Friday, April 23, 2010

A Second Look at Buffy.



My boyfriend loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I mean loves. He has all the DVDs and I think he's watched them more than once, maybe a lot more than once. Before last night I hadn't seen a whole episode of Buffy. I caught a few random clips here and there, but it never grabbed me, in fact it kind of turned me off. You could even say that I have been an unapologetic Buffy naysayer.

However, since M is one of the smartest people I've ever met, I am reexamining my attitude.

I watched the first 2 episodes last night with M. They were pretty much what I expected. Sarah Michelle Geller is one of the most annoying actors I've ever watched. The writing is clumsy and forced.

For instance, early on there's a scene in the school hallway where the cute boy wants to meet Buffy, the hot new girl. She drops her books, he sees his opportunity and runs to her side. He says, "Can I have you?" There's an awkward pause and then he corrects himself, "I mean, Can I help you?"

Let's take it apart. It's a standard sitcom-style joke. A nervous character tries to say something but stumbles and mixes up the words in some way that makes the statement suggestive. The joke depends on 1) the intended statement being completely believable and natural, and 2) the mangled version of it being completely natural-sounding if inappropriate. A high school boy who wants to help a girl pick up her dropped books is not going to say, "Can I help you?" He's not a cashier at McDonald's. And "Can I have you?" is sort of suggestive if you think about it, but this kind of joke depends on you not having to think about it. And "Can I have you?" is not anything that anyone would actually say. Most of the dialogue has this sort of artificial feel. I see the jokes, but they don't make me laugh.

Besides these technical criticisms, there just wasn't anyone in the story I identified with or cared about. They were all broad stereotypes, and just the negative stereotypes: shallow cheerleader, absent-minded smart girl, the bitch who everyone worships, the clueless self-involved parent. None of them seems to have any kind of inner life. Even Buffy's desire to fit in -- which is set up as the narrative engine -- never feels urgent or poignant or real. I don't know if that's because of the writing or because Geller's face is always just sort of blank.

The show felt like a cartoon. I didn't believe any of it. I was unmoved. Not once did I spontaneously laugh.

But! I said I would watch more of it and reserve judgment. Okay, it's too late for reserving judgment, but I will continue watching and try to relax my expectations and be open to unexpected rewards. It's not giving me what I want, but maybe I just don't get it yet. Maybe it's like Glee -- another show M loves and I think is dreadful. Another show full of unlikeable high school kids.

I have a hunch my distaste for Buffy and Glee is related to my dislike of comic books and superheroes. In fact, when I was watching Buffy and rolling my eyes at the ridiculously implausible librarian character, it occurred to me that a character like that, and in fact the whole setting and premise of the story, would be completely at home in a comic book. Here's a short essay I wrote a while back about comics.

My taste in high school pathos TV is more My So-Called Life -- which also dealt in high school archetypes. I guess I just prefer a more naturalistic style of storytelling. I watched every episode of My So-Called Life and cried like a 15-year-old girl. Maybe I just like my high school drama more sentimental than ironic:



Addendum: On the subject of comics and the Archies, here's some fun news. It's interesting that the only comics I enjoyed as a kid were the Archies, not the superhero stuff. Yet, there have been several gay superheroes in comics in the last several years, and only now a gay character in the Archies.

7 comments:

ep said...

Different strokes for different folks. All art is a matter of taste and criticism a matter of opinion. But watching snippets or just the first two episodes of a program is a little flimsy to dive right into a review. I'm curious how you can be "an unapologetic Buffy naysayer" when you self-admittedly, hardly ever watched it.

You may never like Buffy. You like pathos. Buffy is not drama. It's a fantasy about a girl who is a superhero. There are definitely dramatic moments, but the over-arching metaphor for the first few seasons is "high school is hell." It is sometimes a monster-of-the-week show, verging from sci-fi to horror to fantasy, sometimes scary, sometimes cheesy. Probably not your thing. But the strength of Buffy is in those characters that didn't appeal to you. If you can't get into them, oh well. You don't have to like everything your boyfriend likes.

As a Buffy fan, I have to object to your dissection of the scene in the school hallway. That is completely typical of the character Xander, who does funny, clever banter - that's his schtick and very similar to my brother in high school and beyond. You and I (and my daughter) might think Xander's cute, but he is ~not~ the cute guy at school. He is a geek and an outsider.

It's funny that you are feeling you should try and like this show right now when I am trying to decide how much of the show I can let my daughter see, who instantly fell for the characters and clever dialogue and Buffy ass-kicking. She's not always thrilled with the monsters, and I'm not sure how much past the first season we should go, as it gets progressively darker.

I would never tell someone they "have to" watch anything, because I know my sci-fi/fantasy/mystery tastes aren't for everyone. But hell, you haven't really seen Angel yet. Or Spike. There's so much more . . .

Nick and said...

Hi Steven
As a big lover of Buffy I found your critique of the first episodes totally justified. I started watching the third season first and got hooked, then went back and watched the first season. The whole first season was hard for me to watch, compared to the rest of the show. Well, ok, I did still like it, just not as much. As a whole, the show deconstructs super heroes in a very engaging way. I recommend sticking it out for a while and seeing if you like it better as it goes. Also, I liked your piece on comic books. I don't like them, or the movies they spawn, or most graphic novels. Graphic novels don't hold my attention - I just get bored.
P.S. Try the musical episode of Buffy. It's wonderful.

Steven said...

That's good to hear, Nick. I definitely plan to stick with it for a while.

I'm not a big connoisseur of graphic novels, but there are a few that have become very favorite books of mine, that you might like:

Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse
Fun Home, by Alison Bechtel
Blankets, by Craig Thompson

All three are memoirs, not superhero stories -- and beautifully drawn and written.

mzza said...

Stephen, assuming that's the Nick we both know and love, I just want to point out the dedicated restraint Mr Nick must have used to calmly type that response. But I'm like him--came to the show late and after the characters developed their personalities and dark sides (I think slow character development is one of TVs weaknesses because of the format). Going back to the early episodes is bizarre in their kitschy angst and bad acting.

However, it's impossible to ignore the dedicated support of many, many radical feminists for that show. It's also tough to remember how unusual the Buffy take on vampires was now that it's been reproduced a thousand times by shallow imitations and Mormon millionaires. It takes a bit of a commitment but it gets SO much better and might even be "worth it", but no more than any other interesting pop culture phenom.

I actually just went the the entire series from start to finish over the past year (not the way I'd seen them the first time) with a had-only-heard-but-not-seen queer feminist and she was hooked by half-way through the first season when things started getting, "huh." By the time the witches go open-lesbian-relationship (not common at the time) it was full steam ahead. And i won't ruin the ending series you'll never see.

Of course I happen to know that "Nick" has the full series on DVD if you want to take a upstate Buffy retreat. The boy bakes a fine cake.

Nick and said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marcus Wayne said...

When Buffy first aired, I stayed away from it like the plague. I watched an episode of it high one night somewhere towards the end of season 2 I think, and saw the show as a light allegory of teenage and grown up angsts againt a monster vamire fetish backdrop. Like many tv shows with mythos, early episodes are clumsy and awkward. Watch Season 4, Steve. It was the height of the series.

Anonymous said...

I liked Buffy from the very first episode, but it does improve hugely in the later seasons - all those stereotypes with no inner life develop into a very rich set of characters by the second and third seasons.