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Why Buffy was the Bingemother

Giles Hardie
Contributor

Buffy The Vampire Slayer made us all Watchers. While some claim it to be the Hell Mouth from which all good television was spawned, televisions “Golden Age” probably has more than one sire. Without Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse though, we wouldn’t have shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead or Stranger Things as we know them. Not only did Buffy provide a blueprint for binge-worthy genre television, but an army of fans were trained in Buffy’s backyard alongside the potential slayers, ready to consume theirs in bulk.

Joss may not be the actual Godfather of Golden Television, Buffy definitely brought the bingeing.

That’s the power of pop culture, to influence all of society. 

Hello, my name is Giles. And if there is one thing I will forever be grateful to Joss Whedon for, it is that that is now a name recognised by general society. Prior to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I had the sort of name where people assumed I’d just mispronounced “Charles”. Now it is recognised, even by those who never saw the show, as a name and not a speech impediment.

That is the power of pop culture, to influence all of society, even those who have never spent a moment in Sunnydale. Many were empowered by Buffy, most in more profound ways than we Giles…es. The television industry was one: Empowered to reduce television audiences to sloth demons binge watching show after show, merely by following Whedon’s binge TV formula.

For the more list inclined reader, let’s start with a mere 33 shows that positively reek of the influence of Buffy:

The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Gallactica, Doctor Who, Friday Night Lights, Deadwood, Orange Is The New Black, Lost, Community, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Supergirl, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, Stranger Things, Un-Real, Agents of SHIELD, Once Upon A Time, American Horror Story, Arrow, True Blood, Orphan Black, Heroes, Sherlock, Outlander, The Kettering Incident, iZombie, Being Human, Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, Offspring, Westworld, Dexter

Some links are obvious, some less so, but if you’re in a TL;DR kinda place, try this simple test: Imagine if Buffy Summers walked into a scene in any of these shows — or many others — would she seem out of place? There’s a reason the answer always seems to be no.

So while it’s been almost more than a decade since we last spent quality time in Sunnydale, if anyone tells you it should get a reboot or a reunion or a resurrection, then after you’ve finished hacking up a fur ball of fury, quietly inform them that the show doesn’t need to come back. It has minions all over our television landscape.

It is tempting to suggest that unto each generation a show is born. One show in all the world, a chosen show… but Buffy had no such prophesied arrival. If I were writing about Friends, that might be an accurate, if bizarre, introduction to its genesis. That sitcom had exactly the sort of seemingly predestined success that saw it start a smash and never look back.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the other hand was at first more of a cult hit, dropped on the fledgling WB network (now the CW) in mid-season, lumbered with the initial task of redefining a title associated with a fairly unsuccessful film. Its first season, while only half a season in length, was enough of a success to spawn six more seasons and a spin-off Angel series.

Yet even at her peak broadcast success, Buffy had half a million Australian fans and around five million in the U.S. Not really the sort of numbers to leave rival shows quaking in their stylish yet affordable boots, let alone to form the basis for a TV revolution. The Slayer became a thing of legend though, thanks to the rapid uptake of one other technology — DVDs and specifically the DVD box set — and the quality, and profession, of its uber fans.

Buy me the vampire slayer

Buffy was a stellar success in terms of DVD sales, eclipsing its peers around the world, such as mega-hit 24 in total sales, despite having nothing like that show’s original ratings. At the time it was cited as proof that other, more successful and established shows, could earn a fortune if their producers and networks just published them correctly.

It wasn’t as simple as that however. The power lay within the boxes, on the magical discs and specifically in the words behind them. In developing Buffy, Whedon crafted the recipe for the perfectly bingeable show.

So while many were trying to copy the show’s home entertainment sales strategy, the smarter watchers were trying to discern if the secret was the monsters, the actors or perhaps introducing a hitherto unseen sister in the fifth season.

Eventually some of them worked it out, and some of Buffy’s fans became television makers themselves. The likes of Russell T Davies (Doctor Who), Rob Thomas (iZombie) and Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) are all self-admitted Buffy lovers. And in hindsight the formula becomes clear.

