'She Saved The World -- A Lot': An Introduction To The Themes And Structures Of Buffy And Angel
by Roz Kaveney
I had never quite been seduced by a television show before.
There were British television drama series I liked, of course. Howard Schuman's Rock Follies had snappy one-liners and a few good songs. Gangsters, starting from the premise of multiracial gang-warfare in Seventies Birmingham, kept inventively absurd twists and turns of the plot coming right up to the moment that the hero was killed by a Vietnamese martial artist who looked like W.C.Fields. The Avengers, in its Diana Rigg heyday, had visual style and sex appeal and a refusal to take itself entirely seriously.
Of American shows, Twin Peaks and Babylon 5 both created their own worlds and endlessly recomplicated them; Twin Peaks also had weird music and an inventive lewdness in its writing. X-Files had a great visual style, largely appropriated from Demme's Silence of the Lambs, and a central couple with a chemistry all the more intense for not being specifically sexual. Due South, though excessively cute, had a classy soundtrack that introduced me to some terrific blues bands and jazz singers like Holly Cole.
None of these ever became obsessions, because none of them did everything that I wanted a show to do.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though, just about had everything I wanted. Its central conceit - a bunch of high-school kids who fight supernatural evils that often map metaphorically over teenage preoccupations - was not automatically promising, but the comedy and the nightmarish horror kept brilliantly wrong-footing each other. There was romantic chemistry, both overt and subtextual, that scorched the screen. The show constantly tinkered with its own premises - important characters died or became evil; our sense of how the supernatural order works is endlessly complicated. The writing was snappy - high-school bitches and centenarian vampires alike got lines like 'What is your childhood trauma?' or 'I'm love's bitch, but at least I'm man enough to admit it.' The fight scenes were some of the most energetic and kinetic on television; the show's directors acquired visual flair as they went. As the show continued, it became apparent that its use of foreshadowing and echo across seasons indicated a real commitment to, and respect for, the intelligence of its viewers. And it had great live indie band, and a hyper-Romantic orchestral score. The spin-off show Angel was more of the same with extra noir and a more passionately perverse sexiness.
And I was not alone in my obsession: preteen fans buy posters of the shows, and middle-aged writers and intellectuals discuss it over dinner. The vast Internet fandom, which includes both lists that discuss spoilers, pedantic trivia and the shows' philosophical implications and a large amount of fan-fiction, much of it erotica that draws on the shows' polymorphously perverse subtext, is dominated by undergraduates and postgraduate students. Typically, people watch a few episodes and then go back to the beginning, watching videotapes in order to pick up the complex story-lines.
I was lucky enough to start watching at the beginning and experience the conviction that this was something special slowly and as a personal discovery. I had written about revisionist fantasy, fantasy that plays with standard genre tropes and makes different readings of them stand both for extra-textual real-world concerns and as a source of delight, so I knew pretty much from the start what I was watching. Sitting with friends watching and rewatching the shows on video made it clear that they were complex texts, the conceptual and verbal wit of the surface, the sheer loopy romanticism of the emotional plots and visceral excitement of the action plots, the range of cultural references high and pop, sustaining deep readings of the shows' underlying implied discussion of feminism, religion, politics and so on. The amount of offence they caused to the Religious Right, oddly more for their sexual libertarianism than for their inventively heretical treatment of theology, was also a point in their favour.
One crucial factor for me was the impressive performances of the large central stock company - by the fourth season, the shows' principal creator Joss Whedon could trust them with a script, 'Hush', (4.10), in which for half an hour or more they never uttered a word - fairytale monsters, the Gentlemen, having stolen the voices of everyone in town. It is also worth remarking that, even for a Hollywood series, the cast are for the most part staggeringly beautiful.
Above and beyond all this, though, there was, particularly from the second season of Buffy onwards, a sense of the shows as not merely sharp individual episodes. Joss Whedon, the shows' creator and writer and director of many of its finest episodes, gradually built a stable of writers around him who fitted in with, and contributed to, his evolving vision; interviews indicate that the core writers have come to see the show as a collective enterprise with Whedon as its benign dictator. Perhaps because of this working method, the show developed its particular strengths, its complex clustering of characters and the solid formalised architecture of its seasons.'