Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Yet Another Hit from the Vaults

This article first appeared - in a much version - in TV Zone Special #75 in March 2007.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Keith Topping looks at how Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed the world (or, at least, changed television), what its legacy is and what future it has away from the small screen.

Ten years, almost to the day, since its TV debut (in New Zealand, of all places), Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems to have left surprisingly little behind in the way of any lasting and permanent impact outside the immediate fan culture that it generated around itself during its own lifetime. Firstly, a necessary moment of honest and humble critique: What was produced over the seven years of the series' life was, arguably, as good as any television series has ever managed. Okay, maybe The West Wing, maybe Lost, maybe The Sopranos can have a decent stab at challenging that claim. Maybe. But that is the quite astounding - Premier League status - level at which Buffy (simply as a TV series in, and of, itself) punches its own weight. Let's put this another way; there are, I contend, few bigger Doctor Who fans in the world than I, but I seriously can’t think of seven consecutive seasons of Doctor Who that I’d sooner have with me on some theoretical desert island with a TV and a DVD player (and an electricity supply) than the 144 episodes of Buffy that came out of Miahaus Studios between 1997 and 2002. Okay, maybe Bad Eggs could get itself lost in the sinking. But, otherwise ...

However, that is all in the past now and with every passing day it sinks deeper into the mists of history. What of the future?

There are a series of novels on Pocket Books, certainly, although far fewer of those have been published than one might expect (compare the forty or so Buffy novels with, for example, the “twenty two books a year, every year” era of the Doctor Who Virgin and BBC ranges of the 1990s). Indeed, the accompanying Angel novel range appears to have dried up entirely. Joss Whedon’s story ideas for where Buffy goes next – both conceptually and physically - are set to continue in a forthcoming comic book series. But the vast range of follow-up miniseries and TV movies which were once promised (and, very eagerly anticipated by an excited fanbase) have, over time, slowly faded away as the grim reality of who, exactly, was going to stump up the cash to actually make these features cut through many a fan-persons dreams. No Ripper, I'm afraid. No ‘animated adventures’. No Spike – The Movie. No Faith the Vampire Slayer. And, what’s even more surprising today, in 2007, is that the shows’ fans (by and large) don't seem to mind all that much.

Oh, sure, they’d like more TV episodes if the opportunity should ever arise. But if it doesn't, hey, Joss’s got a comic coming out in April – that is, apparently, good enough for the moment for many. (The suggestion was even made, more than a few times online during early 2007 that some Buffy fans were actually rather glad that Whedon had dropped out of the Wonder Woman movie project as it would, they believed, ‘give him more time to write the Buffy comic!’ This author is fairly certain that neither Mr Whedon himself nor, indeed, Mr Whedon’s bank manager would fully support this view.) Star Trek fans, at this point after their show’s cancellation, were campaigning vigorously for a revival, and were soon - sooner than they ever imagined - to see their dreams realised on the big screen. Buffy fandom, by contrast, seem more than content to sit back and enjoy the seven seasons that already exist... Again and again. And again.

Recently, my former colleague Paul Cornell, in one of his - always illuminating - Internet blog entries brought up the subject of ‘canonicity’ (a regular – and highly contentious - Doctor Who fandom topic) with regard to the forthcoming Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic. Aside from a minor controversy that subsequently spilled over onto a few websites concerning the suggestion that Buffy fans agree on any subject (whatever gave you that daft idea, Paul? You, like I, come from Doctor Who fandom you should know TV fans never agree. About anything!) the episode was interesting in so much as it was the first time in some months that pretty much anything at all had been heard from the various chapters of Buffy fandom by the outside world. For there are many, they are varied and they all love a different vampire! The flurry of activity that occurred in the immediate aftermath of Angel’s cancellation in 2005 soon died a death (s'cuse the dreadful pun). The off-on-off-again-it-was-never-really-on-in-the-first-place Spike TV movie that Joss Whedon sort-of promised in the months immediately before his movie Serenity’s release and then quietly forgot about soon afterwards seems, for many fans, to have been the point where they collectively decided never to get their hopes up again and to celebrate, instead, what they already had.

