“For a Newer Rite is Here: Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – Joseph W. Reed

Our allegiance to Buffy the Vampire Slayer depends on a remarkable emotional involvement with very young but very strong characters. Its meaning, the rhythm of the Buffy myth, the speed with which its world turns, are a product of our involvement in its characters. Joseph Reed takes us on a journey through the show’s rich tapestry of characters and its devotion to quality and originality. The ground rules of this continuing fable are variations on movies, especially of the Horror Picture, but Buffy finds ways to change or make exception to the rules: the addictive nature of the series also relies on the flexibility of story rhythm. Characters change, develop, are dynamic. As things shift, the series grows. The ground rules that ordinarily provide the necessities of a Horror Picture are, in Buffy, made variously flexible. Buffy changes the rules. Strong characters advance through time structured instalments and developed stories; and now and again the rules of the Buffy cosmos suffer seismic change.

spikeIn the fickle world of TV the complexity and richness of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (US, UPN) the mysterious fable turns on fantastic depiction of the supernatural. Vampire extermination and demon pursuit by teenagers has kept it alive for six seasons. Our allegiance to BUFFY depends on a remarkable emotional involvement with very young but very strong characters. So its meaning, the rhythm of the BUFFYmyth, the speed with which its world turns are a product of our involvement in its characters, people presumably like us. The ground rules of this continuing fable are variations on those of movies, especially of the Horror Picture. But BUFFY finds ways to change or make exception to the rules. There is something else new: the variation of length of story elements in narrative design: the flexibility of story rhythm. BUFFY is firmly based in time determined installments (as is all TV narrative. But characters change, develop, are dynamic. And this is a complicated narrative: the central line of vampire destruction depends on metaphors that hang together to make up an allegory.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER first showed up as a little noticed B film (1991) written by Joss Whedon. He is a third generation comedy writer who had written for ROSEANNE and the movies. Whedon sold the WB network the idea of BUFFY as a TV series and he became executive producer (he was frequently the writer and director as well). He put together the team of writers, producers, and directors, and a solid cast to do BUFFY. The auteur of the series is surely Whedon. It is now in its seventh season on TV (I 1997, II 1998~, III l999~ IV 2000, V 2001, VI 2002, VII 2003), a cult classic.

Buffy is a beautiful high school student (in the movie a cheerleader but by the opening of the TV series, an ex-cheerleader who tries out for the Sunnydale High School squad but gets too busy and leaves it behind). What distracts her from high school is the need to insure the well being of Sunnydale, California, a community confused by undead neighbors who come up through an untended Hellmouth. For many BUFFY is more of an addiction than a series, but an addiction unlike Beverly Hills 90210 in its early years (which it resembles only the way it straddles high school and college years).

Yes, as in 90210 , groups of viewers may gather to watch BUFFY together this is a similar continuing enthusiasm. But no, conversations in the same room with BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER will not drown out the soundtrack during a showing (as did talk of Tori Spelling’s hairdo or Ian Ziering’s rages in 90210 ). Instead, with BUFFY talk frequently stops so the viewers can hear what’s being said onscreen; the group may fall silent while the great snake rises behind the high school podium as the guest speaker the Mayor is transformed.

BUFFY becomes an addiction for us not because of contemporary chic or its lucky cultural finetuning but because of its devotion to quality and originality of devising, writing, casting, directing. It is witty, fast paced, surprising, and complex, the best that TV has to offer.

Television’s aim and end is to hook us on the run. We don’t usually set out to watch television: we turn on the set thinking if we surf the channels a bit maybe something will turn up that might be better than watching baseball. Or, conversely, when we can’t stand what we see, at least we can end the torture by pushing the switch to turn it off. If we are hooked by something we may remember the time and channel it’s on so we can watch it next week or tape it. In other words the ten seconds we give a show to begin with in a surf by grows to an hour (then another, then another) of viewing. So everyone is happy: money people because we viewers have settled our eyeballs on something their number crunchers can count and they can profit from; show makers because our eyeballs might help the show get renewed and thus make a buck for them; we because we would rather sit and stare than continue frantic surfing.

