Happy Birthday, Joss: An Appreciation of the Man Who Made ‘Buffy’

Happy birthday, Joss Whedon.

On Monday, the “Avengers” director turned 50, which got me thinking about the fact that it only took a little under a half-century for Hollywood to give the man the respect he deserves.

Whedon is currently filming “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Due in theaters next year, this hotly anticipated sequel could very well surpass the success of its predecessor, the third highest grossing movie of all time.

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What Whedon accomplished with “The Avengers” was nearly impossible. A movie starring no less than nine major stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, and featuring at least four of the most popular superheroes in comic book history could have easily been a disaster. Instead, Whedon effortlessly juggled an unwieldy cast, some weird shifts in tone, a massive visual effects budget and a monster-sized plot, resulting in one of the most entertaining adaptations yet. If you doubt the difficulty of this, you only have to look at the potential fiasco that is the upcoming Justice League film, aka “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

But to understand the essence of Joss, the reason he is revered by thousands upon thousands of adoring fans, you’ll need to sample one of his lesser known works, like his contemporary, black and white, low budget interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or the too quickly cancelled series “Firefly” or “Dollhouse.” If you’re strapped for time, there’s always “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” the brilliant musical short Whedon and friends threw together when a writers strike sidelined them from their usual employment.

To truly appreciate Whedon, however, you must revisit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the show that spawned my undying affection for the writer, director, producer extraordinaire and taught me, for the very first time, what it is to fall truly, madly, deeply in love with a television series.

My initial experience of Joss Whedon came courtesy of the 1992 feature film “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I was 16, it was summer and my friends and I went to see the horror comedy at the local discount theater. We quickly became obsessed, despite the fact that the movie is corny and ridiculous.

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Long before Sarah Michelle Gellar donned Buffy’s iconic mini skirts, Kristy Swanson starred as a stereotypical, blonde high school Valley girl whose social life is ruined when she discovers she is the chosen one, fated to save the world from a vampire menace.

Buffy’s vamp-slaying trainer, Merrick, is improbably played by Donald Sutherland. He helps her unleash her innate powers, including menstrual cramps that serve as vamp-detecting radar. Seriously.

One of the vamp villains is played by Pee Wee himself, Paul Reubens. The other is played by Rutger Hauer, who chews the scenery as if he was appearing on London’s West End. An adorable Luke Perry pops up in a trench coat and combat boots as Buffy’s slacker ally, Pike. (An early version of Spike, perhaps?) The soundtrack is actually … kinda … cool.

Even now, if you look on the Internet Movie Database, Whedon is credited as the screenwriter of this silly early incarnation of “Buffy.” But Whedon apparently had little involvement with the final version of the film. The studio didn’t “get” his original script -– this was to become a running theme throughout his career — and tinkered with it until it was beyond recognition.

Despite the studio tampering, there’s something that remains of Whedon in the 1992 “Buffy,” an appealing irreverence and weirdness, a surprising sweetness even, and I think it was this that my 16-year-old self subconsciously responded to.

Five years later, Whedon was given the do-over he’d been hoping for, bringing his intact version of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the now defunct WB network. At the time, I thought this was a strange concept for a series, as did many people. I remember watching the first few episodes, which featured Gellar battling actors in cheesy prosthetics, a cheerleading mom who turns out to be a witch and Nicholas Brendon’s lovable nerd, Xander, falling for a sexy teacher who is actually a man-eating praying mantis. It was like “The Twilight Zone” meets “The X-Files Junior.” I wasn’t that impressed.

But then the show started getting interesting and it became clear that it was about more than superficial teen angst tinged with the supernatural. Midway through Season 2, Buffy succumbed to her crush on brooding vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) with deadly consequences and it was apparent that Whedon was slowly transforming the series into something epic. “Buffy” had suddenly become a profound exploration of the dark desires and inescapable agonies of youth.

Mind you, this was before “Lost” and the myriad shows currently on air that start out with a deceptively simple premise and gradually reveal an over-arching mythology that is complex and compelling.

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Whedon was never content to merely deliver a bit of decent entertainment. He was constantly pushing the envelope and experimenting, testing the boundaries of traditional television. If there’s a flaw to one of the producer’s recent projects, ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” it’s that the series doesn’t take enough risks. There’s not enough Joss in it.

