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May 18 2003

Learning from the Dead: the Buffy lessons. In his Saturday, May 17, 2003 entry author Will Shetterly makes some good points about the development of BtVS. (scroll past 'a Buffy afterthought')

"I realize I've come down on BUFFY awfully hard, but that's tribute, honest. You don't see me listing what I learned from HAPPY DAYS."

I'd use the permalink, but as usual Blogger's archiving's fuct and Shetterly's latest archive remains unpublished.

Shetterly discusses the following rules of storytelling:

1. Honor the metaphor.
2. Remember the destiny.
3. Preserve the tone.
4. Make most episodes complete unto themselves.
5. Keep the world larger than the cast.
6. Respect the story's character types when the casting changes.
7. When one character's love life sucks, make sure another character's love life is good.
8. Don't marry off main characters.
9. Don't hesitate to marry off subordinate characters.
10. Eliminate characters that don't have a distinct dramatic purpose.
11. Let your villains love.
12. Divide your hero's wants and needs.
13. Burn through story.
14. Don't jump the shark!

Perma-link lest he write a couple more essays and the entry gets archived:
Haha. I'm slow. Well, it's here if the archive does come out.

[ edited by babykarret on 2003-05-18 23:18 ]
I agree with a lot of the things Shetterly says, particularly about eliminating characters that don't have a distinct dramatic purpose (definitely WAY too many characters on "Buffy" this season) and dividing your hero's wants and needs (season six was focused almost entirely on Buffy dealing with mundane real-life stuff, season seven has been almost entirely epic save-the-world stuff, making the show and character feeling a little unbalanced and one-sided).

However, I take issue with two of his biggest points, "honor the metaphor" and "don't jump the shark!" I mean, keeping the metaphor pure might work for a short story or a novel, but when you're making a television show and telling a whole bunch of stories, slavish obedience to a single metaphor will generally make you seem one-note. The "high school is hell" comes across strongest in Season One, which is definitely the weakest season in my book, and while it's definitely still there in Season Two and Three, I think the show generally took a more nuanced view, acknowledging both the good and the bad. Rather than following one single, overarching metaphor, "Buffy" has used the fantastic and the horrific as a distorted looking glass through which to view the triumphs and pains of growing up.

And I think that the whole concept of "jumping the shark" is kinda silly, and usually just a way for fans to justify their resistance to change. Obviously, it is quite possible for a show to decline in quality, but tagging that to a specific plot point is ridiculous. If memory serves, the "Jumping the Shark" book claimed that the first time "Buffy" jumped was when Angel turned evil ... uh, right. And shetterly claims that the show jumped the shark when "Buffy" got a job at the Doublemeat Palace, because, ohmigod! it meant that Buffy was trying to take responsibility for her life but ended up temporarily stuck (like a whole bunch of us) in a crappy job. He ties this in to a whole thing about how Buffy wasn't empowered at all in Season Six, which is true, but if our superheroine was always on top of things, always confident of herself and her abilities, well, she'd be a caricature, not the living, breathing human being that she is, and her victories would be meaningless.

Finally, Shetterly claims that there haven't been any episodes (aside from OMWF) in Seasons Six and Seven that he'd want to watch again. While it's obviously a question of personal taste, but I'd have to question how much he's been paying attention if there's NOTHING ELSE that he really liked from two seasons that (to use my own taste as a guideline) produced such excellent episodes as "Dead Things", "Normal Again", "Villains", "Same Time, Same Place", "Selfless", "Conversations with Dead People", "Never Leave Me", "Storyteller", "Empty Places", and "End of Days".
bobothebrave hit my nail-of-disagreement-with-Shetterly on the head. Ditto to the above.
bobthebrave also said everything I could want to say about this...

I do just want to add though, that the phrase "jumped the shark" has jumped the shark.
Ugh... I just roll my eyes now whenever someone says a show has jumped the shark. I mean, you can't really tell when a show has done so until it's all over. Then you look back on the show, and you can say, alright, from there it went downhill and never recovered.

