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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

or “Can’t Stop The Changes”)

So, now that we’ve discussed Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Man-Thing, the Flash, the Martian Manhunter, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Captain Marvel (both of them), Thor, Captain America, and Daredevil, let’s see what’s on TV, shall we?

Of course, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ isn’t on TV anymore, except in reruns. It started out as a movie, then became a TV series (with ancillary books and comics), and now continues on exclusively as a comic book. Why? Why not keep going with the TV show indefinitely? The answer to that question provides a valuable insight into why it is that even the best of TV series don’t last as long as a comic or book series. It’s all down to the storytelling engine…and those pesky, fickle beasts known as actors.

‘Buffy’, of course, has one of the all-time great high concept storytelling engines. Sunnydale High is sitting, quite literally, on the mouth of Hell, and all sorts of demons, vampires, and long-leggedy beasties crawl out every week to menace the student body…opposed only by Buffy Summers, who wants to be popular and academically successful, but who has this side job that keeps getting in the way, and her loyal band of friends. Xander and Willow fill the roles of kid sidekicks, providing valuable sources of exposition and convenient sources of peril for Buffy to rescue, and Giles works well both as her mentor, and as a further source of exposition. The series also rounds out with Angel as a love interest/secondary hero, Cordelia as comic relief, and a wide range of good tertiary supporting characters. Heck, it’s even got a good rogue’s gallery. The Mayor, for example, is an absolutely brilliant villain.

“High school is hell.” It’s an idea that sells itself. Nobody was ever so popular that the traumas of high school don’t have a little hold on their soul, and everyone has some sort of horror story about their teenage years. And all they need to do is ramp that horror story up with a little supernatural horror, and voila! Instant Buffy story, just add vampires.

And if this was where they stayed, it would be a perfect storytelling engine. Indeed, the Buffy comics released by Dark Horse tended to do exactly that. With the exception of a few stories written to fill obvious continuity gaps (how did Giles become Buffy’s Watcher, how did the move to Sunnydale go, et cetera), most of the Dark Horse comic series tended to be set during Season Three, the period where the storytelling engine was most stable. Even the proposed animated series was going to be set during the group’s high school era. So why didn’t they just keep them in high school?

Because actors, unlike pen-and-ink drawings, have an annoying tendency to age. Sarah Michelle Gellar was already playing a character four years younger than her; trying to stretch her high school years out over seven seasons simply wasn’t an option. So, three years into the series, Buffy and the gang graduate…and things are never quite the same after that. Which isn’t unusual for a series set around a high school environment; high school works because it’s universal, but we all go on to do different things after graduation. ‘Dawson’s Creek’ never recovered from having its characters graduate, nor did ‘Beverly Hills 90210′…could Buffy break that curse?

It started, in Season Four, by setting up the new storytelling engine for the series. Most of the cast went to the local college…with the exception of Cordelia and Angel, who got their own spin-off series and left big “Cordy and Angel” shaped holes in the storytelling engine. Cordy’s role was filled by snarky ex-demon Anya, while Angel’s part was filled by an amiable lug by the name of Riley Finn, who also happened to be a part of the secret military conspiracy on campus. The series quickly reshaped itself as a college drama with monsters, instead of a high school drama with monsters…

And then, in Season Five, abruptly dropped the concept. Over the next two seasons, they set up a new storytelling engine revolving around Buffy as caretaker of her family as her mother sickened and died and the writers introduced a new little sister (Magic. Don’t ask.) Riley was ditched in favor of promoting Spike, a series villain-turned-reluctant-hero, as a new love interest (and gradually sanding off Spike’s edges until he fit into that Angel-shaped hole), the supporting cast changed (Oz, Giles, and Oz-replacement Tara all left during this period), and suddenly the show was a bleak, depressing coming-of-age drama with monsters. The writers seemed to have difficulty coping with the changes to cast, the need to devote time and energy to the ‘Angel’ spin-off, and fundamentally, with the lack of the high school setting that was the key to the whole series concept.

So in Season Seven, it was back to the high school! Which you’d think would be tricky, since everyone graduated four years ago and the whole thing was blown up, but Buffy returns this time not as a rebellious kid, but as a guidance counselor for wayward teens. This new concept inverts the original paradigm; instead of being about how nobody understands teenagers, it’s a show about how adults understand teenagers all too well, having been teenagers themselves. But by this time, Gellar wasn’t interested in doing a Season Eight, and so the series finale blew up not just the rebuilt high school but the entire town, while turning hundreds of women into new Slayers.