But first just how Biblical were the proportions of Buffy’s success?

Image: Prudence Upton

And lo Buffy begat the golden age... right? 

Let’s be honest: creativity doesn’t work like that. It is grossly simplistic, and wilfully ignorant of decades of other extraordinary television, to suggest Buffy alone gave us the Golden Age of Television.

In fact there’s a pretty solid argument to be made that the popular narrative claiming that ours is the Golden Age of Television is a con. A bit like believing your generation is the first to have sex for fun, and that your parents were never single or young or drunk or had one crazy night on the Band Candy with Joyce.

Yet in the pursuit of greater understanding, or greater clicks, many writers have claimed Buffy to be the Golden Child, often as counter-claim to another expert’s claim that The Sopranos or The Wire are the rightful claimants to the throne.

In 2009 when one writer declared that the first decade of this century had been the birthplace of the Golden Age of Television, and all that came before were dust, critic Robert Moore leapt to the Slayer’s defence. “I believe that one can point at a precise point where TV became art,” he declared modestly. “That point was the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

This grandiose opinion was echoed in 2013 as a decade dawned on the final episode. A veritable nest of critics raced to eulogise Buffy by declaring her the First Slayer of Golden Television.

“TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards,” Moore had written, and it seems many were happy to switch the calendar to Pre Buffy and Post Summers terminology.

So should the Once More With Feeling poster be hanging in the Louvre?

When someone declares Buffy to be “art”, all I can hear is Anya declaring it must be “bunnies.”

“I’ve got a theory, it could be bunnies…” she sang.
“Bunnies aren’t just cute like everybody supposes
They’ve got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noses.
And what’s with all the carrots?
What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?
Bunnies, bunnies it must be bunnies!
… or maybe midgets.”

On one level, it sounds like an amazing, possibly profound and totally click-worthy, but it means nothing. Everyone stares, takes it in, makes an admiring “oooh” noise, then goes on with their previous thoughts entirely unchanged. Yes Buffy is a kind of art, but so is Dogs Playing Poker, or The Block — some mash up of an installation piece and performance art. Calling something art isn’t useful. It’s filler.

Besides I can’t see Joss Whedon embracing the artist mantle.

The great artists famously weren’t recognised in their lifetime. Whedon on the other hand loves his fans and has never been one to take a lack of recognition well. Take for example his oft uttered dismay at the axing of Firefly.

Even his characters want more appreciation.

On one level, it sounds like an amazing, possibly profound and totally click-worthy, but it means nothing. Everyone stares, takes it in, makes an admiring “oooh” noise, then goes on with their previous thoughts entirely unchanged. Yes Buffy is a kind of art, but so is Dogs Playing Poker, or The Block — some mash up of an installation piece and performance art. Calling something art isn’t useful. It’s filler.

Besides I can’t see Joss Whedon embracing the artist mantle.

The great artists famously weren’t recognised in their lifetime. Whedon on the other hand loves his fans and has never been one to take a lack of recognition well. Take for example his oft uttered dismay at the axing of Firefly.

Even his characters want more appreciation.

No, Joss Whedon doesn’t want to be the Vincent Van Gogh of his time. He seems very happy being the Joss Whedon of his time: Making the Marvel comics sing on screen; Beaming creator of Buffy; and hopefully proud of the legacy he has wrought.

He’s also wildly pragmatic, at least in his own mind. “I have a little bit of a disconnect because I think that everything I do is super commercial and people will love it… but a lot of what I do is difficult for networks.”

So if Whedon isn’t an artist, what is he? A scientist? An engineer?

Art-lover Moore himself noted that Buffy “was not merely a great TV series in its own right, it helped redefine what TV could do.”

Whedon is perhaps an entertainment alchemist, taking known objects and transforming them into something so much more. He is far more Victor Frankenstein than Vincent Van Gogh.

And he is happy for his work to be dissected by others.

While the academic side of things was rarely the focus of Buffy’s time at Sunnydale High, Joss Whedon is thrilled that academia have taken far more interest in her.