In other news, I can't seem to figure out how to post a link. I think I've been signed up for a week, or so. So have I not hit the time limit to be able to post a link, or something? I'm confuzzled.
AlterLeo - From the About page: "Once you're signed up, you will immediately be able to post comments to other people's posts. Two days later, you can start posting your own story links."

Even though a show might have gone downhill from some point, this doesn't mean that certain episodes can't pick the show back up later. The phrase is overused and meaningless.

Useful comments! I'll try to address them on my web log in the next few days. One thing I'll note here: "Don't jump the shark," was a joke. As a rule of writing, it's no more helpful than "don't suck."

I'll be thinking a little more about the question of the metaphor. It's a subtle concept; I didn't mean for it to seem as restrictive as you thought. So that may be a future post, too.

Will Shetterly
Will Shetterly,

Thanks for responding to my response :) Again, I thought that you raised a lot of valid points, but you also hit a couple of sore spots for me, hence the perhaps overly-snappy tone of my post.
i think shetterly's comments are very much how most people who aren't absolute hardcore fans look at the show. His aesthetical point of view kinda irks me, even though it's understandable. He kept calling it an "adventure" show, and by that should follow certain rules. Buffy is NOT just an adventure show, that whole notion seems ridiculous. Maybe it was in seasons 1-5, but 6 and 7 are an entirely different animal, making the show shockingly realistic; making it hard for me to even call it a "show". His comments about Xander and Anya's marriage are bewildering. The whole point was that it would have been wonderful if they'd gotten married, and when they broke up, at Xander's fault, the lack of their relationship is definitely felt, fitting in with the rest of the arc of the season. It's funny how he mentions Chandler and Monica(two characters who are very reminiscent of X/A), because I always thought that parallel between their happy marriage and the horror that the Xander/Anya has become by 6.18 and beyond was genius(Joss is a big 'Friends' fan, so whether this was subconscious or not i don't know). and yeah....other stuff..

[ edited by narky on 2003-05-19 03:45 ]
Sometimes I read certain articles and I think that I must be one of the few people who has seen the brilliance of seasons 6 & 7. In fact, season 6 is probably my favorite year of the series, because that was when the Scoobies dove into all the problems I was dealing with at the time. The world can be a very hard, cold place when you're in your early 20s and don't have any parental figures to fall back on, and I thought last year illustrated this brilliantly. From having a job you hate to sleeping with the wrong person to just wishing that you could make the world go away, I related more than I ever had.

Saying that canonical Buffy ends after 'The Gift' is tossing away two years of a dark, intriguing character study that brought new depth to each character on the show.
I related to it, but I thought it was depressing enough to live through - I didn't want to have to see it on "Buffy", too (yes, they captured the monotony of depression well, but monotony is monotony - it got boring). I don't think seasons 6 and 7 have been entirely without merit, but season 6 lacked spark (I got into this show because the dialogue was clever, and it just isn't anymore [on the whole]), and season 7, while better (so far - I've just seen "The Killer In Me"), is patchy.

I'm a hardcore fan, and I think Will Shetterly made some good points (about Xander and Anya, for instance). I'm glad the show didn't end after season 5, I need my Buffy fix and I'll take it any way it comes, but at the same time I don't think there's anything wrong with being critical.
I found the Gilmore Girls refrence in the article interesting. I don't know how many people here watch the show but it's a solid program, funny & very well acted. However, I have grown progressively bored with it over the last season because of it's unwillingness to challenge it's audience. The show's central Mother-Daughter relationship has remained unchanged over the show's run. The creators know that this relationship is the audience's touchstone and they are never willing to disturb it for more than a scene or two, never willing to upset the audience so the characters can never move forward no matter how much the situation seems to beg for it.

