Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Why "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is remarkable - Two takes

The American Prospect
January 28, 2002
Can Buffy's Brilliance Last?
By Garrett Epps
A visiting professor at Duke, Garrett Epps recently published To an Unknown God: Religious Freedom on Trial.

When future critics ask whether turn-of-the-century American TV produced any works of genius, the verdict on the entire medium -- all 128 channels of it -- is likely to depend on their assessment of a cult teen hit currently airing on UPN, with syndicated reruns on FX.

At first glance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems indistinguishable from the WB's rancid Dawson's Creek or the American Pie movies: An all-white cast of impossibly nubile women and muscular men (they call themselves "the Scooby gang") pretend to be teenagers while modeling the latest in Southern California teen slang and sportswear. But there's a difference: The other shows paste a veneer of realism over a fantasy of adolescence; Buffy adopts a facade of fantasy to cover a portrayal of the teen years as they really are. The show is a worthy successor to school stories like Nicholas Nickleby, Stalky & Co., and The Catcher in the Rye When I was 12, I stumbled across George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys," a scathing memoir of his days at a minor British prep school. I was transfixed: As a student at a segregated southern boys' day school that self-consciously modeled itself on the English public schools (except, as Buffy might say, for the whole "education" part), I was amazed that an adult really understood. Such a small place -- with its snobbery of wealth and station, its sadistic teachers and bullying classmates, its cult of team sports, and its unremitting anti-intellectualism -- becomes, for children immured in it, an entire cosmos of danger and significance, to be survived, if at all, only by guile, silence, and inner escape. Like Orwell's essay, the best of the school-story genre exert a horrid fascination that even much great adult narrative cannot match.

No matter what kind of school they attend, teenagers live in a world resembling that of ancient Greek mythology: Uncaring and capricious adults, like the Olympian gods, hold arbitrary power over their lives, ritual mistakes may bring irrevocable ruin, and each day offers a chance to answer the riddle of the Sphinx and learn, for good or ill, who they really are. In that world, "small" things -- first loves and best friends, small successes and seemingly monstrous failures -- matter as much as or more than the larger crises that lie ahead in adulthood. The overwhelming fact that teens know and adults seek to ignore is that what happens in those years does matter almost as much as it seems to at the time. The identities we take on then -- class brain, prom queen, rebel, popular jock, geeky misfit -- play out insistently under the surface of our later lives.

Most pop-culture re-creations of adolescence focus on the electric sexuality that teens swim in -- the obsession with dating and looks, music and dancing, making out and scoring. But Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and its precursor, the 1992 theatrical film, focuses instead on his characters' all-encompassing fear. For Whedon, high school literally is the mouth of hell, and the ill-equipped teens must rely on their own resources to survive such perils as a seductive substitute teacher (she's actually a huge praying mantis), a bullying potential stepfather (he's a homicidal robot), or a demon who persuades the local chapter of "Mothers Opposed to the Occult" to move from locker searches and a school-library purge at Sunnydale High to full-fledged witch burnings at city hall.

Whedon's dramatic triumph is Buffy's tortured romance with Angel, played by the gifted comic actor David Boreanaz. Angel was my own high-school nightmare, the "older guy" who bewitched the girls with mystery, muscles, and menace -- and just a hint of a heart of gold. Whedon's older guy is a 245-year-old vampire cursed by Gypsies with a soul. He fights evil and then wanders off in search of babes to lure to his graveyard bachelor's lair. On Buffy's 16th birthday, matters proceed to their inevitable consummation, and the curse truly kicks in: The loving, gentle Angel reverts to vile vampirehood, spreading terror among the Scoobys and -- even worse -- vicious gossip among the boys of Sunnydale. As a depiction of male sexual ambivalence and fecklessness, the story surpasses anything ever shown on HBO's Sex and the City.

The dimwitted adults in Sunnydale carry on as if the fate of the entire cosmos were not at stake in each weekly episode. Only Giles, the kindly librarian (Anthony Stewart Head), treats the Scoobys with respect, helping them find their way through each tiny apocalypse with a mixture of kindness, erudition, and wry mockery.

Though it has links to Dickens and Kipling, Buffy is, of course, different in one important regard: It is a story of female self-discovery. Buffy, the heroine, discovers that underneath her silly first name and petite cheerleader looks she is really what every teenager longs to be: a unique and important being with gifts that matter to the world. In her post-feminist case, the talents are superstrength and killer reflexes, and her life's mission is to save the universe while looking fabulous. For most of us, the discoveries are more mundane. But what matters to surviving adolescence is that the moment of self-recognition does come.