In many ways one can rather admire such realism coming from a collective of TV fans (it can be seen as both unusual and refreshing to veterans of a dozen previous “Save Our Show” campaigns many of which went on far longer than either sense or reason dictated was entirely healthy). But as both Star Trek (show cancelled due to lack of interest, a decade later it comes back as the first in a series of major studio movies, followed by four TV spin-offs) and Doctor Who (cancelled due to lack of interest, gets 100 minutes of new telly in sixteen years, is kept alive exclusively by the fans before The Greatest Comeback Since Lazarus) prove, death – especially in Telefantasy - is never, wholly, the end.

Any attempt for a series format like Buffy to break-out from SF/Fantasy ghetto is normally doomed to failure by the conservatism of at least a proportion of both the show's and the genre's fans. We already saw an element of this during the Buffy's run when the sixth season’s attempts at producing what one critic described as “twenty two weeks of sustained enuui” was resisted – vocally and loudly – by some fans who really didn’t like the idea of Buffy, Xander, Willow and co. growing up and moving on. What will they make of the comic, one has to wonder?

One of Buffy’s major achievement always lay in reviving old Telefantasy staples – particularly its most commented-upon feature, the empowered female heroine. Now, whatever claims can be made concerning Joss Whedon’s concept of the rise of the female heroine as lead, the idea of making her not only an arse-kicking superheroine but, also, a proper woman with all of the flaws and the benefits such an artiface that entails (as opposed to the men-with-mammaries that so many comic superheorines have been over the years) draws a line straight back to Emma Peel and Cathy Gale from The Avengers. That’s not an easy thing to pull off in a novel (whatever Laura K Hamilton fans may try and tell you). In a comic, however, we have sixty odd years of previous examples – some genuinely great, some downright ruddy awful – to, at least, point the way in which it can be done. It is even arguable that such a conceit can be contextualised far better in a comic book than on television. That is makes more sense there.

The ongoing plotlines and story-arcs work well in such an environment too. So it begins to looks as though the idea of Buffy and her Scooby Gang pals ending their days in the four-coloured world of the superhero strip was part of the masterplan all along. And, frankly, anything that ensures a continuation of the smart and witty ideas that so fired the imagination of a generation of TV viewers in some form or other is undoubtedly a good thing. However, my reaction to Joss Whedon’s pursuit of this line of development produces a similar feeling of vague disappointment in me as did his recent appearance in the director’s chair on an episode of the US version of The Office. You know, it is genuinely nice to see him getting work and all that but, come on, this is the man who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel for God’s sake. He’s capable of more than being a comic book writer who does a bit of freelance direction-for-hire on the side. Or, does he want to be exactly that? Perhaps Joss himself feels differently and, if he does then - ultimately - it is his and no one else’s goddamn business. The views of his bank manager remain, tragically, unrecorded.

‘I truly believe that, in years to come, people will look back and say “That was a show that was on TV,”’ joked Joss Whedon when the official announcement of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s conclusion came on 27 February 2003. ‘Without question, Buffy will live on for generations’ added Fox’s president Dana Walden. To an extent, the latter statement – whilst being an obvious example of hyperbole - is completely true. The characters from the series have spun-off not only into another show, the excellent Angel, but also into a popular series of novels and comics. The show has been sold on video and DVD to millions of households and it is now in that perpetual twilight world of TV syndication. Like Star Trek and Doctor Who you can virtually guarantee that - somewhere in the world at any given moment - someone will be watching an episode of Buffy. Which is both comforting and not a little ironic, given the series’ humble origins and constant fights to find, and then to maintain, an audience.

Every so often a TV show comes along that, for however brief a time seems to capture something in the psyche of the general public across the continents and the generations to perfectly encapsulate the time and space that it occupies. Buffy’s time was that weird little era between the end of the pre-millennial blues that The X-Files exemplified and the immediate after-effects of 9/11 which 24 so successfully stumbled into. A three or four year period when things got just that bit lighter and irony was a key factor in all manner of differnet parts of life and the media. When the world was, albeit for just 42 minutes a week, a slightly less mean place. We were all still as cynical as we had been in the 90s, it’s true. We were, even then, as aware of what a Big Bad World it was it was out there. But this was an era in which a television series with as gloriously frivolous and silly a name as Buffy the Vampire Slayer could not only be made, but be taken vaguely seriously. That, in itself, said so much.

Buffy had a completely ridiculous premise too. They don’t come much more ridiculous in the ten-words-or-less pitching game of US network TV than ‘teenage airhead and loser friends fights vampires in Southern California.’ If readers ever get the chance to watch the untransmitted Buffy pilot episode you’ll find yourself noting that, yes there’s some good ideas there but asking a really fundamental question: How the Hell did they ever sell this as a series? That Mutant Enemy did says much for both the vision and the persuasive skills of Joss Whedon.

