Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Demolition Man

I always has this idea that if I couldn't write a best seller, then perhaps I could have a brilliant idea, sell it to Hollywood and make shedloads of money by being an ideas man. Quite how you become an 'ideas man' without knowing the right people; the ones open to ideas, never really occurred to me. But, hey, as pipe dreams go this was one of my better ones.

Of course the problem with being an ideas man is that by the time your idea is actually turned into a feature film or TV series it has been dissected, defenestrated and put back together with considerably less care and attention than Colin Clive managed in 1931. What you're left with is not a Karloff, but more likely an Ed Wood.

Joss Whedon had a good idea. He sold it to a woman called Fran Rubel Kuzui, who with her husband, made the feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Go here: if you don't already know about this abomination that starred Kirsty Swanson (a relative of Gloria), Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer and Pee Wee Herman (it also had Hilary Swank and David Arquette in it, for you people who need to know all the facts).

It would be fair to say that even though Whedon is credited as the writer on this film, he did lose most of his control and best part of his script to the talentless Kuzui family; who, it seems, felt the film would be more of a success if they made it a sort of bad teen comedy rather than a seriously funny examination of an emancipated woman. It is also fair to say that the film probably made as much money from the curious few who delighted in the strange title and opted to go and see the film rather than any good reviews it might have received - which, after extensive searching, it didn't.

5 years after and Whedon was approached by some genius of a TV producer and asked if he wanted to resurrect his vampire slayer as a TV series. There were no guarantees, it was being optioned as a filler; the type of short season designed to replace televisual failures that never make it past the opening 12 or 13 episodes. It replaced a TV series called Savannah which had the distinction of having Ray (Twin Peaks) Wise in it and had managed a second season, but died a death suitable for any Buffy episode.

I remember the TV SF show Babylon 5 and how, to be fair, it managed to make it to 5 series, because with a couple of exceptions, the first season was utter crap. It was poorly acted, had substandard Star Trek ideas and very little soul; yet it went on to become one of the greatest SF TV shows of all time and feature one of the most ambitious story lines ever attempted before or after - The Shadow War. The thing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was that the first 12 episodes of the first season were pretty dire. I remember watching a couple of them when they first appeared on British TV in 1998 and thinking, "This is shit."

However, by the end of that year, the second season has already found its way onto our screens. While the wife and I had given up on it, Neil, her brother, hadn't and one evening as we were getting ready to go out on the town, he asked if we'd ever watched Buffy. We explained that we had and thought it was rubbish. He laughed at us and said that we were missing the best thing on television. Now, both of us respected Neil's opinion; he had good taste, so we decided to give Buffy one more opportunity. We sat down and watched the repeat showing of season 2, episode 6, called appropriately enough Halloween.

It was the same cast and crew as season 1, but there was something altogether more... developed than the initial episodes we'd watched, which appeared to be poorly executed monster of the week show. Halloween was quite extraordinary, as was Lie to Me the following episode. It only took two and we were hooked. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had not only come of age, it had surpassed all expectations.

Now, at this point it has to be said that Buffy wasn't immune to some really awful episodes and that not all of the first season were that bad. Like Babylon 5, you really need to watch the first season of Buffy, because it sets the groundwork and like many great TV shows since, there have been episodes that have you shaking your head in disbelief that something as genuinely unique as Buffy could succumb to such shit as Ted, Beer Bad and I Was Made To Love You - but it did and invariably these really cheesy episodes were a prelude to something altogether bigger and badder.

I still believe, special FX apart, that seasons 2 and 3 take some beating. It fulfilled Whedon's High School as Hell metaphor perfectly and we watched all the characters grow, flourish and become individuals. this wasn't just a cast made up of Hollywood brats who could all have walked out of the same casting room; there was something genuine about them; even Charisma Carpenter, who played the brunette bimbo (a great counterbalance to Buffy's anything but blonde bimbo) became a rounded, believable character. Whedon and his team spent as much time investing in the supporting characters as they did in the ongoing story. By the end of it all, it wasn't about Buffy; she was almost unimportant; it was about the way all of the supporting characters had become the most important characters, because without them the series would never have been so successful.

Returning to the cheesy elements; there was an episode in season 5 - a season that destroyed a lot of preconceptions about the series - which stands out as the real low point of the entire story. The previously mentioned I Was Made To Love You is 44 minutes long and the first 42½ will have you cringing in disbelief. I remember that by this time Neil had moved out and was living in London. Fridays were still Buffy nights and we all watched it rather than go and strut our stuff. The episode was so bad that it prompted Neil to ring up during the 3rd advert break. "Can you believe how bad this is?" He asked me and for several minutes we whined and moaned about how Jane Espenson, normally a solid writer, had besmirched the good name of Buffy to produce this rancid piece of crap. At 8.55pm, the phone rang again; it was Neil again. "Oh wow. Did you see that coming?" He asked and no we hadn't. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it and may decide to treat themselves; but suffice it to say the following episode is probably the best 45 minutes of television I have ever seen. It was above brilliant, it was so good it got nominated and won an award. TV critics still cite it as one of the greatest episodes of any television series ever. And that was what Buffy possessed. The ability to floor you; to blind side you and then shatter any preconceptions you might have.

It wasn't the first time that this kind of thing happened. During season 2 something totally out of left field happens that makes you realise that things are capable of happening to characters in this series that you really wouldn't expect. Take for instance the introduction of Spike in season 2. He had a bad mid-Atlantic accent, got on your nerves from almost the first moment he appeared on screen and ended up being the most heroic and lovable vampire you could possibly imagine. His transformation from bad ass vampire slayer's slayer to smitten puppy dog could only have happened in this series and if you forget his reappearance in Angel, his was possibly the most beautiful and magnificent screen death of all time. It was one of the few moments in the entire 7 seasons where I had to wipe a tear from my eye.

As you can see, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was more than just a television series for me. I could bang on about it for hours. It wasn't just me either - despite only ever getting, at its height, about 5.5million US viewers a week, discerning television watchers all realised just how important it was. In many eyes, Buffy is up there with The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing and NYPD Blue as essential viewing.

Now, we have the news that Fran Rubel Kuzui has sold her stake in the picture to Warner Bros and they intend to resurrect the character - without Whedon and his team, and without Sarah Michelle Geller, Allyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head or any of the other unbelievably important actors who made this series everything that was good about television.

Go here: and here: and finally here: to get an idea of why this has made national news and why it has a lot of people more than a bit miffed. Some things just make very little sense and this is one of them...

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to sit down and watch the whole thing again -- assuming I know someone who owns it -- as I remember coming to love the show, but I'm fairly sure I missed whole chunks of it around series two and three.

    I also remember thinking that series five had a great ending and the whole thing should have stopped there, because one or two episodes aside, it just wasn't very good after that.

    I also remember having an argument -- online of course -- with Peter David about something in series six or seven, although I don't remember what it was now. It was something to do with Giles, I think, and it turned out that I was right and he was wrong. I'd thought it was quite obvious, but David was certain that because the thing in question was in a Marti Noxon episode, it wasn't what I thoguht it was, but was instead a case of bad writing. I still don't know why he hated Noxon so much.