How You Can Study Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Writing Fiction
(Note: just a rant about being led through a campy story series and let down at the end of it. Still, there are things we can learn. Mostly how to get broad appeal through your plotting, serial hooks, and engaging character arcs.)
(And… update follows – how they had an even better scene going with the spin-off Angel and then trashed it in their fourth season, destroying it in it’s final fifth.)
The long and short of this series is that you can quit at the end of Season 5 and should.
(Below that is how they are exploiting entertainment as a form of addiction, instead of utilizing their stories for their original purpose. Scroll far below for that message. Otherwise, strap in for a straightforward review. Mostly just a skeleton review, little fluff, fast moving.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a tragic Romance plot, with weekly procedural mysteries to solve, plus plenty of action. The Buffy Summers character is a self-destructing MacBeth. Actually, all the film’s characters have extensive flaws that make them otherwise engaging. Most of the criminals are 2-dimensional, which is the usual fare.
Until the end of the 5th season, they pit the hero against increasingly more powerful adversaries. Finally Buffy defeats a goddess. Can’t top that easily. This is where the WB let the series go to another network.
The 6th season has her back, fighting three white male geeks. Wow, what a challenge (not.) She has a harder time with her own internal demons. The season’s only redeeming episodes were in the last three, where her sidekick Willow turned herself into an uber-monster witch, intent on destroying the world. There we finally get to see some real acting by Alyson Hannigan. Other than that, you can fast forward through Season 6 episodes as I had the luxury of doing.
Season 7 should have been a made-for-TV movie. They re-set everything back into the original plot format, with a new high school building in the old location on top of the Hell-Mount (they blew it up on Buffy’s graduation day in Season 3) and put Buffy right back in her high school surroundings as a part time school counselor. Same plot, same location, new digs. Then fill it with the same tired plot of someone actually going to open the Hell-Mount again to destroy the earth. What makes the final season work is the return to serial page-turners and a foe she can’t possibly beat, which Buffy somehow does. What makes it poor is that the final season is very drawn out with scenes included that do nothing to forward the plot. (One episode was mostly people having various lesbian or straight versions of sleeping together. Tedious voyeurism.)
That final season is where the story lines go completely into Hollywood’s penchant of trying to tell the rest of the world what their cultural values should be. Feminine heroines have male (and usually white male) villains and have Lesbian sidekicks. (Same problem the current Supergirl TV show has.) Their treatment of queer relations was acceptable in Season 5, and obnoxious at the end of Season 7. The net result of Buffy Summers character arc is to chase off every lover she ever had and to destroy what’s left of her friends and family, while blaming fate for her own inability to adapt. All of her side-kick friends have similarly screwed up lives.
At the end of Season 5, she sacrifices herself to save the world, which is fitting for the tragic hero she is.
Season 6 sees her pulled from Heaven because of the selfishness of her friends. Of course, she remembers being in Heaven, and for the rest of the season tries to adjust by having sex romps with a neutered vampire. All while working at a fast-food store that serves beef-flavored vegetable grindings. She is shown as a complete loser who kills (usually male and mostly white male) vampires by night. Her friends also continue working at ruining their lives even further and most of their relationships by the end of that season. Funny enough, her least qualified sidekick gets a dependable high-income construction job by the end of that season.
By the start of Season 7, they’ve seemingly replaced the writers and restarted the original story line to make it completely predictable. By this time, we pretty much know how its going to turn out. The creative team finally sets it up with a complete destruction of Sunnydale (right down the the welcome sign) so that the Buffy saga can never be retold again (unless they move to Cleveland, where there is yet another Hell-Mount.) The only real difference with the last season episodes is how they stretched them out with truly boring character “explorations” which are all dialog and no (non-sexual) action or mystery resolution.
How Buffy Could Have Saved Itself – Quit While Ahead
Drop season six. Make the last season into a movie. In an ideal world, they would have the last few episodes of season six pulled into the beginning of that movie. If you edited out the truly dull parts, it would have just enough content to fill a 2-hour movie.
Up to the end of Season 5, the viewer is actually looking forward to how the heroine is ever going to solve her puzzles and problems of life. All the episodes move smoothly into the next on a long, slow build of details and character arcs. WB was right to drop the series at this point. [Update: A Wikipedia article gives clues why the last two seasons sucked.]
Season 6 was mostly a mistake, which is partially repaired with Season 7.
Overall, the series is worth watching only if you love tragic endings. Especially in Season 6, plot holes like constantly destroying the sets and having unlimited funds to rebuild them by the next episode are mostly patched over.
