When I say the name “Joss Whedon,” the faithful say “Amen!” But the rest of the world says, “Who?”
Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (the film and the series), “Angel,” “Firefly,” “Serenity” (the movie based on “Firefly”), and the most-recently-cancelled “Dollhouse,” is not the household name he should be. But his fans, and the writers and actors who work with him repeatedly across multiple series, are the knowledgeable insiders. We’re the collective Alfred in his Batcave, except we’re not keeping his secret: we’re telling everyone. We see his tremendous impact on popular culture today and predict its continuation in the years to come.
The name “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” inspires scorn from those outside the cult, but fans worship at the altar of Buffy. We’re almost a family. We dissect the relationships and themes of maturation and female empowerment on the show. We talk about the evolution from “Buffy” to “Angel” as a rite of passage into adult darkness, and the hellmouth as a metaphor for the unknown elements that may destroy us. We love that even stiff-upper-lipped authority figures have a dark side: “Ripper” had his youthful experimentation with dark forces, while Wesley’s dark side is explored on “Angel.” We fell in love with new characters in “Firefly,” only to have them ripped away, returned briefly for “Serenity,” and then ripped away again. “Dollhouse,” now in its final episodes, will likely follow suit: we can reasonably expect that there will be casualties.
But the stories, the reruns, the mythology, don’t seem to die. After the Buffy cancellation, a virtual “Season 8” was published in graphic novel form, and now there’s a Willow-themed comic out as well. In the case of the space western “Firefly,” the fans created demand for a movie (“Serenity”). After one season, “Dollhouse” was about to be cancelled, but fan outrage earned not only an unaired prequel on the DVD for Season 1, but a stay of execution resulting in a second season. Attention, networks: do not anger the Whedon fans. You wouldn’t like us when we’re angry.
Here are reasons that Joss Whedon’s experience, humor and energy will see us through the next decade.
- Because his talent has context and history. Joss is a third-generation TV writer: his father, Tom, was a writer on the kids’ show “The Electric Company,” and “The Golden Girls,” and his grandfather, John, wrote for “The Donna Reed Show” in the 1950s. Joss himself cut his teeth on shows like “Roseanne” and “Parenthood” before writing “Buffy” for the big screen in 1992. Experience is good.
- Because he uses humor and creativity daringly. From invoking a singing demon to having two rival vampires call each other “Captain Peroxide” and “Captain Forehead,” from turning a main character into a puppet, Joss isn’t afraid to push things comedically, as long as it is consistent with the reality of the show and characters.
- Because he forged a backstory of vampire family values. Spike could have been just a vampire trying to kill Buffy and destroy Sunnydale, but Angel being his sire deepened their histories and their scenes together. Adding Drusilla and Darla and crafting the history of their dysfunctional vampire family also lent valuable depth to each of the characters and their motivations.
- Because Joss values music. Music keeps the pulse of so much television that we see, and we barely notice it. But on Whedon’s shows, music is an additional character, deepening the action – nowhere is this clearer than in “Once More With Feeling,” wherein personal tragedies ranging from getting a parking ticket to being doomed to being the bride of a demon are expressed through song. But other episodes also stand out – the music that literally underscores Buffy’s teary-eyed killing of the re-ensouled Angel (Season 2), her suicidal jump to save the world (Season 5), or the gliding evil soundtrack of the Gentlemen in “Hush” (Season 4). Or in contrast, the music-free shock of “The Body.”
- Because Joss understands that real life is shocking, and sometimes cannot be prepared for. We mourn the shows’ shocking onscreen losses. From “The Body” to Lorne’s final act on “Angel”: each of these moments are clutch-your-heart gasps – even in retrospect, they are shots heard ‘round the ‘verse.
