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February 10 2006

(SPOILER) Matt Roush responds to a question on killing characters as a ratings stunt by suggesting that "if you're going to try to hold the rest of TV up to the level of Joss Whedon's creative integrity, you're setting yourself up for nonstop disappointment."

A good piece of advice we all need to keep in mind. Would that it were not the case.

Side note: When I read the headline I thought they were going to be talking about the deaths of people doing stunts. I've got to get with the program.
Regarding the money quote about holding the rest of TV to Joss's standard, I don't. Which is why if we're not watching news, sports, the Food Network, or Animal Planet, it's Buffy or Angel or Fifefly DVDs.

[ edited by Chris inVirginia on 2006-02-10 17:29 ]
I've edited the headline to make it less confusing.
Wonderful statement about the essential difference between Whedon shows and just about all other tv (again Freaks and Geeks comes to mind as being of an equal level of quality).

The writer of the question neglected to mention the deaths of Principal Flutie and Jenny Calendar. Although Flutie was a fairly minor character, the fact that the show would kill off anyone like that, after establishing him as a recurring character, was an early clue that Whedon wasn't playing by the established rules, even though viewers might not have gotten the full force of that hint until Jenny. The fact that Jenny was allowed to die, and even more that Angel was the one who killed her, just made it clear that nothing about this show was going to be standard and predictable.

I've actually just been thinking about the issue of televsion series deaths and what makes the Buffyverse stand out. Particularly I was focusing on the death of Tasha Yar in NextGen, which in some respects seems comparable. She was after all a major, ongoing character and there was no real warning of it coming. Yet it still didn't feel like it had the same impact. The conclusion I've come to is that all the deaths in the Buffyverse felt integral to the overall shape of the series, sometimes, like Flutie's just to say, Sunnydale is dangerous and deaths will occur without warning.

Tasha Yar's death felt very much like someone said "ok this actor has decided to leave the show, we'll write a oner with a big death scene." It felt neither like it was integral to the overall storyline, or like it was a genuine example of the danger that the crew on Federation starship might encounter.
I'd be interested in others' thoughts on this.
I'd have to agree. Setting your tv show standard at the Whedon level is just asking to be disappointed. Very few shows (and i do mean very few) are ever going to match that kind of level of creative integrity.

I have a list of shows that i watch on a regular basis and some i catch now and again but i'd be hard pressed to name one i could hold up to Buffy, Angel or Firefly. The only ones that come close in my opinion are Farscape and Lost. That doesn't make series like 24, Stargate, Veronica Mars or Supernatural terrible television, absolutely the opposite in fact. Comparing them to Joss' shows though just doesn't work because it's setting the bar way above what most television creators are capable of.
barboo, The Tasha Yar comparison is interesting. I remember being shocked, but as you said, the thoughts I had about it at the time were more along the lines of "Damn, she was the only interesting character on the show. I guess she wanted to leave. Now who is there going to be worth watching?" The possibility for a real edge seemed to go with that character. Although the show got better later, I stopped watching for a while and never was the obsessive watcher they could have made me if they were more on target in the first season.
barboo, the Tasha Yar comparison you make is interesting because it makes the point very well that comparing a Whedon show to any other is usually apples/oranges. ST:TNG much as I enjoyed it (tho' the quality wasn't really consistent until about Season 3) is pretty much the anti-Buffy in the sense that it very much stresses plot, story and The Big Idea over long term character development. It was old style 'franchise' television, the endpoint of every episode more or less being the restoration of the status quo.

Now in fairness, 'Skin of Evil' was the first season of TNG and they hadn't really found their feet yet but if you compare episode numbers, you'll see that Yar died in Ep. 23 of the first season. Now bearing in mind that Buffy was a mid-season replacement, you have episodes like 'Lie To Me' at No. 20 (counting from the start of season 1) and 'Innocence' at 27 both of which, I think most would agree, resonated far more than even the death of a major character on TNG because from the very beginning, the characters on Buffy (and this is, IMO, even truer of Firefly) were not interchangeable parts in a narrative structure but people, actual and whole.

