Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 51 (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
The latter of these is perhaps the least interesting in terms of this blog, but it’s important both in understanding how the show came about in the first place and, at least somewhat interestingly, in understanding how Doctor Who could become a hit in its own right in the US. The key thing to understand about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that it exists because the channel it debuted on, The WB, was an unsuccessful minor channel. Broadcast television in the US works very differently from how it does in the UK. The entire country is served by regional channels, the bulk of which affiliate with national networks. The big three up into the 1980s were NBC, CBS, and ABC, each of which have essentially 100% coverage of the country. An affiliate commits to showing certain numbers of hours of national programming in the correct time slot, but fills the rest of the schedule either with local programming or material bought for syndication. (There’s also PBS, which still uses the affiliate model, but is basically what Rupert Murdoch would have the BBC be if he got his way, i.e. Wholly dependent on continually running fundraisers to stay alive.)
In the 1980s the big three were joined by a fourth network, Fox. The way in which a new network launches is important to understand: it has to acquire affiliates from across the country, scooping up existing low-rated channels. In markets where no such channel exists or will sell the new network simply won’t exist, or will exist as a secondary affiliate of an existing network, showing programming at odd hours of the night. Accordingly, Fox was at first much smaller potatoes, having lower penetration and lower ratings, which meant that big ticket obvious hits went to the other three while Fox had to content itself with oddball programs like The Simpsons and The X-Files. Then, in 1995 two more networks launched: The WB and UPN. By then Fox was reasonably sized and they were the small potatoes - sufficiently small, in fact, that they merged together to form The CW in 2006 because they couldn’t stay afloat on their own.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was originally made for The WB, although it jumped to UPN for its final two seasons. This is crucial to understanding why it was made in the first place. It was, after all, a remake/sequel to a flop movie that overtly flied in the face of the normal order of things by having a strong female protagonist in a genre show. (A note on this term. It is, of course, terribly annoying, pretending as it does that soap operas and detective series are not genres. However, it proves useful in this period as people begin to take seriously that it’s possible to do sci-fi, fantasy, or horror that isn’t done on the traditional “white male 18-34” cult audience model. Obviously all of this is is descriptive only in terms of the marketing of shows - in practice scads of women watched The X-Files and loads of men watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it still reflects a significant split in terms of how the shows try to position themselves. So for our purposes, “cult” television refers to efforts to target the 18-34 white male demographic with sci-fi/fantasy/horror shows, whereas “genre” television refers to sci-fi/fantasy/horror with broader audience ambitions.) The WB, however, didn’t really have the luxury of attempting something more straightforwardly commercial, so went with Buffy.
What it got, in audience terms, was unusual. It had the small-but-devoted audience associated with normal cult television. But… they were girls! This is, of course, terribly cynical to note, but it’s also terribly important. This isn’t just true because it liberated sci-fi/fantasy/horror from the obnoxious tyranny of the white male audience that forms the standard cult audience. Buffy’s audience was, after all, still a devoted fandom. Which meant that it was possible to have a show that, in terms of its financials, worked like a cult show but appealed to a different sort of audience. Combined with the rise of smaller channels that The WB and UPN implied, this was an absolute revelation. Buffy was, in many ways, the advance guard for The Sopranos, which added the detail of being on cable, and started the boom in original drama produced by cable channels. Add the revenue of DVD sales, syndication, and subscription fees (whether directly from viewers a la HBO or from cable systems paying to include popular channels) and a very different sort of television emerged. Off of networks there were now ways for a show with a small but dedicated audience to survive simply because it was possible to get more money out of a single viewer. One consequence of this was that the BBC launched an American cable channel, BBC America, in 1998, which would eventually find huge success with an imported sci-fi program from the UK.
But Buffy started it by having a dedicated audience and a critical reputation wildly out of proportion to its actual popularity. And, as mentioned, by having a dedicated audience that looked nothing like the audience for most television of its type. It wasn’t just that it was a female audience, but that it was a female audience that on the whole worked like the female fandom that Kate Orman came out of. Buffy fandom unleashed shipping and portmanteaus and slash and the sheer, giddy perversity of female fandom onto the mainstream by creating an entire fandom made up of people like that. It was a whole new ballgame - the moment when a completely different way of interacting with pop culture burst into the mainstream. Suddenly social justice perspectives, critical theory, and the willfully perverse were just how you did fandom, whereas obsessive continuity-mongering, lists, and merchandise collections weren’t. Fandom sacked the anoraks.
It’s not that this was a tremendous and unprecedented advance. All of this had been going on in the background for ages. But the lucky combination of a damn good show and a network desperate enough to air it meant that it broke into the cultural mainstream. Which brings us around to the other really important thing about Buffy, which is that it was, in fact, a damn good show. And while a huge part of its influence is simply in the way in which what genre television could be changed in its wake, there are also specific creative lessons to learn from Buffy, and people did learn them.
The biggest innovation Buffy brought was to use horror movie tropes as metaphors for everyday teen life. The idea that fantastic concepts can be used as metaphors for things is not, of course, remotely new. But Buffy innovated in two ways. First, it made the decision to link the fantastic tropes to the tropes of high school teen drama. This is a fantastically weird and wonderful genre collision, and one that dramatically expands the frame of what horror can do. The use of vampires here is, of course, particularly clever given the longstanding metaphoric links between vampires and sexuality, but nothing like Buffy’s broad-based equation of a mundane genre like high school drama with the tropes of horror had been done. Up to this point even Doctor Who had never managed anything quite this completely bonkers, although to be fair parts of Season Twenty-Four gave it a solid go.