To appreciate just how experimental Whedon is, you must check out, not “Buffy,” but its spin-off, “Angel,” which went to bizarre and awesome extremes in its manipulation of traditional story conventions. The show doesn’t always work but it’s quite a marvel.

Along with Kevin Williamson and J.J. Abrams, Whedon can be credited with the entertainment industry’s obsession with the “meta.” “Buffy,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Felicity” were among the first shows to exhibit a self-referential wit that is common today in everything from cartoons to comic book movies. They toyed with language in delightful ways. Their characters indulged in contemporary wordplay clever enough to rival Shakespeare. Their dialogue was intricately layered with pop culture references and snarky social commentary, and Whedon was undoubtedly the master.

More than this, Whedon has always displayed an uncanny grasp of character, which is why the high school clichés of “Buffy” evolved into improbably rich and unpredictable personalities. Boreanaz’ mumbling hunk of a bloodsucker became a sadistic demon. Alyson Hannigan’s Willow, a shrinking violet of a brain, became volatile and powerful. Even a character as two-dimensional as Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia Chase blossomed into someone worth rooting for. Diving deep into the murky and empathetic depths of character is a mark of every Whedon show.

The director also knows how to elicit the best performances out of every actor, down to the smallest supporting player. He tends to work with the same people again and again and he alone seems to hold the power to unearth the glittering gems of hidden talent in certain performers, like Gellar and woefully underrated actors Fran Kranz, Eliza Dushku, Alexis Denisof, Summer Glau, Amy Acker and James Marsters.

There’s a reason Whedon’s creations have consistently inspired the adoration of fans. While he respects his audience, he never condescends to them and never compromises his unique vision simply to curry favor with them. He’s celebrated for making decisions that irk fans, like killing off major characters with no warning –- poor Jenny Calendar — or abruptly turning them evil or suddenly introducing a sister –- remember Dawn? –- or a child who didn’t exist before.

With “Buffy,” Whedon constantly challenged television censors by pushing the limits of sex and violence, and he did it so boldly and assuredly that The WB hardly seemed to notice. But it wasn’t just about sensationalism, there was some serious intent and artistry going on as well. “Buffy” was one of the first shows to depict a lesbian relationship, albeit it wrapped up in Wiccan metaphors. The nearly silent episode “Hush” is a creepy and masterful work of horror. The musical episode “Once More, With Feeling” is still one of the greatest musical episodes ever. When Buffy’s mom kicks the bucket in Season 5, the shock of it quickly gives way to a heart-rending rumination on loss.

Even when, in a pretty cliché move and not for the first time either, Whedon killed off his heroine and resurrected her, the resulting story was more intriguing than you’d imagine as Buffy grapples with the harsh realities of living after tasting the peace and pleasures of the afterlife.

Whedon may have dramatically changed the TV landscape, but on a more personal level, he gave this viewer six years of obsessive fun, fulfilling discussion, engaging analysis and bonding over “Buffy.” As a college student, I gathered weekly with roommates and friends to watch each new episode. After I graduated, the tradition continued with friends back home.

In recent years, I’ve watched younger friends embrace the series with the same curiosity and passion. I’m glad they’re discovering the classic that is “Buffy” and the genius of Whedon. There’s so much more to him than “The Avengers.”

Below, I’ve put together a little photographic reminiscence of my “Buffy” years. Hope you enjoy my trip down memory lane. 

Friend and fellow “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan Karyn Singer puts a stake in the 1992 movie.

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From left, Lavender Vroman, Sonia Martinez (now Whitehead), Nick Vroman, Karyn Singer and Nathan Whitehead wait outside Metro Comics in Santa Barbara to meet some of the cast of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Lavender Vroman with Juliet Landau and James Marsters, aka Drusilla and Spike.  

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From left, “Buffy” enthusiasts Michelle Cowan Pollock, Catherine Newell, Suzanne Stroosma and Fawn Kemble wait for a signing outside Metro Comics in Santa Barbara. 

Lavender Vroman with James Marsters at Metro Comics.

 Lavender Vroman with Anthony Stewart Head and Alyson Hannigan.

555676_10201175138445539_836365514_nKristy Rivas, left, and Lavender Vroman awaiting an appearance by Joss Whedon at WonderCon Anaheim in 2013. 

Photos in story courtesy http://www.comicsonline.com, buffy.wikia.com.

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