Thursday, September 15, 2011

Prestige Television, Joss Whedon and the End of History

Amanda Marcotte recently wrote this piece discussing today's "prestige television" and its exploration of masculine themes. Marcotte concluded TV producers have not been able to "stray away from the magic formula of building a show around a powerful man grappling with the limits of traditional masculinity."

*Gasp* I almost can't believe she said this. How can you possibly talk about the television revolution and not include Joss Whedon?! And once you include Joss Whedon, you couldn't possibly make such a claim (not to mention Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls and The Sarah Connor Chronicles - ht Nate).

I would argue Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the watershed moment that marks the beginning of "prestige television." It was one of the first shows of "prestige television" quality and it was also one of the first shows that simultaneously pursued episodic and season-long storylines. It used to be that TV shows were short and movies were long; now, movies are short compared to television shows that pursue storylines that run for an entire season or, indeed, multiple seasons. Many will roll their eyes at the comparison (and you're an elitist snob, by the way), but I would argue it is a breakthrough on par with Dickens and Dostoyevsky publishing serialized novels in newspapers.

Perhaps Whedon is absent from Marcotte's analysis because he clearly undercuts her thesis - Whedon, of course, is known for his strong female characters and Buffy was a conscious subversion of female stereotypes. Moreover, Whedon's shows - Buffy, but also Firefly - explored feminist issues in important and subtle ways. And the subtly and nuance comes from the fact that Whedon hasn't created a single female character or just one type of strength, Whedon has created numerous memorable female characters (Buffy, Faith, Willow, Cordelia, Anya, Kaylee, Zoe, River, Inara) and through them he explores the nuances of the questions confronting third-wave feminists (from the nature of strength to the role of sexuality to the respectability of prostitution).

Much has been made - rightly - of the feminist themes in Whedon's work. I've twice set out to write about these themes in response to Marcotte's piece. And don't get me wrong, I love the fact that Whedon's shows represent so many different types of female strength, but Buffy and Firefly aren't just feminist shows. Whedon's shows - like the great films of my generation - are a comment on the times and speak to my generation's struggle to find meaning in an end-of-history context. And by "end of history," I simply mean an era where there is no significant resistance to the prevailing authority.

The rap on my generation, Generation X, is that we're cynical and apathetic (we're the Slacker generation). And the hipsters of subsequent generations have, if anything, taken these tendencies a step further. On the face of it, these generations' highest aspiration appears to be mockery avoidance. But this apathy and cynicism should be seen against the backdrop of the unchallenged hegemony of corporatist, consumer culture. As Francis Fukuyama concluded when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we had reached the "end of history." For better or worse, this was it. Shopping malls for everyone!

David Graeber - astutely, I believe - interpreted Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this end-of-history context:

Today's rebellious youth . . . are reduced to struggling desperately to keep hell from entirely engulfing the earth. Such, I suppose, is the fate of a generation that has been robbed of its fundamental right to dream of a better world. The very notion of being able to take part in a relatively democratically organized group of comrades, engaged in a struggle to save humanity from its authoritarian monsters, is now itself a wild utopian fantasy--not just a means to one.

And if this was the subtext of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in Firefly the subtext became text.

The Firefly characters, like ourselves, live in an end-of-history era - that is to say an era where there is no viable challenge to the existing authority. The former resistance fighters, known as browncoats, are just trying to eke out an existence on the frontier of the solar system, out of the reach of Alliance control. Thus, the theme song - which Joss Whedon says he wrote before he wrote a single episode of the show - is an anthem of defiance by the defeated:

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me
There's no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can't take the sky from me...

The series opens with an idealistic, religious Malcolm Reynolds (Mal) and his comrades-in-arms, including Zoe, fighting an impossible battle against the Alliance and almost prevailing. When the resistance lays down arms, Mal is profoundly disillusioned. Cut to six years later and Mal is no longer a believer - in God or anything else. As David Graeber noted with respect to Buffy, in this context (an end-of-history era), finding a group of comrades and getting far enough from the reach of authority to be free becomes and end in itself:

Mal: Let me show you the rest [of the ship]. And try to see past what she is and onto what she can be.