angelThe ten second bite we grant a TV show is not the same as the twenty pages we used to allow novels to get us into the tent, or the afternoon or evening or eight bucks we would grant a movie to win us over it is different. It is ten seconds. So a narrative product’s leisure to work its magic is no more, has gone aglomming. Moneymen, dream merchants, and broadcasters (maybe even we) hope we will find again just this point in the schedule, give some TV show a chance to pass one hour, begin a season’s romance, even forge a long term allegiance with a TV show. In other words Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame with a ten second deadline. I don’t mean to say this is a matter of love at first sight or a sexual experience, but I also don’t want to put the show entirely in the realm of the aesthetic or the intellectual. TV isn’t art. It also isn’t rocket science. We make a free contract with some thing offered to us by a more or less freeof charge medium; the contract develops along its own lines. But they, money men, reasonably enough, cannot expect us to commit the investment of our hour before we have found that we like what we have seen. We collaborate in the design and development of a complex fantastic narrative that responds in a new way to the challenges it finds, the hurdles it meets.

I have a friend who watched a Telemundo soap opera for an appreciable part of an afternoon before stopping to remember she didn’t know Spanish. Ten seconds of a Hispanic soap is generally better than ten seconds of anything else: a glimpse can convince us this is the best thing on just now. A glimpse of BUFFY can do this: oozing logo, spook music, Sarah Michelle Gellar in repose or rampant on a field of ashed vampires. Ten seconds, most any ten seconds is recognizably good TV. We have been gotten into the tent: why do we stay or come back? Because of BUFFY’s richness of characters and narrative complexity.

Joss Whedon said in interview that the emotional force of a small group of solid characters is the center of the show. It is the most important part of the show’s success and it’s one reason BUFFY succeeds at fantasy: vampires are fantastic, but cheerleaders, high school, dating, librarians, are ordinarily ordinary. Vampire fighting may be what makes us willing to watch yet another high school show. But certainly the high school show tempts us with its mundane charm, the steady commonalty of our friends, this band of characters our memories is what makes us come back again and again. The mixture works, even if we’re beyond high school.

gilesBuffy Summers is an airhead, but we don’t focus on this until later. She likes boys a lot; she’s beautiful, tough, focussed (although she rather regrets that slaying takes up so much of her day). She is a good tactician, even a strategist. And she is a hell of a kickboxer. She gets by with a lot of help from her friends. Rupert Giles, the high school’s librarian has been (?sent, ?put) in Buffy’s new high school (she burned her last one down, we remember) to be her Watcher, a researcher with a lot of experience in vampires, demons, the Black Arts who has a way with books and a shy charm. As the seasons have gone by Giles developed (he left the show in the fifth season, now appears in guest shots). He turns out to have an attitude, a girlfriend, demons he has befriended (“I introduced him to his wife”). He even becomes a demon in one installment. He has a pleasant enough singing voice that he carries off together with his guitar to this or that Sunnydale open mike.

In the third season he becomes less a Watcher than Buffy’s slightly odd older friend no risk of romantic or erotic involvement, but all the overtones of peculiar adult behavior. A major advantage of BUFFY as series is that the characters good friend and bad enemy alike develop as the season and the series goes along. A simple character can become richer, more complex, or an apparent friend can become ambiguous tool, then evil nemesis. And as things shift, the series grows.

A host of peers in the early installments gradually find out about Buffy’s secret identity and pitch in to help her however they can. Willow Rosenberg is a child of Rainbow Children, given to odd clothes, passionate encounters. She hangs out with Xander Harris, then with a guitarist named Oz (who is, unfortunately, a sweet werewolf), and Willow the witch is soon initiated into some pretty effective witchcraft. She is shy, almost disappearingly so. Alexander “Xander” Harris is a sensitive athlete, a strong but clumsy member of the swim team, good hearted, eager to help, flexible in getting out of risk situations, and surprisingly courageous. For women (maybe all women except except Bufly) he is like catnip is to kitties; he is willing to consider almost any proposition, but most of what he takes up doesn’t work out much. He ends up dating and nearly marrying a demon, and she turns out to be a revenge demon whom one should not lightly leave standing at the altar. What is most important about Xander is that, like Buffy, he is an airhead: he lacks the focus her Slayer mission gives her.