This brings us to the other brute teenage fact: sex. I first began watching Buffy because its star, Sarah Michelle Gellar -- known to the faithful as "SMG" -- is hypnotically beautiful. But soon I began corralling my children ("Watch Buffy or I won't let you do your homework") because the program treats teen sexuality with a moral seriousness missing in the rest of the teen-exploitation genre.

It goes without saying that our infatuation with vampires derives from the unholy power of sex to unbalance the human soul. The original Dracula was the quintessential Victorian-era seducer. With his continental accent and bedroom eyes, he stood for the return of the repressed -- big time. What is interesting is that the myth survived the repression that spawned it. By the dawn of the 1970s, Count Yorga, played by Robert Quarry, appeared as the consummate swinger, soullessly pursuing pleasure across a landscape of emotional entropy. (I discovered vampires at this low point. As an undergraduate, I kept inviting young women to vampire flicks, hoping that terror would drive them into my manly arms. Wise girls, they invariably fled back to their dorm rooms, knowing that what I really wanted was to bite their necks.)

Sex is omnipresent in Buffy, but it has been transformed for the era of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In Sunnydale the vampire's kiss offers no pleasure, only loneliness and death. The bodily-fluids metaphor is patent; but the lesson goes deeper. Advocates of "abstinence" clothe their message to the young in religious, economic, or public-policy terms that are, to most teens, utterly irrelevant. In a society where Viagra poster child Bob Dole barks after Britney Spears in commercials, by far the most consistent adult pressure on teens is not to abstain from anything but to score early and often.

For cultural reasons I cannot pretend to fathom, our society has eroticized the adolescent body more thoroughly than any previous one of which I am aware. In advertising, in popular entertainment, and even in the lubricious piety of media prophets like William Bennett, American adults betray an unbecoming obsession about what children may be up to underneath the sheets.

Though their glands are unquestionably supercharged, many teens are reluctant, frightened, or even repulsed by sex. But too often they are coerced by conformism and pop culture into experimenting before they are ready. (The only other convincing portrayal of this painful rite of passage I've seen came during the too-short run of the magnificent TV series My So-Called Life.) Buffy dramatizes the case for waiting in the only terms the adolescent mind can grasp: If it doesn't feel good, don't do it. Sunnydale is packed with largely male bloodsuckers who will do almost anything to get into a girl's veins; a moment's weakness or inattention will leave her dead -- a physical death that is a powerful metaphor for the inner necrosis of unfeeling promiscuity. (Female bloodsuckers also lurk in Sunnydale's shadows, though we see less of the havoc they wreak.)

But Buffy's triumph during its early seasons is its problem today. "Where do we go from here?" sang the cast at the end of a special musical episode this fall. Adolescents grow up: Those awkward bundles of promise slowly congeal into more defined, and sometimes duller, adults. That's happening to the Scoobys now. Two years ago, they graduated from Sunnydale High after a moving ceremony at which Mayor Wilkins ate Principal Snyder. Now the gang are young adults. Willow Rosenberg, valedictorian and computer geek (played by the unlikely sex star Allyson "Band Camp" Hannigan) has become a powerful witch; her troubled romance with the vulnerable Tara (Amber Benson) is the most complex lesbian relationship a TV series has ever attempted. Class clown Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) is uneasily facing marriage to the terrifyingly monogamous former revenge demon Anya (Emma Caulfield). Their concerns are now less I Was a Teenage Werewolf than I Dream of Jeannie. The danger is that the show -- like Fox's once electrifying X-Files -- will drift into ignominious self-parody.

But where there's undeath, there's hope. Last season, a league of monks from another dimension created a "sister" for Buffy. (Has any older sibling ever not suspected that a younger one is a super-natural interloper?) The new character, Dawn -- played by the winsome Michelle Trachtenberg -- is now a freshman at Sunnydale High, dealing hesitantly with peer pressure, shoplifting, gym class, and really cute vampires. If Joss Whedon can surround this new potential slayer with a suitable crowd of Scoobinis, there's hope for the series.

For each of us, adolescence mercifully ends; the drama itself rolls on, with new tearstained, pimply faces in the archetypal roles. Growing up entails loss as well as gain; it will be sad if the passing years rob us of Buffy's brilliant satire.

The Weekly Standard
May 20, 2003
Where Do We Go from Here?
A farewell to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and a look back at the show's ten best episodes.

