Seven Seasons Of Buffy
by Glenn Yeffeth (Editor)
Fortunately, the authors are for the most part neither academics with their sometimes tortured prose, or fans who can err of the side of deification, but professional writers. Although this does not eliminate the possibility of tortured prose or deification. These essays ask many of the questions that I've wished had been asked in similar books. In criticizing Candace Havens' biography of Buffy creator Joss Whedon earlier this year, I wrote:
An independent-thinking writer could make much of questions such as:
Is Whedon "the Charles Dickens of the New Millennium", as some would have it, or "just" a talented writer who plays to a passionate niche audience?
Is the story "God," as Whedon has sometimes claimed to justify unpopular plot points? Or do the desires of fans, networks, or series stars ever affect it, for the better or worse, as increasing evidence seems to suggest?
Some of the essays here address just these sorts of questions, and I won't quibble with any of the writers just because their answers are different from my own. Most of the essays here are interesting, well-written and even when I don't agree, I can appreciate their point of view. The editor, Glenn Yeffeth, deserves some commendation for this.
So: Let's start with the good stuff; the essays that had me thinking I could finally start a Buffy-related book review with words to the effect of "Now that's what I'm talking about!"
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad contributes a laugh-out-loud funny "term paper," written from the point of view of a minion in training, on identifying the most dangerous -— from an evil point of view -— personage in Sunnydale. This piece is successful not least because it can be read on at least three levels: As "fannish," in the best sense of the term (looking at a beloved old thing in a new way), as a piece of humor, and even as a sarcastic take on some Buffy fans painfully fawning ways (Joss Whedon is God). Sarah Zettel adds brilliant depth and a convincing thesis to a not uncommon criticism of the series: That Buffy lost, at the very least, a certain cohesion when the characters graduated from high school. Speaking of the surprisingly convincing, Michelle Sagara West's defense of Riley in comparison to Spike and Angel offers the resonant observation: "A child's love is undiscerning. Adult love is not." This is an all-too tempting epigram to reach for when confronted by fans still in the early stages of Buffy infatuation, as defined by Justine Larbalestier's "A Buffy Confession."
In what I think is the heart of this collection, Larbalestier charts her evolution over the course of Buffy's seven seasons from:
1) Champion of All Things Buffy.
2) Clear-eyed critic who sees the program's flaws but loves it all the more in spite -- if not because -— of them.
3) Horrified ex-true believer.
In so doing, Larbalestier reflects the experiences of millions of Buffy watchers who found themselves seduced by a dramatic series for television, convinced themselves it was something more than it could ever be, and eventually hit the wall. Where and when they hit that wall, of course, emerges differently for each person. For some it was the death of Tara. For some, as I've said, it was the characters' graduation. For some it was Riley. For some it was the introduction of Tara. For some it was the idea that Spike could ever be a viable romantic partner for Buffy. But millions of people had the naked-light epiphany somewhere in their minds that much like Buffy, they went to bed with an angel, and woke up with a demon.
And some people, it must be said truthfully, still do like the show from beginning to end. We have a couple of those here, too. But they commit what is, to me, the classic sin of the Buffy true believer: Hyperbole.
"...every episode has something important to say about the human condition." —Drew Goddard, from his foreword.
Every single one, Drew? Even "Beer Bad?" And, perhaps my personal favorite:
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not 'just' a TV show. It is part of the process whereby television as an artistic medium is finally coming into its own in the world of Great Literature." —Jacqueline Lichtenberg, "Power Of Becoming."
Admitting upfront that I don't know her, and am basing this purely on her work here: Lichtenberg seems to me an example of the blinders-on attitude of too many science fiction and fantasy fans, far too reckless with their words. Because if she seriously thinks Buffy was the herald of a coming of age for television as Great Literature --and that is the thrust of her piece, "Caps Every Time" -- it seems to me she can't have been watching much television outside the SF/fantasy genre in the past 20 years.
I still have some residual skepticism of a form in which ratings and finances determine when a story is going to end instead of the storyteller. Nevertheless, television coming into its own as literature?
We're there already, folks. We've been there for a long time. Don't take my word for it, let's listen to some gentlemen whose literary and critical credentials are unassailable.
David Mamet said "there is little difference between Hill Street Blues and Chekhov," and when he said Chekov, he didn't mean the Star Trek character.
Kurt Vonnegut said he wished he'd written Cheers.
