Monday, April 23, 2012

the Buffy lessons: learning from the dead

The following thoughts are edited from blog posts. I’ve trimmed them, but I haven’t tried to make this a proper essay, so some parts end without formal conclusions.
For its first five years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my favorite TV show, and may be my favorite TV show of all time. Sure, not every episode was great, but the show had what I love: strong women, funny dialogue, clever plotting, a fun fantasy setting, and my kind of moral subtext, that friends matter and it’s better to do what’s right than what’s popular. I’ll admit that in many ways, other series are better than Buffy, but I didn’t love them so much for five years that I would then endure them for two more.
So, what did I learn about writing a series in those seven years?
1. Honor the metaphor.
Buffy began with an astonishingly clear metaphor: “high school is hell.” When high school ended and Angel got his own show, the writers didn’t take the time to rethink the underlying nature of their shows. At that point, two choices could’ve been made about the metaphor for Buffy:
They could’ve stuck with “school is hell” and examined the conflicts at college between frat kids and ROTC kids and radical kids and town kids and rich kids and scholarship kids and tenured professors and new professors and administration and sports departments and arts departments and kids who have enough money that they don’t need jobs and kids whose part-time jobs are killing their social lives and their study time —
Or they could’ve evolved the metaphor: “college is heaven, and heaven must be defended.” That’s the story that still involves all the groups that exist in “school is hell,” but it’s about the joy of finding what you want to be. What made Buffy’s seasons four and five fun was that they started down this path. Well, they started Willow down it. They let Buffy thrash around — which is not an unreasonable choice for your main character in a series. But they forgot that it would’ve been very easy for Giles to get a job at the U. teaching or in a library or a museum. They decided to leave Xander living in the family basement, even though Sunnydale’s university is a state school, which shouldn’t have been too tough or expensive to get into. They finally put Giles in the Magic Box, a setting that’s more appropriate for a sitcom than an adventure series; it made the show’s universe a little less grounded in the world we all know.
Whether the show stayed with “school is hell” or evolved into “college is heaven,” Buffy could’ve stayed in college for four years, then gone on to grad school. School is a limbo realm, neither home nor work. It’s a place of becoming, of transition. And that’s the perfect backdrop for Buffy, whose hero role was forced on her, not part of her personal world of friends and families nor part of a professional world of co-workers.
A piece of what went wrong with Season 6 was that the writers decided to mature all the characters, to make them post-collegiate, as though there really is an objective “real world” that is more valid than the world of education. They ended up creating a much smaller world in which almost everything seemed to happen in Buffy’s house, the Magic Box, or the graveyard.
A metaphor may sound restrictive, but it’s not. A series’ metaphor isn’t a template that every story must fit. A metaphor is a proposition for a series to explore. It’s the way the settings, characters, and situations comment on life. The metaphor doesn’t narrow possibilities. It points out possibilities.
Every series has at least one metaphor, though the writers may not realize it and may not exploit it. It’s the metaphor of the genre. This is going to be a gross oversimplification (and for the first and only time, uh huh), but to some extent, all genres have an implied metaphor:
In mysteries, the world is a lie, and only the dedicated seeker can find the truth. In romances, the world is lonely, but love conquors loneliness. In fantasies and westerns, the community is threatened by greed or power, but selfless perseverence can set things right. In superhero stories, the world is always under assault, but struggling anonymously will bring the reward of knowing you’ve done the right thing. In science fiction, the universe seems like a strange and threatening place, but knowledge will save you. In horror, the universe is a strange and threatening place, and you’ll only survive with the right combination of the virtues and luck. All of those propositions say something that’s true about being human.
But the best series also have a specific metaphor that distinguishes them from others of their type. In Buffy ‘s case, the specific metaphor for the first three seasons was “high school is hell.” That metaphor gave us shows in which popular kids acted like hyenas, teachers were monsters, parents had their minds taken over, the principal was evil, and no one recognized that the supposedly uncool kids were really the heroes. You know, the basic high school experience that everyone can relate to.
And that specific metaphor was layered onto the genre metaphors of fantasy, horror, and superheroes. That’s a great combination when it’s explored well.
