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August 20 2003

The CS Monitor talks a little about both "Tru Calling" and "Still Life. "You know, there's two inevitabilities: death and taxes, she says. "And TV shows about taxes are just not that interesting."

[ edited by Karen on 2003-08-20 00:56 ]

"Of course, angels and destiny are not a new topic for writers. 'Highway to Heaven' and the just-canceled nine-year hit, 'Touched by an Angel,' had faithful audiences. But this season is more heaven-bent than usual, if also a bit darker and more ambiguous about just how good otherworldly influences always are."

Okay here's the thing. There's a large group of people on this planet, many of whom watch television, who take as a given that there is a God. However, none of these people can actually agree on what God is supposed to look like, whether or not He even does miracles anymore, and how He would appear if He did. Y'know whut? They can't even all agree on His (or Her) gender. Then there's another large group of people who don't believe there's a god, and another large group of people who believe there's a whole bunch of gods, and many of these people also watch television, and networks want them to watch the same television shows.

So I'm sure when CSM sees Angel Five and finds out that an evil vampire with a good soul is in charge of a corporate empire of evil and is trying to do good things while rationalizing the acceptance of bad things that pay the bills so they can afford to do the good things, I'm sure CSM will have a lot of interesting things to say. It's a matter of telling stories. It's not a matter of having tv shows like Highway to Heaven or Touched By An Angel that legitimizes one theology over another. It's TV. It's entertainment. It's about the storytelling.
In total agreement, Zach.
You agree? Where's the fun in that? =)

This kinda puts a new spin on why Whedon was so vague about whether or not Buffy was in heaven. She _thought_ she was in heaven but wasn't sure. In this way, Whedon avoided conclusively admitting whether or not there is such a thing in his fictional universe, thus avoiding the unintended slight towards one theology or another. Tricky territory that the writers for both series happen to wade in. However, this doesn't answer the success of one show over another. Firefly was like a space western and avoided the whole life after death, demons versus angels thing. Yet it became more controversial than Angel & Buffy combined, and I think people still don't understand why.
Joss has been quoted as saying, “I’m a scary, depressive fellow. There’s no meaning to life. That’s kind of depressing. There’s no God. That’s a bummer, too.” and calls himself, "a bitter atheist."

I think that as a writer it is absolutely imperative to write about things you can relate to in one way or another. So, in Joss's case I can see why he is very ambiguous regarding God and an afterlife. I would guess he doesn’t want to delve into a subject that holds little meaning to him. Besides the fact that as writers they (Buffy/Angel writers) have to cater to a highly diverse audience. I know in my own writing I avoid any kind of monotheistic views because they differ so much from my own. I also avoid them because I wouldn't want my own views to come through in the story and hold any "slanted" meaning that may be misinterpreted by the readers, you know, all two of them, I don't have much of a following yet =)!

A writer never knows what may strike a nerve with his audience so usually it is best to leave things unknown, since that’s how it is in “real life”. Shows like “Touched by an Angel” and “Highway to Heaven” take the opposite approach and draw a very specific audience, in fact, I don’t think I have ever seen an episode of either one. But you are definitely right if the storytelling is there then it will get a following.
I did see early episodes of both TbaA & HtH. I was never impressed by Touched, but Heaven's earliest episodes had a strong Rod Serling feel to the direction (reminiscent of "Requiem for a Heavyweight" which is still one of Serling's greatest masterpieces). I really enjoyed early Heaven episodes, regardless of the monotheistic message they perpetuated. Landon was at the top of his game, and Victor French proved the perfect sidekick, with a wry comic timing and both gentlemen fit into the roles like comfortable slacks. However, the preaching increased and the quality of storytelling quickly spiraled into a formulaic travesty. So I pretty much left that series before the end of the first season.

I do believe there is a place for such programming, but there's this theory I have about "preaching to the choir or taking it to the river." It's possible for one to incorporate their theology into stories without sounding preachy. If one focuses more on the message at the expense of the story, only those who share those sentiments will hang. If one focuses on the story and allows the message to permeate less obviously, one's points will get across to more people. Preach to much, and only the choir will hear you. Focus on the story, and you exit the church and are able to take the message where more people might hear it, which I call 'taking it to the river.'

I believe Whedon's done this exceptionally well for his own theology. He acknowledges that in Buffy's reality there are hell dimensions, and it is perfectly logical to assume that if that's the case there must be heaven dimensions as well. So he's not dismissing any particular theology. In fact he's embracing the possibility that it could all be true, but that it's only a sliver of the truth. That the average human being only thinks s/he knows what's going on, when we don't know the half of it. And let's face it, from Whedon's perspective, if all of these theologies were true, life would be pretty silly. Exciting. Lotsa zombie mayhem, but also pretty silly.

