Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Disillusioned Buffy Fans

I sympathize. I really do. It's hard when the show you love changes and the special spark isn't there anymore. But I'm really tired of the gloom and doom being spread by former Buffy fans, like Jaime J. Weinman (salon article, you know the drill).

These anti-fans aren't just critical of the new directions the show has taken; they resent the fact that the show's formula has changed at all. They want Buffy the Vampire Slayer, circa 1997 - bookish Willow in her "softer side of Sear's" costumes and loser Xander crushing on bitch Cordelia, preserved under glass forever. Here's a clue, guys: the show has been on for seven years - no television program can maintain the same focus and style for that period of time, especially not one that originally centered on high school students. Does anyone really want to see these actors (many of whom are pushing 30) still playing 17 year olds?

Weinman longs for the good old days when the show was about Buffy's relationships with geeky Willow and Xander and he reduces the complicated themes of the show down to "it's ok to be uncool." (Possibly betraying some of his own issues?) A better way of looking at the show might be to think of it as a series of supernatural metaphors about life. Whedon began with an undeniable premise - high school is hell - and asked himself what that metaphor would look like if you took it literally. This idea drove the first three years of the show and produced some fabulous episodes, such as the girl who becomes invisible because no one notices her, and most famously, Buffy's boyfriend losing his soul after they have sex for the first time. Even then, the show was about much more than popularity - the main characters are brainy and different (something Whedon certainly endorses as "cool" and which also makes for more interesting plots - I'm convinced everyone loathes high school, but the freaks and geeks certainly experience it as more hellish than the in crowd), but they weren't at the bottom of the social heap by any means.

The naysayers generally agree that BTVS's decline began in season 4, the first season post-graduation. The show certainly changed after the characters graduated, but the basic premise was the same - take the ordinary trials of life and translate those into supernatural terms. Buffy's obnoxious room-mate is a demon, Willow's high school boyfriend finds someone with whom he has more in common (they're both werewolves), Giles, feeling useless and unwanted, is temporarily turned into a demon who the others don't recognize and can't communicate with - the types of scenarios changed to fit the stage of life the characters were in, but the approach stayed the same. Admittedly, it's harder to sum up the later seasons as neatly - there's less of an overarching metaphor - but this reflects real life, where things become significantly more complicated after high school.

Weinman's primary complaint is that the show is too focused on Spike. Weinman complains that making Spike the anti-hero undermines the message that it's ok to be an outsider, because Spike is such a cool dude. Now Spike is certainly cool, but if Weinman can't differentiate between Spike's outsider bad boy charm, and the frat boy / football player / big man on campus, he's been out of school too long. Spike (as we've seen him in the current time line) has always been the kind of guy who skipped school and smoked cigarettes behind the dumpster, not the one who'd escort the homecoming queen to prom. He's every bit as much of an outsider as the core characters, both in the type he's meant to evoke, and in his relationships on the show. In the vampire world, Darla and Angel were the homecoming queen and the quarterback, while Spike and Drusilla were the geeky losers. This is made clear not only in their interactions with one another, but also in their origins: Darla was a successful prostitute and Angel was a hard drinking party boy (almost a proto frat boy), while Drusilla was a meek wannabe nun, and Spike was a mild mannered Victorian poet. After Angel was souled, Spike's status increased, but he was never the insider that Angelus was.

The most interesting consequence of the changes Whedon has made through the years is that they mirror a major cognitive change that most of us experience in early adulthood - the loss of certainty. In childhood and high school, it seems that everything is black and white, but as you get older your eyes tune into all the shades of grey. It becomes more difficult to figure out who's right and wrong and to untangle motivations and responsibilities. Similarly, on early BTVS the lines are clearly drawn between the good guys and the bad guys. Other than Angel, the exception due to his souled status, vampires and demons are uniformly bad and deserve to die. Giles teaches his proteges that vampires retain nothing of their former humanity or personalities - the vampire isn't your friend, it's the thing that killed him. By season 3, cracks are beginning to appear in this facade, and it's becoming apparent that vampires retain some of their human characteristics and that not all demons are necessarily evil. The converse is also true - humans are capable of great evil, despite their souls.

This more complicated world view becomes increasingly entrenched in the series in later seasons, culminating in the ongoing Spike / Buffy plotline. Far from betraying everything that BTVS stood for, this development has confirmed the inherent optimism that underlies BTVS - everyone has a shot at redemption. It doesn't matter how horrific your past deeds are, or whether or not you have a soul, if you want to be a hero, you can be one, provided you want it badly enough and work at it hard enough. I don't know about you, but I find that a hell of lot more interesting, and more relevant to my life than a show about how it's "ok to be uncool."

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