This is, of course, fiction. Under the idea that fiction should mirror reality, but not too closely.
The scene the writers and producers missed in this is that fiction stories are supposed to resolve thematic conflicts for their real life audience. These stories are supposed to take up real issues that matter to the bulk of humanity and solve them. (And explains that while tragedies are temporarily popular, series that routinely have the heroes winning are more popular – like Star Trek and Gunsmoke.)
What kept Buffy working was that she kept beating the villains every episode and season. What destroyed it was the last two seasons and a fantastically bizarre resolution by the series end.
That is why the series is only worth studying up to the end of Season 5. A tortured, self-imploding hero(ine) who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save everyone else makes sense. You see this story told on battlefields. Life as War. Macbeth had a sensible outcome. Destroyed the villains while it cost him his own life.
There was a scene toward the end of that season, where she meets a spiritual guide who tells her that she is full of love, but her gift is Death. And there (finally) her theme is revealed. So the 5th season actually wraps up the whole cycle of becoming a Slayer and exiting this existence. Buffy was always supposed to die as part of the resolution.
In Season 7, she eventually vanquishes all enemies and puts everyone around her (as usual) into various angst and physical danger. Through various try-fail attempts in this final season, Buffy again manages to destroy or chase off all her potential lovers and manages to turn all possible young women all over the planet into slayers (of male monsters.) Of course, they do this through violent conflict accompanied by gratuitous, casual (and sometimes deviant) sex.
Again, Season 6 is a waste of time, other than understanding its last three episodes.
The Pure Fiction of Tragic Hero(ines)
Tragedies themselves are fiction. They don’t have to exist in real life. The key reason they exist is to support a worldview and mindset of a willing victim.
Sure, that’s harsh. It is as workable as you can apply it to your own life and those around you. People who are constantly negative and have a death-wish have accepted social programming for that. They are testing that theme with their own life. If they are “successful” in that effort, they will end up killing themselves and hurting people around them.
You don’t normally keep people around you that are constantly negative (unless you share in their death-wish.)
There is a key point in all plots where the hero is at the mercy of the villain. This is also called the “dark night of the soul.” Immediately after that is the point where the hero(ine) finds powers that they didn’t “know” existed within them. They then go on to rescue themselves and later come back to vanquish the villain. Buffy did that over and over.
Tragedies are simply incomplete plots. Again, they don’t sell as well as G-rated, positive-ending shows. Buffy ran 7 seasons mostly on the strength of the humor (and sex and violence.) It could have run longer if it had a more positive message. As covered below, many other series ran longer without these (Gunsmoke, Star Gate, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman)
Buffy herself supposedly got the freedom to go back to having a normal life at the end of the series, as she had made it possible for any girl who wanted to become a Slayer to become so. It isn’t clear if she now condemned them to the same angst-ridden life she experienced. Or if these girls would form death-squads and follow the criminal path the Faith character did. Again, as Buffy learned in Season 5, while she is full of love, her gift to humanity is death. Nice.
Was Buffy’s action to enable all girls to become slayers a boon to mankind, or a curse? Since the series is based on a tragic romance story arc, it’s probable that she just doomed humanity. Slayers falling in love with vampires and having sex without stable relationships or even marriage. Girls learning that you should attack any opposition with violence. This give more dystopia, not less.
It’s the creative staff who are the ones with death wishes, which they are then pushing on the rest of us.
(I can see that the understanding that the slayers that did get killed always succumbed to their own death-wish would be a useful element in a dystopian Cleveland which was rife with slayers.)
Hollywood Morals Enforced on Everyone
Unfortunately, you can also see the production being shifted in that last season into Hollywood moral codes, which has given us:
- Weinstein/Frankel-type abusers and enablers as normal (our current news-media fare.)
- Violent and deviant sex as normal. Along with single-child families with divorced parents.
- Your destiny as self-destructive and dis-related to actual reality.
- White males are villains and stooges.
- Love as impossible to find.
- Life is all about you, really. Self-centered and narcissistic.
- And you can’t find answers to life problems that aren’t gothic-dark.
- Relationships are mostly for sex.
All simple lies, Hollywood “truths.” Not real world. Macbeth makes more sense. You wonder about the sanity of these people and are they raising their own children with these social moral codes. (But with the current revelations about how many people have been covering up truly sick behaviors in Hollywood, it’s not surprising that a show like this would be supported by the corporate media elites.
