Tomorrow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 (having first aired on US television on 10 March 1997 – yikes!). To mark the occasion, I am presenting an annotated list of 20 of my personal favourite Buffy episodes, in rough order of preference (least to most favourite).
…where the newly-triumphant, newly-tragic Dr. Horrible (having, through the same act, gained membership to the Evil League of Evil and killed the woman he loved) strides through a bar, receiving as he does kudos from various villainous patrons.
The bar is full of movement, but not the movement of conviviality or of joy. Instead, the pumping, almost hydraulic, up-and-down movement of the patrons – which, in the case of the cowboy trio with their stetsons and handlebar moustaches, tips over into the grotesque – has an edge of franticness, and of insistent hedonism that has left behind pleasure. The artificial lights, the looping lo-fi music, and the alcoholic drinks, abundantly visible, and aggressively brandished by the cowboys, complete the impression of seediness.
Context: ‘Who Are You’ is the the sixteenth episode of season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the episode where Buffy and Faith switch bodies (well, the switch happens at the end of the previous episode, but this is the episode where we see how it plays out). Faith is a wanted criminal, so Buffy-in-Faith’s-body is first arrested by the police, and then intercepted by muscle working for the Watcher’s Council. In the time it takes her to escape from her incarceration and return to Sunnydale to reclaim her body, Buffy has received a taste of how those who know Faith feel justified in treating her: she has been called trash, and her/Faith’s face has been spat at. Meanwhile, Faith-in-Buffy’s-body has received her own novel taste of what it is to be treated with love (both maternal and romantic), gratitude and respect. The two Slayers come face to face with each other/themselves once more when both independently learn that vampires are holding a congregation hostage in a church, and go there on a rescue mission. Once the vampires have been dispatched, Buffy and Faith fight it out on the church’s altar. Faith-in-Buffy’s-body gains the upper hand, and straddles Buffy-in-Faith’s-body while she directs blow after self-loathing blow and insult after self-loathing insult at her own face. What she does not know is that Willow and Tara have conjured Buffy a doohickey that will reverse the body swap. Buffy interrupts Faith’s onslaught by clasping her hand (in a gesture with the appearance – appropriately, given the location and aspects of the pair’s relationship – of communion). There is a glow, a shudder, and a rushing sound effect to confirm that the reversal has worked.
The 50th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, it just so happens, written and directed by Joss Whedon. ‘Doppelgangland’ showcases many of the key strengths of Whedon and of his most fully-realised, successful story-world: a tightly-plotted, fantastical scenario, revolving around an established ensemble of eloquent and witty characters who are manoeuvred into a series of dramatically effective constellations, is used to create situations in which characters feel deeply, respond emotionally, and are placed in life-or-death situations, as a way of tracing out some of the contours of personal identity via interpersonal interactions. This makes it a good episode to discuss as a way of marking its maker’s 50th birthday.
(Next day update. The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time. Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little. My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening. I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that – rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot. Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below. ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right. However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)
What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme). In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed. I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years). On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.
What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack. It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.
…at the end of the ‘in-between’ scene that separates the numbers ‘I’ll Never Tell’ and ‘Rest in Peace’. There are no cuts in the scene. The camera tracks laterally, following Anya, Giles and Xander as they walk along a Sunnydale street, sharing information (and frustration) regarding the musical spell that the town and its residents are under. Whedon artfully modulates our attention: at first the main characters are the main thing we have to look at and listen to, but then, as well as tracking, the camera moves back to allow us to take in some amusing surrounding sights. We see a woman (producer Martin Noxon) protesting her parking ticket, in verse, and three street cleaners in matching boiler suits doing some choreographed broom work. (So much, in fact, is going on around the main characters that we might even miss some of their killer lines, like Giles’s ‘I managed to examine the body while the police were taking witness arias.’)
The characters come to a halt, and the conversation turns to Buffy, who has recently been brought back from the dead, and is behaving despondently and disconnectedly. ‘I’m helping her as much as I can, but uh…’ Giles says, trailing off. Then comes the moment I want to talk about.
In an attempt to comfort the downhearted Giles, Anya pats his shoulder. By this point in the series a regular viewer will have become used to the difficulties that Anya, ex-vengeance demon, has in understanding and participating in some of the more subtle and unspoken human social rituals. Sometimes, as in ‘The Body’, this is used to create pathos; usually, as here, it is used to create comedy. One can see that Anya knows that in situations such as these, one of the things to do is to offer reassurance and comfort to someone by patting their shoulder. The thing is, she is not yet particularly well-practiced in the delivery of the gesture, so its execution is comically mechanical. Emma Caulfield is excellent at delivering such moments. In this instance, Whedon’s framing lends a nice helping hand.
