by Alan Sepinwall why he preferred to work in series television, in spite of his success with box office smashes like The Avengers (2012), Whedon said, “What draws me to TV even more than movies is you get the time to tell a story about a person …. An actor is giving you seven years of their life. That’s a lot of it. You’re dealing with an actual life. You’re not just dealing with the characters, you’re dealing with a human being, a number of them. What I’m interested in talking about comes from the characters, and, to an extent, sometimes comes from the actors as well.”

Workplace Harrassment

In February 2021, following a July 2020 complaint from an actor in Justice League about Whedon’s “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable behavior toward the cast and crew of the film,” Charisma Carpenter, who plays the temperamental Cordelia in Buffy and the spin-off Angel, alleged that Whedon had “abused his power on numerous occasions,” as well as “mocking her religious faith and repeatedly threatening to fire her.”

It’s hard to balance these allegations with Whedon’s comments on dealing with the “human being” as well as the “character.” One metaphor he uses in that context is worth repeating. Discussing the question of devising plot twists and trying to develop characters, he tells Sepinwall, “Is this really the next step for this character, or just a way to say ‘Boo’? I’ve been accused of ‘Boo,’ because God knows, I’ll throw people a curve, because that’s life. But for me, it is really about, ‘Let’s just turn somebody over in your hand like a rock, and examine them over and over because there’s always something more to say about them.’ “

At this writing, Whedon has yet to respond to complaints of workplace harassment. According to a February 2021 Newsweek article on the issue, when Buffy’s “watcher” Anthony Stewart Head was asked about the allegations on the British show This Morning, he said that he had not seen anything on set, adding that this did not mean that nothing happened. He later said that his fondest memory was that Whedon “was so empowering, not just in the words of the script but in the family feel of the show.”