This series has been called a role model for feminism, but it’s actually training in social suicide. Yes, women should stand up for themselves and not tacitly stand by and allow men to act stupidly. But they also should not be having sex with underage minors themselves (both reports are current in our news, even Buffy tried to do this in Season 7.) There is no solution offered except to kill and destroy others, even those you “love.”
The alternative was proved in even more popular and longer-running TV shows, like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. G-rated shows are able to be watched by everyone, and so become true family entertainment. Positive lessons with long character arcs about the characters growing are more welcome.
You don’t have to prostitute sex and violence to have a hit show. You’re just losing out on potential audience.
One of the oddball takeaways is that this Buffy series is supposedly a feminist hit. That’s just weird. That would also say that all feminists are doomed to tragic lives where they beat up white male monsters as a distracting hobby for their short lives.
“Dr. Quinn” sets a far better role model for women without getting into lesbianism, but dealing out great family values meanwhile. Another balanced example would be “Little House on the Prairie”, which has a heroine protagonist and a balanced family life.
This series was built on serving teenage sex and violence (along with violent/deviant sex) to troubled victims who are hell-bent on making their own short lives end miserably. This is the sort of “popular” TV shows which make our current cities into living dystopias. It’s feeding addiction to tragic endings instead of helping people resolve them.
How to Get the Most Out of This Series by Dissection
The real use of this series is to follow and dissect the reason these episodes and seasons held together as a serial show. Just skip the last two years of episodes of Buffy, as they are social-agenda-driven and have the worst plot holes. Study the first five series as a tragic romance with weekly procedural mystery-action plots and everything fits together.
Compare them with Firefly, which was an action-adventure with a romance subplot. There, the follow-up movie Serenity works.
Also, compare them with the longer-running Star Gate series, which had three follow-up movies were also based on a movie prequel.
For grins and giggles, you can also compare “Sense and Sensibility and Zombies”, that at least has a happily-ever-after ending.
An added point is to study the comedy throughout. This and the skimpy So-Cal costuming (which reeked of teen hormones.) Actually, the sixth season was mostly a black comedy throughout. Until they changed the writers and got the plot back on track in the last three episodes. (But never salvaged that season’s plot, instead they only set it up for the last season to tie all the lose ends together.)
I don’t know all there is to the background of this movie or it’s spin-off. And I’m not in favor of Hollywood producers spouting political or moral advice. We all have teen angst from growing up, and can identify with their problems. Throwing in vampires, witches, and ghouls helps keep things interesting. But you have to study from the idea of writing tragedies to make sense of it. And tragedies are never as popular as happily-ever-after endings.
Where the series fails are on these three points:
- Not having insurmountable villains and obstacles that the hero(ine) figures out how to overcome by the end of that season. (Although Star Gate fought against insurmountable odds and villains for several seasons – an average of three seasons per uber-villian. Buffy had five mega-villains for 7 years – if you count the teenage white male geek squad in season five.)
- Preaching perverted moral values as normal, while these are only really practiced by a small minority of people. The episodes then disgust half or more of your readers/viewers who expect something more family-friendly. (And so devaluing your series and limiting its appeal, as proved when they were rebroadcast in England only after extensively editing out sex and violence.)
- Above all, failing to realize what really works about the story and the plot structure you are using. We all root for Buffy Summers to sort out her life, but the only relief is when she sacrifices herself to save everyone else. Then we can understand how she got the end she had earned.
The Buffy series then becomes a cult fad, and will never achieve a true classic status. Consider Alcott’s series of books, or L. M. Montgomery’s book series. As well, Laura Ingall Wilders’ “Little House” book and TV series.
This series was also never mainstream. It was a hit for a small startup network. It developed a cult following, which means the same thing – not ready for mainstream.
To study Buffy to extract its effective elements, you should think of it in terms of a 5-volume set of novels. That is where the story should have ended. Yes, give Angel his spin-off book series. Yes, do an add-on sequel later. But don’t simply keep cranking out books just because you can get a contract for more. Even book publishers usually only contract for three- or five-book series.
Realize when a story has told its tale and let it end with some respect. Don’t keep bringing the dead back to life. That was exactly what they did in Season 6. Buffy didn’t want to come back, either. The story line was actually dead at that point. Season 7 was cute enough and worked in a very dark way. Should have been a standalone movie. But it was simply another paste-up of the same plot that had worked up through the first five seasons. With added graphic lesbian action and extra violence. Thanks a lot.
A Remaining Reason for Pursuing This Subject as Fiction
Mainly the study of paranormal and fantasy themes about where evil actually comes from.
It sprung from this idea of making the blonde victim horror trope into a heroine. That still has some legs to it.