A series doesn’t need a specific metaphor for its writers to do good work. The Angel show has had some great episodes, even though it only has the same general metaphors as Buffy. Angel ‘s stories are about a group of friends who live together and don’t want much more from life than to fight evil and have satisfying romances. Well, to be fair, there’s one other general metaphor that applies to Angel, the metaphor of most shows about friends: “Friends are family.”
The best or most memorable series mix general and specific metaphors. With the X-Men , the metaphors of superheroes and science fiction are layered with a strong metaphor from young adult fiction: “We’re all freaks.”
The metaphors can certainly change over the course of a series. What’s sad about Buffy is that the specific metaphor became vague. If Season 6 had a metaphor, it was “life is hell.” And if Season 7 had one, it was “life was too much hell last season; how do we wrap everything up?”
One last point: Metaphors in fantasy are especially tricky because fantasy is literalized metaphor. Huck Finn’s journey feels like an epic quest; Frodo Baggins’s journey is an epic quest. They’re different ways of doing the same thing in a story, of exploring the implications of being human, and encountering problems, and learning or failing to learn to change.
2. Remember the destiny.
The “destiny” is a sense of fate in a series: Robin Hood must defeat Prince John and marry Maid Marion. The destiny can be less precise: James Bond must defeat many different villains, each deadlier than the one before, and he must have many loves, each more exciting than the one before. If the main characters aren’t moving toward something that seems like their destiny, despite or because of the many obstacles between them and it, a series feels stagnant.
The show began with a clear romantic destiny: “The vampire slayer’s true love is a vampire with a soul.” When I watched the first three seasons, I didn’t like Angel because, face it, he’s only interesting when he turns evil. But boring Angel was a small price to pay for an otherwise great show. When Angel went off to his own series, Buffy’s creators were at a loss for what to do next. They tried Riley, but they didn’t think through his function as a romantic interest. Then they decided to send Spike down the same path we had already seen Angel take, making him another “vampire with a soul,” making him Robin to Angel’s Batman and making neither of them unique in the Buffyverse.
The show also began with a clear dramatic destiny: For five seasons, Buffy’s opposition grew more powerful than what she faced before: the Master, Spike and Drusilla and Angelus, the Mayor and Faith, Adam and the Initiative, Glory. But that fell apart in Season 6, when the recurring villains were three nerds who could’ve made a fun standalone episode or maybe a two-parter, but had insufficient weight to carry a season. Season 6 was like watching three James Bond movies in a row in which Bond was unable to defeat Curly, Moe, and Larry. Yes, the ultimate villain of Season 6 was the evil Willow — but that was too little, too late.
As for seventh season, the theoretical Big Bad was fine in theory: The First, the oldest and greatest evil. But what did we get? Actors we’d already seen, who couldn’t touch anything, and who talked a lot. Bringing in Caleb helped, but, as in Season 6, we got too little, too late.
As Buffy ends, we feel cheated on the story as a whole. Buffy can’t achieve her romantic destiny since it’s been derailed. And she can’t achieve her dramatic destiny, because the threat she’s facing feels like it’s less of a challenge than Spike and Drusilla in Season 2.
3. Preserve the tone.
I noticed tone for the first time when looking back at , a show that my wife and I adored as kids. It began as a semi-serious spy show in its first season. It became a hit. People thought it was fun and a little silly. So the producers decided it should become campier, and making it campy killed it. The fourth season producers made it more serious, but that change of direction came too late.
By Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, we had too many supernatural characters that were more goofy than menacing: the three nerds, the floppy eared demon, Anya’s hex-demon friend, etc. Sure, Buffy’s villains always had some silliness to lighten their menace — the Mayor was an amazing mixture of funny and frightening. But tone is a tightrope. With Season 6s, the writers began leaping back and forth over the rope rather than staying on it.
Their leaping included inappropriately dark elements involving Buffy’s sexuality. Glum, loveless, submissive and subordinated sex is the wrong choice for a show that’s supposed to be about strong women.
4. Make most episodes complete unto themselves.
As a comic book fan, I remember the thrill of the first two-part story I read. I loved it because the story was big. I hated it because I had to wait for the conclusion; I lost the satisfaction of experiencing a complete story in a single reading. Multi-part stories were rare in comics then, a treat and not the main course. Then comic books became more and more episodic. And comic book sales plunged for many reasons, not the least that it was hard for new readers to start a series.