People forget this now but there was a point when it looked as though Buffy Summers’s legacy wouldn’t be nearly so long-lasting. A flawed and not-even-particularly-interesting movie in 1992, and, four years later, twelve episodes of a TV show that merely dipped its teenage toes into the Hellmouth. A concept that promised, if it ever got the chance, to keep viewers entertained for years but which, due to the idiosyncrasies of US network TV, probably wouldn’t. Rushed into production by Fox as a mid-season replacement for the emergent WB, Buffy burst onto the screens towards the end of the 1996-97 season and almost immediately gained a promising, if rather surprised, critical reaction. Those reviewers who weren’t put-off by the title, found themselves immersed in a show which used traditional horror clichés like vampires, witches and demons as a thoroughly sussed little metaphor for the very literal horrors of the high school years. A series with hip, knowing dialogue, observational comedy, many aware pop culture references and a sense of its own historical place in a genre that it was both a part of and a caustic reaction to. This wasn’t, as most of the pre-publicity had led us to believe, The-X-Files-meets-Clueless-at-Ridgemont-High. On the contrary, this was something brave and just a little bit dangerous. And you sensed, even at that early stage, the people who were making the show knew it.

One of the greatest, if least recognised, achievements of Buffy 's existence lay in its ability to play cunning textual games within the series’ fantasy framework via the use of elaborate metaphor: ‘I had sex with my boyfriend and he turned into a monster’; ‘nobody ever seems to notice me’; ‘redemption is a bitch’; ‘when we stop talking we start to communicate’; and, most memorably of all, ‘be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.’ For seven years Buffy continued to work as a piece of satisfying dramatic artifice directly because it challenged the expectations of its audience. It took risks with the format, it killed popular characters, it never did quite what you expected it to. Look at the end of season five, for a prime example. “What are you gonna do now?” we asked. Kill our lead character, replied Whedon. “Oh. Okay. So, what do you do for an encore?”

Critical acclaim was never far from Buffy’s doorstep. For example, in 2002 alone the series gained both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and made the 10-Best lists of critics from such respected institutions as Time, TV Guide and USA Today. For most of the seven years of its existence, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, quite simply the best TV show in the world. Okay, maybe - as noted above - The Sopranos or The West Wing could make an equal claim for the crown, but that was the extraordinary level at which Buffy always competed. Witty, inventive, dangerous and clever, the series use of teen-angst metaphor and media-referencing was an absolute revelation to cynical old hacks like myself.

For all of these elements that Buffy had in its favour, the series’ critical success was, and remained, unmatched by any kind of audience-base to particularly write home about. An initial demographic of teenage girls was sought and, largely, gained by the network. Along the way, the series began to pick up converts: a devoted and very literate fanbase among some of the more peripheral corners of SF and horror fandom, for instance. Buffy also acquired a big gay following; an element of upwardly-mobile hipness as a name to drop in the right sort of circles (when Rolling Stone magazine called the series ‘the best in the world’ that was probably because Buffy was constantly being namechecked by many of the bands whom the magazine covered) as well as a certain following among the intelligentsia. Yet, as late as 2002, during Buffy’s best-ever season in terms of ratings, it was still being described, by TV Guide’s Tim Appelo, as ‘The least-watched great show on television,’ and the series that was ‘the most ridiculed by ignorati who think they’re literati.’

So, Buffy’s legacy is its offspring, then? Well, no - not really. It’s certainly true that it spawned several look-alike shows. Charmed, for one, would never have existed without Buffy – its creator Constance Burge has been very forthright about that fact. Ditto Roswell, Smallville, Veronica Mars and possibly even Alias and Lost whilst, in the UK the number of “Britain’s answer to Buffy” allegations is becoming an annual joke (Strange, Hex). Although it’s really hard to imagine what Doctor Who would look like these days if Russell Davies hadn’t been bitten by Buffy in a big way. Or, given the climate of TV in which it was reimagined, if it would look like anything at all.

