Friday, May 28, 2010

TV Buffy vs. Comic Buffys

The long-awaited fifth issue of Watcher Junior is here! To facilitate dialogue between the readers and the student writers of our peer-reviewed scholarly journal, I’ve done a blog post introducing each one so that readers can use the comments to give feedback.

“The Many Faces of Buffy” is the most formally inventive article to be published thus far anywhere in the Whedon scholarship, bar none. Featuring copious illustrations analyzed by a professional illustrator, this submission is a must-read for anyone interested in the eighth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or any of the prior comics associated with the series. Lauren Schumacher examines the various Comic Book Buffys in light of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s iconic features—her nose, eyes, hair, and muscle tone. There are also multiple Television Buffys, as Gellar’s own body changes as she ages from 20 to 27, which leads Schumacher to ask whether Gellar herself is an approximation of an Ideal Buffy. Her article presents a close analysis of the work of various Buffy illustrators: Cliff Richards, Georges Jeanty and Jeff Matsuda. The ultimate question these artists grapple with is what the essential meaning of Buffy (and Buffy) is. And that’s something all our readers and writers are interested in. Take a look and let Lauren know what you think!

Willow vs. Addiction Stereotypes

Jo Latham’s article is on a topic near and dear to my heart: the representation of addiction in the Buffyverse. I’ve written on this issue before in Buffy and Angel Conquer the Internet, examining how the Alcoholics Anonymous ethos is used in the redemptions of Faith and Angel, then transformed with Andrew’s struggles with media addiction.

Latham tackles an issue I’d largely avoided: Willow’s addiction to magicks in season six and seven. He finds that Buffy the Vampire Slayer reflects the complexities of how we use the terms “drugs” and “addiction” and how those meanings have further varied historically. Drawing on Jacques Derrida and a variety of Whedon scholars, he observes that the series uses Willow to reference and undermine popular stereotypes of drug users as weak, dependent, irrational and deviant. Instead, he finds that the long form of serial television allows the series to investigate the role of social position and group dynamics in drug addiction, thus questioning the bias towards individualism in contemporary drug narratives. It’s a fascinating article that sheds new light on the value of the series’ dark seasons in contemporary culture. Use the comments to tell him what you think!

Buffy vs. Her Dreams

Laura Kessenich returns to Watcher Junior with “‘I’m beginning to understand this now’: Explicating Restless. This article uses Jungian dream analysis to examine Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy’s dreams in the season four finale. Kessenich takes the reader through the basics of Jung’s theories, providing concise explanations of the role of dreams, the collective unconscious, the Self, the shadow and the animus and anima in us all. Next, she provides a very detailed reading of each dream, one which is distinctly different from the literary analyses of Rhonda Wilcox and Matthew Pateman. What role does Tara play in Willow’s dream? Why can’t Xander sit still in his dream? Why is Giles obsessed with time? How is Buffy prepared for the darkness of the last three seasons in her dream? Share your speculations and provide feedback in the comments below.

Finally, as editor, I’d like to thank our publisher, the Whedon Studies Association, for the opportunity that this publication offers these writers. There’s very few publishing outlets for academic writing by undergraduates, and virtually none for undergraduates in the arts and humanities. In addition, I’d like to thank Kristen Romanelli, our web editor. Lauren Schumacher’s article shines in the online format. Laura Kessenich’s piece would have to be chopped down to a tenth of its size to make it into print or she’d have to get a book deal. All of these pieces needed both the Whedon Studies people and Kristen to find their audience.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

2 Weeks 'til Slayage.

Well, an updated schedule draft has been posted over at Slayage Online, so I'm going to try to schedule out what, exactly, I'll be up to in two week when SC4 begins in St. Augustine.

I expect to find Friday's keynote by Janet K. Halfyard ("Listening
 Moping") very interesting since music, specifically score, is an area of interest of mine.  In my very own "Where Are They Now?" aside, Robert Duncan (of Buffy Season 7 fame) can be heard on Castle and Lie to Me.  Prior to this television season, he could be heard on Tru Calling and The Unit.  Christophe Beck (of pretty-much-the-rest-of-Buffy-that-isn't-Thomas-Wanker fame)1 has been busy lately in the B-comedy circuit, having composed the scores for Hot Tub Time Machine2, Date Night, and Death at a Funeral3.  Before this year's crop of comedies, he worked on the likes of The Hangover, I Love You, Beth Cooper, and Saved!4

That was a digression.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Glee's "Dream On" vs. Reality

The highly anticipated Joss Whedon episode of Glee, "Dream On", features Artie admitting to his girlfriend, his school counselor and himself that his dream is to become a dancer. Tina does research showing advances in spinal cord injury therapy, raising Artie's hopes, only to have Emma, the school counselor, point out that these "miracle cures" are a decade away. The episode ends with Artie sadly singing "Dream a Little Dream" and Tina dances with another man. I'm sure that there's not a dry eye in the Gleekdom.

