Monday, April 16, 2012

Back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Recently I had occasion to re-watch a number of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, dating back to 1997.

There's nothing like that now.

We have some comedies that are often quite funny, some dramas that are often quite dramatic, a handful of shows that are well-written and character-driven, and some fantasy shows that actually use the fantasy to explore this reality in ways that shows about this reality cannot.

But none combine all of that, as Buffy did.

And I find works of art that blend all these elements are more than the sum of those elements--a bit like a great Indonesian Rijstaffel, maybe.

Buffy's also more than the sum of its people. The artistic chemistry of show creator Joss Whedon and star Sarah Michelle Gellar was extraordinary, and unmatched by either since (though Whedon's Firefly came close, as did Angel).

For the show had the added benefit of exposing people whose good taste is so conventional they can't perceive quality if it comes from unauthorized sources--such as a TV show--such as a TV show with "Buffy" in its title--such as a TV show about vampires--such as a TV show about high school--such as a horror show--such as an action show--such as a show that defies the normal conventional boundaries between drama and comedy, intellectual and lowbrow, fantasy and "realism." (I put "realism" in quotes because innumerable TV shows and movies without a whiff of the supernatural or science fiction in them are vastly less "realistic" about human character/actions/motivations than many sci-fi/fantasy shows.

90% of TV is sucky (to paraphrase Sturgeon's Rule). So? 90% of opera is sucky. 90% of NYTimes Bestseller novels are sucky (if not more). Really, if you look at the judgment of history of all kinds of works of art, very little really stands the test of time.

Which doesn't invalidate all these genres. If just invalidates categorical dismissal.

I recommended the movie "Let me in" to an acquaintance from church in passing. Later he ran into my wife and asked her what it about about. She said "It's a vampire movie." He said "That's all I need to know."

This guy is very intelligent, but not in this case. He was thinking associatively. Twilight is a juvenile movie series about juveniles for juveniles, therefore all vampire movies are movies about sexuality for the teen girl crowd, all using the same stereotypical vampire metaphors.

And this was especially egregious in this case, because the guy knows I'm smart. We've talked about artsy movies many times. But his prejudices overwhelmed such specifics.

Ditto Buffy. I've seen the faces of many educated people just congeal when I mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nothing with such a name could possibly be anything but piffle. It doesn't help that the eponymous movie WAS piffle. But dismissers forget that Hamlet was a second-rate play by a long-forgotten author before Shakespeare re-did it as an eternal classic.

But another problem arises even for those who buy my argument and are willing to give the show a chance: the first episodes represent the creative team finding their footing. It gets better later, but it's so serialized--essentially it's a 100 hour-long movie--that you can't just skip the first season. You really have to see it from the start, and trust that the glimmers of greatness you see from the start bloom later. And they do.

That said, though you'll have to re-watch these episodes in the sequence of the whole show to understand everything that's going on, there are some episodes to try if you need further convincing. However, watching them will inevitably fill your head with spoilers for the episodes you skipped over. Likewise, if you do a little Google research, you'll see which episodes got the most critical acclaim while others are ones you'll probably only see once (apart from references bits of them later).


So if you require more convincing and are willing to live with spoilers, The Body is the most serious of all Buffy episodes, the least supernatural, the most heartfelt (Sarah Michelle Gellar, who is very close to her mother, has said it was the hardest episode for her to do), and the most artistic in terms of brilliant cinematography, lighting, understated acting, great ensemble work etc. In it Buffy deals with the death of her mother due to non-supernatural circumstances, which means that powerful as she is she can't do anything about it.

And Once More with Feeling--the Buffy Musical--is the episode that required the most work on everyone's part, is the only episode shot to seen in widescreen format, and is the only musical or opera ever made to my knowledge where there's a reason why everyone's singing. It's also just about the only TV show musical episode where it being a musical isn't a stunt, but actually advances the plotlines and the story arc significantly. It's also the only musical in which the ensemble ranges from fine singers (Giles and Tara) to expressive singers lacking strong voices (Buffy most notably) to near-non-singers (Willow, Dawn, Zander), and exploits their particular skills perfectly--and which is better for having a range of singing ability like that.

The episode just after that, Tabula Rasa, has all the central characters' memories being wiped, forcing them to discover who and what they are. A virgin viewer would get to make those discoveries along with the characters, which could be very entertaining. It's one of the funnier episodes as well.

And the episode just after THAT, Smashed, revels in sheer exuberant PG-13-barely kinkiness, showing what might happen when two beings with supernatural physical strength get it on, to speak delicately, in a house not built to withstand that happening.

For fans of clever horror movies, the much earlier Hush episode would be a good one to start with. With the added fillip of it including the scene where Buffy and Riley each discover that the other isn't just a college student, with one of the best near-mutually-fatal double-takes in cinema history.

-------------END OF SPOILERS

Buffy is a vampire show that isn't really about vampires. It's a coming of age story that isn't just about people discovering their sexual/romantic dimensions. It's much bigger than that. It's about the hero's journey--and the journeys of the hero's band of followers as well, for they also have stories, and important ones at that.

It's about finding out what you are, what you want to be, what you can be, and ultimately what you must be.