Joss Whedon isn't my master, thanks

>> Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I'm going to say a terrible, terrible thing. But I believe this thing to be true. It's a terrible thing because it's a sad, miserable thing to think or believe. And it's not just me being contrary or anything. It's a well-reasoned belief.

I believe that we're all better off that Fox shit-canned Firefly.

I'll wait for everyone to calm down. Breathe, people. Come on, deep breaths.

I loved Firefly. I loved Firefly before anyone else I know loved Firefly, long before the DVDs. I was one of those true believers who managed to catch every single episode that aired when it aired (or taped it straight off and watched it the next day). I was devoted to that show and devastated when it ended. And I will amend what I said a moment ago to this extent: I would (probably) have been thrilled if there had been two more seasons.

But here's the thing. I was a fan of Buffy, and I became a fan of Angel, and I've seen Buffy seasons six and seven and I sat through Angel's season five.

Do you hear me? I saw Buffy's last two seasons and I watched Angel's last season.

I remember the robot ninjas, dammit, even if Angel's fucking writers forgot about them midway through season five.

There's a lot about Joss Whedon that's easy to love. He writes--he can write--snappy dialogue when he wants to. (Or no dialogue: "Hush" was a damn awesome 47 minutes of television, as good as the medium gets.) He's good at planning big plot arcs (I think). But there are a lot of things that are pretty damn frustrating about Whedon. Sometimes that dialogue is too snappy. Plus, he seems to have this absurd theory of drama that dictates that characters can't ever be happy lest they abruptly become boring, that misery equals conflict equals Drama!; the truth is I'm not sure he knows how to write a stable long-term relationship.

(Yes, yes: Zoe and Wash. How long do you think that would have lasted? You don't think Wash's fate in Serenity wasn't a fast-forward of what Whedon planned for him all along? And then Zoe's character could completely fall apart in some kind of silly bad-Willowish collapse that would leave everyone scratching their heads and wondering what the fuck had happened to this show they used to love?)

So here's the thing with "Firefly": based on Whedon's track record, I think it's quite reasonable to say the show had an outside maximum of five good seasons and more probably only three. And then, had it lasted, it would have vanished into a black hole of suck. (Ninja robots, people. Goddamn ninja robots.) And if we take Serenity as being a kind of fast-forward of those seasons, we have some clues as to the size and shape of the suck: no Wash, no Preacher, yet another Whedonesque Magical Girl (which is totally cool, at least the first dozen times or so, whereupon you can't help wondering if Whedon's capable of writing a female character that isn't a Mary Sue that obviously projects Whedon's possibly questionable obsession with teenage girls) taking over the spotlight.

(Let's thank our stars Whedon didn't do a Wonder Woman movie after all: she'd have been "reimagined" as Whedon Woman, a spunky teen who has superpowers but no hope of ever really getting over her hangups or having a lasting relationship with any other human being who doesn't totally flake or stab her in the back at some point.)

In my imaginimamation, I can kind of push Serenity aside and pretend it didn't happen, and that there would have been twenty awesome seasons of witty banter and lusting after Jewel Staite, and that the only reason the world was denied the glorious awesomeness was because Fox sucks. In my mind, it's so. In my heart, I know it's all a lie, but there you go.

Now, some of you might be wondering, "Where the hell did this rant come from, Eric?" Some of you might be thinking this is pretty random.

Well, I saw something last night. Something on YouTube. Something that had long been rumored.

You see, when Buffy was in its prime, or I should say reaching the end of its prime, there were two spinoff projects that never happened. One was a BBC series for the totally cool Anthony Stewart Head, Ripper, which would have been a show that would have focused on Giles, the second coolest character on Buffy. (If you have to ask who comes first because you don't already know it's Willow Rosenberg, I hate you. Oh, and by the way: Alyson, p h o n e m e, 'kay?)

The second spinoff would have been Buffy, The Animated Series. That one got a little further into production. At least this far, matter of fact:

(Wait. Hold on a second. I'm being a very bad man here. Do not watch this video. I'm embedding it, and yes, you can click it if you want. But you shouldn't. Don't do it. Please, you don't have to do this....)

