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"So a Werewolf, Two Lesbian Witches, and a Vengeance Demon Walk into a Magic Shop ..."
THE STORY OF BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that shouldn't exist. First of all, the title itself is risky, and the reason why many people won't watch it. "You watch a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer?! Yeah, that sounds like a life-enhancing experience." How many fans have had to hide the fact that we watch this show, or have suffered derision from the masses of the uninformed? The title is meant to be funny, juxtaposing a name usually given to dumb blondes in beach movies with the incongruous phrase vampire slayer. But unless you actually watch the show, you don't understand the irony, and it just seems like a big joke.
In order to acquire the show, the networks allowed the executive producer almost full creative control, even though he takes huge risks. In the seven years the series ran, he did what no other show had: put a young flighty teenager in the role of "savior of the universe"; had an ensemble cast that included a werewolf, two lesbian witches, and a vengeance demon; featured almost no adults, except Giles, who happened to raise a demon in his younger years; introduced shocking elements with no explanation for several episodes (Dawn); and wrote an entire show in the form of a dream that makes absolutely no sense ("Restless"). On regular network television, these kinds of risks just aren't allowed — the executives find what sells and churn out that type of show. That's why we have countless shows about teenage angst (without vampires), sitcoms about families who just keep finding themselves in the strangest predicaments (while, of course, taking time out to have that "extra-special episode" when Suzie is caught with the drugs), and so many shows about judges, lawyers, cops, and courtrooms that audiences are subjected to three different series with the words Law and Order in the title.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is different, as any viewer will agree. How many of us have had someone make fun of the show, then become completely absorbed in it once we lent them a few of our dvds? Buffy is a TV show like no other, with its own unique mythology, an incredible ensemble cast, and a team of writers who kept the show on top creatively.
But in the beginning, it was all the brainchild of one man.
The Master of All Things Buffy
In the world of Buffy fandom, he is simply known as "god." The creator. The producer. The writer. The man who makes Buffy who she is, puts the words into the mouths of the characters, and shapes the storylines of one of the most original shows in the history of television. But he didn't always have so much control over the character. In fact, on his first time out, the character of Buffy was turned into his own nightmare.
Born on June 23, 1964, Joss Whedon came from a family of television writers and grew up in Manhattan. His grandfather had written scripts for 1950s and '60s television shows like Mayberry RFD, The Donna Reed Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Whedon's father had written for Alice and Benson in the '70s and '80s. But when Joss first tried his hand at writing, he wasn't as successful. "I wanted to write for tv, so I wrote a sickening number of TV specs, most of which were returned to me. The rejection notes usually said something like, 'Very charming. I do not wish to have it,'" he recalls. He continued to send out scripts for a year until the producers of Roseanne discovered him, and he says he literally was working at a video store on Friday and Roseanne on Monday. The experience was a mixed one. "It was baptism by radioactive waste," says Whedon. "[Roseanne] was like two people. One was perfectly intelligent and good to be around. One was very cranky. You never knew which would show up." After one year on the show (he wrote for the second season), he sold his first screenplay to Hollywood, and left Roseanne.
The story was one that had been in his head for some time. The basic premise was a cheerleader who realizes she is destined to be a vampire slayer when a mysterious man tells her of her vocation. The script mixed comedy with drama, and while the title was a humorous juxtaposition of the words Buffy and vampire slayer, it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, not an excuse for making the film an all-out comedy. Joss Whedon was about to get a harsh lesson about how little control a writer has in Hollywood.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, released when Joss was a mere 27 years old, starred Kristy Swanson as the blonde cheerleader. Donald Sutherland played her weary Watcher, Luke Perry the love interest, Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) the head vampire, and Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) one of his lackeys. Working on the set, Joss had difficulty from the beginning. He later told The Onion that his biggest problem was Sutherland. "He would rewrite all his dialogue, and the director would let him. He can't write — he's not a writer — so the dialogue would not make sense. And he had a very bad attitude. He was incredibly rude to the director, he was rude to everyone around him, he was just a real pain. And to see him destroying my stuff.... Some people didn't notice. Some people liked him in the movie. Because he's Donald Sutherland. He's a great actor. He can read the phone book and I'm interested. But the thing is, he acts well enough that you didn't notice, with his little rewrites, and his little ideas about what his character should do, that he was actually destroying the movie...." Reubens, on the other hand, was great, and seemed open to any of Joss's suggestions. It's probably why his is the funniest character in the film, and the only one who captures the strange sense of humor that later marked the television version.