Whedon told The New York Times in 2003 that “it’s always important for academics to study popular culture, even if the thing they are studying is idiotic. If it’s successful or made a dent in culture, then it is worthy of study to find out why.

“So, like that, I think “Buffy” should be analysed, broken down, and possibly banned.”

So what can we learn by studying (a.k.a. rewatching with a better excuse) Buffy? Certainly there are some well-documented techniques developed in the Buffy writers room.

No, they are not the recipe for “quality television,” nor the defining qualities of television as art, but they are the foundation stones for binge-worthy television.

Whether this age of television be Golden or mere gilded lily, it is definitely the age of binge watching. And for that we, like the Sunnydale Class of ’99 have to thank our Protector. Specifically the Protector of Buffy: Joss Whedon.

Whedon, the alchemist, pioneered a process for turning the undead into gold. And thankfully it can be — and is — replicated all over the box.

There are four elements that combine for bingeworthy television, all devised or refined by Buffy:

1. Season-long Stories and Big Bads

Even as we entered Sunnydale with Joyce and her retired Slayer daughter, The X-Files had established a formula of alternating monster-of-the-week episodes with Smoking Man big plot progressions.

Whedon took that a step further, lifting a concept from comic books and video games, to give each season its own end of level monster. They coined the term “Big Bad” in the writers room, then let Buffy say it in the show. Soon it was embraced by fans and is now a genuine industry term in its own right.

The big bad revolutionised television by giving us a monster of the week as well as monster of the season. The effect was to turn each season into one long episode, binge watching was the natural response.

These self-contained season arcs reversed the tradition of the cliffhanger. Outside of soaps and melodramas, TV showrunners previously only allowed major plot points to remain unresolved between the final episode of one season and the first of the next. They lured audiences back that way.

Now, with the promise of a resolve only at the end of the season, showrunners don’t have to lure audiences back — they never leave. Stranger Things and The Walking Dead are only the most recent shows to use the technique to great effect.

2. Genre Exclusivity is Too Cruel A Rule

The first rule of Slayer Club is we do not talk about vampires. And there’s a simple reason why: Buffy The Vampire Slayer is not about vampires. It’s not about monsters either. Or slaying, really.

Joss Whedon took a genre, used it to create a universe… and then threw it away. He has suggested “High school as a horror movie” was the central concept that he latched onto when he got given the series. But he delivered quite the reverse.

Horror certainly defined the world Whedon created, situating a high school on top of a hell mouth, but the genre he then embraced to write his show was teen drama. The real monsters were the other kids. The real victories were the most trivial — but they mattered so much. This was a high school coming of age series … on a hell mouth.

For Whedon the horror genre provided the structure, and limitations, he could push against to spark creativity. “Limitations are something I latch onto,” he told SXSW in 2012. “A novelist has a blank page. A genre writer never has a blank page. That’s useful to me.”

Choosing one genre as a canvas then wilfully choosing another for storytelling continued to inspire him. Whedon went on to deliver a musical episode, a silent episode and a real time episode about death by natural causes to name a few. Once he’d abandoned genre exclusivity everything worked so much better and we couldn’t look away.

It proved a contagious mentality. Whedon himself went on to deliver the neon sign of genre-mash-ups — Firefly — before taking the formula he’d developed and taking it to the Marvel Universe to direct The Avengers movies. There, he doesn’t make comic book movies, he just uses the genre to create the canvas. “The first thing I said to the people at Marvel was, I want to make a war movie,” he told SXSW. Marvel’s screen success has been built on a philosophy of never making a comic book movie (or tv show) ever since.

This is the element to Buffy that was seized upon swiftly by creators around the world to great effect. First the various undead creatures of mythology found themselves protagonists and antagonists in any range of genres; abnormal is the new normal.

In the cinema, vampires and teen girls still go together like sunshine and sparkly skin. But on the binge TV front, vampirism became a civil rights story in True Blood while other supernatural scenery supported vastly different drama in shows like Grimm, Glitch and iZombie.

