Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Why Buffy Matters

Within the space of four hours yesterday, Irish TV viewers could delight in the joys of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on BBC2 at 6.30, The West Wing on E4 at 9, and CSI: Miami on Network 2 at 9.30. And the bizarre thing about that trio is that the programmes about forensic science and US politics are phonies, while the show ostensibly about vampire slaying tells us more about the world and our roles in the world than any programme in recent memory.

The West Wing is probably the show with the greatest percentage of snake oil. The West Wing, for those of you that are strictly Ibiza Uncovered men, is a TV show about a fictional Democratic President who wins the Presidency against all the odds and proves to be the greatest and most just President in the history of these United States.

It's possible that one of the reasons that the West Wing became such a success is because President Josiah Bartlett was sworn into his fictional office around the same time that President George W. Bush was sworn into his all-too-real office. The contrast between the two men could not be greater, but it is best summed up thus: President Bartlett is clever, and President Bush, well, Dubya is very, very happy.

So what makes this a fraud? What's so terrible about the perfect President? This is what's so terrible: it's a fairy story. The characters in The West Wing, these people who never take holidays and are on call 25 hours a day, do not exist any more than a unicorn. They are a fantasy. Their dialogue is equally fantastic, as they fire fusillades of GNP percentages back and forth, and then cut to Bartlett who's doing a cute scene about a dog in the rose garden.

What's so terrible about a fairy story? Nothing. When we were children thrilled to them but when we became men we put away childish things, after Paul's advice to the Corinthians. Do we enjoy The West Wing? we do, but it's a guilty pleasure - we know deep down that we're being had. Are there any circumstances in which The West Wing could be considered Art? I'm afraid not, no.

If The West Wing is less than perfect, then CSI is less than good. Every time we watch it we feel dirty and used. CSI has no interest in telling us more about the world - CSI's hook, what makes it addictive, is that it bombards us with facts, facts, facts.

In good drama, dialogue should be used to move the story along, or to reveal more about the characters in the drama, and, by implication, more about the people around us and ourselves. The dialogue in CSI exists only to expose more of this tidal wave of facts. Say a body is brought into the morgue by that fat guy that was in the original Manhunter. He and the coroner then spend the next five minutes telling each other what they themselves already know. There is no need for TFGTWITOM to be told by the coroner that rigor mortis sets in after an hour - he already knows that. It's you and me, slumped in front of our TV, that this dialogue is meant to resonate with.

After a full season of CSI, what have we learned? We are in a position to walk down Dublin's O'Connell and identify, from the splatter marks and the pools of blood, whether any particular murder victim what shot or stabbed. Why would one Dubliner would shoot or stab his neighbour? We'll have to look further than CSI to find that out.

As enthusiasts of the Buffyverse, is there any possibility that we would consider that the Dubliner whose blood now thickens within the shadow of the Millennial Spire has been the victim of a vampire, of one of the Undead, the Legion of the Night?

Of course not - that would be silly.

Vampires in Buffy are metaphors, just as all our fiction has relied on symbolism to get its message across. Even the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church now holds that many Biblical stories are parables, and are not to be taken literally. A pity that they didn't realise this when Thomas de Torquemada was welding those hot tongs in Spain, but better late than never I suppose.

What do vampires represent? In a nutshell, vampires in Buffy represent the old fashioned concept of evil, but evil operates in a much more layered way in the Buffyverse than it does in the canonical vampire stories that you find in Stoker or King, or in movies ranging from Bela Lugoisi in the thirties to Kiefer Sutherland and The Lost Boys in the eighties.

The Buffyverse, that place where Sunnydale, CA, is located, where the action of Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes place, is possibly unique in television in that the Buffyverse is a place where bad things happen, and where bad things happen for no reason.

This is a huge conceptual step for Buffy. TV, and especially teen TV that Buffy is mistakenly bracketed with, presents ordered universes. If you work hard, you'll get to College. Those girls that are cruel to you always get found out in the end. Your football team will win because they worked hard for it. This is buncombe - the world is not like that, the world is where you do not get to College even though you sweated blood, where the girls who are cruel at school go on to be women who are cruel in the workplace, where your football team gets stomped in the first round, even though everybody showed up at training.

This capricious world is the world that is reflected in the Buffyverse. Beloved characters, like Buffy's mother Joyce, like Willow's girlfriend Tara, die, and they die for no reason. They don't die in a noble effort to save the world, they die the same, pointless, arbitrary death that awaits us all.

The question of what are we to do in such an arbitrarily cruel world is the question that is addressed by existential philosophers since the nineteenth century. Friedrich Nietzche thought that we must decide whether we are men or supermen, and be governed or govern accordingly. Soren Kierkegaard thought that we must take a leap of faith, that we must embrace God even though we have no rational basis for believing He exists, because the alternative, the reality of our existence in a world that means nothing, is too horrifying to live with.

And then there is Albert Camus. Camus wrote The Plague about a town that is attached by a plague, and how the townspeople react. What interested Camus was: why should one live a moral life when the chief originator of morality, the Divine, is a concept that you cannot believe in?

Another way of phrasing that is: should we do our duty? What is our duty? How are we to behave in this world we are forced to share with other people?

Duty is a less than fashionable concept in our society, but duty is central to understanding what makes Buffy important. Buffy Summers is chosen, "the one girl in all the world," and she has no choice in this. This is her duty in life, a duty she can accept, or a duty she can refuse and rebel against, as Faith, the rogue Slayer, does.

