rewatching all of the television series on which Joss Whedon has had overall creative control

TV  Earlier in the year, perhaps Easter time, perhaps before, I embarked on rewatching all of the television series on which Joss Whedon has had overall creative control (Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse) in preparation for finally seeing The Avengers (Assemble) on its blu-ray release. Watching the original unaired Buffy presentation with the wrong Willow and Stephen Tobolowsky as Principal Flutie, it’s not completely clear that Whedon would go on to produce some of the best loved television series of all time. But slowly after a few episodes, the series built its own unique identity, addiction set and here Whedon is over a decade later as the director of the biggest film of all time and I am attempting to review all of them in three paragraphs each.

My expected appreciation curve for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was that after a barnstorming first three seasons, the show would become a rather patchier affair in which individual piece of classic television usually written and directed by Whedon himself (Hush, The Body, Once More With Feeling) provided a scaffold for less compelling overall story arcs and baddies, with the Nerd Trio in Season Six, and Season Six actually the nadir. Some of which is true, but watched in concentrated form, its notable how even the worst episodes (Beer Bad, Doublemeat Palace) still contain some cracking dialogue and characterisation or a subplot which manages to utilise the horror genre as a metaphore for the human condition.

Indeed, notably it’s at its weakest when pandering to the fans. The interminable love triangle between the slayer and her two vampires, as well as prefiguring Twilight is often about as interesting, especially in the latter stages when Buffy and Spike are throwing each other against the supporting walls of houses. Whedon’s work excels only when he’s cruel, replacing Angel with a figure who’s the exact opposite but arguably more likeable and killing Tara, breaking up one of the great television romances. Even Dawn, the previously non-existent sister for Buffy manages to sidestep the Scrappy-Doo potential by not making her a Potential, just a normal kid that Buffy must learn to protect eventually by letting go.

If something weakens the show latterly it is the shift away from the core group and it’s only when the Buffy returns to the school and the Scoobys it finds its centre of gravity again. What I wasn’t prepared for was choosing Anya as my favourite character thanks to Emma Caulfield’s fearlessly layered performance. If there’s a tragedy in the ensuing comics, it’s that Anya’s not still in there, saying the things no one dares to. Watching again I was reminded too that the demon in one of the show’s worst episodes, Hell’s Bells, in which Xander witlessly leaves Anya at the alter has my name, or at least in his original human form.  If only it had been Conversations with Dead People or some such.

If I say that Angel’s my least favourite of Whedon’s series, it’s because creatively it’s the least certain (which is quite something considering the first five episodes of Dollhouse). The premise is excellent, the atoning vampire helping the helpless, but as the series continues, perhaps for budgetary reasons, the show finds its story playing out across just a few sets and the sense of a metropolis in which the supernatural intermingles is replaced with the kind of narrative navel gazing which can become quite old pretty quickly. Which it does, until the middle seasons in which most of the characters are unlikeable and there’s an apocalypse too many played out across the foyer of a hotel which becomes greyer as time goes on.

Borrowing this viewing order from the web I worked through Angel and Buffy enmeshed together and it is noteworthy how often a story element from one series is so seamlessly passed to another, either through mystical amulets or characters like Faith, unrelated story arcs running in parallel yet able to resonate, like the flashbackpalooze of Fool for Love and Darla with its moments in which the same events are viewed from the viewpoints of characters from different series. Only by watching both together are we able to see the dramatic character development in Cordelia and Wesley, even if arguably in the former case its pissed up a wall by the old stand-by of demonic possession and wilful blindness of the other characters.  How could they not know it wasn't her?

Remarkably Angel the series is at its best when it’s at its dopiest, when Angel the character’s dancing, Wesley’s drunk or Fred’s being kick-ass. But also when it’s willing to take risks with those characters like a testing ground for the moral ambiguity which would be the lifeblood of Dollhouse. When Angel locks a group of lawyers in a basement knowing it will mean certain death at the fangs of his historical cohorts it’s all the more shocking because it’s the so-called lighter version of the character and not his utterly evil Angelus form. Like Buffy it’s also in the closing stages that the show becomes watchable again, when it largely ditches the story arcs and returns to a largely stand alone format.