Jonathan V. Last

"BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER" is the best show in the history of television.

How about that for a declarative statement. Is it an arguable one? Sure. "M*A*S*H," "Mary Tyler Moore," "Seinfeld," "Cheers," "The Honeymooners," "I Love Lucy"--they're all great shows. They're also all half-hour comedies. Besides "Buffy," what other hour-long drama belongs on the short list? Probably "Homicide: Life on the Street." That's about it.

What makes "Buffy" so good? For one thing, it's got layers. Unlike "ER" or "Hill Street Blues" or "St. Elsewhere," "Buffy" isn't just a straight drama. It deals with larger themes--good and evil, honor and duty, faith and disbelief. And then there's the acting and the writing and the satire and . . . well, you get the point.

Tonight "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ends its seven-year run. The final episode will probably be a disappointment because an honest appraisal of the last few months would admit that the show has been uneven and at times downright embarrassing. While this may be a sign that "Buffy" is leaving at the right time, it's more likely a consequence of economics. The first half of season seven was as good as "Buffy" has ever been. Then the show's star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, decided that she was leaving the series when her contract expired at the end of the season. While her move wasn't entirely unexpected, the show's staff seemed taken aback and the writers had to construct a concluding arc in the space of a few weeks.

Series mastermind Joss Whedon has said that he normally plans story arcs one or two years ahead of time, so it's not unreasonable to give the show the benefit of the doubt. And it would be unhinged to allow the lackluster last dozen episodes to affect a final reckoning of "Buffy"'s place in the firmament.

I'll leave that job to the wise souls at Entertainment Weekly, but for now it's worth recalling the ten best episodes of "Buffy."

1 - Amends (3.10): Buffy's worst hairstyle, Angel's finest moment, the show's greatest triumph. In one of the most explicitly religious hours of television ever aired (second only to "The Crossing," the James Cromwell-centered episode 7.15 of "ER"), Angel, the vampire with a soul, is haunted on Christmas Eve by the First, a thinly-veiled version of Satan. In a suicide attempt, Angel climbs the hill overlooking Sunnydale and waits for the sun to rise. Overpowered by guilt, he tells Buffy, "It's not the demon in me that needs killing, it's the man." And then he asks her, "Am I a righteous man? Am I a thing worth saving?" In response he gets a Christmas miracle: Sunnydale's first-ever snowstorm, which blots out the sun for a day, saving Angel and allowing him to stroll through town on Christmas morning.

"Amends" deals more smartly with the ideas of evil, faith, and redemption than any Christian drama--which is all the more remarkable since Whedon, who wrote the episode, appears to be a studied agnostic.

2 - Once More, with Feeling (6.7): As triumphant as it is audacious, "Buffy: The Musical" doesn't just have great song-and-dance numbers, it contains a pivotal revelation for the series as well. Buffy lets drop to her friends that, while they thought they were rescuing her from a demon dimension when they resurrected her at the beginning of the season, they had actually ripped her out of heaven.

And if that wasn't enough, Whedon--who not only directed the episode but wrote the script, score, and lyrics--gives us this line in a lovers' duet as Anya worries whether or not Xander will still love her "When I get so worn and wrinkly / that I look like David Brinkley."

3 - Becoming I/II (2.21/2.22): Pure, old-fashioned superhero drama for the second season finale. Buffy fails her chemistry final, gets expelled from school, and has to kill her boyfriend in order to save the world. It's comic-book stuff, executed with verve and precision. There's adventure, tragedy, true love, and a sword fight.

4 - Hush (4.10): Demons come to Sunnydale and steal everyone's voices. It's the scariest episode of "Buffy" and, remarkably, has almost no spoken dialogue. The characters communicate by scribbling on little dry-erase boards. With a score including Camille Saint-Saens's "Danse Macabre," "Hush" is a reinvention of the silent movie.

5 - Something Blue (4.9): Willow casts a spell causing her wishes and spontaneous exclamations to come true: Giles goes blind and Xander becomes a demon magnet, while Buffy and her nemesis, the vampire Spike, fall in love and get engaged.

It's the funniest episode in a series that's often hilarious: In full-on sorority-girl mode, Buffy throws herself into wedding planning. She brings home a plastic bride and groom for the wedding cake and proudly shows them to Spike:

Buffy: Aren't they a perfect little us?
Spike: I don't like him. He's insipid. Clearly human.
Buffy: Oooo--red paint. We could smear a little on his mouth . . . the blood of the innocent!