As Joss has said several times, Buffy was designed from the start to be a show that people didn't like but loved and clearly it was well designed. TNG was, to some extent (I qualify this because over the years I did come to love the characters on TNG, relatively static and ubermenshe-ish tho' they were), designed as a platform to examine socially or philosophically relevant issues in separate little syndication friendly packets. DS9 (for my money the best Trek series) found the middle ground with characters that changed and season long arcs while still having stand-out individual episodes which directly addressed metaphysical, political and philosophical questions about what it means to be a human being and what it might mean to not be.

Basically, many genre shows are about ideas, Whedon shows are always about people.
My wife and I loved TNG, but even when it was on, we realized that of every 10 shows, 6 or 7 would be really good and maybe even great, and of the remainder, 2 or 3 would be truly mediocre, and 1 or 2 might actually induce cringing, even in the later seasons.

My cousin and his wife have finished Buffy and love it, and are now onto Angel. They just saw "Hero" and marvel at the pain cruelty Joss inflicts on us...as I've sometimes said, "Joss Whedon is the cruelest man in the universe...thank God!"
Sadly, I do hold other shows up to a Jossian standard. Which is why I only watch like 3 shows right now....
Saje said
Basically, many genre shows are about ideas, Whedon shows are always about people.


Hmmm, I think I would put it that Whedon's shows are about Story, while other shows are typically about stories. Whedon is the master storyteller, always thinking about how everything builds. But you nail it about TNG (and old-style television in general) having the restoration of the status quo as the endpoint of each episode. So the death of Tasha Yar was treated as an aberration - a blip after which the NextGen universe reset itself to the new equilibrium, whereas in the Buffyverse every death moves the overall storyline forward. The death's feel more momentous in Buffy because they continued to affect the show's characters over time.

To be fair, TNG did improve over time and the characters were allowed some growth. Some of that was just due to the extraordinary acting of Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart who made you see the characters grow. I haven't actually seen the later years of DS9. That was on in the period when I couldn't get television reception where I live. One of these days, after I've finished running through all of Angel and Firefly again I'll have to rent it.
I actually think that the emotional standard set by Joss's shows really makes deaths almost clichéd now. Whenever it was on Buffy or Angel, it was just so fresh and daring and almost always unexpected. Now it seems almost a standard to try and fool the audience.

Like in Lost, they were planning to kill Jack off in the first episode after introducing him as the lead character, just like Joss was hoping to do by making Eric Balfour a main cast member and kill Jesse off in the first episode. He still did that, but they couldn't afford to change the credits so he wasn't a main cast member. But still, it didn't take long for recurring and main characters to die. So whenever I hear about how 24 killing off Teri Bauer was daring, I just think back to Joss killing off Jesse pretty much by the end of Welcome To The Hellmouth. His fate was definitely sealed when he met Darla.
I also hate the advertising of a character's upcoming death in TV. It ruined the impact of one character's death scene in the first season of Lost and It was completely bungled in Smallville (Matt Roush thought that was a great episode? WTF?). That ratings stunt always disappoints me.

I have a theory about Joss' trademark tragic lovestories. After the numerous tragic endings of our favorite characters in Joss' TV shows, has it now become cliche for Joss to even kill off our beloveds especially when they are happy and in love? Have we now come to expect this from him every single time, so he's going to then buck those expectations and actually not kill off, for instance, Kaylee or Simon now that they're happy together?

I kind of doubt it but it's something that crossed my mind.
Yup, my sentiments exactly -- I hold up most shows to the Whedon standard and most come crashingly short. Sadly. Which is why I watch like 4 shows on TV right now, and none of them as obsessively as I watched BtVS or FF.
To be fair, Jenny Calendar's death WAS advertised. I remember very clearly the promo for Passion featuring the quick cuts between all the cast members with the cliched "ONE OF BUFFY'S FRIENDS WILL BE LOST FOREVER" voiceover, or something too that effect. That was the WBs choice though, not Joss', as it typically is with all advertised deaths (There's exceptions of course, but considering part of the point of killing characters is too catch the viewer off guard, I doubt most appreciate it when the network announces it advance). That's the only advertised death on a Whedon show though.
Have we now come to expect this from him every single time, so he's going to then buck those expectations and actually not kill off, for instance, Kaylee or Simon now that they're happy together?

