Friday, May 14, 2010

Follow-up on Buffy's Writers

There were a few things that lead me to make the last post. When I showed the second season episode episodes "Surprise" and "Innocence" in my intro-level media course, my students were a bit skeptical about the merits of the series based off just that episode. Part of the reason for that, of course, is that many of them don't know what to make of melodrama yet. And partly I show it to demonstrate how different serial narrative is: what works with 18 hours of preparation may not work as well to an audience just tuning in, as some of them are.

But it's also that they haven't learned the trust that audiences develop when sitting down with a producer-auteur like Steven Bochco, Amy Sherman-Palladino or Joss Whedon. One of the ways that I suggested that maybe the series was worthy of their trust was by observing the later careers of some of the writers, as I listed in the last post. Observing that the writers went on to write for Lost, Alias, BSG, Mad Men, Gilmore Girls and Dexter says that the writers are writing differently from their expectations, not badly. That's an honor roll of current shows. (Of course, I follow up that discussion with either the dream episode, "Restless", or "The Body", to show how the series works on their terms as well.)

There's a few other things I learned putting together that list.

Marti Noxon remains the Queen of Pain, as all of her important roles are in relationship-centered narratives, be they drama or melodrama. While her best episode, to my mind, is the broadly comic and genuinely superb second season Xander episode "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", Jane Espenson credits Noxon with teaching her how to write emotionally devastated scenes, with examples being Spike's survivor's guilt in Espenson’s "After Life" or April's death in her "Intervention". Noxon still works in the emotional killing fields.

Espenson, whom I've written about previously here and there, has had a varied post-Joss career, as befits a writer who leapt the comedy/drama divide to join Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the first place. She’s worked in both speculative fiction (Tru Calling, Warehouse 13) and comedy (Jake in Progress, Gilmore Girls), while her early BSG work built off her newfound talent for emotional devastation. Unlisted are her writing gigs on the broad comedy, Andy Barker, PI (which features an outstanding shout-out to her "Doublemeat Palace" BtVS episode) and two animated Batman episodes, which she co-wrote with Doug Petrie. (No surprise there, given what our own Laura Kessenich has written about her predilection for teamwork.)

Petrie, meanwhile, hasn’t done anything that I’m all that interested in watching, although he did write an episode Pushing Daisies, a show near and dear to Kristen’s heart. That makes him the one writer who went on to work for a genuinely quirky show.

David Fury and David Greenwalt, meanwhile, went on to become the most successful Buffy alums. While I find 24 morally and artistically reprehensible, there’s no doubting that writing 20 of its episodes indicates some industry juice. And Lost and Angel both ended up on this TV scholar’s list of the best of the aughties. (Although if Warehouse 13 or Caprica take off, Jane Espenson might win that particular title. The former’s been renewed for a second season, while EW seems to think the latter is pretty good.) I, of course, am waiting with bated breath to see if Lost sticks the dismount and ends its complex narrative in a satisfying manner. Mittel writes about the growth of narrative complexity in The Velvet Light Trap as being the signature innovation of television over the past twenty years, so the fact that the industry hasn’t quite come up with a formula for ending these series yet is quite interesting. (Is there a finale formula?)

Rebecca Rand Kirschner splits her time between melodrama-comedy and straight teen melodrama, demonstrating her particular groove in the Buffyverse. At the other end of the spectrum, Drew Z. Greenberg has written for a genuinely schizo group of shows, ranging from Dexter to Smallville and The O.C. to a 3D CGI Star Wars spin-off. While The O.C. and Smallville quickly became utter dreck, his other two shows have drawn quite a bit of interest for character psychology, plotting and formal innovation. I frankly had no idea that Clone Wars was so popular.

The 1997-8 writing team of Dean Batali and Rob Des Hotel went on to write for nostalgia sitcom and a failed clone of The Daily Show, which must make Fox execs that much more irked at Jon Stewart.

As for Steven S. DeKnight, I despise Superman, so I’ve only ever seen Smallville to root on Lex Luthor. DeKnight cast Lucy Lawless, which is an awesome bit of narrative involution. A Buffy alum casts the star of a sister cult fantasy series… Xena: Warrior Princess. (Sam Raimi and Joss Whedon loved to reference each other when Buffy and Xena were both on the air. Raimi referenced a play called Buffus the Bacchae Slayer, for example.) The fact her next big role on BSG had her renouncing the Greek gods just makes her return to Graeco-Roman history and mythology that much better. Unfortunately, the actor who plays Spartacus was just diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, delaying the production of season two. I wish him a return to health.

We end with Drew Goddard, the one writer to become a film screenwriter, with Cloverfield. He’s clearly moved into JJ Abrams’ orbit, which must indicate that he likes writing about parental issues. (Seriously: look at Alias, Lost, and his Star Trek.) As I recall, Xander has a little dance of parental issues in "Ted", the robo-step-dad episode written by Greenwalt and Whedon.

We’ll see what we can uncover next time by looking at the crew writing Angel and then Firefly and Dollhouse. After that, I’ll share my thoughts about what it means for television studies when we step away from the heavily-promoted cult of the creator-auteur to have a more complex understanding of how television is created.

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