We can also, probably, ignore many of the more outrageous gender politics claims which have been made in Buffy’s name. The series was an example of that wretched media created industry "girl-power" only in so much as it featured several strong, assertive female characters. But then, so did Xena: Warrior Princess and I doubt you'll find many radical feminists arguing that show "changed the world." For the better, anyway. When the University of South Australia’s communications lecturer, Geraldine Bloustien, held a one-day academic symposium on the series in 2003, Bloustien noted that Buffy’s production values, rich text, pop-culture references and use of metaphors would continue to interest scholars for years. ‘In spite of it being about vampires and monsters, it’s actually recognised that these are metaphors for other issues,’ she noted. ‘It’s much more about how to get on in life, how to cope with high school, university, jobs, relationships.’ That’s all very true, of course. But Buffy was also, let us never for a single second forget, a show about vampires and monsters as well. That was always the intrinsic beauty of Buffy, that it worked on at least three wholly independent levels: as substance, metaphor and subtext.

After seven years and 144 episodes, the decision was taken to kill a groundbreaking television show before it jumped the shark - at least as far as most of the series' viewers were concerned. ‘Honestly, I hope the legacy [of Buffy is] there’s a generation of girls who have the kind of hero lots of them didn’t [previously] have and a lot of guys who are more comfortable with the idea of a girl with that much power,’ Joss Whedon told the Hollywood Reporter. Buffy ended, not because it particularly needed to, but because it was right that it should. There was, as Joss Whedon noted, a vision involved and that as each year passed, it was becoming harder to maintain the quality and the ambition. The foundation on which Buffy was built, Whedon told The Face was that ‘if you make it through high school without becoming a monster, as some people did, then you are a hero.’ Buffy could have continued for another year or two and, quite possibly, masturbated to death on its own mythology, just as The X-Files did in similar circumstances a few years earlier. Perhaps Buffy’s greatest legacy is that it didn’t. That it knew exactly the right time to stop. For that, we should all be grateful.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Searching, in Vain, for a New Idea

Horribly prophetic title, that!

This is another one from the Telly Topping archives - an extended version of a Deep Thought article that I wrote for TV Zone and which was first published in December 2007. I've got one or two more of these lying about on disc that I might put up here one day ... if I feel like it.

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In December 1970, during his infamously foul-mouthed and soul-bearing post-Beatles-split interview with Jenn Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine, John Lennon was asked for his views, if any, on the Beatles only major rival for the title of "the best goddamn band in the whole goddamn world. Bar goddamn none. Baby." “Mick Jagger’s a fucking joke" Lennon noted, with his customary acid wit spiked to unusual levels of in-your-face creativity by a lethal combination of primal scream therapy and lots of heroin. "I'd like to list what we did and what the Stones did two months later on every album.”

Imitation may, indeed, be the sincerest form of flattery but there was remarkably little cheerful goodwill around and about in July 2007 when the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson, accused ITV of "copycatting" BBC shows and formats in a widely quoted interview with Ariel the BBC's in-house magazine. Thompson claimed that the recently concluded ITV series Tycoon was "very like The Apprentice … and there's possibly a bit of Dragons Den in there". How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? was, similarly, cited in the BBC’s annual report as one of the networks strategic programming highlights of the year - along with the usual suspects Doctor Who, Top Gear, anything David Attenborough touches, etc. But, it was also said to be yet another example of the corporation's programmes being adapted. The ITV show Grease is the Word, which went head-to-head with Maria on Saturday nights during the spring of 2007, was considered by many – both within the industry and, indeed, outside - to be nothing more than a spoiler for, and a pale imitation of, the BBC show. And one which, with some glee on the part of the Beeb, spectacularly failed to find much of an audience. Although Thompson claimed that he was “flattered” by such blatant mimicry, an audience-research project commissioned for the BBC's annual report suggested that viewers wanted more innovation and unique content in TV shows. Only 51% of respondents thought the BBC was being sufficiently innovative.

Once a few jokes about Thompson going on to accuse ITV of "looking at my exam paper" and, subsequently, threatening to "nitch ITV up to the teacher - like a Copper's nark - if they don't pack it in" had done the rounds, a serious study of his claims was attempted by that den of Communists and malcontents, the Guardian. They quoted a nameless ITV insider - notice, insiders are always nameless, it goes with the territory - as suggesting that such accusations were nothing new. "Television endlessly invents and re-invents itself and there are as many examples of BBC copycat [ITV] programming. Graham Norton's When Will I Be Famous was launched as a spoiler for Britain's Got Talent but [it] didn't hit the mark. Fame Academy wasn't a million miles [away] from Pop Idol and Dance X is hardly revolutionary." Yet in March 2007 – just two months after taking over at ITV - former BBC chairman Michael Grade admitted that a lack of creativity at ITV had led to the commercial broadcaster quite openly copying successful programming from elsewhere. "We’ve been very quick to copy other people’s formats and stick the word ‘Celebrity’ on the front," he said, promising that such conceits would end under his tenure.

