I met a local cineaste after a screening of Rebecca Baron’s How Little We Know of Our Neighbours a while back and we bonded over our experiences watching Todd Haynes, Chantal Akerman and John Cassavetes. But he was surprised—and a bit appalled—when I told him that I taught a course on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in addition to teaching courses on art video. It was as if an admired art historian who also taught courses on the use of color in Archie comics or a literature professor who taught Elvis.
Thinking about this encounter the next day, I realized that BtVS provides pleasures that are related to the ones offered by those filmmakers. Their films encourage readerly behavior: an especially focused attention to the fluxional embodied meanings of performance, the shifting meanings of the relationships between characters, and how formal techniques can alter or subvert those social and embodied meanings already in motion. Those films foster the intellectual multiple-mindedness and emotional responsiveness necessary to best experience them. Films like A Woman Under the Influence, Safe and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles are intense but relatively brief experiences. They depend on the fact that films end to provide the saturation effect that they do. Three hours is enough to slow down the rhythm of the viewers of Jeanne Dielman… and encourage the same kind of obsessive attention to the details of her physical and social environment that her protagonist demonstrates. There’s enough time to work through your resistance to this focused meditative state, become accustomed to it, and then shatter that feeling. Simply put, a Jeanne Dielman… lasting 96 hours spread out over 7 years just isn’t feasible. Akerman crafted the experience so that it would stay with you for hours or days afterwards. But returning to that experience over and over again would be to live Jeanne Dielman’s repetitive life in some way. Akerman wants your maximum amount of emotional and intellectual investment, not your emulation.
BtVS encourages the same kind readerly behavior but in a manner better adapted to television. Episodes like “Innocence” or the ones at the end of season six demand the kind of emotional responsiveness from its viewers that the characters are struggling so mightily to express. Episodes like “Passion”, “The Zeppo”, and “The Wish” depend on an acute awareness the series’ past use of formal techniques and the social relationships they inform as they depict. “Who Are You?” fosters a similar attentiveness to the details of performance. Sarah Michelle Gellar has to perform the role of Buffy plausibly enough to temporarily fool the other characters. She must slip in enough of Dushku’s techniques to signal the presence of Faith’s consciousness in Buffy’s body. Gellar has to play a plausible Buffy using her own techniques, the role of Faith using Dushku’s techniques, and Faith’s understanding of Buffy by blurring both approaches, all at the same time. And episodes like “The Body” or “Restless” put it all together, requiring exactly the same kind of emotional investment, narrative mastery and formal perceptiveness encouraged by those filmmakers.
A dozen or so BtVS episodes succeed even by my friend’s stringent cinematic standards. But serial television isn’t cinema and it’s not inferior as an art form because of that fact. You don’t judge a series based on individual episodes. You judge its artistic worth based on the sum total of the experiences the entire series offers. The cinematic equivalent would be to judge a film based on a handful of shots. Yes, individual episodes end and thus can depend on that fact to saturate audiences in particular ways of feeling and thinking, even with the commercials. But the dominant effect of the series is to exist in time, over a season lasting months and over seasons lasting years. When viewers watch “The Zeppo”, they’re required to remember formal details from two seasons prior for the satire to work and how another character’s loss of virginity felt during the previous season. For “Becoming, Part Two” to move its audience away from the blood lust of the action genre to a genuine empathy for the villain, viewers have to have been doing their emotional work in the prior eight episodes and building on that investment each time they tune in. For Willow’s descent into murderous madness to be as morally demanding as it is, it requires the viewer to reflect on dozens of small moments that Hannigan’s performance tucked away into scenes over the previous six years. The longer a demanding serial narrative runs, the more effort it requires to be alive to the histories of performance, social interaction, and stylistic tendencies enacted over years.
Film requires you to become adept at those skills in a responsive and reactive manner, then allows you at leisure to process that experience. To borrow a business metaphor, it provides interest on your investment. A handful of serial television programs do the same, but then puts those very same skills back to the test. BtVS provides compound interest on that very same investment.