Arrrrrgh! It burns! It burns! My brain! My poor, poor braaaaaain!

Yes, this is what prompted the rant. I just saw this you tube clip. It seems to be authentic: that's everyone's voice except Sarah Michelle Gellar's--SMG didn't want to be involved, though it seems to have been more of a career/financial choice than an "Oh for fuck's sake, this is awful" choice. But that's everyone else. (Alyson, whenever is fine--next time Alexis is out of town, whatever. Send me a text message, even.)

Sometimes, good things happen for the wrong reasons, and they happen so badly we don't even know they're good things at all. Sometimes the disappointment in not getting what we wanted isn't half as bad as the disappointment we would have endured if we had.

And I wish I'd never seen that animated clip.


Jeri Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 1:43:00 AM EDT  

"Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared beneath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known you'd ever say goodbye
And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance."
~ Garth Brooks - The Dance

(And that's probably far in excess of a fair use quote, sorry. ;))

John the Scientist Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 7:31:00 AM EDT  

Yeah, one only has to look at George Lucas to see an analogy.

I have an analogy from pharmacology as well. Everything on earth has an inverted "U" shaped dose response curve. More is better, more is better, then you start to reach the point of diminishing returns and the slope starts to drop off dramatically. Then you hit the max and any more poisons the patient.

And sometimes good things look horrible while they are happening.

Matt Warnock Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 8:07:00 AM EDT  

I have to admit, I never watched Firefly, well, I tried one episode and didn't get into it at the time, but maybe it's time to try again. I watched Buffy until she got to college and then I didn't care for it any more. I heard the last couple of seasons were good, but it wasn't enough to make me want to go back and check them out. I think I've seen all of two episodes of Angel. No thanks.

Joss Whedon's stuff is fine, but you're right that there's a point of overload and he's gone to far. I read some of his run of X-Men, which was decent, but had too many twists. I don't get these fanboys that have a nerdgasm over absolutely everything he does. The guy's got talent, but come on.

I'm always amused when we put Toy Story on for my son and Joss Whedon is one of the writers in the opening credits.

Eric Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 11:18:00 AM EDT  

Jeri: an excellent quote, and while I'm not a copyright lawyer, I'd say it's still within fair use. It's not the whole song, it's posted in the context of commentary/criticism, and there's probably other harbors that I'm missing because of the kind of week it is.


JTS: I think Lucas is quite apt as an analogy.

It's easy, given what Lucas has turned into, to forget that he used to be a scruffy, ambitious film geek with an artsy streak. (So easy, I know people who would argue against everything in that last sentence and ignore the evidence to the contrary.) He's not a strong writer and he doesn't work well with actors--but you could say something similar about Kubrick, tho' Lucas obviously has never been in Kubrick's class. But if you go back and look at Lucas' early, hungry work: man's got a good eye, he knows how to use his cinematographer and he knows how to use his editor (and he knows how to edit). If Star Wars had looked like a Flash Gordon serial, it would have been a cult classic and no more; it's a legendary film because it looks like Kurosawa with a splash of the avant-garde documentaries Lucas loves.

But you can only tell a man he's a young genius oh-so-many times before he believes it. And when you link his name to the success of make-or-break moneymakers (Star Wars was very good for 20th Century Fox; Buffy was the lynchpin of the WB's entire schedule for a while), it's easy, I think, to adopt the attitude, "I'm the genius who makes the stuff people love--if you don't like it, you're wrong, because I'm the genius, etc."

I think Whedon has fallen into some of the same hubristic traps Lucas has. I'm tempted to call it laziness, but it's not, not really: Lucas and Whedon are two of the hardest-working men you'll find in the entertainment industry, actually; they're always working on something even when their names aren't on the marquee. But there's a certain level of, let's call it "intellectual convenience," a tendency to repeat the same patterns even when doing something "different," if that makes sense.


Matt, try the Firefly again, but mainly if you like westerns. That was kind of the ingenious thing about the show: it's really set in the same apocryphal pseudo-post Civil War setting of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, except with spaceships. If you're looking for a more "science fictioney" kind of SF, you may have a harder time with it.