buffThen there are the vampires: Angel is a vampire whom Buffy loves for a time but whose long years and bad fears cause complications in her life that eventually prove fatal to the relationship, even though he still has a good heart. Spike, a witty vampire, she also sort of loves, but he is currently in bite detox by virtue of a head chip inserted by our friends against his will. And there is Buffy’s mother (or rather, there was: the character’s death provided the matrix for one of the most powerful Buffy installments). She is supportive (Buffy did burn down her last school), and she’s in on Buffy’s mission, but she cannot keep from dropping girl things or even girl talk into their conversations, can’t stop trying to distract her focussed daughter from Other Things She Has To Do.

Joyce Summers is a special case: Buffy seems to figure Mother Knows Best because although for a while she can keep her friends from knowing what she does, she seems to give up on her mother: what she knows she knows and she probably won’t shoot off her mouth about it. Buffy’s father (estranged from her mother) is infrequently around, and judging from Bufly’s made real dream about him in one installment (NIGHTMARES 4V10 5.12.97), this is just as well, because he’s no picnic. There is a host of other students, occasional, regularly recurring, mostly one time, temp students (except for Riley and the rest of the Initiative when Buffy goes to college).

As with most film or TV High Schools, Sunnydale High School seems never to have enough students to keep a school running: they pass in or out of the frame or the story line, commit acts of treachery, indiscretion, disloyalty, feckless support. But there aren’t enough of them to fill a good sized Band Room, and for good reason: the series doesn’t need them, doesn’t need for us to know them, and we don’t want want to know them. This is partly a product of BUFFY’s short attention span, but it’s also part of the force of this series. An exception is Cordelia (Carisma Carpenter), a villainess enslaved to popularity who is later spun off to LA to become the receptionist and factotum for ANGEL’s help people business.

The young participants, our friends, are remarkably capable, strong, and courageous. One thinks of the similar real suffering and the helplessness of entrapment in I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF: Michael Landon seeks help for acne from an ambitious Dr. Whit Bissell, and gets lycanthropy for his pains. Grownups triumph. On the enemy side, of course, there are grownups: Principal Flutie who gets eaten by some of his students; his successor (almost a worse principal); an evil Mayor (who becomes the big snake (part of an Establishment that seems to support vampire appeasement);. Bad people who through subtle shifts become slightly selfish good hearted sorts.

In college there’s a mean professor of Popular Culture, a tough (read domineering) Psych professor, Maggie Walsh, who turns mean, then evil, then is zombie-ized and killed by her Frankenstein like ‘droid Adam. It would be easy to say that the shift between the third and the fourth season (BUFFY leaves high school, goes to college) explains everything that is peculiar about the show. BUFFY has birthed a spinoff (ANGEL even subtracted some characters from BUFFY) and this has been far reaching: BUFFY changes its stripes, undergoes a change of genre (if we think High School Pictures are different from College Pictures), so that might make all the difference.

But I think the shift is even more complicated than that, starts sooner and is more profound in its invention of new rules. I have argued elsewhere that the Horror Picture rests on firm ground rules,’ and in general, TV horror shows adhere to the ground rules principle: an enterprise for a large audience finds ground rules comforting and useful. BUFFY even streamlines ground rules. The installment that I think gives us the prototype for this kind of streamlining is THE PACK (4V06 4.7.99). Xander (susceptible Everyman, the Zeppo) falls in with a group of predatory peers, apparently even more malignant than the usual high school clique. There is a strong relationship here to the High School Picture,[2] the silent menace of a gang like mass of youths. Xander doesn’t know who they are or what they do, his friends don’t like them, but before he knows what’s happened he has turned to them and turned away from his friends takes to walking like them and preying on others the way they do. This particular gang or pack is connected to a new exhibit of a pack of hyenas at the zoo.