He rarely explores heaven dimensions cuz, well, they're boring, as Cordelia discovered. Or they're supposed to be where one lives happily ever after, as Buffy discovered. The story's basically over when you reach a heaven dimension. It's like the finish line. Likewise, hell dimensions only occasionally get visited. Glory came from one. Buffy came across one in the premiere of season two. Angel visited one last season. Most of the time when dimensions are mentioned it's all about the portal. Opening or closing a door between dimensions, which often runs the risk of tainting one reality with another, and that's made clear to be a Very Bad Thing. Ultimately that's what "The Gift" was all about. Hell dimensions are kept separate from Earth for a reason. It's like why one doesn't normally keep the laundry room in the same space with the bedroom or the kitchen. Things get messy. You end up living like Xander in his parents' basement.

Hell dimensions don't require that there actually be THE Lucifer as depicted in ancient texts. Heaven dimensions may or may not have a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim God playing golf in the background waiting for his special guest appearance on the show. Whedon doesn't even verify that these demons being discussed are THE demons mentioned in scripture. Fallen angels? That whole thing? He just politely sidesteps that because it's not the tale he wants to tell. One COULD incorporate all that into Buffy's reality, but why bother? Better to keep some things up in the air. If one were to follow to the logical conclusion though, Whedon's basically saying sure, if you want there to be a Christian God and a Christian devil, they're here. Satan's got one of the hell dimensions, and the Christian God is god of one or more of the heaven dimensions. Perhaps Jehovah is like, Osiris' landlord, owns most if not all the different dimensions, and has subleased some of the different dimensions out to other lesser ominpotent beings. The thing is, Buffy's reality is way bigger than just a pale blue dot of a planet and if it got explored further it wouldn't fit any one person's theology. In fact the seemingly endless void surrounding that pale blue dot, is really just a dark smudge, surrounded by a mosaic of other dots and smudges and scribbles and dustbunnies and.. well you get the idea. Space Is Big. If Whedon explored it in too much detail, no one would watch. So he keeps it genuinely vague. To his credit.

I like how Mel Brooks once explained it in his Two Thousand Year Old Man comedy routine. There's always someone bigger. You can worship the strongest guy in the cave, but when he gets struck by lightning, you're gonna look for who brought the storm.

When Willow talked with D'Hoffryn, or summoned Osiris long enough to spit at him, one always gets the impression that sure, these guys are big players in the power struggle of immortal beings and what not, but they're not the end all be all. There's always someone bigger. There's a chicken pecking order and D'Hoffryn's not very high on that list. And if Osiris can take a blow from a witch and not bother with exacting vengeance? Well he must be concerned with retalation from a human. So he can't be all that big a deal. And whatever's bigger than Osiris or Hecate or D'Hoffryn? Well they probably have entities bigger than them giving them a hard time. Would Wolfram & Hart's powers that be consider D'Hoffryn a peer, a potential client, or a threat? All the above, maybe? The Beast proved that even W&H's senior partners aren't the top of the totem pole, and yet The Beast too could be taken down.

So Whedon's view of Buffy's underworld and overworld and afterlife is most certainly a complex polytheistic political nightmare. A jewish person could watch this and think sure all these other entities claiming to be gods can run around. They may even be immortal, invulnerable, omniscient and all that, but there's always someone bigger, and to a jewish viewer that someone bigger would naturally be THEIR image of the ultimate God. Likewise a Catholic or a Muslim could enjoy the Buffy and Angel series with similar mindsets. Sure it's a polytheistic universe on the surface, but that just means their God is even more powerful, to be capable of taking out any other force in Whedon's fictional universe.

It's the ultimate Mary Sue.

Likewise, aetheists can enjoy the show seeing it all as a simultaneously lighthearted and bitterly cynical view of reality. What would the universe be like if ALL these personifications of godliness perpetuated by human culture were real? What would the universe look like if everyone from the greeks to the mormons were right? And it was ALL REAL? Well, humans would at times be treated like pawns, and at times like gods themselves. Human personifications of gods are still innately human. They're still fallible. So it'd make for a very psychotic reality, but it'd also make great television.

Agnostics and those on the fence can enjoy the storytelling without really caring about the details. So as long as Whedon keeps everything vague, any viewer can appreciate the series on their own level of sophistication, regardless of the baggage they bring with them to the boob tube.

Can't really say that for the "Left Behind" series of books and movies, can ya?

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