- Because he acknowledges that you need to rely on yourself, but also on your friends. His community-at-large consists of actors, writers and fans who adore him. Buffy/Angel crossover episodes created a richer, intertextual narrative. Some beloved Whedon cast members appear across multiple series as the same or different characters. Three actors who played villains on Buffy and Angel (Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin) showed up as protagonist heroes in “Firefly,” and two “Firefly” heroes migrated over to “Dollhouse” as villains. Buffy “supervillain”/ fan favorite Tom Lenk (Andrew) visited “Angel” on several occasions, updating the fans on the Scoobies’ whereabouts after Season 7, and illustrating that a geek-villain can redeem himself. And some Whedon writers follow him from one show to another. Keep your friends close – what would Buffy do? She’d empower us all to be the chosen ones.
- Because Joss sees challenges as opportunities. With “Dr. Horrible,” forged during the writers’ strike of 2007-8, Joss proved again his prescience about the next great battlefield for entertainment: the internet. As he noted in this great interview about new media and entertainment, “There are no rules, so let’s get out there and play.”
- Because he gives good geek. Part of Joss’s enduring appeal is his accessibility to fans and his belief in them – his smartly hilarious, but self-deprecating streak reflects the creative, insecure geek in all of us, and the symbiotic faith of creator and fans strengthens their cohesion as a community. From Giles and Wesley to Willow, Xander and Fred, from Wash to Kaylee to Topher, and even the evil geeks – Warren, Jonathan and Andrew – they are us. These are our people, the book-and-computer-geek people. They might not be the suavest of operators, but they are the brains behind everything, those who keenly observe and understand things before their shinier hero-compatriots do. They quote “Star Wars” (the Phantom Dennis, anyone?) and make Indiana Jones references. And when it counts, they show strength and character we didn’t know they had.
- Because Joss writes great women. From evil, veiny Willow to Cordelia’s soaring character arc on “Angel,” from Fred’s heartbreaking transformation into Illyria to Faith’s ongoing struggle with authority, power and redemption, Whedon’s women are strong, nuanced, forces to be reckoned with. Willow is the perfectly relatable she-geek – underestimated, bookish, overlooked, until she battles with herself and nearly destroys the world, before emerging as an intuitive, connected, confident woman of power, and a source of infinite good.
- Because he delves deeply into character and identity. Whedon characters are clearly defined, but during certain episodes, magicks intervene to provide blank slates or imbue characters with new backstories. This provides entertainment for the audience, but also serves as a fascinating perspective on identity and character: if we are stripped of our own histories, who are we, at our essence? This is under serious exploration on “Dollhouse,” as Echo – previously a blank slate construct – begins to absorb elements of the various personalities she’s been imprinted with, and essentially grows beyond those imprints into a whole new person.
In the last decade, we’ve seen a lot of uncertainty, a lot of pain, terror and evil threatening to devour us. We’ve seen the rise of a technology that acts as a great equalizer at the same time as it looms threateningly. Many of us are asking ourselves essential questions of identity and belonging. We suffer personal, professional or financial losses and then have to go on to save the world every day, if not on a literally global level, then internally as we work on ourselves and our immediate ‘verse of people.
But we can take comfort in the charges to action that Whedon’s characters exhibit in every show. Fight the vampires, even though they’re stronger. Fight the lawyers (who are, in some ways, scarier than the vampires) and the forces of darkness, even though you’re outnumbered. Fight the Alliance, even though you lost the civil war. Fight the evil corporation involved in human trafficking.
Although forces may arise and threaten to devour from beneath you, you should always fight. As a certain vampire once said, “Let’s get to work.”
Here’s to another ten years of bigger and better things for Joss. Although, as megafans, we’ll all argue that Joss’ work can never be better than itself, only the same high level of quality, depth, emotion and humor, with themes and characters we can believe in. Like the t-shirts say, “Joss Whedon is My Master Now .” Resistance is futile – this is Whedon’s world, and we’re just lucky to be living in it.
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Los Angeles-based writer and consultant specializing in social media, religion and popular culture. Esther’s blogs, MyUrbanKvetch.com and JDatersAnonymous.com, have attracted a loyal following, and she regularly contributes to Beliefnet’s Idol Chatter, a blog about the intersection of spirituality and popular culture. She dreams somewhat nonspecifically, yet enthusiastically, about being creatively involved in a Joss Whedon project. You can read more about Esther’s work at EstherK.com.
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