Buffy and me: a year-long project
It’s no secret that I have had a very intense relationship with the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve written academic papers about it, newspaper articles about it, and in 2004, when I was a penniless writer struggling to finish my first novel while working part-time for a charity, I was so driven to find people with whom I could discuss Buffy – but really discuss it, deeply discuss it, that I somehow managed to find the cash to take a trip to Nashville to attend the international Slayage conference (an academic conference, not a fan convention with costumes, just to be clear. I wanted to talk about it, not dress up as Willow. I have some standards.). The show aired from 1997 to 2003 – it almost exactly covers the period of my life when I least knew who I was or what I wanted. I’d just graduated, I was working for a law firm, still an Orthodox Jew, involved in various friendships and romances that just weren’t me. And through all that, I watched Buffy the way children watch TV. Not with half an eye. Not doing something else. I sat and stared at the screen. I watched each episode multiple times. Just like a child trying to figure out the world by watching Finding Nemo over and over again, I knew there was something important there, many important things, things I needed to really learn all the way down to the bottom.
Some of them were obvious. The writing is great, I wanted to be a writer, the writing is, to repeat, really really great, and if you want to be a writer and haven’t seen it, you’re missing a masterclass in character and storytelling. And it’s a show with a strong female lead, but also other strong female cast members. This is still a rarity. Sure, there are a few shows with women in the lead, but they tend to be surrounded by men: Olivia Dunham‘s primary in-show relationships are with Peter, Walter and Broyles – she probably spends more time talking to Lincoln than Astrid. Buffy had Willow, the best friend, and Cordelia the nemesis-turned-friend and Miss Calendar and Tara and Anya and Dawn – Angel and Giles and Xander were important, but she had a host of women supporters too, not to mention women enemies. This stuff was important to me then, and it’s only become more important as time’s gone on. This is the kind of TV I want to make.
Some of the things that made that show glimmer for me, though, are still less obvious. Something about all that doomed love, and how one makes a life where love is around, but in many forms, some more durable than others. Some of the wisdom. “Sometimes the most adult thing you can do is ask for help when you need it”: which sounded like a foreign language when I first heard it, but is tremendously wise. Or Oz’s speech about how being one of those people who constantly apologises is actually deeply selfish:
“OZI’m sorry you’re having a hard time with this. But I told you what I need. So I can’t help feeling like the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself. (then)And that’s not my problem.”
I think about that speech very often. It’s still very wise.
Buffy is a show which has meant a huge amount to me. It’s influenced my writing practice on the deepest levels. It’s altered the way I think about life. I spent my last year at the law firm mostly not working (sorry), but reading over the shooting scripts to see the tiny changes that were made between the writing and the final episode – that’ll teach you a hell of a lot about how the business of writing is done.
I watched one episode (Once More with Feeling) ten times in a row, just watching and watching until the flesh of the quips and character moments fell away revealing the bones and I finally understood most of what I have ever needed to know about structure and momentum and building tension in a story. (That episode is great for really grokking that, by the way, because all the arc character stuff is done in the songs, and the spoken lines are almost all filleted-out monster-of-the-week plot skeleton.) But I’ve never gone back and done a full re-watch from the start.
I was in Canada recently, and happened to turn on the TV in the middle of the afternoon, which I rarely do, and there was a Buffy rerun on – ‘As You Were’. It had me crying within about 90 seconds. And I suddenly thought: “how long *has* it been since Buffy ended?” Which was when I realised that next May it will be 10 years since the end of Buffy. Ten *years*, you guys. And I feel like I want to mark this. That feels right.
Now it is true that I am busy with one or two things. But this feels to me like a nourishment for my writing, to go back and take a careful look at what it was, and is, that makes the show so great. So. I’m going to re-watch the whole thing between now and next May*. I figure that averages out at about three episodes a week, which feels doable, and bloggable, even if only with a few notes sometimes.
I’m already looking forward to the highs – Spike, Once More with Feeling, the whole of season five, Spike, Hush, The Pack, The Wish, Dopplegangland, Spike. And I’m dreading the lows, though I know they’ll come. But I want to try to work them out too, not just talk about why The Wish works so perfectly, but also why Beer Bad really really doesn’t, why collapsing “Willow is becoming power-drunk on the things she can do with magic” into “magic is a drug and Willow is an addict” is so clunky, and why Him would have worked just fine in Season 2, but is a disaster in Season 7. I want to see how the show looks to the writer I am now, what I see now that I didn’t see before. And, I guess, I want to re-encounter 10-15-years-ago Naomi on the road, and see how she is too.
So watch along with me, if you like? I am likely to spoil a bit (as I indeed just did above), so it’s more of a project for re-watchers than first-timers. (Although if you’ve never seen Buffy, go and see Buffy.) Let’s save the world. A lot.
*I’ll work out what to do about Angel when I get there. It was always the lesser show. Oh shut up, you know it was.