It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired on March 10, 1997, but I didn’t pay attention until my wife turned me on during the DVD era. Multiple viewings of the best seasons remain one of my greatest art experiences. (Starting mid-season 6, the show faltered badly. If I were in charge, the final episode would be the musical “Once More with Feeling” with the last line being, “Where do we go from here?”)

Joss Whedon’s basic idea was, “What if the ‘dumb blonde’ — a stereotype of genre movies — turned out to be the hero instead of the victim?” The show is generally seen as a watershed for female heroes in pop culture, although not all the politics in Buffy stand up to the toughest P.C. police 20 years later.

More important to my own development was the utter clarity with which the show banged together different genres. I am hardly the only person to have responded this way. The magnificent time-sink website TV Tropes is the direct product the many Buffy chatrooms that sprang up during the early days of the internet.

There’s no Buffy episode that doesn’t involve a mashup of disparate elements. However, some of the big ones will probably always be cited in the history books: the meta “The Zeppo” (script by Dan Vebber), the silent “Hush,” the alternative universe “Superstar” (script by Jane Espenson), the funereal “The Body,” and the aforementioned musical “Once More, with Feeling.”

Whedon says somewhere that his father (who also worked in television) taught him that there are no new ideas, just new ways of combining old ideas. At first I didn’t really swallow this: Yeah, maybe in the postmodern age we need to create mashup, but back in the day there were the originators! However, after living with Whedon and TV Tropes for a while I now also see almost everything as the product of new combinations.

The best artists take in their sources at a deep level and manage to hide their borrowings with brilliant sleight-of-hand.

My students sometimes say, “I don’t want to imitate, I want to play something authentic to me.”

If I am in one mood, I might respond in typical wishy-washy liberal arts fashion, “If you feel your own voice coming out, nurture it carefully.”

In another mood, I might be tougher, “Study up! Learn as much detail as you can! After you learn the details, change and combine them with other stuff! By the way, this is what everybody you like to listen to did as well.”

If I’m right about that second statement, I owe it to my immersion in the obvious pop culture combinations of Joss Whedon and the rest of the team: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, James Marsters, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, David Greenwalt, Marti Noxon, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Kaz Kuzui, Steven S. DeKnight, Jane Espenson, David Fury, Drew Goddard, Drew Greenberg, Rebecca Rand Kirshner, Doug Petrie, and so many others who joined forces to give so much pleasure to so many.

[go on to the Mary Lou Williams essay]