And if you tried watching it when it first aired, it's worth mentioning that one of the ways Fox screwed the show was by airing the episodes sporadically and out of order. IIRC, the first episode aired in the fall was the train heist episode, and then Fox didn't show the pilot until December, after several more episodes had aired. And, because of the way Whedon uses long-format TV to develop characters (one of his strengths, up to a point), a Whedon show does benefit from watching several episodes in their intended order.

I agree about the nerdgasms, totally. I think he really is a brilliant writer, or at least can be. But I've seen two out of three of his shows jump the shark pretty disastrously, and the third was turned into a movie that's ultimately pretty disappointing. And Whedon's bitching about the "changes" that were made to his work on X2 and Alien Resurrection are out of line, self-serving, and possibly dishonest. (A friend who's looked at Whedon's Resurrection script tells me that Whedon's claims about extensive changes are simply wrong, that what Whedon wrote is more-or-less what was filmed; make of that anecdote what you will.)

He has talent, like you say, but he's also fucked up some good things. (Like Lucas!)

John the Scientist Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 11:36:00 AM EDT  

"But you can only tell a man he's a young genius oh-so-many times before he believes it."

That, and the fact that as much as creatives are loathe to admit it, all but the greatest genii benefit from and editor or other collaborator to reign in their worst characteristics. I'm no fan of Ann Rice, but her early stuff was much more readable before she got famous and decided that she didn't need an editor.

I have a feeling the team the studio brought in to help Lucas with Star Wars and TESB (the best of the bunch, IMO) had a good deal to do with the avoidance of crap such as Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks in the first two films.

Random Michelle K Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 11:51:00 AM EDT  

Matt, Firefly is the opposite of The Wild Wild West.

And I'm not sure that both Book and Wash would have died so quickly over the series. I think his point in the movie (at least the point that I took home) was that when you go to do something big and dangerous you don't get to walk away into the sunset smiling. There's going to be direct damage and there's going to be collateral damage and you're a fool to think there won't be.

Because what they did have to be compressed into such a big thing, the damage was far more severe.

But then I liked the way Serenity ended, because it felt done to me. And it felt realistic.

Also, I liked Buffy Season 6. I liked how in the end it wasn't about Buffy at all. Though I have to admit that we've never finished watching Angel.

Joss just took over the reins from Brian K Vaughan on Runaways, and I've been pleased so far with where he's taken the story. Although I could have done without JOSS WHEDON being four times larger than RUNAWAYS on the cover.

Matt Warnock Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 12:35:00 PM EDT  

I think when I tried watching Firefly before it was just one of those things where it wasn't the right time to watch it. I do enjoy westerns and sci-fi. I'll grab it from the library eventually and give it another shot.

I forgot to say before, but I did watch that clip from the cartoon. (You told us not to, but it was right there, I couldn't resist.) And it's amazing how the laws of physics no longer apply to Buffy once she's a cartoon (as far as being able to vault something like 30 feet in the air off of a vampire or reaching back to punch a dragon as she's falling. I know she's the slayer and she's somewhat physically more enabled than the rest of us, but come on, with the parameters already set my disbelief will only stretch so far.) I am very glad the cartoon didn't get made. Robot chicken did a funny Chucky/Cabbage Patch Kids/Buffy bit.

I recall a really, really, REALLY Stargate cartoon that was NOTHING like the show. Thankfully that died quickly.

I guess the Buffy storyline lives on in the comic book, which I believe is written by Whedon. I read something a few weeks ago about some controversy over the most recent issue because Buffy had a lesbian encounter with another slayer (if I remember right). Not that there's anything wrong with that, but from what I saw and remember of the seasons I saw, Buffy didn't appear to have any bi/gay tendencies. I wonder how much of that was legitimate storytelling and how much was a readership boosting stunt.

Eric Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 5:24:00 PM EDT  

John: just to clear up one thing--the creative collaboration on Star Wars and ESB was actually Lucas' doing, not the studio's. And somewhat ironically, it was the latter collaboration that damaged the later movies.

SW was written over a four or five year period, at a time when Lucas was hanging out with the Coppola/American New Wave (West Coast) crowd: Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma, Marcia Griffin (later Marica Lucas) and other writers, directors and editors. As a result, he had the kind of collaboration you talk about prior to production actually starting up.