What's terribly sad is that it's completely unnecessary. Had Tina entered the terms "Wheelchair Dance" into Google instead, she would have found that 22 countries have participated in a wheelchair dance sport competition association annually since 1998 and that there's a reality program on BBC3 devoted to selecting their nation's dance competitors. Whedon and the show's writers should have known about integrated dance, which crafts distinct movements and kinetics by using dancers with and without physical disabilities. Practiced over the past three decades by more than two dozen dance companies worldwide, this genre includes numbers choreographed by such movement innovators as Bill T. Jones, Joanna Haigood, Victoria Marks, Stephen Petronio and Margaret Jenkins, amongst others. If you'd like to see an example of how beautiful a dancer Artie could be, watch this short clip of the AXIS dance company's 2009 performance of "Light Shelter". Note how the choreography treats the assistive technology as a part of the body, which allows for greater complexity. The dancers use the handles for lifts. The wheels aid jumps. There are dips, tilts and spins. One dancer twirls another in the air slowly, chair and all.

I remember when Joss Whedon threatened to walk off the set so that he could have two women in a committed relationship kiss on screen. I wish he'd had the same moral courage to stand up to the creators of Glee rather than lie to American audiences just for the sake of a cheap sentimental plot twist. Your writing over three series shows that authenticity makes for vastly better drama than is on display here.

Seriously, Joss, make the Glee writers do the research. Reality is much more interesting than the smallness of the dreams on display in this episode of Glee.

You can find out more about how the series uses Artie in "Wheels" at In Medias Res, Bitch Magazine and Wheelchair Dancer. You can also find out more in an article I've submitted to be published in a future issue of the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Buffy vs. the Card Catalog

This blog post is just a quick note to any of our readers doing research this time of year, either for term papers or conference papers at Slayage. (In two weeks! Yikes! Time to get writing on MY conference paper, "From Beneath You, It Foreshadows: Why The First Season Matters".) Alysa Hornick of Buffyology: The Buffyverse Bibliography writes that she's done a massive upgrade on that site. Here's a list of improvements:

  • It's new name reflects its broader focus: Whedonology: An Academic Whedon Studies Bibliography. And, as you can see, it's moved to a new url...
  • The Whedonian papers presented at Southwest/Texas PCA/ACA conference in February are up.
  • Jonathan McIntosh's article "What Would Buffy Do?: Notes on Dusting Edward Cullen" is up. That's an article that accompanied the viral alternate reality vid, "Buffy v. Edward. I can say from personal experience in two classes that my students adored its takedown of the Twilight series.
  • In addition, she uploaded the contents of Sexual Rhetoric in the Works of Joss Whedon and Music, Sound and Silence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, two books I plan on picking up at Slayage.
  • Finally, new articles from the latest issue of Slayage are up on their site, and all of the Slayage articles have had their entries changed to reflect the new name of the journal (Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association) and its new numbering system.

So, if you're like me, this update's goodness lies in making the painstaking task of citation and research into the enormous field of Whedon studies just a little bit easier.... and just in time, too!

And, because I love quotations, a few about the importance of cataloging:

Shera's Two Laws of Cataloging: Law #1, No cataloger will accept the work of any other cataloger. Law #2: No cataloger will accept his/her own work six months after the cataloging. —Jesse Shera, 1977

Classification, broadly defined, is the act of organizing the universe of knowledge into some systematic order. It has been considered the most fundamental activity of the human mind. — "Cataloguing and Classification: An Introduction"

"Mary Kay is one of the secret masters of the world: a librarian. They control information. Don't ever piss one off." — The Callahan Touch

And, there are these lines from season one's "I, Robot—You, Jane," beginning with a book scanning project:

Giles: "Miss Calendar, I'm sure your computer science class is fascinating. But I happen to believe one can survive in modern society without being enslaved to the idiot box."
Jenny: "That's TV. The idiot box is TV. This is the good box."
Giles: "Well, I still prefer a good book."
Fritz: "The printed page is obsolete. Information isn't bound up anymore. It's an entity. The only reality is virtual. If you're not jacked in, you're not alive."
Jenny: "Thank you, Fritz, for making us all sound like crazy people."


Giles: "I'll be back in the Middle Ages."
Jenny: "Did you ever leave?"