The fundamental idea of THE PACK is simple enough: crudely stated it is “so we all became hyenas.” This is at first too final and scary: the show seems to be taking a lemming like dive. But by hour’s end we see the shifts: THE PACK ends as suddenly as it started because the zookeeper is foiled. Xander returns to our friends; though he ate no Flutie, he has a moral hangover. He seems not to remember or to pretend not to remember eating the pig or maybe eating the principal. The most frightening thing of the installment is Xander’s dawning awareness that he has done something, been something else and while he was something else he did evil. Even as the most frightening thing about Lyle Talbot’s plight is that he says, “Stop me before I kill again,” but does not remember clearly the last time he killed. What has happened is that the application of a potential ground rule is dispelled, reduced to a temporary supernatural hiccup. The hyena problem disappears (we all stop being hyenas). But before normal life is resumed the hyenas eat Principal Flutie. The pack setting upon Flutie behind his desk in his office is crude but good primal TV.

dracIt would certainly be too flip (or too bloody minded) for 90210 but here in BUFFY it is all right because the show has found a newer rite: it’s a different kind of thing. In other words, the ground rules that ordinarily provide the necessities of a Horror Picture are in BUFFY made variously flexible. As in a late installment when Xander eats flies. For the moment he becomes Dracula’s familiar, an enemy, and then is changed back again at the end of the installment. In BUFFY we get used to such a new order for ground rules: we can see a familiar ground rule apply for the whole series, for a season, for an installment, or for just a peculiar moment: flexible or shifting ground rules make the action unpredictable (we can’t guess as well what’s coming next) so we end up concentrating the center in our friends. In another installment Xander becomes soldier guy (HALLOWEEN): it’s a transformation based on Halloween costumes (Willow comes as a ghost, Buffy as an old fashioned lady, Xander as a soldier guy).

By the end of that installment he’s not soldier guy any more, but in succeeding installments we discover Xander has retained a residue of soldier guy skills, very useful in momentary emergencies. If it is called for he can become some kind of soldier again without wasting much time on exposition. He calls it a hangover or a flash back transformation like Nam: as quickly as we all stopped being hyenas the rules of the newer rite can return our friends to us and then transform back quickly: the rules of the past become no worse than the palpable memory of a bad meal. Ground rules have been suspended, but a new general ground rule has been forged: a character may have situational amnesia but may have a hangover that can be good or bad.

Xander has soldier guy powers, but in random afterthought now and again he must know he fell upon the mascot pig and stood by while others ate Principal Flutie and maybe even the unpopular principal. Hangovers do not necessarily go away. The suspicions or terrors of this world changing or world-ending potential are profound, but when a ground tremor turns out to be momentary, the series can forget about what happened and go about its business. BUFFY’s alteration of customary ground rules is an innovation and one of the show’s a major strengths:

1) Buffy can grow, change.
2) The dynamics between our friends can change by function (Buffy should, Giles thinks, be more independent of him; Oz thinks Willow can’t go on putting up with a werewolf, so he goes away; Giles leaves.
3) Ground rules can become suspect.
4) Falling in love (Oz) can be followed by falling out of love (0# falling in love (Willow/Oz) can be followed by other falling in love (Willow/Tara).
5) Even vampires (Angel by love, Spike by a head chip) can change.

What it makes for a time accessible, palatable, believable is, of course, impossible. BUFFY’s potential for meaning is produced by alternating the usual strict ground rules of the Horror Picture with BUFFY’s short term codicils to those rules that set them aside. The show holds its audience because it delivers fantastic event and mysterious or supernatural violence in persuasive narrative. Buffy, Spike, Principal Flutie, Professor Maggie, even Angel are rooted in their extra human powers and obsessions. But none of the show would work without a rationally determined, consistently applied emotional empathy with the strong characters. Buffy dusts vampires (that is, she stabs them with stakes, they turn to dust).

drac Buffy is a modern woman and her show has better special effects than Von Helsing used to have in DRACULA. The Slayer is armed with sharpened stakes rather like tent-pegs from the Boy Scout Handbook, but sharper. When she strikes home, vampire substance seems to combust and then fall to the ground in a pile of ash. No Horror Picture solved the disposal dilemma as neatly as this does Von Helsing always had to face up to hammering a dull stake into the sleeping vampire with the back of a spade. Another meaning is here, though. In addition to the rather straightforward fictional narrative of our friends enmeshed is another layer symbolic narrative, even allegory.