Larry McMurtry wrote in his book Film Flam (1987) that: "Television serials offer the perfect vehicle for the creation and elaboration of character, provided, of course, that their creators are willing to follow their characters wherever they lead..."
In his nearly-brilliant 1992 book Teleliteracy, TV reviewer (and future Buffy fan) David Bianculli devoted an entire chapter to the idea that "Some Television Is Literature -— And Vice Versa," using as examples series (Taxi, St. Elsewhere, others) that pre-date Buffy by at least 15 years.
I am not saying that Buffy, at its best, was not the equal of the shows I've mentioned above at theirs. It was a really good show, when it was a really good show, like a lot of really good shows. But it was not some great revelation of depth in the previously only shallow waters of television. Now, if Lichtenberg wanted to argue it was such a breakthrough for genre television, that's a slightly different matter. But it's not what she said.
And anyway, Babylon 5 beat Buffy to that punch by three years. (A brief digression about that series: Lichtenberg states "Babylon 5 was not the tremendous commercial success it needed to be to complete its five-year mission." Commercial success notwithstanding, this is wrong, the show ran its full, planned five seasons.)
Still, as a whole, this book is better written than earlier Buffy-related volumes I've discussed here on Ink 19. But then we hit the smack in the face, this books' equivalent of "Seeing Red," or pick your own hit-the-wall episode: Kevin Andrew Murphy's "Unseen Horrors & Shadowy Manipulations."
Like this book, like the show itself, Murphy's essay starts out with an intriguing and immediately attractive premise: To discuss ways in which "outside influences" from sponsors to networks to activist fans have affected the story told on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He makes a creditable suggestion about a scene from Buffy spin-off Angel in which an icon of the gods took the form of a fast-food restaurant's hamburger statue: That this may have been a comment on the fact that Buffy's fast-food sponsors are known to have objected to a storyline in which Buffy worked at such a restaurant (the storyline was terminated for that reason). He even comes up with a way in which "Beer Bad"--one of those episodes that floats around the bottom of just about everybody's list, though even it has its partisans--might be enjoyed: As an intentional parody of forced anti-alcohol programming.
Of course, even if it were all an elaborate in-joke, this does not actually make "Beer Bad" itself any better. More of an early sign of the decadence that would later take over the show. But this did not lessen my admiration for the cleverness of Murphy's point. Nor did the fact that two seasons later Buffy would be doing unintentional parodies of forced anti-drug programming.
He goes on to note briefly the high ranking the Parents Television Council has given Buffy on its list of "worst" shows. He might also have included the National Organization for Women, who took a similarly dim view of the allegedly feminist series.
But then, he moves on to fandom, specifically fans of the Willow/Tara relationship on Buffy. Many of these fans have criticized the series and creator Joss Whedon at great length for the decision to kill off secondary Scooby Tara at the end of the show's sixth season. Tara is discussed in a lovely ode earlier in this book by Peg Aloi, who gets the balance of the controversy right when she says: "The level of hurt and indignation among fans has been nothing short of staggering. Of course, much of this rage (often inarticulate in it's unfocused emotion) is aimed at Whedon's unthinkable act of betrayal [as it seemed] to those viewers who saw Willow and Tara as lesbian role models."
Interviews with Whedon and other Mutant Enemy personnel have suggested that some decisions about the seventh season storylines were made in response to this protest, at least in part. This is certainly an example of outside influences on the storyline of the show by fans and it's worthy of fair-minded discussion.
Unfortunately it seems that Murphy was not capable of that. Instead, he digresses into six pages -— almost half the length of his essay -- of accusations about an online posting board for Willow/Tara fans called "The Kitten, The Witches & the Bad Wardrobe" (the Kitten hereafter). Murphy asserts that the moderation policy of that board is censorship. He then equates the fans of actress Amber Benson, who played Tara, with the stalkers that killed Selena Perez and Rebecca Schaffer, and goes on to imply that they sent death threats to executives of the WB.
Okay, one thing at a time. Murphy's great example of the "censorship" of the Kitten board stems from an incident that took place after the 2002 World Science Fiction Convention, at which a panel on the "dead lesbian cliché" and Tara was held. Transcripts reveal an incompetently organized discussion that reads as though it was thrown together in a few minutes with little effort to reflect more than one point of view. This sparked a lengthy thread on the Kitten board, from which Murphy seizes on two facts:
1. That the policies of the Kitten board regarding what is off or on topic are strictly enforced by the board moderators.
