Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy|
by Candace Havens
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|A Review of: Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy
by Jeremy Lott
I should probably begin with the caveat that those who aren't at
least sympathetic to the idea that Joss Whedon is a genius should
not read this book. For practical purposes, if you didn't like Toy
Story, the dialog in Speed, that obscene remark by Wolverine in the
first X-Men movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the television series,
not the movie), Angel, or the short lived series Firefly, by all
means give Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy a pass. Come to
think of it, this review might not be to your liking either; no
hard feelings if you turn the page.I should probably begin with the
caveat that those who aren't at least sympathetic to the idea that
Joss Whedon is a genius should not read this book. For practical
purposes, if you didn't like Toy Story, the dialog in Speed, that
obscene remark by Wolverine in the first X-Men movie, Buffy the
Vampire Slayer (the television series, not the movie), Angel, or
the short lived series Firefly, by all means give Joss Whedon: The
Genius Behind Buffy a pass. Come to think of it, this review might
not be to your liking either; no hard feelings if you turn the page.
Much of this will be familiar terrain for Buffy buffs. Author Candace
Havens plays up the role of alienation of Whedon's childhood and
adolescence in making him the megastar writer director he later
became, and it's a fair point. The breakup of his parents' marriage
at the age of nine, and his education at an English boarding school
seem to have helped make him a better observer and translator of
human interaction than most. His lousy experience in the UK, for
instance, provided him with the metaphor that drove Buffy for the
first three seasons-that high school is hell.
Further, the close bond that Whedon developed with his mother may
have clued him in to things that many a male scriptwriter overlooks.
Alyson Hannigan, the actress who played Willow, at one point admits
that he's "definitely a manly man. But there's this sensitivity
to him where women are concerned. He gets girls. He understands how
we think. I've always wondered how he knew so much about women
without actually being one. He gets in our head[s] way too easy."
While most feminist interpretations of Buffy have struck me as more
than a little off, the basis of their theorizing is spot on. Whedon
had female empowerment in mind from the initial conception of the
Buffy character-an inversion of the doomed powerless lone blond
girl who is hunted and then mauled by some beast in many a horror
flick-to the surprise emancipatory ending of the series.
Though true, these observations don't go nearly far enough in
explaining either his or Buffy's success. Whedon may have changed
his name from Joe to Joss (Chinese for "luck") when he
graduated from Wesleyan with a degree in film, and headed out to
Los Angeles with no hands-on experience in showbiz, but his is no
Horatio Alger story. Nepotism played a big, perhaps decisive, role
in Whedon's career. He wanted to go into movies but both his father
and grandfather had been television scriptwriters, and he was
encouraged to try his hand at that first.
Using his family's network of contacts, Whedon started writing
scripts on spec and, given the way Hollywood works, his last name
meant that his scripts were unlikely to be tossed into the trash
bins unread. His first break came as a junior scriptwriter on the
sitcom Roseanne. Because he was fast and funny, and because the
controversial matron of the show was always feuding with the senior
writers and firing directors, he was able to write a half dozen
episodes in his first season. After Roseanne, he worked on as writer
and co-producer for the short lived sitcom Parenthood.
When Parenthood folded after only 12 episodes, Whedon moved into
film, but he felt his best efforts were wasted or unrecognized. He
thought the first Buffy movie was ruined by poor direction and bad
casting. He wrote most of the dialogue in Speed, but wasn't given
credit. When he saw the premier of Alien Resurrection, he began to
weep. Several scripts went unsold or got mired in development hell.
He eventually worked into the very lucrative but often stultifying
role of script doctor, which inspired the best line in Havens's
book. About his stint in the salvage industry, Whedon admits,
"I've been pitched ideas, or seen scripts, where I've been
like, You don't need me. You need to not make this!'"
As the '90s ground on, and the opinionated Whedon ran into one
obstruction after another in movies, television started to look
more appealing. Over the last few decades, movies and television
have developed in quite opposite directions. In the movies, directors
and actors have the power. They can and do rewrite dialogue, adlib,
add new scenes, ignore script directions, and generally muck with
everything a writer loved about his creation. Television is a
different arrangement entirely. Writers have much more control.
They can hire and fire directors. Except for marquee names, they
also have tremendous say in hiring actors. In other words, television
was the perfect medium for a project as quirky and macabre and
personal as Buffy.
The latter part of the '90s was also a special time in American
television. Two new networks-UPN and the WB Network-took to the
airwaves and needed original programming in a bad way. Buffy was
launched in 1997 on the WB Network as a mid-season replacement (fun
fact: it lost out to 7th Heaven for the year-long slot) and, like
most mid-season replacements, it was more of a hedged bet than a
vote of confidence. Then again, a few years before, no network would
have touched it, for a number of reasons: the genre bending, the
silly name, the violence and sexuality. There was also the fact
that the movie the show was based on had flopped. Very few people
will bet on the loser of the last race to win the next one.
Havens spends a whole chapter trying to expound on the "seven
key ingredients" which have made the show a success. She makes
some valid points (e.g., unlike other cult hits, the cast didn't
condescend to their own fans; until the last season, continuity
mattered), but flails when she tries to explain a cultural phenomenon
in terms of a self-help book. Buffy was one of many girl power shows
that found their way onto American and Canadian television at the
time. Xena: Warrior Princess and Dark Angel are two other examples.
Buffy stood out because it had genuinely good writing and acting.
Whedon and crew could make you fall in love with the characters and
then break your heart as fate threw them into some of the most
anguishing experiences ever observed in television drama.
The tremendous audience reaction gave birth to a franchise that so
far includes one spinoff show; a series of so-so novelizations;
more merchandizing than you can shake a stake at; one brief, failed
attempt to rewrite the genre of science fiction; and more is on the
way. Unlike Havens, I'm not convinced that Joss Whedon is a creative
"genius", but I'm willing to be brought around to that
conclusion. Along with his most devoted fans, I wonder what he'll
think up next.