And lastly:

Giles: (comes back in) Truthfully, I'm even less anxious to be around computers than I used to be.
Jenny: Well, it was your book that started all the trouble, not a computer. Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?
Giles: The smell.
Jenny: Computer's don't smell, Rupert.
Giles: I know! Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a, a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences... long forgotten. Books smell. Musty and, and, and, and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer, is, uh, it... it has no, no texture, no, no context. It's, it's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then, then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um... smelly.

And that speech is the first on screen confirmation that Giles is a "sexy fuddy duddy," as Jenny would later describe him.

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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Notes from the web editor.

This began as a post on my own blog, but I quickly realized that it should probably be crossposted here.

[Watcher Junior has] been a neat project.  I've been focusing a lot on SEO for WJ's website.  Now, for a little web journal with a very obscure subject ("Whedon Studies"), we've been putting up some excellent numbers in the past week and a half since I've implemented some changes.  We broke 500 hits in the first week, and the past two days alone gave us 115 hits.  ...Yay!  Not bad for an oddball little site.

It's so interesting to see which search engine keywords send people to the site and what articles they go read.  What's really fascinating, though, is seeing where everyone is coming from: Sweden, U.K., Malaysia, Australia, Germany!  I didn't realize Buffy got so much international love.  In addition to the SEO, I started a Twitter account (@watcherjunior) and a Facebook Page for Watcher Junior to try to spread the word to the masses, especially since the fifth issue is getting ready for publication.  And there's also the blog.  I'm hoping that we can use that to give regular updates on the Slayage Conference as well as provide insights as Issue 5 gets closer to going live.

That is how I've been spending a whole lot of my time, and I've been loving it.  I really want to get back into this "web thing."  I've been around since HTML 1, messing around and coding in Notebook when I was 13 years old (...early-mid 1990s).  It was exciting then and it's exciting now; I love seeing what we can do with a site, some code, a good connection, and awesome social media connections.

Where Are They Now?: Buffy's Writers

What did the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer end up working on AFTER their time working with Joss Whedon? Listed are the series or films in which the person was listed for multiple episodes (if applicable) as the writer, an executive producer (which often entails significant creative responsibilities), or the creator. (Important to note: I've excluded listing series on which the individual served as a producer or consulting producer.) Included in parenthesis is a signature Buffy the Vampire episode they wrote. I’ve excluded work on other series with Joss Whedon, with the exception of David Greenwalt’s status as co-creator of Angel.
Writer (notable BtVS episode):
Jane Espenson (Superstar):
David Fury (Helpless):
  • Writer: 24 (20), Lost (4).
  • Executive Producer: 24, 24: Redemption.
  • Co-Executive Producer: The Inside, Lost.
Douglas Petrie (Fool for Love):
David Greenwalt (Angel):
Rebecca Rand Kirschner (Tabula Rasa):
  • Writer: 90210 (7), Gilmore Girls (10).
  • Executive Producer: 90210.
  • Co-Executive Producer: Gilmore Girls.
Drew Z. Greenberg (The Killer in Me):
Rob Des Hotel (Phases):
Dean Batali (Phases):
Steven S. DeKnight (Seeing Red):
  • Writer: Spartacus: Blood and Sand (12), Smallville (15).
  • Executive Producer: none.
  • Co-Executive Producer: Smallville.
  • Creator: Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
Drew Goddard (Lies My Parents Told Me):
Next, we’ll look at the writers for Angel.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Buffy vs. The New York Times

Over the past few years, a few of my students have researched how Buffy the Vampire Slayer was received in its first season. Some of the reviews they dug up were fascinating, so I thought that I’d share some juicy quotes from their sources:

John J. O’Connor, of The New York Times, panned Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a 1997 article talking about the “fledgling WB network” and how The X-Files and other shows should “not worry” about this supernatural show because “nobody is likely to take this oddball camp exercise seriously….” O’Connor goes on to describe the show’s audience as being “Humbert Humberts all over America” because the main character wears “hot pants and boots” and “changes from one skimpy outfit to another.” He finds amusing the concept of a feminine powerful girl as the main character, writing “What a bother, when there are split hair ends to worry about.” He dismissed it in the end, writing, “The series is fun, but that’s a thought to make you really shudder.” 

(Of course, when students do similar assignments on other works, they find that the paper of record got it wrong on Psycho, Night of the Living Dead and All in the Family too.)

Todd Everett of Variety: “Direction by Charles Martin Smith and John T. Kretchmer is OK; if story sags a bit in the second half, it’s a script problem. Series has potential for early-teen viewing, though a second episode viewed was far less amusing than show’s original segment.”

