On Buffy, and Vampires Slain



When I first started teaching screenwriting, I quickly learned the fundamental principle of teaching is to create a group dynamic; and the way to do that is, get them doing things. Even great orators (which I’m not) get annoying after a while. And the best way to learn is to listen a bit, then talk a bit, then do stuff, then talk about what went wrong…

And one of the simplest ‘warm up’ exercises for a group of would be television writers is to simply ask them what is their favourite show – ever. The one they’ll stay home to watch, even when Dad is in a prison cell and needs to be bailed out.

The West Wing is a popular choice, among the many groups I’ve talked to. Smallville works for some people. The Sopranos is the answer many give; or Six Feet Under, or Spooks, or Shameless. It’s rarer for anyone to name Eastenders or Coronation Street, but maybe that’s because no one wants to admit to having such mainstream taste. (For many viewers, however, these are most emphatically their ‘to die for’ shows.)

When it’s my turn to talk, I sometimes bluff and talk about The West Wing or When the Boat Comes In, or The Shield. But usually I admit the truth: the best ever show, for me, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course, I have to admit there are better and more profound television dramas but – er, actually no I don’t admit anything of the sort! It’s brilliantly written, brilliantly cast, brilliantly conceived, brilliantly sustained, extremely profound and resonant, and so damn sexy.

I wasn’t a first generation Buffy viewer; when it first appeared I was caught up in life and career and couldn’t see much of interest for me in a teen drama about a vampire slayer. Later, however, I watched the re-runs avidly and discovered a pure love for the series that no other series can evoke in me.

But why? That’s the key question I ask myself, and the purpose of this blog. At some point, when there are more hours in the day, I want to write in depth about the series itself, and the relationship between Buffy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Coleridge wrote about the ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment [which constitutes poetic faith]‘, and Buffy of course depends on a massive and extremely willing suspension of disbelief on the part of its viewers, and – anyway, that’s for another day.)

But the question is: why? What does my (somewhat, in certain quarters) embarrassing passion for this teen show reveal about me? I like Power Rangers – but I wouldn’t say so in front of a bunch of sharp-witted would be screenwriters. So what is it about Joss Whedon’s Scooby gang that hooks me so?

Buffy is of course written with wit and savour and tang, which is something that matters a great deal to me (see the blog On Captain Jack Sparrow.) It has fast-paced storytelling and great narrative variety, which I love, and it has resonance and allegory, which I also adore. And it’s funny as hell, which is a constant delight.

For me, though, deep down, when I come to really probe my own feelings, it’s about bullying. Buffy is never bullied by peer pressure (or if she is, she learns a lesson fast); she’s never bullied by jocks (she can beat the crap out of them) and she’s never bullied by the real bullies, the vampires and demons who steal away young and sometimes not so young lives and who think they own the ****ing planet. Buffy looks so vulnerable and so sweet and so easily bullied; but in fact, she’s a warrior.

I’m the opposite. I was always up for being bullied when I was Buffy’s age. I wasn’t the most obvious target, but I was most certainly a sitting duck. Once, I displayed a small amount of heroism and defied the class bully by shoving him feebly – then running away screaming with fear. He caught up with me, and I babbled in panic; then he shook my hand and befriended me. So I guess that counts as a happy ending. But all I remember was panic and indignity and not even being able to run away very fast.

Bullying in school is a terrible thing; but later in life, the forms of bullying get sneakier. Bullies use sarcasm, mockery, undermining, and authority to get their way. And I’ve lost track of the number of times when I’ve crumbled and given in to someone who isn’t particularly smart, or right in his/her opinions, but has the calm, authoritative, faintly patronising tone that allows ‘Them’ to bully ‘Us’.

I’ve been bullied big-time, and small-time, and the secret to defying it is not to feel defeated, even if technically you are. Giving in because some has the power to sack you is sensible conduct; feeling small and inadequate and inferior is just dumb. That’s the power we give to bullies, which we shouldn’t.

Attitude is all. I remember when I tried to learn karate in a dojo in South London, with a charismatic working class karateka called Sensei George (the inspiration for Sensei Eddy, a minor character in Debatable Space.) Let’s take it as read that I am hopeless at karate; the point is that the first time I sparred, I was kicked in the head and Sensei George sympathetically told me to stand aside and take a break. The second time I sparred, I was kicked in the head, and George roared at me, ‘That was your ****ing fault Palmer!’ And he was right. If you want to do karate, you have to either duck better, or not wince when you’re kicked in the head. That’s attitude, and it empowers.

These days, I duck better, and wince less. And I give short shrift to bullies. But all that took a long time for me to learn. So I would give anything to have done as Buffy does, when I was Buffy’s age – to kick arse, fearlessly, and never to show fear.

So that’s really why I love Buffy. I like it because it’s exceptionally well made drama; I love it because part of me is hooked on wish-fulfillment drama that allows me to be what I’m not.

There, I’ve saved myself twenty years of therapy bills to acquire that insight about myself.

Now it’s your turn…should you choose to accept the challenge.

Tell us why you love Buffy.

Don’t synopsise the episodes or discuss the craft and the writing – just tell us what it is about you that makes you, that special person which you are, love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Assuming that you do – though I guess I kind of think that anyone reading a blog by a current SF like myself will share that particular passion. Am I wrong?)

The trick here is – you have to avoid all tricks and tell the truth about yourself. Otherwise, what you say won’t make sense.

It may be that your reasons for loving the show are similar to mine; or it may be that they are very different. But in telling me those reasons, you’ll be revealing something about yourself. (Not TOO much! you can keep your darkest deepest secrets for the new blog I’m setting up at mydeepestdarkestsecretsrevealed.com).

You can use the Comments section beneath the blog to reply. And remember, I’m looking for something that’s more than a quick throwaway response – I’m looking for something that other users of the site will read and savour and learn from.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and inner dreams…

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