This gets at the second big innovation in terms of Buffy’s use of horror, which is how total and systematic the metaphor was. Buffy wasn’t just a show that used horror movie tropes as a metaphor for high school - it was a show that systematically and from the top down maintained a clear vision of what it was doing. A lot of this comes down to Joss Whedon, who was one of the first of the modern breed of “showrunners,” the writing figures who are responsible for maintaining the consistent vision of a series. He’s not the first by any measure - Chris Carter was a celebrity showrunner as well. But he had the benefit of being both a great writer and a solid manager. He wasn’t just capable of writing great scripts, he was capable of giving other writers the guidance they needed to write great scripts. He’s a phenomenal editor, and while there are certainly cases in which he had to step in and rewrite stretches, there are also cases where he was able to give killer notes and suggestions. He was extremely good at getting writers to keep their eye on the ball. If a story was, to take a reasonably classic but by no means revelatory example, about the horror and revulsion teenagers feel when confronted with the remnants of their own parents’ adolescence then by God every single scene of that episode was going to actively support that theme. Add to this the fact that Whedon was a solidly competent director and you had a series that was remarkably coherent in its vision.
Whedon also appreciated the artistic value of melodrama. This works well for his teenage characters, since adolescence is by its nature melodramatic, but there’s a larger sense to it. The appeal of using the fantastic as a metaphor for everyday concerns is that it allows us to make everyday life mythic and oversized. We’ve been playing with the problem of scale between the mythic and the everyday for months now, and this is a phenomenally clever way of handling it. So we get, to use Buffy’s single best arc, a story in which “I slept with a guy and he turned mean” gets turned into a searing, epic love story with the fate of the world in the balance, full of betrayals and heartbreaks and tragedy. It’s absolutely mad. And it’s brilliant, because every part of the epic is, at the end of the day, just part of a story of a girl learning what it’s like to be betrayed by someone you wrongly loved. It’s the Robert Holmes approach reversed - instead of crashing the epic down to the human scale, making everyday life into something vast and mythic. It’s what Paul Cornell and Kate Orman have been chasing after, finally perfected as a repeatable formula.
Another way of putting this is that Buffy has a tremendous knack for having it both ways. On the one hand it’s a deeply funny show that unrepentantly sends up horror movie conventions and itself on a regular basis. On top of that, it’s adamant in its embrace of camp and melodrama. The Buffy/Angel romance that animates the second season and the show’s best story line is a hopelessly cheesy mess that feels like a pastiche of Twilight almost a decade too early. And yet it all works. Way back in The Ark in Space, admittedly the lead-in to the era of Doctor Who that Buffy is most similar to up to this point, I coined the phrase “believing your bubblewrap” to convey the way in which something ridiculous (such as an alien hand made of green bubblewrap) can be gotten away with if everyone around it plays it straight. This is true. Later in the Tom Baker era, of course, the show functioned not by believing its bubblewrap but by, as the modern parlance goes, lampshading it. And what Buffy realizes is that the two are not only compatible but approaches that are made for each other. The Buffy/Angel romance works because its big scenes are played straight and the rest of the time the show admits that it’s ridiculous. It’s not unique to Buffy at all, but the realization that you can mock something in one scene and then take it seriously five minutes later and have it work is not only important but something that it is almost impossible to imagine modern television functioning without. Buffy didn’t invent it, but it mastered it and started using it to more profound dramatic heights than anything else around.
I would also be remiss not to talk about the dialogue. Like anybody who writes absolutely brilliant dialogue, all of Whedon’s characters sound alike. (See also Douglas Adams, Steven Moffat, and Aaron Sorkin) And, of course, they’re all also totally distinct because Whedon is able to distinguish masterfully between what a character sounds like and what a character does. Yes, many of his characters have similar tones, but a line of Cordelia’s dialogue is almost always distinguishable from one of Giles’s because the sorts of things Cordelia does and wants are totally different from the things Giles does. This is partially down to solid characterization, but it also goes back to Whedon’s consistency of vision: if Whedon has a character, Whedon knows exactly what that character is for and why they’re useful to his storytelling. Nothing that doesn’t advance the use of the plot as a metaphor is tolerated. Not even characters.
All of this adds up to an approach that is not merely coherent but thoroughly worked out. This is comparable in some ways to Pixar’s legendarily thorough and detail-oriented take on storytelling, and it’s certainly something Doctor Who adopted in 2005 via Davies’ famed “tone meetings.” Indeed, Buffy is, on a basic level, the formula for the new series. Virtually every story uses its fantastic concept as a metaphor for something on the human level. Melodrama is allowed to flourish. The dialogue is ear-catching, the characterization is sharp and distinct, and every part of every episode seems intentional and oriented towards communicating its point. This is clearly difficult to do, given how much television fails at it, but it’s also, since Buffy, been the clearest approach to top-notch genre television.
That it would apply well to Doctor Who is, of course, obvious in hindsight, much the way that Neverwhere, in hindsight, makes Doctor Who’s eventual return seem obvious. Perhaps more important, though, is that Buffy’s implications for Doctor Who seemed obvious at the time. It was self-evidently how to do a show like this: funny, dramatic, and capable of making things new. At this point it’s just BBC internal politics that stands between us and Doctor Who coming back. After all, if a wretched Kristy Swanson movie can get a brilliant do-over, surely anything can.