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Joss Whedon
Why he should stick to television.
By Seth Stevenson
Posted Friday, Sept. 30, 2005, at 8:23 AM PT


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.


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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.


Related in Slate
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When the Buffy laid down her stake in 2003, Hillary Frey offered this obit for the series. In 1998, Stephen Harrigan noted that fictional vampires behave in wildly different ways and proposed a Uniform Code of Vampire Standards and Practices.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate.

Photograph of Joss Whedon on Slate's home page by Splash News/Photographer Showcase.

Here's the actual source: http://www.slate.com/id/2127162/?nav=fo


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Posts: 920 | Location: Iowa, USA | Registered: 23 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Just gotta say... I saw Serenity yesterday and it's AWESOME. You don't have to be a fan of the show to appreciate it. Go see it. Seriously, you won't be disappointed.
 
Posts: 764 | Location: Buried under a pile of school books... | Registered: 23 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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I havent yet seen the movie but I watched 4-5eps of the show...So far there isnt a reg cast member I'd mind watchin die. Wink

I have only seen one ep I thought was good & thats when the normally shitty whiny characters, well 1 at least, rises up & acts heroically,its very out of character as best as I can tell.

Be that as it may,I am still hopin Ill like the movie,when I get around to seeing it.

Ive beeen a Sci-fi fan since the original Star Trek..I was 10.I am contiually disappointed by what passes as sci-fi on TV.

Now onto the comment that REALLY made me post this:

quote:
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).


this is a cheap shot & is either a lie or this clown is to stupid to realise that LOST is CHARACTER driven & there almost ISNT a plot.
its 1000x better a show than Firefly & 10x better than Buffy.

In fact if I didnt know Whedon had done Buffy I would have thought he was rather misogynist from the way he depicts women on Firefly.
 
Posts: 2845 | Location: Bflo,NY USA | Registered: 28 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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heh, you should see the angel episode "billy" Razz

i love that episode ^_^


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Posts: 2779 | Registered: 16 July 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Firefly was a great series and the movie rocked. I already have it preordered from Amazon.

I'm inclined to agree with Jubs and Arista
(Is it Jubs like Joobs or Jubs like Cubs?) and disagree with Brucy, Brainless is it? Lost has so many plot holes it's like a back alley on the South Side of Chi town. Theres a new hole before you're out of the first. Yeah they have a lot of characters, but that doesn't mean it's character driven. It is a great concept and good viewing, but it ain't all that.
 
Posts: 8 | Registered: 30 November 2005Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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In all fairness I should mention here that I enjoyed the movie Serenity quite abit....
I would guess they took all the best ideas they had for future TV scripts & cobbled then together to make something good.

Perhaps if Firefly was more like the movie it wouldnt have been cancelled...?

I hope you can find solice in the fact that Jerry Springer is still readily avialble to allow you to indulgeyour illusions of superiority.


I assure you my lil brown-nose..umm browncoat,newbie many scrollers whom are more intelligent,mature & polite than you & I find LOST! to be quite an interesting and Innovative show.


About your attitude I shall call upon a quote as there are many on this earth more eloquent than I.

"Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength." -Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)


So its not hard to see why you like the show.....


In the safety,security,distance & anonymity on the internet,my new friend of indetermine gender,you may be brave & bold but I assure you if this were a face to face conversation being held in a room you had just entered knowing ,perhaps, no-one your comments to me would remain inside your cowardly little mind....

I can be .....lets say, abit intimidating expirience shows me.


but no harm done
your opinion of me at this point is quite irrelevant ....


Til we meet again,Welcome to the Scrolls.



Ah its late...
I hope I havent keep you up too late to have your momma tuck you in....

<snicker>





I said Duh!
 
Posts: 2845 | Location: Bflo,NY USA | Registered: 28 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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I found this web board rather by accident. I was briefly confused as to what country most of the posters called home. There were a lot of television references I could not place. After reading a bit, I found that most of you seemed to have a good sense of humor. My mistake. I guess being new, I shouldn't have assumed that you would get my humor. Please forgive my pitiful attempt to fit in.

To clarify, I was genuine in my curiosity regarding the pronunciation of Jubs. I can see how my manipulation of your name could make it seem as though I was being rude. I found your name rather creative and simply all to tempting. It begs to be played with. You, however, do not. My apologies. Another thing that may require explanation is the last line of my post. It is not an insult, but a quote. (From Firefly)

I am curious about something. Are we only allowed to agree on this board? And please, in the future, leave my mother out of it. Roll Eyes
 
Posts: 8 | Registered: 30 November 2005Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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quote:
Originally posted by Brucy Braless:
In all fairness I should mention here that I enjoyed the movie Serenity quite abit....
I would guess they took all the best ideas they had for future TV scripts & cobbled then together to make something good.