The show’s first five seasons had plenty of episodes in which the season’s story arc was a minor element in an otherwise standalone story. Then they switched to soap opera storytelling, abandoning crisp beginnings and ends in favor of unending middles.
5. Keep the world larger than the cast.
For five seasons, Buffy balanced school and home and her duty as the Slayer. She lived in a world in which characters could become significant for an episode and then disappear. Her world felt enormous. In the last two seasons, she gave up school and her world shrank, consisting almost solely of the people who lived in her house, something you’d expect in a soap or a sitcom, not in an adventure series. As a result, it looked like the show had cut its budget at a time when it was making more money than ever, and Buffy’s world felt claustrophobic.
6. Respect the story’s character types when the casting changes.
In the first three seasons, the writers found a balance that worked nicely for the main cast: Buffy as the champion learning about life, Giles as the mentor finding his own purpose by guiding the champion, Xander as the champion’s goofy but dependable sidekick, Willow as the champion’s quirky but capable best friend, Cordelia as the goofy sidekick’s self-obsessed but oddly dependable love interest, Oz as the best friend’s kind but troubled lover, and Angel as the champion’s extremely troubled romantic interest,
With the fourth season, the show lost Angel, Cordelia, and Oz. They did an excellent job of moving Anya into Cordelia’s job. They did a fair job of moving Tara into Oz’s, though in retrospect I believe that had more to do with the charm of the actors than in the way their story was presented. But the writers floundered for a new love interest for Buffy.
7. When one character’s love life sucks, make sure another character’s love life is good.
I was reminded of this on  when Rory’s romance fell apart as Lane’s evolved. It kept the show from becoming too depressing, and it heightened the pathos of the crumbling relationship by contrasting it with the evolving one. Buffy knew that in its first fiveseasons—Xander’s finest moment is when Buffy’s romance with Riley fails, and Xander commits to Anya—but forgot it in its sixth.
8. Don’t marry off main characters.
Adventure includes romance, so romance must stay as uncertain as every other element. You have at least three choices: move your character through a number of romances in search of the right one, create a triangle so your character is torn between two equally promising people, or set up an insurmountable obstacle to romance with the lover who is clearly right for the character.
The show took the third path in its first three seasons. But when they lost Angel, Buffy began a relationship with Riley that had no inherent tension, that was every bit as comfortable as a main character’s relationship on a sitcom. The only tension in the Buffy-Riley relationship came at the end, when the writers desperately shoe-horned in an excuse that felt false because it had not been established.
9. Don’t hesitate to marry off supporting characters.
The Xander-Anya relationship was a comforting piece of stability in an unstable world; it reinforced the sense that friends stood by each other, and friendship could become love. Friends understood that when they let Chandler and Monica marry. Buffy the Vampire Slayer threw away the Xander-Anya romance and left both characters hanging around with no strong function in the show.
10. Eliminate characters that don’t have a distinct dramatic purpose.
The greatest tragedy of Buffy’s seventh season was the number of actors occupying the set with no distinct role in the story. Xander and Andrew both occupied the awkward nerd-guy niche. Dawn and the potential Slayers were all girls who were kind of like Buffy, but less interesting. Principal Wood might have developed into a love interest for Buffy, or a new mentor, or a new menace. Instead he became Mr. Token after he attacked Spike. He would seem like less of a token black guy had he at least gotten a heroic death, perhaps saving Buffy — or better yet, Spike — from the First as soon as the writers realized they had nothing more to do with him.
11. Let your villains love.
Buffy’s best villains were capable of love — twisted love, but love nonetheless: Spike loved Drusilla, and the Mayor loved Faith. That love gave them dramatic possibilities that the Master, Adam, Glory, the three nerds, and the First never could have achieved, not because of the actors or their parts, but because the writers restricted their possibilities by not giving them anything more to do than be evil.
12. Divide your hero’s wants and needs.
Buffy wants a human life. Buffy needs to save the world. That’s a classic dynamic. Buffy, as a character, is fascinating when she tries to balance her needs and wants. She only becomes tiresome when she stops trying to balance them and mopes around for several episodes or most of a season.
13. Burn story.