If Joss killed off Kaylee or Willow, I'd be shocked beyond belief. I'd consider those two of the safest characters in the 'verse.
Fred's death was advertised too.
Wow...not watching anything but Angel on any of the over the air nets for the last season, I was blissfully unaware that anybody on Angel was going to die for certain...that's awful...given Joss's track record for happy couples (death, death, death, death, and abandonment), I think I could have figured that either Fred or Wesley would bite the dust, given their unbearably delightful kiss at the end of Smile Time...
barboo, yep. I agree he's a master storyteller but it seems to me (and I think some of Joss' comments in interview support this) that his approach is 'what story/plot can I use to get to the emotional hit i'm aiming for ?' whereas other shows sometimes seem to write a story and then ask 'what are the emotional hits in this story ?'. I think it's this emphasis on how a plot moment feels that makes e.g. the deaths in Buffy so emotive (this may well be what you mean with the Story/stories distinction, in which case I second that ;). It also helps that he's made it clear that death is permanent or that resurrection when it comes is full of pain and consequence which allows you to invest in the moment since as a viewer you can be confident that it won't be cheapened by a simple narrative reset.

ElectricSpaceGirl, I actually thought that the 100th Smallville was pretty good, ironically enough apart from the death which was to my mind botched. In fairness, this was partly because I had narrowed it down to 3 characters that could, given the Superman mythos, logically die and the one that did was my least favourite of the 3 on the show so I was actually relieved rather than moved. I think tho' that this also reflects on the quality of characterisation on Smallville (imagine if during 'Seeing Red' instead of thinking 'Oh my God, Tara !' you were thinking 'Well, at least it wasn't Willow').

You know gossi, at risk of sounding a bit sappy that's actually one of the things that worries me about further Firefly adventures or the Buffy Season 8 that's coming to comics. I really want the core characters to have a happy ending but I know what a bugger he can be about killing folk off ;).
NightTraveler, you are correct. It's usually the network that decides to advertise the upcoming death, but in Lost's case one of the creators was the one to spill the beans to the press early in the season.
The hype about a Lost death started before the show even aired.(remember all the fake teases? Charlie? Shannon?)
Joss is definitely one of the top five TV creators out there, but come on. There have been and are currently shows that featured just as commendable quality writing (yes, both in terms of plot and characterization) as Buffy, Angel, and Firefly. From Deadwood to Six Feet Under to The Shield to The Sopranos...they're not all gonna be to everyone's tastes, and maybe not the genres or subject matter that many Joss fans would prefer (I know not all Buffy/Angel fans are strictly fantasy/sci-fi/horror fans, but a great many of them are), but there is incredible writing and acting going on right now, has been in recent years, even (or maybe especially) during the years when the Buffyverse was still airing.

There's great television out there, you just might have to sample a lot of it to find something to love. Unfortunately, it's not all available for cheap when you're only subscribed to basic cable networks, you might have to rent/borrow/buy it on DVD or spring for subscription cable if you've got the cash and feel that you can't wait.

I think what some people miss is how approachable and warm many of the characters could be on Joss' shows though. As well-written as some of the shows I mentioned are, you do sometimes feel a distance from many of the main characters in them. Part of that has to do with the fact that Buffy's main cast, specifically the core four I guess, started out as generally content, relatable, even down-to-earth individuals compared to how some of them ended up. When many HBO shows start, for example, we're introduced to them at a point in their lives where some are already hardened and often unlikeable at the beginning. Which is why some viewers sample some of these shows and are turned off by them at the getgo. It takes patience and knowing that the layers will be revealed gradually though, that it may even take a couple seasons for a character to reach breaking point before they deal with a family or psychological issue, to really give these shows a chance and maybe eventually embrace them as much as we've embraced Joss' creations.
I'm enjoying Lost tremendously but I have yet to care about a character's death in that show. I can't put my finger on why but the charaters aren't that important to me. Rather, I'm enjoying the mysteries that's slowly unfolding. I feel like I'm watching Myst.

On the otherhand, I can't say the same for the Whedon shows, especially Buffy and FF.

Kris, I agree, there are other quality shows when you seek them out. I loved Six Feet Under until it became silly and inane. Sopranos is solid. I loved The Office (BBC version) and enjoy Gilmore Girls, Scrubs, My Name is Earl, Lost, etc. I also disagree that hardened characters are unlikeable. At least, that's not what make me switch the channel. In fact, I sometimes do prefer the unlikeable characters. Despite that, there's just that certain Whedon wit and style that no one can do or should they. I hate it when shows are just copies of other shows.
Despite that, there's just that certain Whedon wit and style that no one can do or should they. I hate it when shows are just copies of other shows.