Perhaps if Firefly was more like the movie it wouldnt have been cancelled...?

Well, "Firefly" was on Fox. Fox abused the crap out of the show by moving it two or three times in its short life. People who were interested in the show couldn't keep up with all the moving. Further, the episodes were aired out of order. It wasn't given a fair shake -- only 9 of the 12 episodes aired. Watch the "Firefly" DVDs in order... it'll be more enjoyable.

Same thing happened when Fox got their grubby mitts on "Wonderfalls" -- another awesome show that was abused by the channel.
 
Posts: 764 | Location: Buried under a pile of school books... | Registered: 23 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Originally posted by A Boy Named Jayne:

After reading a bit, I found that most of you seemed to have a good sense of humor. My mistake. I guess being new, I shouldn't have assumed that you would get my humor. Please forgive my pitiful attempt to fit in.

Yeah Most of us do have a sense of humor but we have had Trolls here too.I suggest you post a bit before using tempting nicks..SmileI have posted as Brucy Brainless & Braindead a few times myself,No harm done Im actually a cranky 50 yr old man so lil insults can be brushed off pretty easily.I have been acused of being rude myself here is a post of lil old me being dressed down by the board owner.. blush
Adult oriented thread

I can see how my manipulation of your name could make it seem as though I was being rude. I found your name rather creative and simply all to tempting. It begs to be played with.
Dony worry bout it like I said Ill live I can understanding gettin excited when someones Dissin your fave show... Wink

I am curious about something. Are we only allowed to agree on this board? And please, in the future, leave my mother out of it. Roll Eyes

Actually an intellectually stimulating conversation revealing differing opinions about anything of interest is one of my fave things round here.





I said Duh!
 
Posts: 2845 | Location: Bflo,NY USA | Registered: 28 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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quote:
Originally posted by Arista:

Same thing happened when Fox got their grubby mitts on "Wonderfalls" -- another awesome show that was abused by the channel.



YES! I really liked Wonderfalls....My local Fox Channel Cancelled XENA 1st season .....I missed the episode Callisto & all the rest of S1 until it was shown in reruns here & there in S2&3.... That Sucked ! Big Grin


Im sorry all you fans lost your Firefly....
CBS canned Threshold I hear....
I thought it was the best of the SciFi trio started recently...dang
 
Posts: 2845 | Location: Bflo,NY USA | Registered: 28 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Hi there, A Boy Named Jayne!

Please don't be put off by the exchange in this thread. Brucy, by his own admission, does not represent the thoughts and feelings of the rest of the people posting on these boards.

We are constituted of folks from all around the world - mostly USA, but including Sweden, Brazil, Austria, Canada, and quite a few Australians.

This board started as a place to talk about Xena: Warrior Princess, and that is still the main focus, but we have added more avenues for discussion to keep ourselves interested.

A lot of people have been posting here for a long time, so the community is tight knit, but "newbies" are ALWAYS welcome. I've been posting here for about six or seven years now, and I'M still considered a "newbie" by some. Usually people who are a little bit insecure - they need to establish how long they have been posting here to try to set up some kind of extra ownership of this place. I say "BAH!" to that.

If you've got a good sense of humour and something thought-provoking to say, POST AND BE DAMNED!! Big Grin

Oh yeah, I should also say, welcome. And don't feed xenacrazed any eggnog.


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Posts: 5337 | Location: Oz | Registered: 22 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Thanks to the both of you for the welcome. Fresh start, ey?

Thanks for the advice. I'm a little confused by the eggnog though and after reading 3 pages of the post Brucy Braless linked, I can only say this IS a very interesting place indeed.
 
Posts: 8 | Registered: 30 November 2005Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Originally posted by A Boy Named Jayne:
Thanks to the both of you for the welcome. Fresh start, ey?
But Of Course!


I can only say this IS a very interesting place indeed.

Good, now you know 2 of us get to know the rest. Wink

Oh yes there are 'smileys' you can insert in your posts to allow for the expressions of moods& emotions...
Helps when your kidding/teasin & stuff...
 
Posts: 2845 | Location: Bflo,NY USA | Registered: 28 June 2003Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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