The fantastic and the uses of allegory have been wedded since before Dante, but allegory is here not an end but a means, hidden meaning can combine with others to become a vocabulary of available meaning. First the vampires: they are evil dead people who can seem ok for five minutes or so before a wicked makeup change gives away their secrets. This is allegory we are familiar with from Horror Pictures: our metaphorical life is filled with all kinds of monsters werewolves, vampires, the undead, beauty queens, angry presidential candidates, tenure candidates. We know them best as they show up in our lives, especially in the workplace: the danger signs of each particular supernatural flaw grows on us as slowly as hair grows on the back of hands, or eyes become lifeless, or work listless.

Teens are a particularly powerful element in the BUFFY equation: they are more cruel, more vulnerable, more impressionable, more obsessed with sex than other people. And every other day they think they are going crazy, but then on Wednesday realize it’s just a shift in hormones: they are airheads, not dopes. To persuade ourselves that BUFFY knows how simple evil works is easy enough: she pegs a vampire. We don’t have at hand a better or an easier explanation than BUFFY gives us: this happens, then this, before long it is happening all around us, and if we don’t get busy, They will have it all plus They’ll kill us. This kind of logic is readily accessible to teens and Americans. It is of course common to fascism and the Red Scare, but BUFFY is no more the Red Scare than it is rocket science. It’s a straightforward us/them calculus with the added attraction of the Survival of the Good and the Ashing of the Evil.

What we see of vampires in BUFFY goes along with this line that joins observed (our lives) to fictional fantasy (what we watch). Vampires do have (as we suspected) sharp tongues: their one liners are sensational they’re a bit over-the top, but then so is the world of the teens, and so are Spike’s condescension, The Master’s superiority, Angel’s curiously quaint Irish past. The exotic of vampires, the eccentric of demons, the frustrating regularity of vampire collaborating Establishment nerds all have something in common: they are not like us but our friends Willow or Xander, Giles, Buffy are.

So the fantastic is not just the pull of the supernatural: it’s the attractiveness of our friends, the otherness of supernatural beings. The creepiness of John Keats’s Landa or S.T. Coleridge’s Christabel is come again. Supernatural is attractive but bad, combating it by clever ruses (as Odysseus does, even with sophomoric tricks) is good. Supernatural creatures, if they come up often, are not our friends, but we know what they can do. So there is an edgy repulsion to the creepy fantastic that matches the attractive narrative pull of the exotic supernatural.

Which brings us to the allegory. Some allegories are simple long term set ups. We have been waiting for weeks for the reckoning that the Mayor is moving us towards that will coincide with his appearance at the Sunnydale High Graduation (GRADUATION DAY PART 2 3ABB22 6.13.00). Yes, he has become a giant serpent monster, and our friends win, The installment is tame in emotional payoff and rather pat in narrative design, but the Mayor becomes a giant serpentmonster. The literal Hellmouth is a modern sort of allegory, but an intermediate technology special effect: our friends tend to get through the Hellmouth by climbing down or dropping into it: if a sinkhole can grow in Orlando, Florida, then a Hellmouth can open in Sunnydale. It may turn up in graveyard when a chap causes his mate to arise from the grave through the grass (THE ZEPPO 3ABB 15 1.26.99). Excavation for the Anthro Building at U. C. Sunnydale goes too deep and there’s a dungeon there. Communication between that world and this is a useful a spooky but not a repugnant idea. This accords geography with the unifying principle of the shaping of the supernatural in BUFFY: Hellmouth? easy, you just walk there. The final test of geography always comes down to the same question: will this be good or bad for the series? How did we know the ROTC would turn out to be bad? We knew it from the start, feared it was true and our friends wouldn’t see it, were happy when they did although the new wrinkle gave us a seismic shift in truth.