This hits the nail on the head for me. In the same way I can't choose a favorite between Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, I can't say whether I prefer, say, Buffy or Battlestar Galactica. Their so different that comparing them feels really forced to me.

And I agree with Kris - there's a lot more quality television out there than it first appears when you start checking out shows on DVD (especially when you look at shows that were cancelled after 15 or so episodes).

[ edited by gilraen on 2006-02-11 03:44 ]

Have we now come to expect this from him every single time, so he's going to then buck those expectations and actually not kill off, for instance, Kaylee or Simon now that they're happy together?
ElectricSpaceGirl | February 11, 00:28 CET


I got the hang of Jossian logic enough that by Season 7 of Buffy, when the charming and attractive Robin Wood appeared, I immediately started to suspect him of being a bad guy. Then when Buffy commented that she was beginning to suspect him, I knew he was on our side. But the suspense for that set of episodes was killing me!

One of the things we just have to realize is that the Whedon shows that have been on the air are about people who live dangerous lives. And the deaths make that real, as opposed to series where you know all the main characters will be there at the closing credits. But maybe if he ever did a different kind of show there wouldn't be so much carnage. Just y'know, divorce and desertions and abandonment. Normal kind of stuff. ;)
Thank you for your comment, Kris. As much as I love Joss, I don't think it's fair to the many, other great shows on television today to just write them off because Joss didn't write them, an attitude which pops up on this site fairly regularly. There always has been and always will be crap on television. But there are some fantastic shows on the air now. To name some: Veronica Mars, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy, The Office, Boston Legal, and yes, even Desperate Housewives, despite an uneven second season. Not all of these shows are brilliant. Nor are they equally great, let alone as great as a Joss Whedon show. But they are all completely worthy hours of television, with their own merits. I will even admit to enjoying How I Met Your Mother, which is much more intelligent than most people give it credit for.

And it is not on the air anymore, but Six Feet Under is the only show I have ever watched that I count as being equal to the Whedon shows, both in depth and emotional complexity, and sometimes even superior. As a complete work, I find Six Feet Under, in fact, more consistent than Buffy--in terms of continuity, character development, and series-long arc-building.
I agree with Kris, as usual. I'd definitely rank Deadwood and Six Feet Under up there with Joss's writing. I don't get the warmth from those shows that I get from BtVS, but I get other things. The episode of DW featuring Bill Hickok's death is one of the most brilliantly structured and moving things I've seen in any medium.

And K makes an interesting point about character development. I didn't particularly care for the SFU bunch the first few episodes or so - the only character I found honest and likeable was the dead dad. But by the end of the first season, I'm in love with every one of them, and desperately want to know more. (Yes, I've only seen the one season - I'm slow like that. But I'm in for the long haul).

To be fair, I think our members are very generous with their praise of non-Whedon shows - but usually with the "not quite as good as Joss" qualification. That's rather to be expected on a site named Whedonesque, and I don't think any slur is intended on those other shows.
I think Battlestar Galactica is as good as Joss Whedon's shows. It has as much character depth as Buffy, Angel and Firefly and it's one of the two shows on TV right now where the characters feel like family. BSG also has a rich mythology which makes it grander and more epic than anything else I'm watching on TV this season.

Lost had potential but doesn't know how to do character develpment very well, despite it's attempts with having character backstory focus every single episode - which I must say has become redundant and tiresome in its second season.

Veronica Mars is the other show whose characters are close to my heart. Season one was Buffy season 2 caliber writing, although the finale didn't make me sob for a week. Right now I'm not feeling that love as much as BSG which is partly because I recently marathoned the BSG DVDs and a marathon sucks you into the story more than waiting a week for a new episode and then having to wait for weeks during a hiatus. I recommend catching the shows you like on DVD even if you've already seen them on TV. You may find you like the show even better the second or third time through.

[ edited by ElectricSpaceGirl on 2006-02-11 05:21 ]
SNT, hurry up with the SFU-viewing before someone spoils it rotten man.