Henry Mietkiewica of the Toronto Star: “The TV version comes up short. Satire is fine in a one-shot project, but it’s tough to sustain in an ongoing series. We’re left with the amusing but unexceptional tales of Buffy.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Kristen Baldwin: “Infinitely more entertaining than the cute but forgettable 1992 movie it’s based on, Buffy The Vampire Slayer …is this mid-season's most distinctive and sharply written new show.”

Tom Gliatto of People magazine, loved the series, writing, “...all in all, this looks like one of the brightest new shows of the season.... The cast…is as smooth an ensemble as you could wish in an hour-long series.” But I love this observation: “The vampires, presided over by a king bloodsucker (Mark Metcalf) who looks like an albino rat in a leather bar, are the only disappointment. Because of his fangs, Metcalf slurps his lines."

Franklin Foer, surveying his colleagues’ opinion at Slate Magainze, found BtVS to be one of the editorial boards favorites of 1997.

Interestingly, the Parent’s Television Council didn’t say one negative word about BtVS until season four, when it started to make its top ten list for worst television, debuting at fourth, then third, worst for season six... and then not making the list at all for season seven. (Angel's second and fourth seasons made their lists, incidentally.)

Consider this blog post a follow-up to Kristen’s “6 episode rule,” as clearly reviewing a series based on a few episodes is a holdover from television production practices pre-Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks. Myself, BtVS inspired me to try to give a series an entire season, although that was pretty painful with Babylon 5 and Charmed

Tip of the pen: Malika Moro-Cohen, Katherine Farino, Ariana Sigel.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Not So Happy About Happy Town.

That's the initial reaction, two episodes into the new ABC series starring Whedon alum (and personal favorite) Amy Acker. Since I've enacted what I like to call the "Dollhouse Rule"1 into my viewing habits, Happy Town has until the sixth episode to grab my attention. Now... Twin Peaks2.

So far, this is playing like one big, sloppy homage to Twin Peaks but without the attention to obscure detail or David Lynch's whimsy. That's right: whimsy. They've had a main character come from Snoqualmie, WA -- a primary filming location for TP. They've alluded to a "man with one hand," which is close enough to a "one armed man." The coffee. Tapioca instead of cherry pie. Golden eagle in lieu of owls. It's not even trying to make a departure. It's a Canal Street version of Twin Peaks. I swear, if the Magic Man turns out to be an entity...

Anyway, there's the rant. The two-episode-judgment is that Amy Acker, Sam Neill, Frances Conroy, and Steven Weber are slumming it, and it annoys me that this is the reason that we had next to none of Dr. Saunders in the second season of Dollhouse, a show that managed to convince me of its worth within six episodes. I suspect that Happy Town will not succeed in the same way, but I'm trying to keep an open mind.

1 Dollhouse really took off with "Man On the Street" (DH1006). Had I judged the series on the first five episodes alone, I would have given up by "The Target."

2I wasn't allowed to watch Twin Peaks when it aired on television as I was only 9 years old. I was finally able to see it in college when I studied Angelo Badalamenti for my film score class. Love at first sight.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Are Fanvids Art?

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm going to say right up front: I'm not the academic half of this publishing team.  I'm a media professional and video editor and I have no background in "media studies" or "fan studies" beyond what was covered in my undergraduate courses at Fairfield.  That said, this here is a quality bit of editing.  Some people roll their eyes when the topic of fanvidding or "transformative works" comes up, but here's an opinion from someone who edits every day and gets paid to do so: This is awesome.  Not only is it awesome, but it's totally legitimate.  That's my "professional opinion."

David can probably get into all the theory and such behind vids (he's done lectures on this sort of thing; I've just assembled DVD compilations of them for said lectures), but I can give a quick techie commentary.  What we're looking at is a 3 minute video cut from 968 minutes of source footage (assuming 44 minutes per episode over the entirety of Season 5 of BtVS).  That's more than just commitment -- that's a labor of love.  The editor of this trailer culled the perfect shots out of 968 minutes and pieced them into a tight, concise 3 minute sequence that effectively promotes Season 5 as something that I would be eager to watch.  I've seen Season 5.  I didn't even like Season 5 all that much.  That's a testament to how well crafted it is.

Some fanvids are slapped together.  A great many of them, however, are as artfully made as this example.  And this is an example of a very traditional video.  It doesn't stray from a standard, modern trailer format: prologue, logos, body, climax, title, denouement, tag.  This fits what it's trying to do and that's fine.  It embraces as well as parodies.  Isn't that what Joss Whedon does so often when he explores genre?  He may embrace and embody, but he rarely loses his sense of humor.  For examples of less traditionally formatted fanvids, I recommend taking a gander at Luminosity's work.  She's actually given me edit-envy.