The paramilitary “Initiative” of Season IV is only a technocratic variation on the wicked lawyers, its basement digs an easy access Hellmouth. The monsters look like fraternity boys or rather ROTC idiots, together with overzealously military mad scientists and tough but familiar Psych teachers. The dormitory looks just like a fraternity house and the paramilitaries have an elevator going down into their subterranean fortress (WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE), just more of the same underground. Mad Doctors are (mostly) grownups and (mostly) in white coats. We can live with Oz being a werewolf because we like him. We’ll never get around your white coat, Professor Maggie.

The piece of wall in the fraternity house gives instant orgasm to fraternity boy and coed alike. This is the simplest of allegories for the sex drive of the late teens and early twenties. This Hellmouth is nearer the surface than others and libido breaks through when you least expect it. There is an allegory for this in the Busby Berkeley shot of Riley and Buffy in bed (again). They can’t get enough of It indeed they can’t stop Doing It. His mates respond allegorically (nudge nudge, wink wink, elbow elbow). So the bedroom is overgrown with tangles of jungle vines, it’s become a swamp. Later Xander breaks through the vines with his machete (Spenser’s Bowre of Blisse) because Buffy and Riley have succumbed to post Edenic pleasure.

That’s allegory, available, accessible allegory. Some of the allegory in this installment is felt as real (the boy in the bathtub), and some is just pretend terror (the jungle) or as had you been there you would have thought it was pretend (the orgasm wall). But it’s all allegory: exploration of meaning by finding a string of conjoined metaphors that might say it in a new way. All this anticipates the jolly horror of Maggie the faculty zombie drudge: Lo! how the mighty have fallen: not only is her intellect brought down to size, but her very attractive feminism is killed off for her sins in making Adam the ‘droid. As I have argued, BUFFY changes the rules. Strong characters advance through time structured instalments, developed stories; seasonal shifts encounter available allegory so now and again the rules of the BUFFY cosmos suffer seismic change.

bufThe sixth season is not the last season nor the next to last. Giles is not what Giles was in season I; Oz is long gone, Tara is dead, Willow got mad but she’s better now and vows never to let her eyes get all blackish again. This show’s curious character book has ground rules of its own that spark up when least expected, expand, develop, become something more and different. And our friends finish high school, so high school rules are out, college rules have come on, or a new season comes and Angel must be dealt with. That is, Buffy (we feel) must have Angel; Angel (our friends feel) must have his comeuppance. But Buffy loses (then finds again) the kryptonite of her power, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer becomes Buffy the Guidance Counsellor: we are back in high school. We are continually reminded that Buffy is an airhead but that at bottom she is not a flake. She never would have taken the American Pop Cult course taught by the phoney who drinks from the mason jar and is so mean to her:

1) it wouldn’t be good for the show.
2) She would take the psych class in part because Riley is (not really) the new Angel but is the TA for this course and if she didn’t take Maggie’s psych class she could never get close enough to Maggie to discover the underground Initiative. And we would never have the fourth season and the pleasure of seeing the changes that bring it on (development is nothing if it’s not self fulfilling).

Life doesn’t ordinarily fall into instalments: more frequently we have chapters and great shifts. Then, all of a sudden, everything will suddenly seem simpler. Or we will become aware that we (or Xander) can’t get anyone to pay attention to what’s happening to us because, as W. C. Fields once said, “I tried to tell them, but they’re all nervous.” That is, it7s no good talking to everyone else because I have to do something RIGHT NOW. Xander is particularly liable to this need for emergency action now, a sudden shift a new quandary or a new dilemma that can provide what is known in linguistic theory as a vowel shift.