My BTVS point is that what I love about Buffy is it's willingness to challenege it's audience, to risk frustrating the audience to move the characters & themes forward. The group dynamic changes consistently , often in ways designed to disturb or frustrate the audience but always to move the characters forward. I understand some fan's frustration with the last two seasons but to me, they (especailly S6) will remain a bold artistic decesion on Whedon's part. He is unwilling to be static and merely move his pieces around the board, he always wants to redefine the game.
I can definitely see why some people might be concerned about changing or evolving characters, particularly since this change is often dictated by the plot, rather than vice versa. In other words characters might act a certain way simply to ratchet up the drama or drive home a point, without enough thought given to whether or not the change is true to the character's history and personality.

That said, I am pretty happy with most of the character development on "Buffy", even if it has made some of the characters nominally less likeable, because it is a true reflection of how people mature as they enter the adult world, accepting greater responsibility and being battered by the inevitable disappointments. I think that Joss put pretty well a few years ago in his review with The Onion A.V. Club: "In my characters, there's a core of trust and love that I'm committed to. These guys would die for each other, and it's very beautiful. But at the same time, you can't keep that safety. Things have to go wrong, bad things have to happen."
I agree with nearly all of Shetterly's comments but for three.

3. Preserve the tone.
4. Make most episodes complete unto themselves.

Preserve the tone? Buffy? Whedon? What marks out Whedon's work is the many different tones they play (OK leaving musical metaphor now, as musical knowledge is a land distant and obscure to me). From tragedy, to pun based humour, to suspense, horror, action, slapstick, situation comedy, observational humour,and surreality many different tones are used sometimes in the same episode and nearly all hit the mark. I think a more accurate rule might be to preserve the quality (In Buffys case, be true to the Character and the mythos, and if you have villains make them feel like a threat at some point). Someone once said something along the lines you can judge a civilisation by looking at how it treats it's lowest. I think what many people have been doing with Buffy is judging each seasons by it's worse episodes (allowance being made for the first series). Hence season 6 and 7 despite some all time best episodes (well in season 6 anyway) being regarded as let downs in the Buffy season. Simply these had episodes that sucked (or were below the quality we were expecting). Although I will say that despite the disappointing monster, the observational humour and direction of Doublemeat Palace make it an epsisode that gets better with each viewing.

As for making most episodes being complete onto themselves, I am a huge fan of the story and character arc and so will say nay to this one, keep the subplots, the knock on effects and tell stories that last longer than 43 minutes (with ads taken out)whenever required.

The third point is regarding not jumping the shark. I think most buffy fans will agree with the following adjustment.

14.Don't put a sharks head on a buffy villain, it looks crap.
I agree with the points Shettery made in the most and especially about stand alone eps and the related points about grounding Buffy in the real world. S2 and S3 was so brilliant imo due to the way that the main arc was woven into essentially stand alone episodes, such as Angelus biting one of the swimmers and reveling that there was something wrong with the blood in Go Fish. Here we are reminded of the menace of Angelus, that this is the main threat but that life goes on and they have to deal with this other danger.

The strength of Buffy, that separated it from other programmes, was that it was grounded in the world. Buffy lived in the worldand faced it like everyone else, except all here problems where multiplied and magnified by her Slayerness. From season 5 they have dispensed with the outside world and developed the closed soap opera or sit-com world described by Shetterly. I actually thought that Season 6 was good, let down by this these soap opera tendancies but that it was at least dealing with real life problems, season 5 and season 7 lack this aspect and are thus not the show I started watching. Instead they more resemble something on day time tv with a continuous stream of melodrama cheap thrills.
Shetterly lost credibility with his abrupt dismissal of Angel, which many have at least CONSIDERED might be of better quality than Buffy at this point and time:

"(The metaphor for the Angel spinoff appears to have been "Angel is a spinoff." Unlike BUFFY, its characters only want to fight monsters; they have no other lives and no desire for other lives.)"

This sounds like he has never watched the show. I don't even feel like giving examples because that belittles all of the "non-monster fighting" character development and greatness in the show.

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