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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cast of “passable for high-school-aged” actors are nearly all in their 40s and the fashion of the time is too painfully out-of-date to digest.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.
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.
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