'Buffy' at 20: Joss Whedon Talks TV Today, Reboot Fatigue and the Trouble With Binging

Joss Whedon Sarah Michelle Gellar Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Getty - H 2017
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The internet often appears to exist for just two purposes. It provides a forum for anonymous rage and, maybe less frequently, it can be communal spot by the pop culture fireplace — where people can warm their hands at the embers of nostalgia. On Friday, it will probably bend toward the latter.

Two full decades have passed since Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on The WB. The network is now dust, the cast of "passable for high-school-aged" actors are nearly all in their 40s and the fashion of the time is too painfully out-of-date to digest. But Buffy's appeal endures in ways that few of its predecessors or contemporaries have, as evidenced by the outpouring of retrospectives and Twitter love timed to the anniversary.

Buffy, despite the far-out premise of a petite blonde demon assassin whose top concerns are math class and her own mortality, is regarded as one of the more significant contributions to a medium that has now grown in volume and influence beyond what anyone could have predicted 10 years ago, let alone 20. Our crowded TV landscape makes it hard to believe that Buffy could find the same audience it had — 5.2 million weekly viewers at its peak — in 2017, even as so many of today's series could justifiably call themselves its tonal descendants.

Creator Joss Whedon's credits now far outweigh just one TV show, though it's Buffy with which he's still most synonymous. The night before the anniversary, he hopped on the phone to talk about the drama's legacy, his continued interest in its themes and what concerns him most today — namely reboot culture, what we lose in binge-watching and the double-edged sword of political art.

Buffy premiered just as the idea of a showrunner was gaining public notoriety. Did you feel you were a spokesperson for the show the way that most creators are now expected to be?

I don't know that I was the first, but I was pretty damn close. The internet community started up around the show in a way that they hadn't been able to before. We were having a dialogue with our fans pretty much by the second season. I had expected to toil in relative obscurity and tell my stories and that would all be very well. Suddenly, I could talk to fans and go to Comic-Con and people knew what I looked like. I got to be a miniature rock star in ways that I never expected, as a showrunner. I wasn't prepared for it, and the power corrupted me absolutely, but it felt very natural. Every writer thinks they should be the person that everybody wants to meet. It wasn't about me, per se, it was always about the story. So it almost never got weird.

Did you and the writers react to the feedback at the time?

A bit. We were pretty clear on the fact that you're going to get every response, but you can tell what people are passionate about and what they're just sort of going along with. It's little things like hearing about Buffy and Faith having a lesbian subtext and then getting angry. Basically every time two women spoke, everyone would write about lesbian subtext. I was like, "Enough already! What's wrong with you people?" Then someone pointed to their treatise on the lesbian subtext. I read it, and I was like "Oh yeah, no, you're totally right. Had no idea that was there." We didn't lean in to it other than to throw in a line or two, but it opened our eyes to ways in which the stories were working. That's when I coined the phrase, "B.Y.O. Subtext." I get that everybody is going to insert their personal narrative into what we show them. That's valid. It's how we all watch things.

Buffy was atypically feminist for the time. Do you feel that female-driven stories are as big of a part of TV now as they should be?

Female-driven stories are part of TV in a way that they used to be part of movies. Even before it was respectable, a great film actress could make a home in TV and get much more to work with — especially after a certain age. But having a female be the lead of an action series threw some people. That has definitely changed. What women are able to do in front of the camera has improved a great deal. There's more options, more stories being told, more truth. Behind the camera? It's not going as well. Equal pay? [Long maniacal laugh.] With Buffy, I obviously wanted to make a feminist show, but I wasn't really interested in talking about politics. I wanted to see something that I felt I needed to see. I felt this girl wasn't being represented. I wanted see a woman taking charge and men who were comfortable with that. That's my thing. That's my kink. At the same time, I was making a horror show.

What was challenging about reconciling those two agendas?

If you start to just to measure the effect you have on a community, you stop writing to an extent. You start speech-writing — and I don't just mean the characters have speeches. Because I write a lot of those. Aaron Sorkin's got nothing on me. You start to write propaganda and polemics instead of fiction.

The push for parity and representation has become such a big part of the entertainment conversation. What's been your take on the call for more women and people of color?