Take the almost cinematic unity of THE PACK and compare it to the unzipped narrative movement and rhythm of THE ZEPPO (3ABB13 1.26.99). There’s an emergency storm warning on Giles’s radar; there is about to be a supernatural incursion of great force. Buffy is alerted, Willow is deployed to the computer, but Xander isn’t needed. So having reverted to that standby of the teen movie, a new car, Xander spins off to encounter what turns out to be a really alarming group of terrorist zombies who want to blow up Sunnydale High School and would have, had it not been for Xander’s remarkable steely courage.

By the time it’s over and the zombies are again dispatched, none of Xander’s friends has the patience to hear about the bomb: they’re too busy talking about the octopus-like demon they quelled. A climactic instalment is wedded to a rather ordinary supernatural encounter (ordinary to everyone but Xander). It is arranged for our benefit because of our involvement with Xander that the lesser will seem for this instalment to be the greater. Or the show will find a narrative solution by giving over layers of meaning and back story and becoming suddenly something else.

Something like this happens in AMENDS (3ABB10 12.26.98). It is a Christmas show that seems to be moving along an uneventful path of romance between Buffy and Angel. About two thirds of the way through we start getting an almost musical sense of impending Bedford Falls (as in IT’S A WONDEFUL LIFE).There are no direct allusions this is, after all, California, and nobody is exactly dead, well, at least not by recapitulated suicide. But as snow falls, we don’t get the sense we’re being set up (which is what direct impersonations of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE usually produce) but a gathering feeling of peace that comes unexpectedly (for California) like the snow. In the fifth season there is a musical. The relentless need to resolve the irresoluble is familiar in TV (especially in sitcom) but not here. BUFFY gives over the attempt to resolve things by something even simpler: the unimaginable zero summer of White Christmas in California and the wonderful feeling of Bedford Falls where there will be no Bedford Falls. Wonderful feeling of something that seems to be getting worse, only the surprise is that it conceals something better.

Perhaps the best example of simpler in any of the instalments is the Grimm tale HUSH (4ABB 10 12.13.99), an extraordinary piece of narrative and perhaps the best demonstration of the principle of simple in BUFFY, and of writing that isn’t just people talking about something: simple sets up all the best elements of Buffy rule change, groundshift, allegorical richness. Everyone loses his/her voice because of the frighteningly polite pairs of scary old gentlemen floating through Sunnydale pursued by their paired Igors in straitjackets. The primal quality of the series is seen again in apparently automotivated but malign movement: they walk without walking (two sliding spooks is worse than one sliding spook), with the dwarves or cripples or Igor madmen those are straitjackets bringing up the rear.

taraComplex meaning emerges from this instalment the way it does from a fairytale (Giles suggests this in one of his inept overhead projector slides). We (and Riley and Buffy) are brought to the belltower, much as Rapunzel was (as Giles implies). The machinery of the clock chimes, the Abandoned Mill quality of the space, the Spooks’ threat of immediate (but unmotivated) heart removal, the already established impotence of voicelessness. The solution for this instalment is so simple it can be rendered (as Buffy does) in sign language (even though Riley is rather slow to get the idea of smashing the box in which the ghouls have imprisoned Sunnydale’s voices). It ends as a fairytale might: the ghouls’ heads explode in a satisfying blur of yellow slime.

BUFFY is a show perpetually denounced or abandoned in a huff by fans, who then are brought back by the depth of their addiction, or by other fans). After the Initiative the Executive Producer felt the show had got lost, so he reduced the number of cast members and put it back on track. This season it seems on track back in high school. Maybe this got it back on track, or maybe it never jumped. Like swans to Lohengrin are shark tanks to Buffy. Or like Tennessee Williams’s Gypsy’s Daughter she will always be saved by the new moon. That’s BUFFY at least that’s BUFFY at the moment I write: tough characters, careful (if independent) narrative like Tennessee Williams’s Gypsy’s Daughter she will always be saved by the new moon.

That’s BUFFY at least that’s BUFFY at the moment I write: tough characters, careful (if independent) narrative design, and yellow slime. What more could we ask?

Notes

1 Joseph Reed, American Scenarios: the uses of film genre (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), chapter 4, p. 7.

2 As there is when a high school boy and girl begin to make out: there is always a vampire or demon just around the corner.

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