My girlfriend was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer addict. Later, she was an Angel addict. As these weird, one-hour vampire dramas packed our TiVo and filled our TV screen, I had little choice but to watch them. And slowly, to my own surprise, I began to see that their creator, Joss Whedon, had a geeky sort of auteur charm. I wasn’t headed to Comic-Con in a “Joss Whedon Is My Master Now” T-shirt. But when Whedon launched a new TV series called Firefly, in 2002, I tuned in from the start. I was genuinely disappointed when it was canceled after half a season.
Now Whedon has written and directed Serenity, a feature-length film that revisits the Firefly world (and opens in theaters tonight). At an advance screening earlier this week, I found myself surrounded by “Browncoats” (that’s what Firefly junkies call themselves—don’t ask) who’d waited hours in line for another glimpse of their gone-too-soon Firefly friends. When, toward the end of the film, one of these beloved characters died in a sudden and violent manner, the crowd gasped loudly. This character had about four lines in the movie. But still you could feel the stunned sense of loss permeating the room.
At this point I realized: Joss Whedon should stick to television.
Whedon, who got his TV start writing for Roseanne in the late 1980s, has long said that his true ambition is to make films. But nightmarish experiences with his scripts for the original 1992 Buffy movie and for Alien Resurrection (both were butchered by inept directors) sent him trudging back to the small screen, licking his wounds. In 1997, he recreated Buffy for TV—where, despite being about vampires and dorky high-school kids, it became both a critical and popular success.
Now—with Serenity out and a version of Wonder Woman in the works—Whedon seems poised to make the leap back into features. But it’s an odd move for a man who once said, “Why are the best writers in TV? Because they can control their product. They’re given something resembling respect. …” (I’m quoting here from the evenhanded biography Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy.) Perhaps Whedon figures he now has the clout to control a movie set. But I think his skills—imagining every nook and cranny of an intricate fictional universe; conjuring an ensemble of nuanced characters with complex, long-running relationships—are actually far better suited to television. When he’s got a TV show humming, Joss Whedon, bless his pasty, dough-faced soul, is the most gifted serial storyteller alive.
Whedon has some sort of preternatural feel for TV-making. When you listen to his DVD commentaries, you hear him effortlessly cataloging the narrative devices at work, the shortcut gimmicks that establish character and advance a plot, the genealogy of the jokes. He explains that a kindly, pure-hearted character can serve as the audience’s guidepost—whenever she speaks up, we know she’s speaking truths. Want to make a villain scary? Show the toughest character getting a little freaked out. It’s like these rules are in Whedon’s DNA. And they may well be: As his IMDb biography notes, Whedon is perhaps “the world’s first third-generation television writer.” His father wrote for Alice and Benson, while his grandfather wrote for Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show.
Of course, a tried-and-true TV-making toolbox by no means ensures a quality show (quite the opposite, much of the time). But Whedon is so efficient with his plotting that each new twist develops the drama and the characters. When Buffy loses her virginity to her boyfriend Angel, he loses his soul and turns evil. Many have noted that this is a clever metaphor for teenage sex. But it also sidesteps a classic narrative pitfall: the Sam-and-Diane problem, wherein the romantic leads finally get together … and the show loses all its tension. Whedon skips this slack phase by immediately transforming Angel into an archenemy who must be killed. At the same time, Buffy’s character matures, a new villain is introduced, the saga churns on, and the audience is rapt. In a later season, when Buffy’s mom dies, the most poignant moments come as Anya—an ex-demon from another dimension—attempts to make sense of human grief. The point, of course, is that humans on the show can’t make sense of it either. The melodramatic sci-fi plots serve to lend the characters greater depth (as opposed to a show like Lost, in which the characters exist to advance the plot). And remember: He’s doing this with demons!
Whedon has killed off his shows’ major characters, then resurrected them—repeatedly. He turned Buffy’s friend Willow gay, then made her into a murderous hellion, then turned her sweet and good again. But even as Buffy’s plots whirligigged around, the characters remained self-aware, and the banter remained off-handed and cute. For me Buffy’s greatest appeal always lay in its use of language. The show created its own slangy patois—or at least did a stellar job of instantly adapting new teen lingo. (There is in fact an entire academic treatise on Buffy-speak.) Strange constructions were invented. Parts of speech popped up in novel contexts. “[Quirky adjective] much?”; “Don’t get all [infrequently used noun]-y on me, Mr. [run-on sentence describing recent actions of the person being addressed]“; “It’s a [blank]-a-palooza!” Besides being funny, the dialogue made the characters seem authentic: They feel like a real group of pals who’ve crafted their own, organic dialect. And you feel you’re watching a reasonable approximation of what might happen were your own friends to fight vampires.
Of course, you can fit stunning plot twists and brilliant dialogue within the confines of a 100-minute movie. But it’s not the same. Take that character who dies in Serenity. Had Firefly lived on as a TV series, Whedon would have invested the character with foibles and hidden strengths. Our bond with the character would have had ample time to develop as we watched countless informal, telling moments. Then the character might have been killed in Season 3—only after this loss would be certain to stomp the heart of any die-hard viewer. Later, Whedon might bring the character back to life. Then make the character gay.
It all adds up to a richer relationship than can be had with even the most carefully drawn movie protagonists. The way characters can accrue definition over time, the opportunity to draw on a long back story of events—this is TV’s powerful and innate advantage. It’s the advantage of all serial narratives. Ask comic book fans (Whedon’s one of them). Ask Charles Dickens.
Or, ask the new generation of TV auteurs that’s been exploding the medium’s limits and lending it some long-missing gravitas. Shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, and the Sorkin-era West Wing have elevated the form. Perhaps Whedon, steeped in TV all his life, takes it for granted. There’s no doubt that film has traditionally been considered the higher art. But the line is blurring fast. Whedon is bailing out just as TV finally gets the respect it deserves.
I’m sure when Whedon makes the Wonder Woman movie he’ll do a fine job. He’s a gifted guy, he throws all his talents into everything he does, and his script-doctoring work on Speed and Toy Story proves he has excellent screenwriting chops. Still, I’d much rather he pitch some new show to HBO. Don’t get all silver-screen-y on me, Mr. I’ve Got a Fetish for Teenage Girls Who Know Karate. I eagerly await your return to my living room.