The movie flopped at the box office, taking in only $16 million, and Whedon chalks it up to the fact that the final product no longer followed his original vision: "My original idea was a lot less silly. It had funny, but it was a much more serious action horror movie with the funny. Actually it was pretty gross, too. It wasn't just straight-on comedy, but that's how the film came off."
Whedon's talent as a writer, however, was not overlooked. He became Hollywood's Mr. Fix-It and was brought in to jazz up scripts like Speed, Waterworld, and Twister, giving them more colorful dialogue. (In all of these movies, his writing went uncredited, and several of his suggestions were completely ignored, which is why Waterworld is, well, Waterworld.) Whedon gained more recognition when he co-penned the hilarious and clever Toy Story in 1995, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. In 1997, he wrote Alien Resurrection, but most of his dialogue was cut from the final product, infuriating him. "I'll tell you what the problem was," he says. "It was because Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the most unimaginative director I've ever seen. I could teach film with that movie, about how not to make movies. It was the most unimaginative directing I have ever seen. It was bad on every single level it could be bad on. Worst experience in my life. I was wanting to bomb France afterwards, it was so terrible. Alien Resurrection! I call it Alien: We Bury the Franchise." He would later rewrite the script for X-Men, and again most of his dialogue would be buried, prompting him to vow never to write again for something he couldn't direct.
While Whedon was coming to terms with the unsavory side of screenwriting, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released on home video, and the rental figures were far more encouraging than the box-office receipts had been. The movie was turning into a cult hit, and its producers were taking notice. Fran Rubel Kuzui, the film's director, and executive producer Gail Berman, who had thought the movie would make a great television show when she'd first read it, approached Whedon and asked if he'd be interested. He was very interested. As creator, head writer, executive producer, and occasional director, he would finally have the ability to do what he wanted with the concept. Kuzui, Berman, and Whedon felt that if the show came out five years after the movie, it would avoid direct comparisons to its predecessor and viewers would recognize the difference between the two. The WB expressed an interest in the project, and auditions began. With Sarah Michelle Gellar (All My Children) in the lead role, and an ensemble cast that included young, raw talent and a theater-trained actor, Joss was confident that this time, his story of the cheerleading vampire slayer would be different.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer would not have a fall premiere, but would be added as a midseason replacement in case another show didn't fare very well. Having a mid-season premiere gave Joss and the others more time to prepare. It also gave the actors more time to get to know one another. The members of the ensemble cast were mostly new to the business, with the exceptions of Sarah and Anthony Stewart Head, but they clicked right away.
Nobody knew if the show would be picked up for a second season, so the cast gave it their all in an attempt to win over the audience and the wb. Joss wrote the 12 episodes as one long story arc, and the final show of the season, "Prophecy Girl," completed the story, so viewers would know that the characters were going to be okay, even if they never returned. However, he intentionally left some story holes, so it would be very easy to start the show up again if it was renewed.
The ensemble immediately had an on-screen chemistry, as is evident in the first episodes. Xander and Willow seem like old friends, and if we do sense moments of discomfort on Willow's part, it can be attributed to the crush she's got on Xander. Cordelia is the perfect snob, Xander the wisecracker, Willow the wallflower. Buffy has a sardonic wit about her, yet is vulnerable in certain situations, and Giles is the stuttery librarian who seems bewildered that his charge would rather date guys than slay vampires. Angel is brooding and mysterious, and the chemistry between him and Buffy is tense. The cast was perfect, and they were all delighted to be working with Joss, leading him to joke, "I don't think they fear me nearly enough."
Whedon knew he'd made the right choice with Sarah, and he refers to her as "like the best actress ever." He was delighted to see how she pulled off the role and how she was everything the movie Buffy wasn't. "Even though she's a vampire slayer," he says, "she still makes you feel everything she goes through, and that's not easy." He adds, "She is also great at pouting."
As the filming for season one continued, Joss knew his original vision was being restored. He stressed that his show was not about "issues," like most teen shows, but that the subjects — no matter how many vampires or demons are lurking about — would be culled from the real fears of teenagers. Sarah agrees. "The scariest horror exists in reality," she says. "It's feeling invisible, date rape — these are situations teenagers understand and can relate to because it's happening to them."