6 - Passion (2.17): While it features the first death of a major character, "Passion" is most notable for the pitch-perfect writing of Buffy's relationship with her watcher, Giles. Although Giles loves Buffy like a daughter, he knows that he isn't her father. There are no Hallmark moments, only subtle, underplayed beats--a look here, an averted glance there. In "Passions" Buffy comes into conflict with Giles's lover interest, Jenny Calendar. Without either hesitation or fanfare, Giles makes clear that his allegiance is to his slayer.

7 - Who Are You? (4.16): In a coda to season three, Buffy and the rogue, bad-girl slayer Faith switch bodies. The charm of seeing the two actresses impersonating the impersonations of one another and riffing on each other's acting tics is worth the price of admission by itself. It's like an entire episode of the last scene of "Boogie Nights" where Mark Wahlberg does Dirk Diggler doing Robert De Niro doing Jake LaMotta. Anyone who loves "Inside the Actors Studio" will love "Who Are You?"

8 - The Body (5.16): People die all the time on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And not just extras, either. Sometimes beloved featured players are dispatched. In "The Body," Buffy's mother dies and the result is grim and tragic because there's no demon involved, no supernatural powers at work. Joyce Summers dies of an aneurysm while lying on the sofa in her living room. Buffy comes home to find her mother's body and calls
9-1-1. There's nothing the paramedics can do. Buffy vomits, calls her friends for help, and then has to pick her little sister up from school and break the news to her.

"The Body" is the series' most difficult episode because it's real--and not real in the way "ER" or "The Practice" or "Law & Order," all hyper-versions of reality, are real. At some point, most of us will experience a day like Buffy has in "The Body" and we sense that the writers have gotten nearly every detail of that day--right down to the absence of a musical score--right.

9 - Help (7.4): A stand-alone episode about a girl who can see the future, "Help" is more touching and beautiful than it has any right to be. Cassie is a student at Sunnydale High who tells Buffy that she knows she'll be dead by next Friday. Buffy suspects suicide until Cassie tells her "Believe me, I want to be here, do things. I want to graduate from high school, and I want to go to the stupid winter formal. I have this friend, and it would be fun to go with him. Just to dance and hear lame music to wear a silly dress and laugh and stuff. I'd like to go. There's a lot of stuff I'd like to do. I'd love to ice skate at
Rockefeller Center. And I'd love to see my cousins grow up and see how they turn out 'cause they're really mean and I think they're gonna be fat. I'd love to backpack across the country or, I don't know, fall in love, but I won't. I just never will."

Buffy, who spends her life helping others fights desperately trying to save Cassie. She cheats death over and over until destiny brushes her aside.

10 - Prophecy Girl (1.12): The first season's finale also dealt with fate and free will. Buffy uncovers a prophecy that she will die if she confronts the demon trying to take over Sunnydale. She frantically tries to give up her job as the slayer. A remarkable episode about duty and fear and choice that hinted at the series' long-term promise.

Honorable mention:

Restless (4.22) Fool for Love (5.7) What's My Line? I/II (2.9/2.10) Conversations with Dead People (7.7) Halloween (2.6) Selfless (7.5)

WHEDON and his writing staff started out by making a series grounded in the comic-book world--everywhere you look in "Buffy" there are superhero overtones (I'm personally convinced that season three was drawn from the Teen Titans series "The Judas Contract"). As she grew up Buffy went from a scared, reluctant hero to being, in her own way, a small blonde Batman--a loner trying to mete out justice and save those innocents she found along the way.

But while "Buffy" takes its operatic themes and moral sensibility from comic books, its humor and lightness of touch are more akin to BBC fare like "As Time Goes By." And at every turn the show gives the audience what they need, not what they want. Buffy's mother and watcher are two sympathetic, single adults? Give them an adversarial relationship. The series is widely acclaimed for its witty dialogue? Shoot an episode in silence. Buffy and Angel have a tormented love affair? Banish him to another show.

And it is this, finally, which brings us the secret of Buffy's success: Despite the vampires and Satanic priests, the mermen and possessed ventriloquist dummies, "Buffy" is a classical format with a tragic heroine at its center. Buffy can see happiness, but never be truly happy. She can have friends, but never have intimacy. She can fight for a world she wants to live in, but will die before she gets much of a chance. All of which makes her a hero; that she's self-aware, that she understands her lot, makes her tragic.

That "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" showed us these tensions, the fears of loneliness, the power of redemption, the fleetingness of faith, makes it the best show ever on television.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

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