The rhetorical gamble of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with spoilers).

Neither my brother nor my fiancée care for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My dad, who watched a couple episodes after hearing me talk about it, seems to appreciate the absurd and comical aspects of the show (they remind him of Gilligan’s Island, I think), but can’t take the dramatic elements seriously.

I think the stumbling block for people who don’t get the show is its baseline, default rhetorical stance, coupled with its willingness to deviate wildly and suddenly from that default. For me, this wildness and freedom is what makes the show so exciting, more than any other single factor.

The general, default style of BtVS is tongue-in-cheek, verbose, ironic, light. A typical episode is a teen comedy (then, later, a young-adult comedy), with horror elements added, not a horror show with jokes.

This rhetorical, stylistic mode skates above the level of reality, or below that level, depending on your point of view. (Of course, all art does. “Realistic,” when applied to art, refers to works which, as part of their set of rhetorical givens, ask us to ignore the difference between art and reality, to equate the two for the duration of the work—in return, they agree to include certain kinds of content that we recognize from our everyday lives, and to exclude content which is overtly fantastical, or which seems overly exotic to the target audience. But all works of art selectively arrange and orchestrate events and elements in such a way as to create a heightened experience, as compared with real life, and to call something “realistic” only refers to the manner in which a work’s elements are chosen and arranged.)

During Season 1, BtVS‘s rhetorical mode is used mainly for the most obvious purposes. It allows us to slip back and forth between the two registers that you would expect from a teen-fantasy TV show: On the one hand, BtVS is a show about three teenage misfits, not unlike the program’s targeted demographic. Thus, the targeted demographic is invited to identify with the heroes. This identification then gives the audience access, as wish-fulfillment, to the fantasy elements of the show, fantasy elements which go well beyond the presence of vampires—for starters, rare is the adolescent misfit who looks like a twenty-something Allison Hannigan, Sarah Michelle Gellar, or Nicholas Brendon. But the wish-fulfillment, even at the “passive” level, doesn’t stop at their looks. These misfits (the “Scoobies”) have closer, more meaningful bonds with each other than popular kids could ever dream of. Their lives are filled with significance, because they’re part of a team doing the most significant work possible (saving the world, at least once a season). Often, the purpose of the supernatural elements in the story is simply to give the Scoobies the circumstantial high stakes necessary for forging these relationships.

In order to have both worlds coexist—the everyday world of high school and suburbia, alongside the heroic world of vampires and apocalypses which rescue the everyday from banality—it’s necessary to adopt the tongue-in-cheek distance. Not necessarily for the sake of including fantastical elements, per se. One of the greatest monster movies of all time, Alien, derives much of its power from the conventional trappings of realism, right down to its Zola-esque preoccupation with the exploitation of the working class. Among vampire stories, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark presents a “realistic” depiction of the undead; even Interview With the Vampire keeps closer to “reality” than BtVS does.

The trade-off in using that kind of “realism,” though, is that you can’t tell a realistic story about vampires without getting pretty grim. BtVS would be a different show if we felt the full horror of the villains’ deeds, and if we had to watch the physical and emotional toll on Buffy of savagely fighting them. Not only does the show’s ironic default rhetorical stance allow it to go back and forth between the quotidian world recognizable to the audience and the fantasy world of the audience’s wish-fulfillment, it more importantly allows cross-over between the two genres of teen comedy and horror, permitting the Scoobies to worry about grades and dates in the midst of fighting terrible monsters that are trying to kill everyone in the world.

Another benefit of the default position is that it allows the writers to play somewhat loose with the plot. For instance, in Season 2, we’ve already accepted so much that we don’t really worry over how little sense it makes that the super-powered Spike is never able to at least kill Willow and Xander.

More powerful, and perhaps more unsettling for those who don’t get the show, is the way the writers use the ironic gap between the comic and realistic modes of BtVS to dive into any other mode they please, from one episode to another but often even in the same scene. No show in the realism mode could get away with anything like that, because the agreement the realistic show makes with the viewer is that it will hug close to that imaginary line between reality and fiction, in exchange for a more intense quality of investment and belief on the part of the viewer. Just imagine if Breaking Bad had tried to include a musical episode. Not only would the individual episode be rejected, but it would destroy the entire series, by breaking its rhetorical covenant with the audience. Whereas in Buffy, from the very first episode the audience gives tacit approval for the show to move back and forth from realistic teen comedy to fantastical adventure, and the writers take this inch of permission and stretch it for miles and miles. Take Season 6; not only does it give us the musical episode, but also one of my favorites, “Seeing Red,” Season 6 Episode 19 (S6E19), a ballsy forty-three minutes in which we get the Doctor Who-ish comedy of Jonathan, Warren, and Andrew sneaking into the lair of the Nezzla’Khan demons to steal their mystical orbs; Spike’s aborted attempted to rape Buffy; the comic-book showdown of Buffy and the Three, culminating in Andrew’s hilarious failed escape attempt (I think it’s funny, anyway); the culmination of Warren’s transformation from a comic-sinister villain into a much more dangerously violent misogynist; Buffy’s shooting and Tara’s death; and Willow’s dramatic tumble off the no-magic wagon and into vengeful madness.