When people ask Whedon why the townspeople of Sunnydale don't question the strange goings-on, he says his series operates under the same principle of suspended disbelief as shows like Superman. In Superman, people saw a man flying around in blue tights and a red cape, and they accepted he was there, just as the citizens of Sunnydale rationalize the vampire activity. Anthony Stewart Head remarked that he loves Whedon's unpredictable writing style, and joked that the cast has a constant fear of who will go next. "I thought it was wonderful last season when he bumped off the principal," he said during season two. "At that moment, you knew there weren't any lines he wouldn't cross, and anything goes."
There was some worry that the public wouldn't be able to handle a show this original and quirky, though. Sarah recalls the press conference they did to publicize the premiere of the show, and the lukewarm reaction it received from the media: "In 1996 I was part of a cast of a mid-season replacement show based on a 1992 movie which didn't do that well at the box office. The whole cast was onstage for a press conference and nobody had any questions for us. We were all in tears." But once audiences saw the show, the critics were singing a different tune.
When the show finally premiered on March 10, 1997, it garnered a Nielsen rating of 3.4, meaning approximately 3,298,000 households were watching. It was one of the biggest ratings in WB history. Whedon attributes the show's initial success to the huge ad campaign the WB had launched to promote it. The series eventually became the biggest show on the network. And it wasn't just the fans who were loving it — Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a critical smash. Daniel Fienberg of the Daily Pennsylvanian raved, "Less cheesy than nearly every show on Fox, and edgier than every teen show that abc, nbc, and cbs have put out in years, Buffy is (to create a TV Guide cover blurb) 'The Best Show on TV That You Would Make Fun of If You Didn't Know Better.'" Joe Queenan of TV Guide wrote that Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "far from being the stuff of fantasy or mere over-the-top satire, is the most realistic portrayal of contemporary teenage life on television today." Tom Carson of the Village Voice agreed, writing, "I can't think of a TV show that better captures how adolescence feels...." He added that "the show's clear-eyed recognition that autonomy can be one hard row to hoe ... puts it miles ahead of upbeat ads about girl Little Leaguers." Scott D. Pierce of Deseret News claimed, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the coolest show on tv." Thomas Hine of the New York Times called Buffy "television's most stylish female hand-to-hand fighter since Diana Rigg played Emma Peel on The Avengers three decades ago." He commented, "Being a teenager used to be the stuff of comedies. Now it's a horror show." Canadian Mark Kingwell, writing in Saturday Night, said that Buffy is "a true 1990s TV heroine" and "Gellar's edgy performances are a pleasure to watch." And last (possibly least), even Howard Stern told Sarah Michelle Gellar, "Your acting in this is perfect." He added, "It's one of the best hours on television."
Joss Whedon and Co. had a hit on their hands.
Slaying the Audiences
Following the popularity of the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the WB allowed Whedon to write deeper situations into the series, develop the characters, alter their relationships, and tighten the ensemble cast into one of the strongest on television. The season two premiere featured an angry, depressed, and confused Buffy, setting the stage for a season that would delve into the characters' personal relationships and offer more continuity from episode to episode than in season one. The problems that teenagers have in high school would also be handled more seriously than in the first season. Because of the show's strong female following, Buffy's strength and intelligence would be made more prominent as well. "The problem with most high schools is they don't stress individuality," says Sarah. "Buffy shows girls it's okay to be different."
The new formula worked, and the ratings climbed steadily. The show was moved from the 9 p.m. Monday time slot to Tuesday at 8 p.m, midway through the season, and the new time slot stuck. Viewers tuned in week after week to watch the development of the relationship between Buffy and Angel, and the stars of the show were becoming recognizable faces. For the people who were watching the series, Buffy was a cultural icon of feminism and strength, which was exactly what Joss had intended. "I always wanted the character to be an icon," explains Whedon. "I wanted her to be a hero that existed in people's minds the way Wonder Woman or Spider-Man does, you know? I wanted her to be a doll or an action figure. I wanted Barbie with Kung Fu grip! I wanted her to enter the mass consciousness and the imaginations of growing kids because I think she's a cool character, and that was always the plan. I wanted Buffy to be a cultural phenomenon, period." In the second season, Joss included twists and turns that other shows wouldn't have had the guts to try. He killed off another major character, and had the love interest of the protagonist turn evil and become the villain of the season. Willow's character began to change and move in a Wiccan direction, while a new actor — Seth Green — was added to the mix.
Excerpted from Bite Me! by Nikki Stafford. Copyright © 2007 Nikki Stafford. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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