When it comes to reality programming such repetition is, possibly, to be expected. There are, after all, only so many different situations into which willing participants (celebrity or otherwise) can be placed for entertainment, humiliation or novelty value before the viewer becomes satiated with an overkill of content-over-style. Hence the “safety in the tried and tested” principle. When it comes to drama, however, such charges of borrowed ideas and formats are not new. But they are becoming more sustained.

ITV’s big drama hit of summer 2007 was a superb three-part story of the psychological and emotional torture of child abduction and the subsequently strained legal process, Torn. It had a genuine quality cast (Holly Aird from Waking the Dead, Nicola Walker from Spooks, Bradley Walsh from Coronation Street to name but three), a mass of pre-publicity and it went straight to DVD on the back of the initial airing which produced some of ITV’s best drama ratings in months. It was also, both conceptually and, to an extent in terms of content, uncomfortably close to aspects of the BBC’s big hit of February 2007, Five Days.

An even more pointed example of such perceived unoriginality in commissioning and presentation occurred in October 2007 with ITV’s one-off modernist adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Again, a quality cast. Again brave, dangerous, experimental telly … just as the Stephen Moffat’s exceptional six-part modern adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jekyll had been for the BBC four months earlier.

Of course, it must be repeated that such formatting in TV circles has been around for years. In the 1960s, it seemed that every BBC sitcom format would inevitably produce a slightly cruder, less well characterised - but often equally, if not more popular - ITV variant on the back of it. Thus Steptoe and Son begat The Dustbinmen, Till Death Us Do Part sired Curry and Chips, The Liver Birds and The Likely Lads mothered and fathered an entire sub-genre of flat-sharing comedies which reached their creative zenith in Rising Damp and their creative nadir in Queenie's Castle. And so on. Even the BBC’s staple sitcom staple of arch middle class suburban whimsy best exemplified by Meet the Wife and The Good Life had numerous ITV clones. Most of them starring Patrick Cargill.

In drama, however, trends were never quite as easy to pigeonhole. Whilst there are examples of the cross-pollination within certain TV genres, and whilst it’s equally important to stress that such cross-pollination often cut both ways (the BBC’s mind-numbingly awful attempt to ape the success of Thames' The Sweeney via the thoroughly wretched Target, for instance), there was seldom anything as blatantly formulaic as, for example, the commissioning of Primeval. This seemed to happen only after somebody in a relative position of authority at ITV had finally stopped moaning about the success of Doctor Who and decided that it was high time they had one of them there time travel shows too. Just as one of his or her predesessors had done thirty years previously with The Tomorrow People. Plus ca change, plus ca la meme choice.

The events of October 2007 took this entire copycatting scenario to new and quite baffling levels. The BBC had just suffered a summer of scandals as everything from the choice of the name of the new Blue Peter cat to whether the queen storms into, or out of, photo shoots became subjects of huge national interest and much media comment. The BBC's board of governors (a spineless bunch of a lickerty-split nobodies at the best of times), inevitably perhaps, over-reacted to revelations about a few relatively small-scale bits of sharp-practice with a network-wide blanket ban on all viewer and listener competitions. Something that affected pretty much everything from the output of almost all BBC local radio stations to Match of the Day’s Goal of the Month competition which had run, uninterrupted, from 1964 until the beginning of this season. The collective look on Mssrs Lineker, Hansen and Shearer’s faces as it was announced the August competition would be “just for fun” spoke volumes. Un. Be. Leaveable.

But all of that suddenly paled into something approaching the insignificance it always should have been with the subsequent revelation that several very prominent ITV game shows were being accused of defrauding millions of pounds from viewers in a variety of elaborate premium-line phone-in scams. And, that the Serious Fraud Office was interested. As Wor Ant and Wor Dec squirmed on their Executive Producer titles and Michael Grade coughed with embarrassment at the size of the problem he’d inherited, a familiar mantra was heard within the corridors of Television Centre. “See, it’s true. Everything the BBC does, ITV does two months later.”