Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season Four (2000)
Impression published on Monday, 2010-01-25 | Television Serial | 3 stars
Joss Whedon has done little or nothing, as far as I have seen, to discourage the conception among his fans that he is some kind of auteur-slash-mastermind whose serial dramas, unlike those of his peers, are predicated upon inscrutable grand designs and master plans.
More's the pity.
For, the more I see of his serial work, the more it seems unavoidable to me that grand designs and master plans are, in fact, not Whedon's strong suits, and that trial-and-error and improvisation are where Whedon's real genius lies. Which is to say that I don't think he's doing something different from all those other, lesser guys helming all those other, lesser serial dramas, but rather that I think what he's doing is almost exactly the same, except that he does it better.
What became clear to me while working through the fourth season of Buffy were two things: 1.) Whedon's Buffy, while not as ruthless as, say, Battlestar, with its characters, is definitely more willing than a lot of shows to make sudden-seeming additions and subtractions from the roster and 2.) Whedon's Buffy remains engaging not because of big ideas or compelling story arcs, but because of solid "basics".
I see this show--and how it manages to remain funny, engaging and poignant in spite of its natural limitations, i.e. a small cast, a narrowly defined setting and limited chronological scope--and I see a show that is more like MASH, in that any given episode's narrative impetus comes less from big ideas and grand designs than it does from quick thinking and sleight of hand. Basically, I just can't see Whedon-the-Mastermind painstakingly Venn-diagramming character relationships, composing elaborate creature heraldries with a yard stick and a block of butcher paper or dry-swallowing another baby powder blue Adderall to finish the last 200 pages of the Malleus Malificarum before sunrise (just in case there's some juicy, real-life detail buried somewhere in all that medieval double-talk, that might really help the next episode "pop"). Rather, what I see in the fourth season of Buffy is a Whedon who keeps morale high by quarterbacking a running game, rather than a passing game, that keeps everyone's nose to the ground (but doesn't rely too much on any one person's fancy footwork on Whedon's own million dollar arm).
In the final estimation, this season seems less like the masterpiece of a stormy and severe "personality" who creates a siege mentality through his forceful vision and micromanagement than it seems like the work of an relaxed guy who isn't afraid to write a few slugs and doctor a script on the fly, if necessary. Ultimately, this one ends and leaves you with the impression that they kept it moving in spite of having painted themselves into a few narrative corners and walking into more than a few blind story-arc alleys. What's more, the fun they seemed to have had doing it is genuinely infectious and must necessarily be a direct product of Whedon's benevolent dictatorship.
Which is why it seems so unfortunate to me that Whedon hasn't done anything to detract from the impression that he is somehow comedy's Oliver Stone or serial television's Stanley Kubrick. Granted, it might not have been his fault that Firefly's outrageous cancellation became the Tiananmen Square of a generation of bloggers and message board rats, but the fact remains that he's just not doing anything to dispel the myth. Probably because, as he has frequently remarked, he's just not interested in being a public personality. From last year's Salon interview:
Sometimes you go [to ComicCon] because you've got to promote something, and sometimes you go because you just want people to remember that you're still around, even though you have nothing to promote. I did that one year. I was terrified. I was like, uh, I just want to say, I'm still alive!The guy just doesn't have the force of personality or self-consciousness to direct the expectations and feelings of his fanbase and therefore is doomed to be whatever they want him to be.
And the fact of the matter is that his fans, raised on the legend of George Lucas (i.e. the myth of the scrappy indie hero whose resonant mythopoeia, epic sense of scope and grim, monomaniacal insistence on realizing his vision led him to triumph gloriously over big studios and small mindedness), have learned to insist on an auteur and, furthermore, are perfectly happy to make one where one just doesn't exist.
Which, in the final analysis, is probably how Whedon is doomed to be written up by subsequent generations: he was a guy who might not have committed the cardinal sin of believing his own press, but he definitely didn't do enough to control his brand and his best work therefore went unappreciated by its most ardent advocates.