For the first five seasons, the plots for the main arcs evolved rapidly: look at the changes with Spike and Angel in the second season, and Faith in the third. Then look at seasons six and seven, where there were few surprises beyond, “Yeah, Willow’s going to turn evil, how much longer do we have to wait for it?” and “Yeah, Buffy’s going to fight with Caleb some more, what’ll happen next? Oh, she’s going to fight with Caleb some more.”
14. Stay true to each character’s history.
At the very beginning of sixth season, Spike selflessly protected Dawn and went on patrol with the Scoobies while Buffy was dead; he seemed to have learned about love and loyalty during the two years when he believed the chip was keeping him from killing humans. But after Buffy returns, we’re told that Spike has always been evil and can only be redeemed by getting a soul.
Xander made one of the all-time great commitments of love to Anya at the end of season five; he’s not the man who wimps out in Season 6.
Dawn hung around for three seasons with plenty of potential, and that potential might’ve been realized if the writers had focused on her. They dropped the question of what it means that she was in some sense made from Buffy. She could have become the Slayer-In-Waiting, someone that Buffy trained and who was capable on her own. Or Dawn could’ve developed as Buffy’s human self, the girl Buffy would have been if she had never become the Slayer.
At the end of season five, Buffy loved life and the world so much that she was willing to sacrifice her life, but in Season 6, having been in heaven makes her think life doesn’t much matter, a storyline that looked like it would be resolved with the musical episode, but instead dragged on.
While it dragged on, Buffy began working for a fast food restaurant, a choice that ignored the character’s job history and her needs at that moment: income and a flexible schedule. She had worked in a diner a few seasons earlier; an experienced waiter would get better pay and far more flexibility working anyplace other than a fast food restaurant. (And, I confess, I think a diner would’ve made a more interesting setting for Buffy than a fast food restaurant.)
Concept and execution
Here’s the quick list of what the audience wants from a story: intriguing ideas, characters, settings, dialogue, narration, and observations about life. Observations come in two forms: the way things should be, as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or the way things are, as in The Grapes of Wrath. The list can be roughly divided in two: Ideas, settings, characters, and observations about life are concepts; dialogue and narration are the execution.
For five seasons, Buffy did a generally good and often great job at all of those. The ideas were interesting, the characters were fun, the settings were enjoyable, the dialogue sparkled, the narrative moved briskly, and the observations about life focused on the way things should be: women were powerful and friends were true to each other, no matter what.
The story arcs for the last two seasons were conceptually as strong as any that came before. Season 6 set out to explore what it meant for Buffy to return from the dead and make a new life as a mentor instead of a student, for Willow to be tempted by power, for Spike to explore the nature of love, for Xander to confront his fears of his family, for Anya to face what it meant to have been a creature of vengeance. Season seven promised the First Evil, something that understood the primordial darknesses in all of us and knew how to exploit them, something that would test the Scoobies individually and as a group, something that truly would be the greatest opponent anyone could face.
But other aspects of the concept changed.
The settings focused on the boring (Buffy’s house) and the silly (the fast food place).
The characters changed. Buffy moped around. Xander became middle-class and incapable of committing to love. Willow developed an addiction to power. Giles ran away to England because he thought the best way to help someone who had literally returned from the dead was to abandon her. Anya sulked a lot because Xander had become a jerk.
The observation on life changed from charming idealism to bitter realism. For Willow, the message was that women can’t control power. For Buffy, it was that women should endure abusive relationships. For Spike, it was that sex is about power, not love or fun. For Xander, it was that if your family history is terrible, you must not commit to a future of love. For Anya, it was that if you were violent, you’ll fall back on violence, because you can’t learn and grow. For the Scoobies in general, it was that friends betray you.
As for execution, those seasons were disappointing. The dialogue provided few memorable lines. The pacing became jerky: much was said but little was done, and little changed over the course of a season. The writers seemed to have forgotten the histories of their characters.
