Slaying Buffy

It is hard for intellectuals analysing popular culture to retain a sense of proportion
February 20, 2002

Reading the vampire slayer

Ed Roz Kaveney (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, ?9.99) 

Reviewers often exaggerate how much they know about the subjects of the books they discuss, but you would have to be a bit sad to be a real expert on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I hasten to assure readers that I don't know a great deal about it. But it seems I should be getting out less. Roz Kaveney declares that this is the first television show to have seduced her completely, and admits to being obsessed with it. She is not alone. Writers and intellectuals, she adds, discuss Buffy over dinner. Her ten collaborators in this book are also fully paid-up fans (except perhaps for an expert on east Asian martial arts movies, who breaks ranks by concluding that the fights in Buffy are indifferently executed). Some praise the show for wit, others for symbolic force. Kaveney herself likes the snappiness of the dialogue. She gives us a couple of examples to show what she means: "what is your childhood trauma?" and "I'm love's bitch, but at least I'm man enough to admit it." I suppose it can't all be quite as brilliant as that.

When I have sampled Buffy, I have found the characterisation cardboard, the plot lines repetitious, the pacing and development of the narrative poor, the monsters feeble and the action scenes perfunctory and unexciting. But there is a lot of Buffy. At the back of her book, Kaveney provides a brief synopsis of 100 episodes of Buffy itself and more than 40 episodes of the consciously darker spin-off series, Angel-and it must be hard to keep the standard up. Maybe it has been my bad luck that any time I switch on I seem to catch Giles the librarian advising Buffy about the latest supernatural perils in those concerned tones that children put on when they are playing at being grown-ups. Plenty of people, it is true, find Buffy charming. Certainly, pop-culture television can be worth serious attention: the egghead praise heaped upon The Simpsons, for example, is fully deserved, and Fawlty Towers is one of the finest works of art produced in the last 30 years-although its standards were so high that only 12 episodes were ever made.

Although Buffy may be better than I think, many of Kaveney's contributors are too indulgent to their subject. The joy of fandom is that everything can be made to appear meaningful. Kaveney is impressed that the characters in the story age in something like real time. That, of course, is because the actors are ageing in real time and even in a Hollywood soap an actor nearing 30 can't go on playing a schoolkid. Kaveney also reveals that "the five seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer share a structural pattern as coherent as the statement, development, second statement, recapitulations and coda of sonata form." That sounds like a fancy way of saying that the storylines are all the same. Anne Millard Daugherty deduces that Buffy is represented as affluent because in five series she has never worn the same outfit twice. But isn't this because she is designed as an object of teenage lust? "Even for a Hollywood series, the cast are for the most part staggeringly beautiful," pants Kaveney, lowering her brow for a moment.

Boyd Tonkin sees the show as exemplifying the contrast between the endless sunshine of southern California and "the deep darkness and perpetual turbulence of the region's supposed moral climate." But this is a British view of the place. Americans laugh at the way the British dream of southern California as a hedonist's paradise, a lotus-land of warmth and pleasure. With a dash of envy, this British dream becomes a fantasy of darkness beneath the bright surface. The theme goes back to Aldous Huxley's diatribe in Jesting Pilate against Los Angeles as the "City of Dreadful Joy," written years before he capitulated and made California his home.

Alison Lurie's novel The Nowhere City studies this syndrome from the viewpoint of east coast America, where some people catch the disease in a milder form. But the reality of Los Angeles is that it contains a larger area of pleasant, middle-class suburb than anywhere else in the world. Buffy is set in So Cal because So Cal is where the people who make it live and work: for them it is perfectly everyday, and the basic, quite amusing conceit of the show is that Hellmouth and the cosmic conflict should be centred on a bog-standard high school-Dracula meets Beverly Hills 90210. The point of Sunnydale is its ordinariness. It is England that is exotic. The goodies in the supernatural struggle hold an annual retreat in the Cotswolds, probably because the Cotswolds is one of the few English place names known on the Pacific coast.

The Englishman, Giles, is perhaps the most interesting character in the story, although it is hard for some British viewers to get out of their head the memory of him murmuring "It's a varry sophisticated coffee" to Sharon Maughan in those Gold Blend television ads. Britons in America come across a great deal of Anglophilia and a smaller amount of Anglophobia, both largely unearned. That kind of Anglophilia-just loving that accent-is reflected in Giles's role as the source of learning and Buffy's wise preceptor. But at the same time he is a kind of subordinate, and it may be significant that he is usually addressed by his surname (he is Rupert Giles in full) and his feelings for Buffy have to be restricted to an ineffectual tenderness (it being well-known that Englishmen are not supplied with sexual organs). Half of Giles is Obi-Wan Kenobi; the other half is Gielgud as the English butler.

Kaveney's authors are not afraid of being pretentious. One contribution speaks of "Buffy's fourth season" as reverently as though it were Beethoven's third period and reveals that the show is really about globalisation and the relation between capital and nation. Another contributor, in pan-feminist mode, takes us through Sumerian myth, the Eleusinian Mysteries, gnosticism and much more. There is surely less here than meets the eye. When I see the death and resurrection of Buffy Summers compared to that of Jesus Christ, I do not think that this adds value to the television series but rather that it cheapens things which are truly profound. It must be possible to write about popular culture seriously while preserving a sense of proportion.