2. That early on in this discussion someone quoted the moderator of the convention panel out of context, which led to her briefly being the recipient of some ill-deserved ire.
These things are true. I know. I've been a poster at the Kitten board, off and on, and I participated -- though not in any significant way -- in the discussion of the WorldCon event. The moderators of that board are, in my view, sometimes too knee-jerk in deleting posts; I've clashed with them myself over it. But they are hardly alone in this within the internet jungle, where if absolute power corrupts absolutely then petty power does likewise. But for all that it is open to abuses, and as frustrating as it can be, moderation of any board is not censorship.
"Censorship" is a serious word, and not one that should be tossed around carelessly, especially by writers, especially in print. It brings to mind names like Galileo, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Dalton Trumbo and most recently, even the producers of the CBS Reagans miniseries. To use it in this context is disingenuous at best. Why? Because if I, or Murphy, or anybody, find we can't discuss a particular topic on any one board, there are hundreds -- at least -- of others we can go to. We can even create our own. Murphy knows this full well -- it's another of the points he attempts to make against the Kitten board, that some have done just that.
It's true also that the convention panel moderator was misquoted. It may even be true, as Murphy claims, that in an overemotional response to the original misquotation someone: "cried for PTC-style letter-writing campaigns and pressure on convention organizers to no longer invite any of the panelists to future conventions." Though, a quick skim of the thread in question shows that this was no major part of the discussion. The misquote was promptly corrected and apologized for. Murphy admits this, but says it was "likely not before a number of letters had gone out."
"Likely" is such a soft word. So far as I know nothing came of that wrongheaded idea when temperatures cooled, and if Murphy knows otherwise he should have said so instead of relying on innuendo.
But I ask you to consider: What does any of the above teapot's tempest have to do with reflecting on how outside forces including fans might have affected the series? That, remember, is what this essay is represented as being about, not how some fans treat each other (that's a whole 'nother book). There are examples at least as far back as Buffy's second season through which this focus might have been addressed.
So why does Murphy indulge in this off-point digression, especially to the extent that it derails his essay's stated purpose? Because he's indulging in petty, adolescent score-settling.
You know that thing I did up there, where I told you I've been a poster at the Kitten board? That what's called full disclosure. Kevin Andrew Murphy, on the other hand, fails to mention in this book:
1. That he was a participant in the convention panel
2. That the moderator was a friend of his, and
3. That he showed up to defend her at some length in the Kitten board discussion. Where, incidentally, his last act was to draw a likely unintentional, but certainly distasteful and ill-thought out parallel between lesbians and Nazis.
I think at least some of those things are worth mentioning in this context, don't you? Certainly they would have informed readers' perception of his point of view on the whole matter. Yet he didn't mention it.
Now to the most vile of Murphy's comments. His dubious and certainly non-representative portraits of Benson's fans as stalkers is based on wild speculation and deserves contempt. That a person or group has sent death threats is not the kind of charge you should make, or even hint at, without backup. Murphy offers none. And surely, such fans as feel they were wronged feel it happened when Buffy was on UPN. So why would they harass a network the series wasn't even on any more? No explanation is forthcoming.
Murphy's intent to smear these fans is made manifest by his presenting as merely their "claim" an easily verifiable fact: That "...Amber Benson has said she would not return out of respect for her fans." Well, she has said that -- in interviews with low-profile outlets like the BBC. Putting it the way Murphy does is clumsy and shoddy at best, intentionally deceitful at worst.
Let me underline something, because experience tells me some of you will misinterpret what I've written. There are shades of gray all around the Tara controversy and the various points on which it touched. Though it's outside the context of Buffy, Diane Ravitch's Language Police is recommended to those who wish to take a serious look at issues Murphy is only playing with here.
I am not saying that any fan group, much less one with which I have been associated, is above thoughtful criticism, any more than I believe Buffy is. But thoughtful criticism is not what Murphy did. He chose instead to write a scurrilous article about a group of fans whose actions concerning himself and a friend of his had stuck in his craw. And that's shameful.
So, as I said at the outset, the flaws in this book end up being very close to the flaws of Buffy itself. Those flaws, I believe, will keep Buffy as a whole from being regarded as quite the watershed its truest believers think it is, some 10-25 years from now. Just as the flaws in this book keep me from giving it the wholehearted recommendation I wanted to -- and I really wanted to -- when it was at its best. Pity. Just like Buffy, when it is good, it is really good, but when it is bad, it can badly taint the whole experience.