The interesting ideas of the last two seasons were often developed in simple-minded ways. The notion that being tempted by magic, a metaphor for power, could be a metaphor for addiction is not inherently stupid. Having Willow go down what looks like a sleazy alley and into what looks like a crack den to meet a guy who looks like a crack addict is incredibly stupid, because it ignores the nature of the thing that’s being used for a metaphor. If you want to write a story about magic and addiction, don’t think about crack dens. Think about Hollywood and Wall Street, where temptation comes in a beautiful shell.
I realize I’ve come down on BtVS awfully hard, but that’s tribute, honest. You don’t see me listing what I learned from .
For me, the canonical BtVS ends with Buffy’s death at the end of season five, and the musical and the season seven finale are pleasant pieces of apocrypha. But for all that I love many things about seasons four and five, like the Xander-Anya relationship and “Hush,” the purest BtVS consists of seasons one through three, when the show’s metaphor and destiny are firmly in place, and the hero’s journey properly ends when she saves the world in general and her classmates in particular, and they recognize her as the champion we’ve always known her to be. The only thing lacking was a kiss from Angel of “hello” instead of “goodbye.”
While the first three seasons are the strongest overall, I prefer the characters in seasons four and five. Spike is more fun than Angel, Anya is more fun than Cordelia, and Tara is more interesting with Willow than Oz. As for the original cast, Buffy and Giles are as entertaining as ever, and Xander is remarkably well delineated. In those seasons, the actors and the writers knew exactly what to do with the characters’ dialogue and relationships, despite shaky steps with the story arcs.
For all that Riley wasn’t used well dramatically, I thought he was swell; ignoring the fact that it makes for a boring story, why shouldn’t the heroine have a dependable, good-looking boyfriend who is great in bed? (And, okay, I always identified more with Captain America than Batman. I like people who do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and not because they feel really, really guilty. And I like spies. So I didn’t mind the absence of dramatic tension in the original Buffy-Riley romance. I rather liked it, in fact. Riley’s approach to Buffy — being there when she needed him, getting out of her way when she didn’t, and not being threatened by or envious of her strengths — is exactly what I’ve strived for in my marriage to the multi-talented Emma Bull.)
There were moments that I liked throughout seasons six and seven. But the only episodes during that time that I thought fired on every level were the musical and season seven’s finale. I don’t, for example, understand the fondness for “Conversations with the Dead,” which was conceptually nice, but dragged out and had some odd choices for the First’s manifestations. That was probably based on the availability of actors, but still, if a choice is dramatically odd, it’s odd, whatever the excuse. All the actors did their usual excellent work, but my advice to someone who has not seen Buffy is this: Start at the beginning and go forward. If the sixth season doesn’t feel like fun to you, watch the musical and the seventh season finale, then quit.
Foolish things smart people say
Hey, we’re all human, so I hope anyone who comments on my inanities will be kind enough to preface them with something like, “Will Shetterly’s an astonishingly talented and insightful person, but — ”
Joss Whedon’s an astonishingly talented and insightful person, but in his interview, he says, “…the characters have to feel the way the audience does. If the audience doesn’t buy that Buffy’s brought back from the dead, then Buffy can’t buy it. They’ve got to go, “I can’t believe this has happened. It’s horrible.” If the audience is feeling the loss of Angel and feeling that she can’t have a relationship with Riley, she’s got to feel the same way. You feel that out.”
Sorry, but that’s not true. The characters need to be ahead of the audience, not with them. The audience needs to be running to catch up. The audience needs to be saying, “Hey, that’s not what I thought. That’s so much cooler!” I had not thought before that Mutant Enemy was too guilty of listening to its core fan base, but I think that explains a number of things about the show, beginning with the decision to dump Riley.
Which ties into this comment from the same interview: “…we had Angel go bad when he and Buffy got together. Because — and I’ve gotten into so much trouble for this phrase — what people want is not what they need. In narrative, nobody wants to see fat, married Romeo and Juliet, even if fat, married Romeo and Juliet happen to be Nick and Nora Charles and they’re really cool and having a great time in their lovely relationship and really care about each other and have nice, well-adjusted children. Guess what? People don’t want to see it. “
He’s dead on saying, “what people want is not what they need.” But that has nothing to do with the fact that some people want to see Nick and Nora. They also want to see Steed and Mrs. Peel. They want to see Holmes and Watson. Sometimes we need to see partners who work together well, and whether they’re having sex is irrelevant to their partnership. It might be dramatically more fun for partners to have tiffs every story. But it’s not your only choice.


