When discussing television series, especially genre shows (particularly horror, science fiction, and fantasy), my friends and I sometimes use a couple of adjectives that are pretty relevant and meaningful to us and may be of interest to readers of this blog: “pre-Buffy” and “post-Buffy.”
Most visitors to the Black Gate website will need no introduction to writer/director Joss Whedon and the “Whedonverse,” a term that encompasses all he has contributed to fantasy media over the past two decades in virtually every medium: television shows, comic books, webcasts, movies. Ranging from seminal shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly to comic-book continuations of those series as well as runs on other properties like The X-Men; from the hip web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to a cult horror film like Cabin in the Woods to the third-highest-grossing film of all time (2012’s The Avengers): trust me, you’ve seen his work.
In this week’s informal musing, I’ll focus in on his first television show, Buffy, which ran seven seasons from 1997-2003 — not to discuss the series per se, but to explain what I mean when I use it as a benchmark in describing a television show as being “post-Buffy.”
Pre-Buffy, each episode of a typical television show tended to be self-contained, that week’s conflict or dramatic development wrapped up in its half-hour or one-hour time slot. Characters remained fairly static, so each new episode was essentially a reset: another scenario for familiar characters to confront and resolve in their characteristically predictable ways.
Buffy may not have been the first show to feature dynamic characters who changed dramatically over time, nor the first to have storylines that crossed episodes and had long-term implications (I’ve heard Hill Street Blues cited as one early contender in that regard), but it has been perhaps the most influential, certainly for later genre shows. Influential enough that to describe a show as “post-Buffy” is a legitimate and meaningful designation.
While the “Scooby Gang” or the “Scoobies” (as Buffy and her friends came to call themselves) typically dealt with single-episode capers, there was also a season-long story arc involving a “big bad” (borrowing parlance from video games in which a player confronts a series of subservient monsters and challenges to reach and defeat the “big bad” monster of each level). This larger arc slowly developed over the course of a season, building tension that drew viewers on from week to week to see how this larger narrative would play out. It was a safe bet that the bogeyman-of-the-week would be handily vanquished, but the threat(s) posed by the larger challenge were not so clear-cut: Regular viewers knew that in the Buffyverse, nothing was safe.
Sorry, no comfort zone here to reassure fans that regardless of how much the characters might suffer, they would always come bouncing back. Characters died (the lead died twice — and although she returned in true superhero fashion, unlike her comic-book counterparts it was never a hit-the-reset-button, everything-back-to-normal kind of thing: there were always serious consequences). Main characters — popular characters — died and they were dead. Dead and gone. Characters developed scars, sometimes physical, often psychological and with far-reaching ramifications. Characters grew up in real time and changed. They went off to college, lost a parent to a brain aneurysm and a friend to lycanthropy, developed “happily-ever-after” romances only to end in bitter break-ups…
[A brief aside here: when I began watching the series for the first time a few years back on DVD, my wife watched it with me. She had already seen it, though, when it ran in syndication. And whenever a new romance blossomed between two characters, for instance their first kiss, my wife sitting on the couch next to me would simply make the same enigmatic statement: “That can’t end well.” She wouldn’t elaborate, no matter how much I pestered her for spoilers. “You’ve just got to watch and see,” she’d say with a cruel smirk. And no, romance in the Buffyverse never ends well. It just doesn’t. It usually ends in death or worse. There was certainly a sadomasochistic side to how Whedon and his team of show-writers treated their characters. Man. No other series ever made me cry like a baby so often.]
I sometimes half-expected Xander or Buffy or Willow to just throw up their hands and protest, “Who’s writing this? Lighten up on us a little, huh? Just a little happiness, ye cruel gods of popular entertainment!” How the writers always managed to make the show also funny-as-hell, with at least a few laughs in even the darkest episodes… well, that’s why Whedon is considered a genius. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, often within seconds. Make ‘em feel like they just got off a roller-coaster ride. Shaken, scared, giddy: “Again! Again!”
Even a season’s “big bad” was not usually the biggest bad, to make just one more observation about relationships in the Buffyverse. Shifting loyalties, dramatic break-ups and betrayals: this is why the series was sometimes pegged a “supernatural soap opera.” It’s quite accurate, and it was deliberate. Whedon and company were never so interested in the monsters as much as they were the monsters as metaphors for American high-school (and later, college) life. As Whedon put it, “High school as a horror movie” (Said. Interview 2005).
So in narrative terms, there were three levels going on in any given episode: the self-contained story (or “monster of the week”) of that episode, the “big bad” storyline of that season, and the gradually unfolding story of the Buffyverse, with plot threads that stretched across seasons. Characters changed dramatically and came into their own. Just for one example: is Willow even recognizable as the same character from season one (mousy computer nerd with an unrequited crush on Xander) to season seven (lesbian witch who is quite possibly one of the most powerful beings in the universe)? It is that larger tale of gradual transformation that kept a loyal audience following religiously, and that continues to make new converts (and, so notes a 2012 study in Slate, has made Buffy “the most studied pop culture work by academics, with more than 200 papers, essays, and books devoted to the series” [Wikipedia. Retrieved 3.3.2013]).
That third level of over-arching narrative — the gradual unfolding and world-building of the Buffy universe — caused the term “retconning” to come into standard parlance. Retroactive continuity describes what the writers would do to make sure all the plotlines stayed consistent. If something in an early episode seemed to contradict a new development later in the series, they would work in some retroactive detail that explained why it was not a contradiction after all, but rather a then-incomplete understanding or not-fully-developed picture on the part of the characters. The rules did not just change arbitrarily — or, well, yes they sometimes did to serve a particular story, but then some rationale had to be worked out to keep the continuity intact. (We all know what a demanding and detail-oriented lot we spec-fic fans can be.) Of course, this had long been going on in comic books — which are long-running serial stories, after all — and so it is notable that Whedon and other series writers came out of (or later went into) that storytelling medium.
This way of looking at a season or several seasons of a show as a broad canvas allowing the writers to develop a complex story over time — as opposed to the old paradigm of looking narrowly at each episode as a self-contained unit — freed up the writers, directors, and cast, affording them the liberty to really capitalize on the possibilities of the format. After all, compared to its multiplex cousin, which has roughly a two-hour limit to tell a story, television has one major advantage: time. It’s a big shift in perspective. Instead of looking at a season as twenty-two slots to fill, one takes the view “Wow, we have roughly seventeen hours to tell a grand story. And if we get five or seven seasons? We could go epic.”
And that has arguably been the single biggest impact Buffy has made on the medium. This has been both direct, with show-writers going on to create or write for other popular shows like Lost, Smallville, and Once Upon a Time, as well as indirect, influencing shows like Supernatural, the new Battlestar Galactica (BSG), and the relaunched Doctor Who. Both BSG developer/head writer Ronald D. Moore and Doctor Who executive producer/head writer Russell T. Davies have acknowledged the influence of Buffy on the possibilities they saw with their own franchise relaunches. Personally, I consider BSG (2004-2009) and the Davies-helmed Doctor Who (2005-2010) to be two of the greatest television series yet produced, so this is a big pedigree. When one considers the influence of the aforementioned series on yet more shows, one can see that such lineage legitimately invests the term “post-Buffy” with real significance.
As Davies himself noted in an interview with Candace Moore (retrieved from Wikipedia 3.3.2013):
Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed the whole world, and an entire sprawling industry, that writing monsters and demons and end-of-the world is not hack-work, it can challenge the best. Joss Whedon raised the bar for every writer — not just genre/niche writers, but every single one of us.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.