SW was a sleeper hit, and Lucas found himself unable to keep all the balls he had up in the air. Among other things, he was trying to reboot a version of Coppola's American Zoetrope, intended to be a kind of film artists' collective/production studio until the flop of Lucas' own THX-1138 killed it (the first and last project of that incarnation of Zoetrope). So Lucas outsourced the writing to Leigh Brackett (Lucas apparently brought her on as a "SF novelist" someone had recommended, only to discover she was the same Leigh Brackett who wrote the screenplays for The Big Sleep and several other classics) and outsourced the direction to Irvin Kershner, who (among other things) had taught a class at Lucas' film school.

The problem for Lucas was that Brackett, Kershner, Lawrence Kasdan (who was brought in to polish Brackett's script after she died of cancer), producer Gary Kurtz and others took a "looser" approach to making the movie that had the benefit of allowing the actors freedom to improvise or try alternate takes but that also sent Empire over budget and over schedule, forcing Lucas to take financial hits before and after filming (he had to pocket some of the over-budget himself, and the rest was covered by sacrificing an increased share of the box office to 20th Century Fox). The financial damage helped keep Skywalker Ranch from becoming a successor to Zoetrope (it would survive, however, as Lucas' personal playpen) and the stress contributed to Lucas' divorce from Marcia Lucas.

It's generally agreed that Lucas stopped working with Kurtz and hired Richard Marquand (basically a yes-man with none of Kershner's vinegary independence) to direct Jedi because the stress caused by Empire contributed to Lucas becoming a control freak with the franchise. Which damaged the prequels, as well.

Your point remains valid. I just wanted to clarify the details. There's an online project called "The Secret History Of Star Wars" (google it!) that does a good job of collating the story (tho' the writer could use an editor himself) if you're interested.

The same effect--a creative person needing resistance and inspiration from others--will show up as a theme in later "Oh By The Way Entries," by the way (grin). Roger Waters has repeatedly shown that what he really needs to shine is the head-butting with David Gilmour that helped cause Waters to leave. Funny how that works.


Matt: if anything, didn't Buffy (the show) kind of suggest she was very straight through some of her interaction with Willow?

I'd have to suspect a lesbian plot in the comics was more of a lipstick lesbian fantasy by the writers. I mean, I'll admit that a Buffy-and-Willow slash would not... erm... offend me... matter of fact, (coughs)... but, ah, I wouldn't say it would make for a character-consistent story, if you know what I mean....

I should probably stop before I get further behind, actually.


Matt and Michelle re: Firefly as Western: definitely not a Wild, Wild West-style western. More of a post-Leone contemporary Western, with antiheroes, ambiguities, and a certain scruffiness and grunginess. If you were going to compare it to a Western with Kevin Kline (you'll know why in a moment), definitely more Silverado than Wild, Wild West (the movie): clever, a little different, ensemble-based (no showboating), reverential-yet-knowingly-ironic, modern-but-strangely traditional, genuinely funny-yet-soulful and affecting, etc....

So yeah, in other words it's very good.

I liked Serenity, but I think it starts hitting sour notes halfway through and doesn't stop. Just my opinion. And I suspect, though I don't know it, based largely on what happened to Buffy, that Serenity adapts Whedon's intended multi-year arc to a 90-minute movie.

The problem with characters dying on a Whedon project isn't that there are characters dying, but why: it's usually a pretty-blatant manipulation that's just thrown in to jerk the viewer around. Joyce Summers felt "right" because they built up to it and handled it with what is almost Whedon's best teleplay ever (the episode where the Scoobies deal with Joyce's death is incredible until the last ten minutes, where it gets fumbled with a vampire attack that is supposed to say "life goes on" but really feels like it says "hey, we just went thirty-eight minutes with no vampires"). But Tara's death just felt like having a towel shoved down your throat for your own good, and Anya's death was just mean ("That'll teach you to talk shit about Sarah Michelle, Emma Caulfield!").