It’s also remarkable that while making both of these series Whedon was also able to produce what’s arguably his greatest achievement, the fourteen episodes of Firefly. Buffy’s Buffy of course, but of all Whedon’s shows, its his space western which from the opening episodes has the most likeable characters, simultaneously unbelievable yet plausible reality and dynamite storytelling. Like all of his series, it’s also rich with language, but unlike the others actively challenges the listener’s ears requiring multiple viewings for us to completely understand every conversation (and being versed in Chinese) and is refreshingly lacking in pop culture references, beyond visual and narrative influences.  Cancellation came too soon.  I would gladly have sacrificed Angel's later seasons for more of this.  Except Smile Time.

Except, like My So-Called Life and others, its brevity makes it all the more precious not least because unlike other series it was never left to go off the boil or repeat itself. There are few clunkers with only Shindig ever spoken of as being sub-par even though it’s a master class for Nathan Fillion’s comic timing and Jewel Staite’s general adorableness. The final episode, Objects in Space is the highlight with its poetic imagery and dialogue and a star-making (or should have been) performance from Summer Glau. If the show hadn’t had the benefit of its film spin-off Serenity to somewhat close out its storyline, the final shot of River’s jack becoming a planet would have still been perfect.

If we hadn’t been gifted the film what would the latter seasons be like? I always imagine Christina Hendricks’s con artist joining the crew just before she would have taken the Mad Men gig and presumably the story of Summer would have been a constant undercurrent. We would have discovered who Shepherd Book really was and what Inara had in her syringe. Zoe and Wash would have had kids or divorced. Simon and Kaylee would have married and Mal would remain stoic through out. In my darkest moments I even imagine a season five shocker of Serenity being destroyed leaving the crew alone on a planet, the rest of the season a battle to gain a new ship, Serenity II. But the show could never be that dark somehow.

Unlike Dollhouse which is all about the darkness. Lacking the linguistic ingenuity of Firefly but even more network interference, this is perhaps creatively Whedon’s most troubled show but certainly his thematically and intellectually most rewarding. Hobbled from the off by Fox’s prudity in relation to what the Dollhouse was made for, it is still able by the close of its second season to tell an exciting and narratively self contained story which somehow manages to even make its notoriously shaky first five episodes a benefit. From a show without a protagonist it became a show with multiple protagonists and all of them played by Eliza Dushku, even if arguably all of them are also Faith with “wicked kung fu moves”.

Ironically its in these latter stages that the show finds what would have been a network pleasing premise at the beginning which would also have had just as many interesting things to say on the nature of identity. Imagine instead if the show had begun with Echo accidentally absorbing all of those personalities and skills able to switch between them as the mission requires. Those first five episodes might have played out in much the same way but with added benefit of a central character w could immediately cheer for especially if she was hiding her condition from Adelle and the rest of the Dollhouse. A bit Alias perhaps but that’s no bad thing and certainly more coherent than the unaired pilot included on the dvd.

But the bravery of the series is that ultimately none of its characters are really heroes. With the exception of some of the dolls, all of them have a morally ambiguous core, even Echo as she usurps her body's former occupant, and it’s a rare occasion when an entire series is filled with characters we love to hate, something not even Galactica achieved. It’s like a Shakespearean problem play, twenty-six episodes of tragicomedy ultimately topped off with a hopeful apocalypse. That Topher, the best character, is arguably the architect of that apocalypse demonstrates the risks the show was taking in its birth on network television. That it was still given the opportunity to complete its story is a testament not just to Joss’s fans but also their buying power when faced with the completed box set.

So having watched nearly fifteen years worth of television in just over six months I can absolutely see why Whedon inspires in us such devotion. His ability to create characters within ensembles all of which could be capable of starring in their own shows and sometimes do, consistently wanting to challenge the audience and self critical enough to know when he’s not succeeded, but also with such an utter love for his own material, rarely showing a that’ll do attitude to what’s being produced in his name. When his shows almost fall apart in someone else’s hand, its often because he’s creating perfection elsewhere. Lord knows what’ll happen now that he’s in control of the Marvel universe. Now, I’ll be in my bunk.

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