Sam and Jeannie get timely revamp

Reading the Vampire Slayer
March 22, 2002

At a time when almost every book, song, film or television programme has a legion of kitsch devotees, one could be forgiven for dismissing any grand claims made for the adventures of a demon-slaying blonde superhero bearing the unlikely name of Buffy.

Although a cursory look at the show may dupe the viewer into filing it alongside tacky television fiction such as Xena : Warrior Princess , Buffy the Vampire Slayer 's closest kin is The Simpsons : slapstick enough to entertain, yet clever enough to flatter the intellect of audiences.

Joss Whedon, executive producer and creator of Buffy , conceived the piece with a strong feminist agenda by turning on its head the stereotype of the helpless damsel in distress. Actresses who look like Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) are most commonly cast as teenage fantasy figures and/or sitcom housewives; Buffy can be seen as an updated version and reasonably affectionate subversion of Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie . But Whedon has continually used the programme to push the boundaries of television drama. One episode, "Hush", runs for minutes without a single word of dialogue. In "The Body", the death of Buffy's mother is used as the basis for a deconstruction of established dramatic conventions: a programme steeped in the far-fetched and supernatural here treats the subject of death in a completely unstylised way. "Once More with Feeling" is an admirably sincere homage to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, free from any of the dilettantism or archness one might expect of such a manoeuvre. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that rarest of long-running television series, one that combines popularity with critical success.

Reading the Vampire Slayer is a collection of essays providing a critical analysis of series one to five of Buffy and series one and two of the Buffy spin-off, Angel , which centres around Buffy's ex-boyfriend, a 240-year-old vampire with a soul.

Studies of this type generally come about because a television programme has acquired a wide cultural significance, and tend to be concerned with its impact in sociological not artistic terms, for example, what does Dynasty tell us about greed in the 1980s, or Beverly Hills 90210 about the role of women in the 1990s? The lack of analysis of the artistic process is a tacit admission that there is no art to be analysed. This collection, however, makes it happily clear that many of the contributors were drawn to Buffy and Angel because of the programmes' genuine artistic merit.

Editor Roz Kaveney describes the process of her own seduction by the show in the opening chapter, and establishes many of the programme's main themes: the use of demons and vampires as metaphors for various human neuroses; the thinking behind such postmodern in-jokes as Buffy and her pals calling themselves the Scooby Gang "in homage to the cartoon series Scooby-Doo , which also features a group of young adventurers who fight what often appears to be supernatural evil, but is almost always rationalised away".

This is by no means a layman's guide. Every essay demands substantial prior knowledge of the series, but Kaveney's opening chapter and character synopses are useful starting points for newcomers to the Buffy canon. Unfortunately, the episode guide, which should be a handy resource, is sloppily phrased and contains errors: in the synopsis of "Killed by Death", the name of the demon is wrong and the summary states incorrectly that Angel attacks Buffy while she is in hospital.

Contributors tackle some obvious themes (feminism, humour and language) and some less obvious ones (the history of martial arts, the significance of Buffy 's setting in Southern California), with varying degrees of success. Many of the essays look at the programme from new and refreshing angles. Brian Wall and Michael Zyrd's "Vampire dialectics: knowledge, institutions and labour" makes interesting observations about the way the "Scoobies" work, drawing comparisons between Buffy and her role as people's hero with socialist political struggle: at one point she even fights using a hammer and sickle.

A problem is that there is little cohesion between the content of the essays and their style. Some are light and journalistic, such as Steve Wilson's "Laugh, spawn of hell, laugh", an exploration of the programme's humour. Others are written in turgid academese requiring considerable knowledge of critical theory for full comprehension, for example Anne Millard Daugherty's "Just a girl: Buffy as icon". It seems odd that nowhere in the book do any of its contributors put Buffy and Angel in the context of television fiction as a whole. Unlike most, if not all other teen dramas, Buffy is enjoyed by young and old alike; the BBC is compelled to schedule an early-evening and late-night screening of each episode. While the essays frequently acknowledge the programme's unusually wide audience, they do not delve far enough into the reasons for it. There are comparisons aplenty with other dramas of the supernatural ( The X Files , Twin Peaks ) and high-school teen shows ( Dawson's Creek ), but none of the essays attempts to place Buffy or Angel outside their teen-cum-fantasy genre box.

There is also a disappointing lack of commentary on specific episodes, for instance "Hush" and the surreal dream sequences of "Restless". Instead, many of the contributors are preoccupied with pinning meaning where it simply will not stick. Boyd Tonkin's conjecture, in "Entropy as demon", that the setting of the programme in Southern California is somehow pivotal to the plot, is especially unconvincing. So is the assertion by Kaveney that the reason the rock band fronted by one character, student and part-time werewolf Oz, does not have a road crew is that Oz "is the one least caught up in hierarchies". (A much more likely reason is that most teenage rock bands do not have a great deal of money to spend on roadies.) It is also a shame that the book has no index.

Nevertheless, any book that encourages people to delve deeper into the world of Buffy and Angel cannot be wholly bad. Reading the Vampire Slayer is, at least for the moment, the most comprehensive academic guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series, and it will undoubtedly be useful to students of cultural and media studies. Those who want to read more about particular episodes to discover how others have interpreted things, must at present resort to the numerous internet fan sites inspired by the programmes.

Ronita Dutta is a journalist specialising in popular culture.

Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion to Buffy and Angel

Editor - Roz Kaveney
ISBN - 1 86064 762 6
Publisher - Tauris Parke
Price - £9.99
Pages - 257

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