Monday, August 11, 2014
My Personal Slayer: A Review of Anne Billson's Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a Critical Reading of the Series
Anne Billson, 2005
London, British Film Institute / Berkeley, University of California Press
pp. 154, index, bibliography, illus., £9.00 / $19.95 (paper)
Building on the success of its monograph series’ on ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ films the British Film Institute has recently decided to move into the classic TV show market as well and has begun publishing a series of monographs on television shows. The first monographs released in the BFI TV Classics series include Kim Newman’s study of the long running BBC TV show Doctor Who, Ben Walter’s exploration of the BBC show The Office, Michael Eaton’s monograph on the BBC’s Our Friends in the North, and Anne Billson’s work on the American TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy might seem a surprising and unlikely candidate for a series on “classic” TV shows to many in the ivory tower. However, since Buffy appeared on the air in 1997 on the fledgling WB network and later on UPN in 2001 the show has garnered more academic interest than any other TV series past or present—something itself probably worthy of analysis. Currently there are over 400 academic essays, over a dozen academic books, and two academic websites—-Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies and the undergraduate online journal Watcher Junior—-devoted to the show with more coming every year. Billson’s monograph is one of the latest.
Like the monographs in the BFI Film Classics and BFI Modern Film Classics series Billson’s book is lavishly presented and includes a number of colour stills from the series. The monograph is divided into ten chapters. Chapter 1 allows us to tag along with Billson as she reflects on her journey through the jungle of British and American popular culture and TV in search of a strong female role model. Chapter 2 explores the prehistory of Buffy—the vampire films that preceded it and presumably influenced it and the film that was its direct predecessor. Chapters 3 through 9 discuss the seven seasons of Buffy each beginning with a plot summary followed by a “personal” and “critical” reflection on each season. Chapter 10 briefly explores the life of Buffy after the series finale in 2003. The book closes with a list of Billson’s favourite episodes. It is the “personal” aspect of Billson’s study that I find most problematic about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Not all of this perhaps is Billson’s fault. Unlike the Classic Film and Modern Classic Film series, the TV Classics mission statement calls for authors to offer their personal responses along with critical readings of the classic TV shows they are writing on. The problem is that Billson interprets the ‘critical’ directive of the series in a very ‘personal’ way as well. For instance, in the chapter on season four of Buffy, the season in which Buffy and the Scoobies leave high school for college, work, and various life crises, Billson’s “critical” reading of the season involves criticism of Riley for being too “vanilla” (p. 86), criticism of Tara for being all “sweetness and light (p. 90), and criticism of the Initiative for being too X-Filesy (p. 84). Unfortunately this personal criticism, at least in my opinion, is quite far off the mark. The Riley Billson accuses of being “vanilla” is the same Riley who has a melt down at Willy’s and comes terrifyingly close to killing someone who doesn’t fall into the its dangerous category and who in the fifth season will find dark excitement in allowing female vampires to “bite” him. The Tara Billson accuses of being all “sweetness and light” is the same Tara who sabotages a magic spell she and Willow perform to try to find Adam, an Initiative frankensteinian uberman “botched science experiment” on the loose. The Initiative Billson accuses of being too X-Filesy is the same Initiative that is part of a secret military/governmental/ academic complex which brooks no questioning of its mission as Buffy (the character) finds out. In her attempt to be critical in a personal way Billson misses several things that are really important in Buffy: that while Riley was meant to be, as one of Buffy’s writers put it, the Jimmy Stewart of the Buffyverse he doesn’t, as is the case with virtually every major character in the Buffyverse, remain stuck in “vanilla” gear for long; that while Tara does have a sweet and light side she also, as is true for virtually every other major character in the Buffyverse, has a dark side—she fears, thanks to a family stuck in 1950s patriarchalism, that she might be a demon; and that while the Initiative is a secret organization in the X-Files mode—-though the X-Files did not pioneer conspiracy theories in American popular culture—-it is also one of the few explorations on recent American TV exploring the dark sides of American militarism and its relationship to academe. Time and again throughout the substantive chapters of the book Billson makes similar problematic personal critical assertions.
If season four has a fault it is, in my opinion, that it is too short. Creator Joss Whedon and company tried to do too much in too short a period of time—-exploring the sometimes difficult transitions to college life, the impact college life can have on high school friendships, the fears Buffy, Willow, Xander, Oz, and Giles continue to deal with, the dark side of academe, and the dark side of the military mentality with its macho no questions asked mode of operation as opposed to the Scoobies more collective decision making approach—-one of the military men from the Initiative calls it anarchic. The arc of the Scoobies drifting apart only to get back together at the end of the season was, in particular, far too brief and, as a result, of far less impact than I am sure was intended. While the crossovers between Buffy and the first season of the Buffy spin-off Angel—-at least five first season episodes of Angel weave in and out of season four episodes of Buffy—-helps fill in some of the gaps of season four and for this reason every analyst of Buffy should watch both simultaneously and in broadcast order—-this really doesn’t allay my feeling that season four was far too dense and far too rushed.
I’m not sure who the intended audience for Billson’s monograph is. If it was aimed at the Buffy scholar-fan community it is too short and too light to displace works like Nikki Stafford’s in-depth analyses of the show in Bite Me and Once Bitten or the numerous in depth analytical essays which range from explorations of the existentialism of Buffy at scholar fan sites like All Things Philosophical in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series to issues surrounding Spike’s redemption at scholar fan sites like The Soulful Spike Society. If it was aimed at the Buffy fan-scholar then it is far too critically light too add much to the enormous volume of academic discourse that has been generated on Buffy’s feminism, Buffy’s supposed sexism, Buffy’s suppose post-colonialism, and Buffy’s ageism in contemporary Cultural and English Studies. If it was aimed at the general non-Buffy audience I am not sure they are interested. All I can say in conclusion is that a show which has garnered the massive scholar-fan and fan-scholar attention deserved better than this from the BFI the enjoyable prose and pretty pictures notwithstanding. Still, all this said this book is often more insightful and certainly more enjoyable than most of the jargon filled tomes and articles that come off of academic word processors these days.
This review appeared in somewhat different form as “Review of Anne Billson’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 27.4 (October 2007), pp. 601-602.