Elsewhere Friday Night Lights isn’t about sport, Offspring isn’t about medicine and Jessica Jones isn’t about super powers. Rather these highly addictive shows use an established niche genre to define their universe, then turn to broader relationship dramas to fuel the fires.

Then there is Game of Thrones. HBO’s global phenomenon not only benefited from the normalisation of fantasy and monsters that Whedon initiated, it was also green lit by television executives who knew how it could work. While George RR Martin needs no education in delivering a geopolitical thriller under the guise of swords and sandals romp, HBO had tangible proof such a notion could migrate to the screen.

The show that has most impressively followed the Buffy model in this regard is The Walking Dead. It is no more about zombies than Buffy was about vampires. The dead are the canvas. The Walking Dead is in fact a western, portraying society in a wild unforgiving isolation. It even has a sheriff. In fact, it is an outstanding western, which is lucky, as it might compensate fans who hoped West World was going to fulfil their spurs and saddles fetish.

3. Words Words Words

Back at SXSW, Joss told the crowd he aims to “speak visually as well as word wordily.” While he then made light of his “wordily” creativity, it’s a perfect Whedonism: A piece of language made up for the moment that the audience immediately understands.

One of the great triumphs of Buffy was the teen speak given to the characters. Whedon recognised the vagaries of genuine teen language made it impossible to use in his scripts — even if he somehow managed to genuinely borrow words from a real teenage girl when he wrote, by the time the episode aired it would be archaic language in the ever shifting landscape of the school yard.

Instead Whedon developed Slayerspeak. He analysed the way real teenagers created their language and used their rules to create his own. Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives were freely interchanged, pop culture references flourished, even meta references — scoobies and big bads for example — got a look in.

Since then, such linguistic analysis and invention proved a trademark for shows that have gone about complex world building. Rather than delivering a perfect but passé match for the genuine speech of a drug dealer, an admiral, a detective or a frontier bar tender, series creators developed a new lexicon and reeled audiences in to hear it time and again.

So yes, you can blame Joss for all the c-bombs in Deadwood. Or just thank him.

Buffy has minions all over our TV landscape

4. Scoobies And Girl Power

Genre shows have heroes, the hero has a sidekick, there’s a background ensemble, and there’s the bad guys there to be thwarted by episode’s end. The end. Or at least so went the rulebook until Buffy arrived and showed it the sharp end of Mr Pointy.

The Scoobies were an ever shifting and growing gang and we loved, and followed, them all in a way more befitting a soap opera. Better yet, many of the Scoobies were female, with strong but nuanced characters and agency. Willow was a witch, as was her girlfriend Tara. Cordelia and Anya balanced Xander attention with genuine contribution. And Joyce and Dawn were so much more than the background mother and sister.

“I’m very much more interested in the created family than I am in actual families”

Whedon told the New York Times in an interview as the show wrapped up. And while the term Scoobies itself acknowledges he wasn’t the first to gather a gaggle of heroes, the first family Joss created has caused ripples ever since.

The effect is to make us feel no longer like passive voyeurs and more like part of that same family. Now bingeing is like sitting down to a family lunch with the family we’re more interested in than our own.

Of particular note is the fun realisation that Penny Dreadful has come full circle and made a family out of the supernaturals Joss made normal.

Marvel series are the ones that particular have succeeded in adopting Whedon’s family lesson, always pushing side characters to the fore, uniting rogue elements into a Scooby Gang. While all the Netflix Marvel shows execute this tactic, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which has Joss’ brother Jed working on it, aptly delivers the closest surrogate for the Scoobies cannot be found on television today then under the watchful gaze of Agent Coulson.

So thank you Buffy (and Joss)

So that’s it, now we are all qualified to make bingeworthy blockbuster series thanks to seven seasons of Buffy study, right?

Well, no. Clearly there are multiple layers of creative genius required to make the great shows that make up this impressive age of television. Yet those showrunners have a bountiful binge formula to draw upon.

Most importantly we Buffy fans know we were watching first and now we know what to look for.

Giles Hardie is an Australian film critic, entertainment journalist, producer and television personality. 

This article was first published by IdeasAtTheHouse on Medium

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