Rip Me A Yarn, Stat: Buffy, Stories & The Toybox

There is nothing wrong with a good story.

Say it again. One more time.

There is nothing wrong with a good story.

I, [INSERT FABULOUS NAME OF YOUR CHOOSING], do solemnly swear that there is nothing wrong with a good story. Super duper solemnly.

It seems simple enough, doesn’t it?

Track human beings back to when they were banging their heads off cave walls and calling it entertainment and it is the evolution of the story. The he-said she-said of spread word from poet to neighbour to seanchaí to your own ear, to your head, to your heart, to your funny bones and your sore knees, and back out your mouth to someone else.

We have no idea why we do this but we do it. The words aren’t the thing, the story is.

Looking at the fact that Buffy’s turning twenty, it’s easy to say that this is true, and even easier to forget that we’ve forgotten how important that is. We’re currently bathing in an era of television so gritty and so golden that it could probably be ingested by a US President, and yet whenever I think of Buffy I feel a twinge of disappointment for the way things have turned out.

Because sometimes it feels like we’ve forgotten the story.

Let me explain.

Buffy is a story about a girl who fights thinly-veiled metaphors for the struggles of teenage, and then adult, life.

Season one is about the story of fighting a monster bigger and badder than you. Season two is when that Big Bad becomes the man you loved. Season three is about learning that it’s not just you who can shoulder this fight. Season four is you second-guessing that lesson. Season five is about becoming an adult. Season six is about failing at that task. And season seven is about becoming a leader, a mentor; the lesson rather than the student.

And each episode? Memory wipes, musicals, silence, love spells, wishes, dreams, fears and candy and robots and more. And this, for me anyway, is what makes Buffy work. There’s been a lot written about why Buffy soars — the season-long arcs, the sense of levity amid the horror, the respectful characterisation and the social leaps in representation of women, and lesbians, and women lesbians.

But arcs don’t make the heart sing, and lesbians don’t make your story any better.

What Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, David Greenwalt and countless others created through this show was not an odyssey, but a toybox. They were saying to story-tellers far and wide: “Hey, look over here, I’ve got some really cool action figures, let’s craft a tale”.

This is what gets lost in the discussion about Buffy, and this is a lot of what got lost in the rise of “quality television” — your Sopranos, your Breaking Bads, your Oranges Are The New Black. There’s an emphasis on truthful characters, on gritty representations, on social realism. Realism? If you find two toddlers playing with their toys, do you complain that they’ve broken laws of realism, that their first instinct wasn’t to craft something truthful to the characters? No, you let them tell a story. And that was what Buffy did more beautifully than anything else: it got out of the way and let the writers tell a goddamn story, and the only rule that had to be obeyed was the one of being good in the crafting. Is this something that the poet will tell the neighbour will tell the seanchaí will tell back to you? And knowing that when all else fails all that’s left is the yarn, is it a good one?

There are a lot of writers out there with opinions on why we write and how we write. And there are a lot of good answers — to tell the truth, to change the world, to indulge our sadnesses and our joys.

But the dirty little secret that writers never seem to talk about is the fact that it’s fun. It’s fun to tell a story to yourself, with a beginning, middle and end, with knights on white horses and men locked in basements and unspeakable horrors behind your grandmother’s eyes. It’s fun to sit alone in a room and entertain yourself — it’s masturbation, but with fewer tissues and a higher word count. Writers “write for themselves” not because of truth or realism or shame or pride, but because they’ve discovered a fun thing to do and they don’t have to leave the house to do it.

And then, when it’s done, it can also be fun to go out in the world and see if that story is fun for other people.

That’s the core that Buffy was built on. Hey-do-you-wanna-come-over-I-got-a-new-Lego-set. That is what inspired me, when I was a young Dutch girl herding geese on the veld, to turn my mind to story-telling. When the ad break was over and the Sky logo had swung by and the episode began, I knew that I was going to be picked up and transported.

Take, for example, the second-season episode ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. We open on the school, at night, a female teacher about to head home and a male janitor mopping the halls. They exchange pleasantries, she walks away, but then she… stops. And suddenly they’re not the teacher and the janitor anymore — they’re a lovestruck couple, in the midst of an apocalyptic argument, one that ends with a bullet and an innocent woman tumbling over a balcony.

I don’t “respect” that opening, I don’t “applaud” it, I just silently scream at the television “What the fuck happens now?”. And the story unfolds, as stories do. People are being possessed by the spirits of two doomed lovers, a teacher and student who died fifty years ago — he shot her, then turned the gun on himself. As the episode progresses the story becomes about something more, about the theme of passion and redemption, realised through an ending that places the fractured Buffy and Angel in the lovers’ place, but crucially with the genders reversed. But as the themes and moments and characterisations are layered on, the core of the story is never forgotten. How did we get into this mess, and how the hell are we going to get out of it?

There’s a term that’s used in screenwriting occasionally: ‘strange attractor’. It’s a fancy word for a basic concept, namely “What is weird about this thing that will get me interested?” Riding into Sunnydale every week was an exercise in strange attractors. What if our parents were children? What if our voices were lost? What if you could have all you wished for? What if I could read people’s minds? Buffy committed itself to daring to dream once a week for forty-five minutes and we are all the better for it.

So I turn, once again, to the golden age of television. The “strange attractors” come in spades. What if a chemistry teacher became a drug dealer? What would happen if a missing woman claimed to be able to visit other dimensions? What if a suburban family were actually Russian spies? These all make for compelling, superb narratives. But the problem is that while Buffy dealt in a new “strange attractor” every week, these television series deal in one concept stretched over an entire series ad infinitum (and occasionally ad nauseum).

The fun is gone. Or limited, anyway. Somewhere along the way the beauty, the art, the character, the gravitas, the respect, became more important than the story.

And while that might be a golden age for viewers, it doesn’t necessarily feel the same for writers. There are a lot more jobs out there, but a lot less stories. Nobody has a toybox anymore — instead they have a jigsaw puzzle, and don’t touch that piece because there’s a certain way to do things and I don’t want you messing it up.

There are delicious exceptions to the rule, of course, from the quasi-serialised joy of The Good Wife (and now Fight) to the standalone give-no-fuckitude of Black Mirror. But it does feel like somewhere along the way we got a little lost — that we became so focused on what made Buffy special that we forgot what made Buffy work. And as I look at the back-and-forth discussion over what made seasons six and seven falter, from the darker material to the bucking of conventions, what many people seem to forget is that those are the seasons where the show began to pack in Monsters Of The Week in favour of serving the arc. The show began to eclipse the stories.

So tonight I’ll be raising a glass to the Slayer. To Willow, Giles, Anya, Xander, Spike, Angel (and yes, Dawn). I’ll raise a flagon to Joyce Summers, arguably the most lovable and relatable portrayals of motherhood to grace the small screen. I’ll even down a shot for Warren, because whatever you think of him he was the most accurate predictor of the horrors we face in modern times.

But more than that, more than anything, I’ll raise a glass to the toybox. Because that’s where the little creature that makes fiction lives, that’s where we go to fill our pockets, and that’s the divine well of story-telling that we should be celebrating.

So toast with me. And say it with me.

To Buffy.

To Joss.

To slaying vampires.

And ripping yarns.

If you like my writing, come along to my new show FLANAGANZA at SLAM King’s Cross, March 19th-21st.

If you like my writing and have loads of money, I’m writing a couple of TV pilots at the moment. Give my agent a shout.

The AV Club are doing spectacular work as part of their Buffy week, with interviews with a spread of cast and in-depth articles. Start here and proceed to lose the rest of your day.

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About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
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