The broom dancers have just exited behind Giles and Xander, leaving the frame, for the first time in the scene (and just as it is about to come to its end) almost still. In the closing moments of the scene, the main motion is provided by Anya’s patting of Giles’s shoulder. This, as well as the fact that we cannot see the face of the person performing it, helps us to focus our attention on the gesture. The communication of the particular quality of the gesture is also supported nicely by the staging and framing. Anya is slightly too far from Giles for the gesture to be comfortable (even if she were more comfortable with it); she is forced to perform it with a straight arm. From our vantage point, we see the arm jutting out slightly awkwardly from behind Anya’s hair and across the frame. Our angle of view also means that the up-and-down motion registers well, and we notice the slightly too-rhythmic quality of the patting, and the way Anya lifts her hand slightly too high above Giles’s shoulder between pats.
It is a delightful grace note to a delightful scene.
Beatrice and Benedick or Fred and Wes? Or, What does a knowledge of the Whedonverse add to Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012)?
Despite a half-hearted Twitter campaign attempt by me, which never really got off the ground, to persuade someone to screen Much Ado About Nothing in Hull, I had to travel to Sheffield to get my Whedon fix. I went to the marvellous Showroom and watched back-to-back screenings of the film. So that, plus the travelling, was Monday night. Tuesday night has been spent writing three pieces on the film, one of which is this, the other two being a short review and a longer piece for the excellent alternatetakes.co.uk, which will appear on that site soon. Those other two pieces are critical writings in which the first person and the references to other Whedon stuff are held in check. In this more personal forum, I thought it would be fun to see if and how it’s useful to read Much Ado through the other things its key performers have done with Joss Whedon. What follows is pretty off the cuff and firmly in the celebratory mode, but I’d love it if any like-minded readers wanted to pitch in with supplementary or corrective comments. (NB. I toyed with titling this post Much Ado About Buffy.)
Details matter. If I had to summarise the common thread running through my thinking and writing about popular culture to date, and if I had to paraphrase the bulk of my written feedback to students, that is the phrase I would use.
One of the many areas of filmed fiction in which details matter a great deal is performance. But because it is harder to point to or quantify elements of performance with the same certainty that one can point to a camera movement, a cut, or even a musical score, performance does not always receive the central place it deserves in discussions of how meaning is made.
On my ‘Analysing Television Drama’ module, which takes Joss Whedon’s work as its case study, I often try in my seminars to put performance at the centre of the sequence analyses we undertake. Sometimes, I encourage students to replicate the gestures of the actors onscreen in an attempt to ‘feel their way’ into a performance. Or I encourage other forms of perspective-taking (‘If I were to speak to you in that way, or touch your shoulder in that way, what would it reveal about my attitude towards you?’). The Buffy episode ‘Doppelgangland’ is a particularly useful tool for thinking about performance, as it involves the wonderful Alyson Hannigan giving sharply differentiated performances. There is her ‘regular’ Willow, a high school teenager who is all hesitations and nervousness, and there is Willow’s vampire doppelganger from an alternative dimension, all self-possession and stillness. Thinking about Hannigan’s two performances beside one another brings out more clearly the choices (of posture, eyeline, vocal inflections, movement) in each that create character. (Fans of the Buffyverse will know that there are several other episodes in the series that could also be used in this way. ‘Who Are You’, ‘Intervention’, ‘The Wish’… And there is, of course, the whole of Dollhouse too.) Alex Clayton has written a brilliant article, which emerged from his teaching, that compares performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the film’s remake, directed by Gus Van Sant. Early in his article Clayton stresses that ‘details matter, … they make all the difference’.
I have not yet taught Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – a short film made on a slim budget during the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild of America strike and originally distributed for free via the internet – on ‘Analysing Television Drama’ (though it has made brief occasional guest appearances- and yes, I know it’s not strictly television ). I am, though, a huge fan, so I thought I would mark Neil Patrick Harris’s fortieth birthday with a critical appreciation of his role as Billy/Dr Horrible. Having watched and listened to Dr Horrible endlessly over the past several months, one of the main things I have come to appreciate is the level, and the depth, of detail in Neil Patrick Harris’s performance, which is at once consistent with the (admittedly few) other things I have seen him in (principally, How I Met Your Mother), and also of a piece with the broader achievements and sensibility of Joss Whedon, Dr Horrible‘s director and co-writer. (The main body of my blog begins with a further brief digression, about the other Captain character Nathan Fillion has played for Whedon, but we get to Harris and Horrible soon enough!)