I think that many who get frustrated with the show feel it’s violating an unspoken agreement, one which says that the show they’re watching is one particular kind of thing and will remain that type of thing. Earlier, I imagined what would happen if Breaking Bad tried to have a musical episode. Episodes like “Seeing Red” really feature even more radical genre-shifting, though; it’s as if an episode of Friends suddenly turned into an episode of Breaking Bad, then morphed into Pirates of the Caribbean, and ended as Linda Hamilton’s and Ron Perlman’s Beauty and the Beast.

Watching BtVS is a little like taking a mystery tour, where you buy your ticket blind without knowing where the plane’s going to land. It’s less passive than watching most shows, because the viewer doesn’t know what kind of emotional investment is going to be required of him or her. In an episode like “Seeing Red,” it isn’t possible for the narrative to simply carry the viewer along through the array of responses it demands, responses which are not merely emotional (funny and absurd when the Three raid the demon lair, funny and exciting when Buffy has her showdown with the Three, frightening and upsetting when Spike tries to rape Buffy), but also categorical (the raid on the lair is absurd TV comedy, related to shows like Gilligan’s Island and Doctor Who; Spike’s attempted rape is “Serious Drama”). In order to derive full enjoyment from the show, the viewer has to be on the lookout for cues that the episode is about to shift into another modality, and has to voluntarily switch the nature of his/her attention, whether consciously or not. Otherwise, a viewer who has recognized and accepted the tongue-in-cheek, light, default mode will be annoyed when the mode switches to, say, Suspense Thriller, or Serious Drama, and is apt to say something like, “Am I supposed to take this seriously?”

In my own case, at least, I can feel my mind adjusting to the incoming modes. To me, this is a case of the show making explicit and visible the partnership that always exists between storyteller and audience. Viewers unwilling to make those adjustments are apt to feel that when, for instance, Season 6 ends with the Dark Willow story arc, they are being asked to make a serious emotional investment in a show that hasn’t earned it, or that has given no warning that such an investment would be required, and that is cheating by trying simultaneously to be amusing, light fare, and high drama.

The show features the kind of mind-boggling “sensawunda” moments sci-fi and fantasy stories traditionally strive for, such as the whole conception of Dawn. But its most mind-boggling effects are attained by playing with genre. Sometimes by veering whole episodes off in experimental or uncharted directions, as with S4E22, S5E16, and S6E8. More regularly, it does so by mixing genres within a single episode or scene, with one of the big examples being the aforementioned S6E19 and a more typical instance being S5E4, where the farcical tale of a Xander split in two is capped with the moving, quiet melodrama of Riley’s speech in the last scene.

Joss Whedon has said before that he loves genre and working with genre; Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be a lesson for any writer in how genre need not be constricting, and how, by using it with irony and a certain self-consciousness, one can use it to create some of the most original moments in television. I think there’s an endless amount to be said about the use of irony in BtVS, and about the great risks the show takes in combining the seemingly exclusive rhetorical modes of emotional investment and ironic undercutting. Certainly too much to be exhausted in a single blog post.

One comment on “The rhetorical gamble of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with spoilers).

  1. Mike Lindgren

    This is an outstanding piece of pop cultural analysis, one that would find resonance with many of the show’s devoted followers, who also find its aggressive genre-shifting proclivities interesting and satisfying. What I find amusing about this piece — which, again, is quite remarkable in its acuity and critical sophistication — is the underlying tone of aggrieved advocacy, the tacit assumption that, dammit, if only people understood the show’s sophisticated meta-genre ontology, then they would all watch it every night and love it and cherish, the way I do! The way people SHOULD! THE WAY EVERYONE SHOULD! This is silly. I’m willing to grant that, say, “Paradise Lost” has formal and verbal qualities that are both formidably accomplished and little understood by me, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to be re-reading it any time soon.

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