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Saturday, December 17, 2005

World of Vampires

In my last post I put up a link to this David Fury interview, which was originally forwarded to me by the ever alert Hartmut, over in Germany, whom I really do owe some email to by now.

Here's the money shot, at least, as far as it reflects on Joss Whedon's approach to world building:

You know, Joss’ thing, and rightly so, is that he allowed the mythology to serve whatever story he wanted to tell so he didn’t lock himself into a concrete mythology that would limit him. If he had a story he wanted to tell, he would adjust the mythology accordingly.
I'm going to be very clear on this: this is not good writing.

Yeah, Joss Whedon has millions of fans and has made millions of dollars writing; I have dozens of detractors and have made dozens of dollars writing. Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to say: when you treat the world you are building under and around your characters as being subjective and subordinate to the needs of each succeeding episode in your ongoing saga, that's bad writing.

Joss doesn't seem to get it -- the setting is as important as the characters, because in a fantasy world, the world itself is a character.

Now we come to this:

And Joss was very clear, he said, "I don’t know how to do standalone episodes because if you’re trying to build emotional depth to these characters they have to carry the events of prior episodes into another episode."
See, Whedon cares about the characters, and that's a good thing. You have to feel that if someone came along and said "I have this great idea for a story, but we need to change the characters' back story just a little, we need to reveal that during Season 1, Buffy and Xander slept together a couple of times and nobody knew about it", Joss would most likely explode -- No, no, no, if Xander and Buffy slept together covertly back in Season 1 it would have completely reshaped not only their relationship but every other relationship the two of them had, you can't just go back and retroactively implant something that big, no matter how good a story idea you have that leads off it now, years later.

At least, I think that's what Whedon would say; I certainly hope it's what he would say.

Yet he doesn't seem to understand that 'mythology', i.e., the back story of the world itself, is just as important to the characters, and their relationships, as the emotional history of the characters themselves.

Honestly, it drives me crazy. But it certainly explains how we get so many internally contradictory episodes over the course of the show. We've seen, for example, Spike and Angel's origins each retold several times now; every time we see one or the other, some vital component seems to wildly vary from what we've already witnessed. If you care about these characters and the world they live in, if you'd like to be able to fully enter into it and fully suspend your disbelief, then it's jarring every time it happens... it's like, in order to make this one particular story flow more smoothly, the producers (and, very much, Joss Whedon) have deliberately left a big chunk of tile sticking up for you to stub your toe on painfully every time.

But to Joss Whedon, this is just what good writing is -- if you have a good idea for a story that conflicts with something that has already been established in a past story, well, that's no problem. After all, it's just fiction; none of it is real, and the writer should be able to do whatever he or she needs to at the moment without being 'limited by the mythology'.

I think that's horseshit. I think it's lazy writing and it's bad writing; I think it's 'in Hypertime, everything is real' nonsense. These worlds and the characters in them are fictional, yes, but it is part of the demand of the craft that the creator try to bring those fictions to life as credibly and convincingly as possible... and that means, paying attention to the details that have previously been laid down.

When you have a piece of fiction that you are making money from, you owe something to the paying public. Without his audience, Joss Whedon is driving a truck or washing dishes for a living. The BUFFY/ANGEL audience has demonstrated time and time again that we want this world to seem real, that we want to take these characters seriously; in contrast, Whedon has shown us, over and over, that he can't be bothered to make the effort.

And, on another, related subject, I'd mentioned in my last post my truculent, deeply rooted suspicion that Joss Whedon may have deliberately sandbagged BUFFY and ANGEL so he could clear the decks, so to speak, for FIREFLY. Whenever I type this out somewhere, or mention it to someone, I feel like I should be wearing a tinfoil hat -- after all, rotten as FIREFLY was (and thus, as deeply mental as Whedon must have been to come to prefer a crappy, poorly conceived and dreadfully executed space western to, well, one of the best horror/fantasy franchises ever), there's just no point in killing your first two kids when the one you really love comes along.

Yet sometimes emotions make no sense, and bizarre and conspiratorial though this theory seems, every time I read something else about the end of BUFFY and ANGEL, it gets a little more reinforced. For example:

Here’s the thing about it. Ultimately, a lot of the direction of the series went by Joss’ whim , as it should, it’s his show. He was busy writing the Firefly movie but he would still come in and he would say, "I want to do this, I want to do that, I want this to happen." Unlike early Buffy seasons, or even seasons of Angel when there was a consistent hierarchy like with Greenwalt and Minear, we weren’t really able to map out the season the way we really wanted to. Jeff Bell and I pretty much mapped out a season where we could see how it would work and we were planning on doing that but once Joss came into the mix Joss put his own mark on it and when he put his own mark in it, unfortunately, it blew a lot of our stuff out of the water.
Now, that's not particularly definitive -- all it proves is that Whedon came back onto his own show and pretty much took over creative control, while he was putting most of his effort into a project he liked a great deal more, during what turned out to be the final season. But then we get to this:

The only reason that Angel didn’t come back...it’s a very simple thing. Because our ratings were up, because of our critical attention, Joss specifically asked Jordan Levitt, who was the head of The WB at the time, to give us an early pick-up because every year they [would] wait so long to give Angel a pick-up [and] a lot of us [would] turn down jobs hoping that Angel will continue - he didn’t want that to happen. So, he was feeling very confidant and he just asked Jordan, "Like, make your decision now whether you’re going to pick us up or not," and Jordan, sort of with his hands tied, with his back up against the wall, called him the next day and said, "Okay, we’re cancelling you."
I honestly can't see any way to take this except as almost irrefutable evidence that the show's creator had decided he wanted the show dead. I mean, sure, I suppose it could just be a cocky, arrogant mistake... I've seen enough of Whedon to know he has no shortage of hubris. But he's also a smart man and a very experienced one in the ways of television networks. It's very difficult for me to believe that he would make this kind of demand without having a pretty good idea what kind of answer was going to come back.

Whenever I start in bitching about Joss Whedon, I admit, it seems a bit ungrateful and unappreciative. After all, without Joss, we'd have no BUFFY at all, and without BUFFY's subtle but pervasive influence over the cultural matrix, well, a great many things would be missing from the world.

Yet... BUFFY, good as it was, could have been better, and it should have been better. Worse, it could still be on the air... in one form or another, with or without Sarah Michelle Geller, or, for that matter, any other specific star. The franchise, and, yes, the mythology, are strong enough, and well enough conceived, to have gone on with an entirely new cast and an entirely new set of storylines... if only its creator had cared enough to make an effort to keep them going.

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