Zoë Washburne: What's that, sir?

Mal: Freedom is what.

Zoë Washburne: I meant, what's *that*?

Mal: Oh, yeah, just step around that. I think something must have been living in here. I tell ya, Zoe, we find ourselves a mechanic, get her running again. Hire a good pilot. Maybe even a cook. Live like real people. Small crew, them as feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come — and we’ll never be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get ourselves a little further.

~ Out of Gas

They have no hopes of toppling the Alliance and living in a free society; they're just trying to preserve their personal freedom. It's no longer about winning, it's about not personally succumbing:

Simon: I'm trying to put this as delicately as I do I know you won't kill me in my sleep?

Mal: You don't know me, son, so let me put this to you plainly: If I ever kill you, you'll be awake. You'll be facing me. And you'll be armed.

Simon: Are you always this sentimental?

Mal: I had a good day.

Simon: You had the Alliance on you, criminals and savages... half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded including yourself, and you're harboring known fugitives.

Mal: We're still flying.

Simon: That's not much.

Mal: It's enough.

~ Serenity

Mal, once an idealist, is now an unflinching realist; indeed, Mal and the crew of Serenity live on the edge of "the black." And the question Firefly asks is whether there can be meaning and hope in such a world? In Firefly, as in Buffy, the answer is yes. And that hope is not divine or revolutionary - it's a hope grounded in the power of a chosen family:

Saffron: You're quite a man, Malcolm Reynolds. I've waited a long while for someone good enough to take me down.

Mal: Saffron... you even think about playing me again I will riddle you with holes.

Saffron: Everybody plays each other. That's all anybody ever does. We play parts.

Mal: You got all kinds a' learnin' and you made me look the fool without trying,
yet here I am with a gun to your head. That's 'cause I got people with me, people who trust each other, who do for each other and ain't always looking for the advantage. There's good people in the 'verse. Not many, lord knows, but you only need a few.

~ Our Mrs. Reynolds

I don't think it's an accident that in the above-quoted passage, Mal explicitly rejects the capitalist view of human nature. To economists - the high priests of capitalism - human beings are assumed to be profit maximizers, who are "always looking for the advantage." Rejection of this, it turns out, is the glimmer of hope to be found on the edge of "the black" - there is no God, no hope of defeating the Alliance, but there are "good people in the 'verse. Not many, lord knows, but you only need a few."

And to this glimmer of hope, Whedon adds a touch of solace - namely, Firefly affirms that even if there is no alternative - even if the resistance to authority has been defeated - that doesn't make the prevailing authority right:

Alliance Officer: For some the war will never be over. I notice your ship's called "Serenity." You were stationed on Hera at the end of the war; Battle of Serenity Valley took place there if I recall... Seems odd that you would name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of.

Mal: May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.

~ Bushwhacked

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.


  1. In my youth, we called it "turn on, tune in, drop out." I didn't listen them--too involved in the political protests of the time--but I should have. Here I am 40 years later, and Mal expresses the limits of what I hope for. Surrender does come before serenity; I think that's usually the order.

    I enjoyed this post.

  2. You should go check the comments at Kos - first there's a fight about technical stuff (guys), then there's a huge Buffy lovefest (girls).

  3. Christ on the pike, you nailed it, Taryn. Wonderfully done.

  4. Excellent commentary, I've had similar thoughts on Firefly as well as Cowboy Bebop: when the forces of oppression are so widespread and reach into our very relationships with friends, family, etc. just getting together and living communally becomes a task in-itself. Resistance hasto be reinterpreted with respect to disappointment in the universal and survival in the particular - provided it hasn't caved into mainstream capitalist "designer resistance." Simon Critchley has some moving things to say about this.