Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Defense of Buffy

"Tact is just not saying true stuff. I'll pass." – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“Camp: The Lie That Tells The Truth” – Phillip Core

If somebody mentions “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” what images immediately pop into your mind? If you’re flipping channels, and the info box at the bottom of the screen reads: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” do you even bother to watch it for five seconds? I couldn’t previously blame anyone for the likely answers to these two questions, (I couldn’t even get past the name of the show), but about five or six years ago, while having a beer after work, decided to leave the show on for a few minutes. I’ve never looked back.

Here is a well-written, thoughtful show that dealt candidly with alienation, addiction, self-destruction, suicide, loss, grief, homosexuality, and self-mutilation - wrapped in a package of a silly teen drama. It used allegory to deal with everything from homelessness and heroin addiction to puppy love and puberty.

It dealt with the most serious questions and sober answers of life, with flooring frankness and humor. Mostly though, I think its defining characteristic was its unwavering unpredictability. I doubt I’ll change anyone’s mind with this blog entry, but I intend to make a case for Buffy. Call me a nerd, but there was something more to this show than teen angst, fantasy storytelling or cliffhangers.

It was simply a show about people in high school and college, falling in love, becoming addicted to drugs, (allegorically magic), and living otherwise normal lives, in the normal Southern California town of Sunnydale – that was built on the mouth of Hell.

I’ll make my case first by listing the characters, and who they were throughout the seven years of the show. These are the reasons why it’s incredibly silly, completely absurd, and why I’m totally in love with it.

Buffy Summers: Wanted normalcy more than anything in the world; wanted to be a cheerleader, to go watch Disney on Ice with her father every year, go on shopping sprees , and sit on prom committees. But she was trapped by who she was. I know, you have your formula for any comic book hero. But then she killed her first love, later fell in love with someone without a soul, watched her mother die of a brain tumor, raised a sister who doubted her own existence (as did Buffy), then finally died and went to heaven. Only then, when she had her happy ending,her friends – who were trying help – ripped her out of paradise to come back and help them through their own personal hells.

Willow Rosenberg: Perfect student, perfect friend, devoted to everyone around her; secretly waited to come out of the closet as a lesbian, suffered from an addiction that ended up killing one character and nearly another. Eventually she tried to blow up the world.

Xander Harris: Referred to himself once as “The Zeppo” – the one who never contributed, never did anything, and lived in the shadows of great people around him. Eventually he got his eye gouged out, but still tried to stay behind and help. He was made Dracula’s slave, was raped by a praying mantis, and ultimately was engaged to a demon (in human form) who later tried to murder him after he left her at the altar.

Joyce Summers: Buffy's mother, when at the end of the second year of the show found out her daughter was the slayer, asked: “Have you ever tried not being a slayer?” It was a coming-out story far too many people have experienced. (Not the slayer part, I mean). Ultimately she was completely supportive of anything her monster-killing, vampire-loving, super-human daughter did. After five years on the show, she was killed – not by supernatural means, but by a brain tumor. There was absolutely nothing Buffy could do about it. The episode – titled “The Body” had no background music, just scene by scene of how Buffy was reacting to her mother’s sudden death (she had been treated for cancer, was out of the hospital, and was expected to be okay). In one scene it appeared Buffy, after discovering Joyce’s body, had managed to get her to breathe again, get paramedics to come help, get her mother to the hospital in an ambulance, and later embrace her in a hospital bed – only for the scene to cut abruptly back to Buffy staring at her mother’s body.

Dawn Summers: Buffy’s little sister appeared during the first episode of the fifth year. For three episodes, no explanation was given. Buffy had always been an only child. Only later does the viewer discover that Dawn had been created – along with everyone’s memories of her - just weeks prior. This was not a situation brought to us by Plot Convenience Playhouse. It was the introduction of a bratty teenage girl who, when discovering that she was not human, slashed herself with a knife in an attempt to discover if she felt any pain, if she would bleed like anyone else. It was Buffy’s job to protect her little sister, keep her from being killed. Buffy later killed herself to save her sister – hence the being dragged back from heaven bit I mentioned earlier. It was an extreme statement on the meaning of family, sacrifice, and who you are in spite of where you came from. It might be a simple lesson, but it was well-executed, if someone dramatically. Well, we are talking about Buffy.