I think if Firefly had gone on, they would have killed Wash just as abruptly in season three (probably), and mostly to make the audience feel bad and so they could have a contrived story arc where Zoe becomes an alcoholic or leaves Serenity or has a torrid (and Mal-destroying) affair with Inara (whose motives would be just as baffling but Drama!-inducing). Because all the indications are that that's just how Joss Whedon rolls, boys and girls. And it's a problem with his work.

But what do I know? It's not like Joss called me up and told me what he was going to do, like Sarah Michelle Gellar does with her friend in the Robot Chicken sketch Matt mentioned.

John the Scientist Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 6:08:00 PM EDT  

"I should probably stop before I get further behind, actually."

Further behind what, inquiring minds want to know?


Thanks for the clarification on the SW stuff. By the time I was old enough of a geek to read about the production backstory, ROTJ had come out and killed my interest.

And yes, I see in business all the time - everyone needs someone to tell them when they are full of shit.

Eric Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 6:36:00 PM EDT  

Further behind what, inquiring minds want to know?

Well, see, I'm the attendant at a spa when Buffy Summers comes in and asks where the Jacuzzi is, because she's had a tough day of slaying. And then a few minutes later, Willow Rosenberg comes in, and she also asks me where the Jacuzzi is, because she's had a hard day of witchcrafting, and....

No, I'm not going to do it. This may be an NC-17 rated site, but it's not that kind of NC-17 site, thank you very much!


Random Michelle K Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 7:46:00 PM EDT  

Eric, I know not of this "Wild Wild West" of which you speak. I am sure such a thing does not exist, and if it did exist I am sure it would be an abomination and I might be wishing that God might come down and smite everyone involved into the project.


I mean the TV show, which really is the opposite of Firefly. The Wild Wild West has science fiction in a western (Dr Loveless!) while Firefly has a western in a science fiction show.

Both are a lot of fun.

Now see, I saw the deaths on Buffy as part of that whole, collateral damage happens thing. That in a war (which is what both the end of Buffy and Serenity [but not Firefy] were about) people get hurt, people die, and it doesn't make sense, because life doesn't make sense much of the time.

But then I spend a lot of time in movies going, "hasn't he run out of bullets yet?" and "how did every single bad guy bullet manage to miss the hero, while the hero shoots over his shoulder while riding on a horse and takes out all the bad guys with a single shot?"

Jim Wright,  Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 7:56:00 PM EDT  

**This post was deleted because Jim has not First Amendment Rights here**

Eric Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 8:26:00 PM EDT  

Michelle: like I said, I don't mind deaths in a "serves the story" mode: hence I approved of the deaths in The Dark Knight. But some of the deaths in Buffy (and in Angel) felt more like yanking the viewers chains or like they served some other agenda (payback for the actress' comments elsewhere, in Anya's case).

(Angel handled one character's death well--I'm reluctant to spoil it, so I won't pursue this to the extent of naming this almost Shakespearian character. Sorry, that probably was either too subtle or insufficiently subtle. Anyway, this one character's death served the story. Others didn't.)


To whom it may concern:

I can't imagine really censoring one of Jim Wright's posts.

The man killed me with his bare hands one time.

Over a goddamn toaster.

I don't blame him so much as I blame the bag-headed wizard. I'm just saying that fear is a helluva motivator.


Matt Warnock Friday, August 8, 2008 at 8:59:00 AM EDT  

Well, I got the first disc of Firefly at the library last night. Will probably start watching it tonight, so we'll see how it goes.

Also, I agree, there is only one Kevin Kline western and it's Wild Wild West, er, I mean Silverado. Best western, though, has got to be Tombstone.

Eric Friday, August 8, 2008 at 1:51:00 PM EDT  

Hope you enjoy the Firefly, Matt.

But for best western (not the motel)--surely not. Not that there's anything wrong with Tombstone, but surely The Magnificent Seven or High Noon would top it? Or if we're talking "contemporary" westerns (last twenty years or so), nothing touches Eastwood's magnificent Unforgiven? Myself, I'm an enormous fan of Leone's spaghetti westerns: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly being a masterpiece (I even kinda love Once Upon A Time In The West in spite of--or maybe because of--the fact it's sort of a repulsive film when you think about certain parts of it).

I'm not arguing with you or trying to fault your tastes--I'm just saying, is all.

Anyway, hope you enjoy the show!

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