Print Reviews

Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy

Candace Havens



Introductory note for non US-readers: This article contains a spoiler or two for Buffy’s seventh season.

This is shameful.

Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy is so lacking in any healthy cynicism about its subject as to render itself totally useless to anyone who is not already a full-blown devotee.

Whedon’s accomplishments merit attention; at his best, he is a good producer and director of television, a supremely talented writer and gifted creator. None of these is a small thing to be. And at their best, his series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are really good shows, and that’s not a small thing to be either.

However, there is an unfortunate tendency among some of his fans to elevate him to near-messiah status for it. You see it when debating with some Buffy fans; they spout “Joss says’’ and “Joss has a plan,” like Mao-quoting communists or Newt-quoting Republicans.

What I’m talking about here is the inability to deal with our heroes as humans, with all the cracks in the greasepaint that implies. Look, George Burns cheated on Gracie. John Lennon was a woman-beating, family-abandoning drug addict. Aaron Sorkin lost his balance creatively in the third season of West Wing and probably sealed its fate. They’re still heroes of mine, but I balance the nice with the not-so-nice, and I try to see them fairly. A distressing amount of Joss Whedon’s fans, however, seem unable to conceive of their hero ever making a mistake, doing a not-so-nice thing or sometimes being a not-so-nice person.

And now one of them has written a book.

An independent-thinking writer could make much of questions such as:

Is Whedon “the Charles Dickens of the New Millennium”, as some would have it, or “just” a talented writer who plays to a passionate niche audience?

In its final seasons, did Buffy prove the truth of David Mamet’s comment that “If we watch any television drama long enough… we will see the original dramatic thrust give way to domestic squabbles?’

Is the story “God” as Whedon has sometimes claimed to justify unpopular plot points? Or do the desires of fans, networks, or series stars ever affect it, for the better or worse, as increasing evidence seems to suggest?

Someone who is awed by their biographical subject ought to choose another line of work. Good biographers, even flawed, sensationalistic ones like Randy Taraborrelli or Bob Woodward, approach their subjects as reporters, not fans. Here, author Candace Havens seems to have embraced every utterance from Whedon’s mouth as some sort of universal truth. Any controversial questions, such as those raised by fans who objected to the death of the character Tara on the Buffy series, are answered only by Whedon’s stock replies, without the author having to devote a moment’s thought to the validity of any of the issues.

I don’t expect that Havens’ answers to any of the questions I raise in this piece would be the same as mine. What offends me is that she seems unaware that such questions exist. If Whedon is as brilliant as Havens believes he is (and there’s a case to be made), then surely he can stand up to a bit more scrutiny than she provides.

Some of this book’s flaws are explained (though not excused) by the fact that it was written early into Buffy’s seventh season. One could hope that if Havens were writing her book now, at the end of that seventh and last season of Buffy, she would question some of Whedon’s statements quoted here. Like:

If ‘blood is kept to a minimum’ on Buffy, then what about the demon tearing big hunks of Willow’s flesh off her body?

If “one or two vampires is just as good as 100 if the story is good,” what are we to infer about an interminable, 22-episode story featuring an army of “Ubervamps” as its rousing conclusion?

If there are any NewsRadio fans in the audience, this is a lot like reading a biography of Bill McNeal written by Matthew. Havens’ writing is so over-the-top gushy and fawning that one is sorely tempted to ask (appropriately enough for Buffy’s high school fixation), If you love Joss Whedon so much, why don’t you marry him? When Havens finally admits there might be a teensy flaw in the “Jossverse” (the drug addiction metaphor of Willow’s falling into dark magic was “not very subtle”) one is dumbfounded. It’s as if Bill Clinton endorsed George W. Bush.

Fairness bids me to tell you my expectation for this book was not that high. Nevertheless, I was astonished at its ineptness. It might be impressive, as Havens believes, that everyone she quotes has only the nicest things to say about Whedon. Until you reflect that almost without exception at the time they were interviewed, those quoted were employed by Joss Whedon.

Not content to let Whedon’s statements raise unanswered questions, Havens raises more herself through sloppy writing:

At one point she appears to equate Willow’s lesbianism with her magic addiction, but Havens’ writing is so unclear I honestly can’t tell if she meant to make that point.

When did Buffy “plunge to her death through the gates of hell?” Presumably, this is a reference to the end of the series fifth season, but it’s an inaccurate one.

If “no writer, however talented, can write 22 episodes a year,” what are we to tell J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote 60 episodes of Babylon 5 in an unbroken streak? Or Aaron Sorkin, who wrote all but a handful of Sports Night and The West Wing episodes over the past five years?

If “most things Joss is involved with are successful” what about Firefly, Alien Resurrection, or the original Buffy movie? Actually, for that question, at least, Havens does provide an answer. As a rule, judging from this book, everything worthy is to Joss Whedon’s credit, and any unworthiness is the fault of others, the not-Joss. Meanwhile, Havens gives the impression Whedon produced, directed and wrote Buffy almost single-handedly; he developed the special effects and choreographed the dance numbers of the musical episode himself. He created the Angel series alone too. A Joss Whedon written and directed episode is automatically one of the Standouts of All Time. Joss is Right About Everything.

Part of me suspects (or at least hopes) that Joss Whedon himself knows all this is bullshit. In commenting on his experiences scripting Waterworld (another successful thing he was involved with), Havens quotes him as saying “The higher you climb, the worse the view.” But seven years of slavish devotion, of the kind epitomized by this book, would make the sanest man wonder, at least occasionally, if there wasn’t more truth than not in their worship.

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