(I’m thinking of having a middle-aged Buffy meeting Willow-turned-Goddess at a diner in Cleveland. Comparing notes. Short story. Fan fiction. Couldn’t make money from it without a lot of legal hassles – meaning: it will never get done.)
It’s obvious that the original writers opened up a thematic exploration, but then handled it poorly. It could have resulted in positive resolutions instead of pushing extremist (destructive) moral values as its agenda.
This is the point where I don’t think it’s worth investing in the Angel DVD set, but I’m sorely tempted. The main reasons is that this is where the Faith character goes. That interaction and story arc (redemption after murdering a human) would be interesting for plot structure.
The Reason for Studying Serials
People buy in series. They get invested in the characters and want more stories about them. Picking the long-running and popular TV series, you can simply dissect these, as most of them follow a simple pattern, usually the 7-point system, with breaks every twelve minutes or so, teasers at both ends. 45 minutes of script is a longish short story. By watching with a notepad to hand, you can stop at the break points and outline the changes made between characters and action.
A longer story arc like the Buffy series will take you through the characters and show the viewpoint shifts, etc. You don’t get the benefit of vocabulary and wordage, so this doesn’t particularly replace reading. But it’s great to see the story arcs when you map them out.
Going to Imdb.com, you can see the various villains raise their heads. For instance, there are three major villains in the first five seasons: the Master, the Mayor, and Glory. However, both Spike and Angel take their turns at creating havoc (both becoming lovers or at least helpers at various points.) There are numerous one-off episodes, but most contribute to longer story arcs.
You could extract the longer story arcs by dissecting the individual episodes. That is probably the way to handle Season 7. Make it a new alternative universe version of what happened. Maybe fan fiction, but you could do better with new characters, and surroundings. Don’t fall into their traps. Learn from their mistakes.
The Underlying Lesson and Purpose for Stories
Most of humanity is living under the delusion that there is no real purpose for existence further than their own jobs. This is kept in place by their own self-generated fears. Entertainment like the Buffy series is designed to exploit their fears and keep them addicted to this existence.
The Buffy series brings this out. The idea of a Slayer, who is able to tap into higher understandings and physical abilities, is wasted on simply fulfilling addictive needs. Proved by their constant use of sexual innuendo’s and needlessly violent scenes.￼
You see this when the whole original plot cycle is completed with Buffy’s sacrifice at the end of Season 5.
Season 6 is dragging her and her friends through the mud of human existence, which belies the capabilities she and they have. This episode just says that no one can escape their living human tragedy. And that’s a lie. Transcendence is one of the highest ideals, per Abraham Maslow. And every generation has a few who persist to achieve this permanent state.
Season 7 is just another story. It really adds nothing to what we don’t already know about her. We know that the world is going to be wrecked if she doesn’t do something (self-)destructive. Her character arc doesn’t change or evolve. She’s now completely stuck in the same emotional ruts as usual.
If the creative staff who were in charge of this series cared more for their own existence than simply “making a lot of money”, then they would have explored the concepts underlying good/evil and all the conventions people consider have to be present. Instead, they stuck the story line into violence/sex scenes and “humorous” sexual innuendos. Because the creative staff are apparently stuck into their own fears, their own unsatisfied wants. They themselves fear dying, fear their own human condition. They are trying to laugh off inevitable doom they themselves are facing. Sad and a sad legacy.
While the Buffy series is clever and popular, we can learn more about how it was made so effective. But that is by comparing the series with even more effective and popular series.
We can also learn to take those effective elements and develop stories that solve problems for humanity, to share these with those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Entertainment can be uplifting, not just a distraction from your personal living nightmares.
We can do more.
PS. I have nothing against anyone making a wreck out of their lives. I just don’t like their agenda forced on me, especially as entertainment. The Buffy series somehow got me hooked on the story arcs. It was the last two seasons which soured me on the whole series.
PPS. A similar horrible result was the very last episode of Nickelodeon’s animated “Korra” which wrecked the entire series. Again, introducing a questionably lesbian trope into that last episode for what was before that a great female hero serial. J. K. Rowling also colored her whole Harry Potter series when she revealed that Dumbledore was a gay headmaster, opening the opportunity for inferences to change how you viewed her book series. Again, as I cover below, this doesn’t meet reader expectations, and segments your audience.
Update: They Wrecked their More Successful Angel Spin-Off, T0o.
There was great scene and character development through most of Angel – until about halfway through Season 4.
And thankfully, this story-series was mostly devoted to the anguish of good vs. evil and the personal costs due to decisions and choices one makes. Per Wikipedia: “The enduring theme throughout the series was the struggle for redemption.”