Which is where the comic picks up. The original concept, “high school is hell”, has been left completely behind for Buffy Summers as the leader of a strike team of superhuman women, dedicated to traveling the globe and wiping out supernatural evil wherever it may hide. It’s a good storytelling engine, but it does lack some of the universal charm of the original series…but by this point, there’s really no going back. That’s the thing about changing a storytelling engine. It can be awfully hard to change back if you make a mistake. The only thing you can really do is keep moving forward, and hope you eventually find a new destination as attractive as the place you left behind.

23 Comments

Perhaps it’s because letting time actually pass in a series is so rare that people seem to be surprised when it does. I remember during season 6, when Buffy is supposed to be 21, someone wrote a scathing article about the way the Buffy/Spike relationship was portrayed, and it became clear over the course of the article that the commentator seemed to think Buffy was still a 16-year-old highschooler.

(Then there’s the continual comments people make about how the Harry Potter movie cast is getting so “old,” despite the fact that the characters are supposed to be 17 by the end of the series, and standard TV/film casting for teenagers means that they’ll actually be closer to the characters’ ages than, say, the Buffy cast.)

Stephane Savoie

August 12, 2008 at 9:47 am

Good article, although there’s one small caveat: comics often try to go back, changing whatever needs to be changed to revisit an old storytelling engine. It’s either part of the charm of the medium, or the flaw, depending.

I’m surprised you didn’t mention the another important part of the Buffy storytelling engine, which is the Big Bad. A lot of the individual season arcs is seeing the Buffy team interact with the season’s archenemy (or the appropriate fake predecessor) and figure out their plan. In general, the better seasons have more interesting Big Bads.

I have done no reading about the show and wonder why the storytelling engine of season four was discarded for season five.

Bernard the Poet

August 12, 2008 at 10:40 am

I never saw the series (although I did see the film), but from what you have written it seems to me that they might have been better off by replacing Sarah Michelle Gellar at the end of the third series. She could have passed the mantle on to another high school student and gone to college. A new cast would have given the show the illusion of change, whilst keeping the story telling engine intact. Gellar might have been missed at first, but people soon got over not seeing Kirsty Swanson. If the new Vampire Slayer was particularly unpopular then she could be killed off and the mantle passed on to a third actress.

There are plenty of precedents for this: when Diane left Cheers, the writers replaced her character with an almost identical character. Then they repeated all their old ‘will they-won’t they’ stories and no one seemed to mind. In fact it seemed funnier the second time around.

While Cheers may have worked, there are a number of examples where changing the main character to a clone has failed dismally.
Airwolf springs to mind, I’m sure if I thought harder I could think of many others.

Besides which, with Cheers, they changed the dynamic, since Rebecca owned the bar and was Sam’s employer rather than employee – this change is actually fairly similar to what John is describing, if you compare series 3 to series 7.

There’s a small group of comis out there who let their charatcers age. For Better or For Worse, Cerebus are the two big ones off the top of my head. And how often do they get mentioned int he same conversation?

There’s one hell of an idea for an Archie comic, though: Arch and the gang in a Riverdale retirement home.

Bernard the Poet, you’ve never seen a single episode?! Wow. You should view a few seasons of it, up to and including the Dracula episode at least.

Riley was the victim of what can always happen when storytelling engines shift. He wasn’t popular with the fans who liked the old engine. So he got jettisoned for a fan favorite. But that was just a character preference.

The real issue with the storytelling engine set up in Season 4 was that it was the same storytelling engine as some many other high school shows post-graduation. The “high school is hell…literally” angle had been such a refreshing take that it was nearly impossible to see all of the similarities to 90210, Dawson’s Creek, etc.

The college engine was so generic, because they tried to rely solely on the characters and there was no outside generator of story. Hence, all of the dark turns that the characters were forced to take over the later years in order to fuel conflict.

Angel was replaced because his storyline hit an end. He couldn’t have sex with Buffy without turning evil. There really wasn’t anything left to do with him because of that. You couldn’t replace Gellar and have the show work. That’s not even an option. What really hurt the series IMO is that the network wanted to tone down the violence after season three (the season three finale included students carrying weapons under their graduation gowns). This was the time that the Columbine shootings happened. So there was alot of sex storylines that didn’t seem to flow very well.

I am hoping that they make a Buffy movie eventually. Gellar’s last three movies have been so bad she might need to do Buffy just to jump start her career. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a show on Sci-Fi or something that would follow another slayer.

There’s another problem with aging in Buffy that hasn’t been pointed out yet. Spike, Angel and the like are meant to be more or less unaging – they’re vampires. Look at James Marsters now (such as his recent appearances in Smallville or Torchwood), and compare him to how he looked in his first appearance 11 years ago in “School Hard.” There’s no way you could realistically believe him to be the same age.

