Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Writers' Spotlight: Joss Whedon

Welcome to the next stop in the writers’ spotlight series. This time I’ll be discussing genre guru Joss Whedon. More than likely he’s a household name these days thanks to his most recent film work. But he wasn’t always so well known. Before he was the twisted god of gore, he worked on films such as Toy Story and Alien. Hard to believe he had anything to do with a bunch of talking toys. His next big adventure into movie-dom was the 1992 “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. By all accounts it was not very good (I have it on DVD but have yet to bring myself to watch it) but it was the jumping off point for Joss’s twisty, zany, sci-fi career.

As mentioned above, Joss’s first TV foray was a remake of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on the WB. It would move to UPN in season 6. Unlike its movie predecessor, the show actually caught on. Perhaps it was the change in leads or the inclusion of the tall, dark and forehead (ahem, handsome) vampire named Angel. Looking back at the first season, I think it was a lot lighter in tone than some of the later years. You had things like giant Venus flytrap demons and people turning into hyenas. Much of the humor on the show came from Buffy’s two friends, Willow and Xander. Joss set out to use fighting vampires and living on the Hellmouth as a metaphor for the hell of high school. What he came up with was a strong ensemble show that moved beyond its original premise after season 3. We saw Buffy grow past her first love, fall for an older (well several centuries younger than Angel) guy in college and fall into the arms of another vampire during a very dark period of her life. And if there’s one thing Joss made perfectly clear beginning with this show, it’s that no one is safe. He’ll kill off your favorite character just because he can.

From the beginning, Buffy was the epitome of strong female characters. Literally. As a slayer she had super strength, speed and healing ability. But she wasn’t without her faults and flaws. Joss has a great skill in crafting shows that not only give you payoff for character development but a slow burn in the storyline. If I had to pick one thing that really defines Joss’ writing, it’s his love of drawing out a story over a period of time. You don’t even notice it happening. It’s just fluid.

Next came “Angel”, a spin-off that began concurrent with Buffy’s 4th season. Compared to its predecessor, I think Angel started out and stayed darker. While we learned a little about Angel’s past on Buffy, we explore his curse and his history far more on his own show. It becomes quite clear just how hard he struggles each day with the weight of his soul, trying to make up for the atrocities he committed as one of the most ruthless vampires in Europe. But, just because Angel spent a lot of time brooding, especially in season 2 over his sire Darla, it was definitely an ensemble cast. Cordelia (played by the lovely Charisma Carpenter) provided a lot of the comedic chops in the early years. And it wouldn’t be Joss if he didn’t kill someone we cared about. Poor Doyle sacrificed himself after only 9 episodes of the first season. But it allowed another Buffy character to cross over, former Watcher Wesley Windham-Price.

I wasn’t as big a fan of Angel, despite the eye candy of Christian Kane as morally ambiguous lawyer Lindsay MacDonald, as I was of Buffy. I think for me the show went downhill in season 4 with the whole Connor/Cordelia storyline. I’m aware they had to handle Charisma’s pregnancy somehow but it turned into something disturbing and not in a good way. I think bringing over a few more characters from Buffy in Angel’s final season revitalized the show for me. Angel and crew were now fighting evil from the belly of the beast. And while I’m not a big fan of how the show ended (cliffhanger much?), it definitely fit with the theme of the show that you just have to keep fighting every day to make things better. Of course Joss had to kill off pretty much everyone with a heartbeat left at the time. It wouldn’t be Joss without it.

While Buffy and Angel were still bouncing around what would later become the CW, Fox picked up a quirky cowboy space opera “Firefly”. From the beginning, it was obvious that it was a strong ensemble show. I have to admit, I came to Firefly much later and thus had the benefit of watching the show in order. I think Joss’ genre factor started to take over with Firefly and that started him on a somewhat downward spiral with Fox. It is pure hilarity to watch a group of cowboys rattling around in an old Firefly-class ship trying to do a little honest work while harboring fugitives. But I guess it just wasn’t a concept that caught on in its day. Another staple of the Whedonverse is that he uses the same actors. Both Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres guest starred on “Buffy” and “Angel” respectively following Firefly’s untimely demise. I really would have liked to see what Firefly would have been had it been given the chance to do a slow burn like Joss’ other work. Though honestly, I kind of hope that its season 4 wouldn’t have suffered as badly as both “Buffy and Angel.”

It wasn’t until Serenity appeared a few years later that we got the likely payoff we would have gotten if Firefly had remained on our TV screens longer than 14 episodes. We got our obligatory random death (RIP Wash). But we also got to see how much Summer Glau had improved her acting. She wasn’t horrible in Firefly, mind you. But she was young and her skills had definitely expanded since then.

Joss took to the interwebs in 2007 during the Writer’s Guild of America strike and put together a little three-act musical called “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”. Jen is a rather big fan of Dr. Horrible. He got a bunch of his friends together, including Felicia Day and Neal Patrick Harris and did a low budget project that exploded on the web. Whedon proved you don’t need gobs of money to make something people want to see. It also utilized the web in a way that hadn’t really been done yet (though Day’s web series The Guild had some success at the time). Joss actually had you rooting for the villain of the piece in this one. There’ve been talks of doing a sequel for years but so far nothing concrete has materialized.

Joss’ next TV project wouldn’t appear until 2009 when he and former Faith actress Eliza Dushku pitched a really trippy premise to the Fox executives. And thus “Dollhouse” was born. Dollhouse was much different from Joss’ previous work in that there were no supernatural or cowboy elements. It focused on organization that provided programmable people for a hefty price to the rich and powerful. Dushku played Echo, a blank slate who slowly became aware of herself and her imprinted personalities. It had a lot of great comedy from newcomer Fran Kranz’s Topher. He was the resident super genius and reminded me a lot of Andrew on “Buffy”. He got the witty, quirky lines that are so typical of Whedon. Fox gave Dollhouse a second season at the eleventh hour and the plot of what would have likely been 2-3 additional seasons got squeezed into 13 episodes. We had guest spots from prior Whedon alums Amy Acker and Alan Tudyk as well as newcomers Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj. Joss did kill off several characters in the course of the show, but much like Firefly, we never really got to see what the show could have been like if allowed to grow at its natural rate. I think part of Joss’ difficulty with shows like “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” stemmed from the change in viewership methods and willingness of networks to give shows a chance. He was really denied the ability to use his slow-burn technique to develop his characters.

Joss hasn’t made it back to TVland (no, not the channel) since “Dollhouse was cancelled in 2010. But he’s not been idle. Way back in 2009 he did a little film called “The Cabin in the Woods”. Due to all kinds of behind-the-scenes drama, it didn’t make its big screen debut until 2012. It’s done phenomenally well and is a great twist on the usual horror movie. I have to say, if you are at all a fan of Joss’ writing and directing, this is a must-see. The dialogue, the storyline, the cinematography is quintessential Joss. He also got to play in the Marvel universe when he wrote and directed this year’s “The Avengers”. Another big hit and a serious mainstream credit at that. It has also done staggering numbers worldwide. Joss will next be putting a modernization of “Much Ado About Nothing” with much of usual cast of characters. I am looking forward to whatever Joss does next, be it big screen, small screen or internet.

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