I was definitely unaware of how things affected people, how representation was lacking. I thought, "We're doing good here. People appreciate it. And it's really hard, so we're just going to write these stories. We're going to relate to the human experience, but we're not going to overthink the moral aspect." Then, later on, I would go ... I didn't help out. I didn't make a point of hiring female directors. I didn't make a point of hiring people of color. I didn't think it through past where I had gotten. I wasn't necessarily part of the solution. I was, say, right in the middle? I've learned a lot from [Buffy executive producer] Marti Noxon. She always looked after everybody who was coming up under her and made sure that they were moving forward. She had a real understanding of inequality of lack of representation that I didn't. She's very community-minded and not as much of a selfish prick as I am. I didn't have the bandwidth to care about humans. I hope I treated people with respect, but I definitely missed some of the point. I was of that certain era. Of course now, I'm super woke. Such a woke bae. [Laughs.] That's going to sound wonderful coming from someone who looks like Walter Brennan.

Given the abundance of TV right now, there seems to be comparatively fewer shows about high schoolers than in the '90s. Do you think that audience needs to be better serviced?

I think the thing we did that people weren't doing, and that I had wanted to for years, was take teenagers seriously. I had been pitching a teen soap, originally at one point based on Pump Up the Volume, but I just felt very strongly that nobody takes themselves as seriously as teenagers. Why aren't they doing the kind of high-drama, the kind that seems ridiculous with grown-ups, but with teenagers where everything does feel heightened? The 90210, the bullshit version of that, and My So-Called Life, the extraordinarily true version of that, both came out. I thought, OK, this exists. I would reference both of those shows when pitching Buffy. They were the only ones you could. After Buffy, I think people were very open to the idea. "Oh yeah, there's this market where they want to be the heroes. And aren't they the people who are supposed to buy things?" For a little while, people did it really well. Then it became the era of The Sopranos and Sex and the City. Grown-ups got to take over.

Would Buffy be as easy of a sell today?

The combination of drama and genre, you have to work hard to make it not work. I used to say that Buffy would have been popular even if it wasn't even good — then a few shows came out to prove that premise, but I won't name them. The thing we hit was bigger than how the good the show is, which is an enviable position to be in.

Audiences today seem to feel entitled to reboots and reunions for whatever they want. Why do you think that is?

I think because a lot of people are doing it. And there's a lot of head-scratchers. I'm sure they'll be rebooting According to Jim soon. Is the nostalgia bank so goddamn secure that we can just keep withdrawing from it? And this is coming from a man who's made a movie or a comic book out of every show he's done. Somebody has to move on. We have to create new things for people to try to reboot. It's something we all dreamed about. But then what happened? The sudden ending of My So-Called Life is only slightly less painful than the sudden ending of Firefly for me. I understand that feeling of, "We love this, and we can have it." I was pitching a fan-funded Firefly to my agent before that was a concept. I see a little bit of what I call monkey's paw in these reboots. You bring something back, and even if it's exactly as good as it was, the experience can't be. You've already experienced it, and part of what was great was going through it for the first time. You have to meet expectations and adjust it for the climate, which is not easily. Luckily most of my actors still look wonderful, but I'm not worried about them being creaky. I'm more worried about me being creaky as a storyteller. You don't want that feeling that you should have left before the encore. I don't rule it out, but I fear that.

Your work has been more blockbuster-y of late. Have bigger budgets made things easier or more complicated?

More money is lovely in many respects. But at the end of the day, it's the exact same job. With The Avengers, I had all the money in the world but I could only get my actors on certain days. I went straight to [self-financed] Much Ado About Nothing, and someone went "This must be so different!" Practically, we were still working around everybody's schedule. And, creatively, I'm just trying to figure out how everybody in this movie is belongs in this movie. Trying to figure out why Margaret the servant woman is interesting enough for me to ask Ashley Johnson to play her is like trying to figure out how bow-and-arrow guy is going to be useful in an apocalypse. For me, it's all or nothing. It's Doctor Horrible or The Avengers. I always say the worst thing for me was getting on the radar. With Buffy and Angel, they gave us very little money and very few notes. That was a very good arrangement. By the time we got to Firefly, the expectations and the meddling were so high that we crashed and burned. Fortunately the Marvel guys really care about story, so it's a safer place than some, but you're still dealing with expectations that are occasionally grotesque.

Since your last TV show, the all-at-once model has become the norm for a lot of creators. How appealing is that for you?

I would not want to do it. I would want people to come back every week and have the experience of watching something at the same time. We released Doctor Horrible in three acts. We did that, in part, because I grew up watching miniseries like Lonesome Dove. I loved event television. And as it was falling by the wayside, I thought, "Let's do it on the internet!" Over the course of that week, the conversation about the show changed and changed. That was exciting to watch. Obviously Netflix is turning out a ton of extraordinary stuff. And if they came to me and said, "Here's all the money! Do the thing you love!" I'd say, "You could release it however you want. Bye." But my preference is more old-school. Anything we can grab on to that makes something specific, a specific episode, it's useful for the audience. And it's useful for the writers, too. "This is what we're talking about this week!" For you to have six, 10, 13 hours and not have a moment for people to breath and take away what we've done ... to just go, "Oh, this is just part seven of 10," it makes it amorphous emotionally. And I worry about that in our culture — the all-access all the time. Having said that, if that's how people want it, I'd still work just as hard. I'll adapt.