Anya Jenkins: Former “vengeance demon,” spent a thousand years bringing justice to wronged women, only to have her powers stripped away and live like any other human. She was a child in some ways, re-learning what it’s like to be human, while retaining the wisdom (and sarcasm) of a thousand-year-old. She lived through (and partially caused) the Russian Revolution, and yet could not understand people on a basic human level. She eventually sacrificed herself saving one of the most seemingly irredeemable characters of the show – a character who had only really served as a running punchline.

Spike: A vampire without a soul, (as opposed to Angel, who had one), who eventually fell in love with Buffy. For five seasons he obsessed over her, which vampires I guess don’t do. They just maim kill people on this show. He tried to rape Buffy, and in self-hate went on a mission halfway around the world to restore his soul . The lesson here was that the act of doing it was enough. Again, simple, but a fun way to tell it. Spike eventually dies to save everyone.

Okay, I could go on, there are several more recurring characters, but these were the most important to the storyline.

Another thing Buffy had going for it was the dialogue. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the show:

"Buffy - love the hair. It just screams street urchin."

"Once again, the Hell mouth puts the special in special occasion."

"Sure, alternate realities. You could uh, could have like a world without shrimp. Or with, you know, nothing but shrimp. Just don't ask me to live there."

"I think it's the secret to getting you out of my mind. Putting you behind me. Behind me figuratively. I'm thinking face-to-face for the event itself"

"I Anya, promise to love you, to cherish you, to honor you, uh, but not to obey you, of course, because that's anachronistic and misogynistic and who do you think you are, like a sea captain or something?"

"Don't be ridiculous. Martha Stewart isn't a demon. She's a witch. Nobody could do that much decoupage without calling on the powers of darkness."

"People who think their problems are so huge craze me, like this time I sort of ran over this girl on her bike. It was the most traumatizing event of my life, and she's trying to make it about her leg. Like my pain meant nothing"

"Buffy, I'm here to kill you, not to judge you"

"Oh please. I don't mean to interrupt your downward mobility, but I just wanted to tell you that you won't be meeting Coach Foster, the woman with the chest hair, because gym was canceled due to the extreme dead guy in the locker."

"Where did you get that dress? This is a one-of-a-kind Todd Oldham. Do you know how much this dress cost? Is this a knock-off? This is a knock-off, isn't it? Some cheesy knock-off. This is exactly what happens when you sign these free trade agreements."

The list goes on –there are entire websites devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer quotes. No, really – Google it.So naturally, sometime well into the series, Buffy was getting some mixed reviews – many of them stating that its success was at least partially riding on its dialogue.The wr iters responded with “Hush.”

“Hush” was an episode about fairy-tale monsters robbing everyone in town of the ability to speak. Nearly the entire show was done without words.  The episode was nominated for an Emmy (and in my opinion should have received it).

Without words, we are introduced to Tara, Willow’s long-time girlfriend – simultaneously discovering that Willow may be a lesbian.  Anya and Xander fall more in love. Buffy’s non-vampire boyfriend discovers what she can do – and at the end of the episode, when everyone’s voice returns, nobody can think of a thing to say.

Two years later, the writers went in the opposite direction, and produced the musical episode, “Once More With Feeling.” The episode was complete with extras, elaborate singing and dancing numbers, and some actually pretty-okay music. Through the musical episode we find out that Buffy was not raised from the dead, but rather dragged out of heaven, and that her friends have destroyed her while trying to save her.

One of the lyrics from the songs of “Once More With Feeling:”

There was no pain, no fear no doubt,
'Til they pulled me out of Heaven.
So that's my refrain.
I live in Hell, 'cause I've been expelled from Heaven.
I think I was in Heaven.
So give me something to sing about!
Please, give me something!

I know I’m a dork. You probably figured that out by now. But I’m not an enormous fan of fantasy, and less of one when it comes to teen dramas. But this show was so much more than a teen drama.

I likely won’t convince anybody to give this show a second glance. In fact, you might have decided this is a silly blog entry on which to spend my time. Maybe it is.

In so many ways Buffy the Vampire Slayer was sophomoric and downright silly. But it never claimed to be anything else. In fact, it embraced it. It was honest with what it was, and in so doing, became far more than what could be expected.

I wish more television was that unpredictable.