(Far less of Buffy’s “stuffing weird social values down your throat” just because weird Hollywood says so. The only Lesbian tropes come in – again in their down-hill season 4, and only twice – both one-liners when Willow is borrowed to make some magic mojo. But then, you can’t take a very straight male hero and turn him gay when his character is all about his heterosexual tragic loves.)
Why the first three seasons worked.
They kept adding and building up characters so that Angel got a team to work with him. And kept up the everpresent Coming Apocalypse theme right up until the tail end of Season 4.
That’s just two simple. But all the characters were flawed. So you saw their changes and development and were rooting for them through all their troubles. This was especially good in season 4, where they went away from the “monster of the week” format in Season One and adopted a serial format – only to trash it with a ridiculous “it was all a dream” segue into a completely different plot.
That’s where I started dumping the whole series. It’s pointed out in that Wikipedia article that Season 4 became – in the words of one of the characters – “a turgid supernatural soap opera.” Essentially, you didn’t care, as the serial aspect kept me binge-watching right up until they did that weird “all a dream” fiasco. (Episode 10/11) After that, I started skipping around to see how they handled this and that – no longer an avid fan. The spell had been broken.
Then the 4th season’s last episode really cemented the tomb shut. Right after they survived yet another Apocalypse event, then Wolfram & Hart (evil incarnate) offered their remodeled and re-staffed offices (which had been gutted by one of those two Apocalypses and all the staff turned into zombies) to the Angel team, who accepted their offer.
I just finished skipping around to see if Cordelia Chase (left in a coma at the end of Season 4) ever recovered – and she did, but just for one episode. I’m sure all these various characters played around, and saw many show up here and there. But the writers had lost the entire concept for the show.
And apparently several bad decisions by senior executives and producers forced a cancellation after Season 5 (see that Wikipedia article.)
Checking the date of that cancellation showed it to be half-way though the season. And the last episode was just a Butch Cassidy/Sundance episode where four remaining heroes face a huge army (and flying dragon) in a rainy alley. Probably as an effort to get the fans to build pressure to get the series picked up on another network – as they had with Buffy.
How Angel Succeeded – and Failed
It succeeded by keeping true to development of characters, even though the first season was simply “monster of the week.” At last they got into serialized episodes, which are a very successful way to produce TV series.
How they failed was that very stupid “it was all a dream” mishandling, as I covered before. And compounded it by having them move into Wolfram & Hart instead of keeping the good vs. evil concept the story was based on. Muddying things into shades of gray is very similar to forcing Hollywood morals on everyone – just a bit more subtle.
The bottom line is that the hero’s quit winning in every episode. Sure, they won battles, but they always lost – dark endings to every single show isn’t successful or popular in the eyes of a western audience. You can take a ever-increasing horrible scenario and then finally complete it with a resounding win. But when you pull that rug out and run through a slightly different outcome in a parallel universe, you leave your audience behind.
The Josh Wheaton Phenomenon
While I’m glad for watching the first five seasons of Buffy and the first 3 1/2 seasons of Angel, it really shows that Wheaton as a writer/producer has been best at movies and finite story lines. Firefly was his real high point, along with the movie Serenity. Movies have been his best works. (And he should also stay out of politics, like all entertainers. It shows their bias and splits off their audience into armed camps. Like Travolta and Cruise have colored all their works with their devotion to the corporate cult Scientology.)
Again, Why People Watch
To be entertained. And Western entertainment is always “good guys win” and “people just like us.” Marvel and DC comics are going through their own sales problems right now by trying to be “diverse” in their writing. This just forces a very small minority view into their stories, which isn’t what the majority want to see. And is why Amazon and NetFlix have “LGBT” areas for just those types of entertainment. Most people just don’t want to watch those. Some do.
Our Western audiences also don’t want politics preached at us, or entertainers to telling us what to think. Entertainment is supposed to be a distraction from the sordid soap opera called life. It’s supposed to be encouraging, uplifting, and educational. It’s not supposed to be didactic, preachy, or agenda-driven.
That’s why Gunsmoke ran for so many seasons and had so many follow-up movies. And Star-Gate, with all its spinoff’s and movies. And Star Trek, with all it’s spin-offs and movies.
They all have positive, upbeat endings. Even when the original Star Trek was “morality plays” set in outer space. Good guys always won. The world was somehow made a better place.
Stick to that model and you can win. Muddy the ending with grays and/or enforced extreme views such as politics, and you lose.
Also published on Medium.