Rob said:
"As a complete work, I find Six Feet Under, in fact, more consistent than Buffy--in terms of continuity, character development, and series-long arc-building."

I agree there. I don't think any series has lasted five seasons or more and ended as well as SFU did. I thought Season 5 was a brilliant piece of the show. Season 4 gave me worries at some points, especially with some of its overall character arcs--but there were some standout individual episodes that held it up, I felt.

Speaking of Battlestar Galactica, I've put it on my Zip.ca list (the Netflix of Canada). I couldn't take it anymore. All the recommendations on the two or three entertainment industry/TV-focused websites I visit, especially this one, finally broke me. My resistance wasn't born out of thinking I'd dislike it, just that if I DVD it right now it'll be over so quick...I wanted to wait until more seasons were out. I'm at that point with Oz right now--I've been watching it infrequently over the past couple years, finished Season 4 in November and Season 5 a couple days ago, but there's no sign of Season 6 DVDs being released any time soon and it's killing (I have issues with Oz. The double-length Season 4 had serious problems, but Season 5 kinda brought the show back to the goodness that was prevalent throughout most of the first three seasons. It's not a perfect show, it was HBO's first big one-hour drama, but it has its charms).

Oh and I'm considering renting the original BSG first 'cause I'm a nerd and wanna get all the in-jokes and decide whether I'd be outraged by Starbuck being made a woman along with all the diehard fans. Will the cheese of the first disc turn me off so quickly that I try to forget I ever saw it and skip right to the current series? We'll see.
Kris, make sure you watch the BSG mini-series first. It's not always included in the season one DVD set.
I think the other reason is that Joss tends to write characters, even secondary characters which are strong enough that you could imagine a story or even a whole series which could revolve around them. That's why people can talk about a Willow or a Xander, an Illiya or even a Jenny Calender spin-off and have faith that there is enough story and depth to the characters for that to work. Because of that if they're not there in anymore or killed off, there is a gap in there which can take some time to fill ...

What happens in shows such as Star Trek is that in general if a character isn't there you don't feel that there's a hole somewhere. When Kes left Voyager it didn't feel like the mission couldn't continue or indeed Tasha. Part of that's to do with the needs of most network television but it tends to weaken the integrity of the series.
I finished watching the BSG mini-series and Season 1 on DVD. The mini-series were great, the Season 1 was less than great. The main complaint that I have is the following. (mild spoilers ahead)

I cannot shrug off a nagging feeling that everything in BSG is happening in some kind of a elaborated virtual world created by Cylons/humans to do experiments on Cylons/humans to make better versions of Cylons/humans. Cylon agents pop up almost at will, in different forms, to control, manipulate and play mindgames with humans. Everything seems like a part of the Cylons plan, and humans are just puppets or animals used in experiments. In addition, Cylons and humans are physically and mentally (almost) indistinguishable, which makes everything even more confusing. I like/love some human characters. I also like the human survival part of the story. However, the impact of human decisons and actions is somewhat lessened for me, because I constantly have to question the reality of what is shown to me.
Such an interesting thread!

I also do not compare other shows with Whedon shows but agree there are other good shows out there. I have only seen season 1 of Deadwood but really love it, and yes SNT when I first watched I was very upset at Bill Hickok's death. I was upset because he was so well acted and written that I wanted to have more of him during the series!

Didn't John Lennon say something to the effect that 99% of everything is s**t? I love John Lennon but to me, although his statement seems true, it is not a fun way to live. I figure if I foster that idea I miss the little nuggets of fun in life, and the little nuggets of fun or quality in shows that aren't Whedon shows. So I grade on a scale.

Personally I really like the majority of the X-Files series. I recently bought seasons 2-7 and I really enjoy the majority of the episodes. I really enjoy episode like Clyde Bruckner's Final Repose, Small Potatoes, Two Father, and One Son. But Joss shows get me on a special level.


**Edited again - I don't spell potatoe every day - I was right the first time - I had to check it!

[ edited by Passion on 2006-02-11 16:21 ]

[ edited by Passion on 2006-02-11 16:23 ]
Huh.

Well, personally, I kill people for attention all. the. time.

And it's never made me feel like a cheap hack...

Until now.

*sulks.. kills nearby popular person in fit of pique*

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