Buffy accepts. Buffy is important, Buffy matters, because life is a continual series of decisions between what's the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. So why is Buffy so powerful in getting this message across?

Because Buffy Summers runs away.

Like Christ in Gethsemane, it all gets too much for the Slayer. Buffy says, in one of her truly poignant speeches in the final episode of the first ever season, "I'm sixteen years old Giles; I don't want to die."

Buffy doesn't want to be the Slayer. She wants to be a cheerleader, she wants to be Homecoming Queen, she wants to go to ice dancing with Brian Boitano - she wants to be normal. But she cannot - she is the Slayer, the one girl in all the world chosen to fight the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness.

And this is a mantle that Buffy accepts, but she is only human, and she has limits. Four times in the seven seasons of Buffy Buffy turns tail and runs. Buffy runs away after killing Angel at the end of Season Two. Buffy becomes catatonic when she realises that she cannot defeat Glory in the third last episode of Season Five, the greatest season of Buffy. Buffy finds the notion that she's a mental patient in a hospital in Los Angeles and that her entire Sunnydale existence as the Slayer is a delusion more appealing than living her actual life in a harrowing episode in Season Six. And most significantly of all, when Buffy dives to her death in the final episode of Season Five, she is not just saving the world - she is walking away from her role in it. Buffy Summers has been the Slayer for five years - she's had enough, and she wants to rest.

What is this if not our natural reaction to the reverses of the world in which we live? This continual struggle to do the right thing even when we're not always sure what the right thing is. The fact that we, like the Slayer, are fundamentally alone when it comes to the big decisions in our life. When push comes to shove, we are alone, and we must stand alone against our fate, using only such character and courage as time and breeding have left us with.

So, if the Buffyverse is so bleak, why isn't Ray Winstone playing the Slayer, and Ingmar Bergman directing? How can any human being, exhausted after a hard day's work, be expected to be able to stomach such a bleak world after a long day at the office and a hellish commute home?

Because of the quality of the writing. In writing, subtlety and nuance are all. It is the difference between being told and being shown, between knowledge and understanding, between being caressed by an angel and being wrassled by a bear.

The standard of writing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is such that even the writers are hailed by fans, in direct contradiction to the Hollywood starlets' axiom that you should never sleep with a writer, as nobody cares what the writers think.

The writers have been hailed for the hipness of their dialogue, for the constant pop-culture references, for the neologisms such as five-by-five, the uses of -age and -y as suffixes, and for the continually high standard of the jokes ("Did your whole life flash before your eyes? Cup o' tea, cup o' tea, nearly got a shag, cup o' tea?"). But there's more to good dramatic writing than being able to wisecrack. Good dramatic writing consists of excellent dialogue yes, but it must also further develop our understanding of the characters and do so in a naturalistic way in a medium that is obviously not natural.

Consider this exchange between Buffy and Spike from midway through Season Six, the episode titled "Hell's Bells." Buffy has been in a relationship with Spike, but she breaks it off. They meet at Xander and Anya's wedding, to which Spike has brought a date:

CLOSE ON BUFFY, who is about to go get Anya and Xander to start the wedding. She stops when she sees Spike across the room, alone. His "date" nowhere to be found. She moves to him.

Hello, Buffy.


Happy occasion. You meet my friend?

Haven't met. She seems like a very nice attempt at making me jealous.

Is it working?

Buffy looks at him a moment.

BUFFY Yes. It doesn't change anything, but if you're wildly curious, yeah, it hurts.

I'm sorry. Or...
You want us to go?

No, no... I mean, you have the right to... I mean I pretty much deserve...

That's not true, you... God this is hard.

I know.

I think we'll go.

Go where? To your place?

Yeah I suppose... that was the idea.



Of course.

But I won't. Or I... I'll just go. Give 'em my best or whatever. The happy couple.

I will.

It's nice, watching you be happy. For them, even. I don't see it a lot. You, um... you glow.

That's because my dress is radioactive.

She sees activity nearby.

BUFFY (cont'd)
I should...


They turn to go--

SPIKE (cont'd)
But it hurts.


(very quiet.)

She watches him go off to his date.

(just as quiet)

The "welcome" at the end, delivered by Sarah Michelle Gellar in just above a whisper, is perfect. What a fabulous show this is.

Television is the epic form of our day. The realistic novel is all but extinct. Poetry hasn't had an epic since Milton, and hasn't had a poet of real stature since Yeats at before World War Two. Film and television are the chief art forms of our day, the fora where creative people try to get their message across to as broad a constituency as they can reach. Television is not epic in scope, but in actual length, in minutes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran for seven seasons, a total of 156 episodes. Allowing for forty-five minutes an episode, to watch the entire canon of Buffy would take four days and one night. It is impossible to watch four days' television continually and enjoy it. The writing can only lag, as every season will have its fillers, and there will be episodes were the standard dropped a little. It is only those who were lucky enough to turn on to Buffy first, or those with sufficient willpower to ration their Buffy allocation into reasonable chunks, that will be able to look past the poor episodes (the awful Buffy meets Dracula, the brave but flawed musical episode, the dreaded Riley Finn era, the sad fact that Buffy should really have ended after Season Five and the two subsequent seasons are best understood as coda to the series) and see that, in the seven years that she was with us, Buffy Summers was the one girl chosen in the all the world to fight the demons, the vampires and the forces of brainwashing and lowest-common-denominatorism in TV scheduling.

She was the Slayer, and this why Buffy matters.