How do you feel about binge watching?

The more we make things granular and less complete, the more it becomes lifestyle instead of experience. It becomes ambient. It loses its power, and we lose something with it. We lose our understanding of narrative. Which is what we come to television for. We come to see the resolve. I'm fond of referencing it, but it's "Angela Lansbury finds the murderer." It's becoming a little harder to hold on to that. Binge-watching, god knows I've done it, it's exhausting — but it can be delightful. It's not the devil. But I worry about it. It's part of a greater whole.

Do you think there's too much TV now?

Don't get wrong, I think this is the diamond age of television. Is there too much? Yes. Is that the biggest complaint I'm ever going to have? Hell, no. Admittedly, in most dinner table conversations, I'm Andy Samberg in the Emmy-opening musical number. That's the most profound musical number I've seen in several years. But there's also amazing work being done. People are out there swinging. But the way in which it all sort of appears and just hangs there, it's very hard to give it any real physical context. But not the content.

You're a progressive guy. What's the role of TV writers and filmmakers in Trump's America who want to push back? And how do you deal with the fact that the left can often come across as patronizing?

The left is never patronizing. Let me explain it to you, young man ... [Laughs.] Don't get me started on the left. The only thing the left knows how to do is attack the other left. It's a very complicated equation. I love that people recognize me sometimes and that I get the credit that writers traditionally didn't get. But I wish that I had never had to speak politically about anything. The moment you do that, the more people focus on you and not the work. It takes you out of the story and it lessens the depth of the story. It's not useful for an artist, for their art, to be political. Yet, if you have that platform and give a shit, who among us could not? Right now a lot of shit is being given. We're in the middle of a staggering crisis. We have a psychotic narcissist in the Oval Office, and we have a country that somewhat inadvertently, but nonetheless emphatically, put him there. What can you do? The more you harangue, the more you get specific, the more, as you said, you are likely to pander, condescend or just be faintly ridiculous. We're not dealing with something where people want viewers to take things into their lives and gradually realize ... we want this to have an effect in the next week or two. Things are moving so fast and falling apart so quickly that, in a way, there is no way. I just watched an episode of Supergirl where they're trying to deport a bunch of aliens. The things we're genuinely afraid of, that's what's going to show up. A sense of impending doom will definitely be infusing a lot of work — and we'll have a lot of conversations that were never being had before. There are things like Get Out, which might not have been made five years ago, and that's a milestone. But it's not easy to attack directly. You kind of have to separate the art from the politics and do them one at a time. My politics are all over my shows. Ultron was basically bagging on the Avengers for being out-of-touch rich people. It's always a conflict for me.

What are you curious about now, as far as themes and topics you want to explore in your work?

After Ultron, I took a break — which was my first in 25 years, actually. I sat down to think about what I really wanted to write about. Eventually, I came back to wanting to talk about what I always want to talk about: young women who have power and the burden of having that power. Those are the two narratives that have always interested me. That diminishing effect on your humanity of having power. I realize I'm doing it again, but that's OK as long as I'm doing it in a new way with new characters and learning something while I'm doing it. It's OK to have the same major the whole time in college if you're not getting lazy about it.

Looking at Buffy's legacy, is it the same as what you thought it would be when you were making the show?

For a long time, people were like, "Aren't you so excited there's shows like Charmed and The Vampire Diaries?" That's not ... that's not the legacy. It's great that there are those shows, but that's not what we were hoping for. What we were hoping for was a show that made people feel stronger — something that made people understand the idea of female leadership and internalize it as normal. That's something that people have spoken to me about more than anything in the last few years. At the time, having a female-led action show was not the norm. And having a genre show that was lit like a drama, it's not a small thing. We really set out to make first science fiction show on television that looked beautiful and not just spooky or campy. I wanted people to take teenagers seriously. There was a certain disregard for what people go through in that time. Speaking to that particular well of pain was important to me. And to make a feminist show that didn't make people feel like they were being lectured to. There were shows that came before. I don't want to be a drop of water pretending I'm the whole wave, but where that wave crashes, that's our beachhead — empowering women and young people, and making everybody matter.