  1. This is really, really good stuff, Will.

  2. I still haven't gotten around to watching season 7, but for me, I really, thoroughly, enjoyed season 6. I think it's because I just ignored the nerds and focused on the rest of the plot lines. Between the musical episode and the last 4 episodes of season 6, I was in heaven. But I also rarely try to look past the 'ooh, fun' aspect to examine the metaphor in any tv show. I'm watching to switch my brain out of 'think hard' mode.

    But regardless, this is a really great article.

    1. I should watch 6 and 7 again. I watched 6 when it was broadcast live, so I had time to think about what was happening between commercials and during the week or weeks between new episodes. I'm sure it works much better if you watch it without commercials whenever you feel like it.

    2. That was REALLY LONG but I read the first half or so... Burn Story really put me off. You say Faith and Angel storylines happened fast but the Caleb and Willow storylines took too long to get there... but in reality, Caleb didn't even show up until there were only 4 episodes left in the series. That was a very VERY quick burn. Willow's magic storyarc started in season two when she gave Angel his soul back, so to be fair, it's a series long arc, not just season 6.

    3. Caleb has a short arc, but I think he was an afterthought. He should've been set up much sooner, like the Mayor or Spike in S2.

      As for Willow, it's not the magic arc that I'm objecting to. It's the "magic corrupts" arc of S6.

  3. Huh. I liked season 6, though I do agree that the musical should have ended the whole angst/death issue and the Spike/Buffy relationship was utterly off-base for the show.

    I actually liked the nerds because it was a step back into more human enemies: it is, after all, hard to top a god. I do wish they'd been dealt with sooner, but the concept of three nerdy kids taking on a Slayer did speak well to how broken Buffy was meant to be at the time.

    1. I liked the idea of a human Big Bad for S6, too, but I wish it'd been someone like Ethan Rayne: less funny, more scary.

  4. This is excellent.

  5. I liked your critique. Overall I thought it was very insightful. I totally agree that Xander and Anya should have gotten married. Although I did like the idea of her becoming a vengeance demon again, Joss could have easily found another way to make that happen. I also agreed full-heartedly that the submissive/abusive aspect of the Spuffy relationship completely contradicted the main purpose of the show (empowering women). I do however have a few critiques of your critique. I agree that Spuffy didn't make much sense, but take it easy on Joss. He was giving the people what they wanted. Adding some heat to keep bottoms in the seats. People watch shows for entertainment, not to assess how perfect the structure and writing is. What's the point of have the most perfect/flawlessly written series ever if no one is watching it? Also, I would have to partially agree w/ the anonymous comment above about your "burn story" critique. IMO, Season 6 actually had some of the biggest surprises of the entire series. Spike getting a soul was without a doubt one of the most surprising and unexpected moments of the entire series. And you can't tell me your jaw didn't drop when Giles came back at the end of "Two to Go." Furthermore, Joss said on the season 6 dvd that "Life was the big bad" of season 6. I agree that the metaphor of the show got lost after high school ended, but I think it actually came back during season 6 in a sense. The previous message was high school is hell, but after you graduate and step into the real world, the real world is hell. I think the metaphor was lost again after 6th season though.

    1. I'm thinking I'll give S6 another chance. But while I agree a show has to entertain, shows that become too obsessed with entertaining end up jumping sharks. People may not know they're watching for craft, but when the craft falters, people stop watching. During Season 7, they were trying to set up possible spinoff shows, I suspect, but none of them excited the network because BtVS had become a bit of a mess. An entertaining mess that had some great moments, but still a mess.