I’ve been watching Buffy from episode one this year, and it is my understanding that all of Sunnydale was on the mouth of Hell. So couldn’t they have still done the “high-school is hell” thing only set it on a college campus?

comixkid2099: You can’t do “high-school is hell” in college, because, as a general rule, people just like college a lot more. For one thing, it’s optional. Furthermore, you’re never trapped for an entire day in a building filled with people you despise. You’ve got a lot more free time and more flexibility to pursue time with people you like.

Now, grad school on the other hand…

Buffy, like most teen shows, suffers when they go off into college. The post-high school years never quite capture the same magic, though I must confess, the first 2 years of 90210 in college were enjoyable (once you got over the fact that they all ended up in the same college and lived in fabulous beach apartments their freshman year :). One Tree Hill did the smart thing by avoiding the college years all together.

I still think season four is incredibly underrated. Aside from a few real stinkers and a lame big bad (who wasn’t in the original plan), it’s awesome. Also, the funniest season of them all.

Yes, the show lost something when it switched engines, but the characters kept the thing going for a while. I’m glad it ended when it did, though, as the show had clearly started going to pot.

Still my favorite TV series ever.

Bill, what was the original plan for the big bad?

If I remember correctly, Maggie Walsh was to be the big villain; Adam was shoehorned in when the actress decided to leave.

You remember correctly, Bill.

Professor Walsh would have made a TON more sense as the Big Bad.

Lindsey Crouse is a great actress, so it is too bad she and Whedon couldn’t make it work.

I actually agree that Season Four is underrated; it’s got some of my favorite comedy episodes, the college setting, while not as good as the high school setting, still works, and I actually like Adam (and I’d already pegged Maggie as the villain several episodes before it happened, so the shock of her getting murdered by her own creation totally threw me.) Really, I think the series went off the rails a few episodes into Season Five, when the explanation for Dawn turned out so weak, when Glory turned out to be (IMHO) the first total whiff as a Big Bad, and when it became clear they were abandoning both Riley and the college setting, all without any clear idea of what to replace them with. The series never really recovered from Season Five’s lack of direction.

I think they really missed a trick in Season Six… What we got was a sort of Dysfunction Junction storyline. Everyone- in the lack of serious opposition- had to combat their personal flaws with various degrees of success.

(Since Buffy was, by that point, depicted as a bit on the flawless-side except for what problems life threw at her, her problem was being recently DEAD. This left us with episodes where ‘happy ending’= ‘heroine doesn’t wish she was still dead, anymore’.)

Consider what happened at the end of Season Five, though- they beat a GOD. At the start of S6, they raised someone from the dead. They’ve basically become the most powerful group of individuals in their world, and getting stronger.

The notion that the ‘bads’ were the main characters themeselves could have been launched into a story line where they’re ‘in charge now’- with the metaphor going from “You’re a powerless High School student, and essentially powerless” to “You’re an adult, you’re responsible (in all senses of ‘responsible’)”- with all the horror that could imply.

Honestly, the problem with Season 5 was that it felt like the final season and then wasn’t.

Buffy discards Riley and College, loses her Mom and has Giles decide to leave. In the final episode, she DIES. They broke the story-telling engine pretty utterly. S6 required a total re-think of the entire series, while retaining most of the cast. Some of the pieces fit into the new model and some didn’t. The show never really recovered, despite some nice creative highlights.

“but people soon got over not seeing Kirsty Swanson.”

Since you never saw any of the series and only saw the film, you deserve some slack. The point is though that many of the fans of the show didn’t even like the movie. There is a whole different dynamic. Other fans never even knew of the movie. So there was really no “getting over”. The series isn’t even really a sequal to the movie. (the movie was changed so much from Joss’s plans). There are many contradictions between the movie and the television show. So they aren’t really supposed to be the same character played by different actresses.

Secondly when they went into the college years, Buffy gaining a sister and losing her mom….. Joss pointed out that these were all charting the path of Buffy going from a girl to a woman. The points of growing up. Part of Dawns addition was bringing Buffy into a surragate mother role. Again another part of her growing up. A pin point in her life arc. Moving her aside and doing another highschool slayer would have totally devalued that growth. Not to mention for another high school slayer, either her or Faith would have needed to die.

“abandoning both Riley and the college setting, all without any clear idea of what to replace them with.”
That was actually part of the storytelling though. It wasn’t that they didn’t have any idea of what to replace them with storywise. The story WAS that there was nothing to replace college with. Buffy was meandering. She had no idea what she was going to do with her life or where she was going (she even resorted to a fast food career for awhile). Yeah, no college aged person (either in college or out) ever went through that feeling…. You see as the charting of a girls life from teen to womanhood, it was actually important to show that point in her life of “Where do I go from here”.

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