Friday, April 16, 2010

Where I Went to High School: Sunnydale High

Go SHS Razorbacks!

No, I'm not actually saying that I attended a fictional High School in an imaginary universe surrounding the events of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (aka "The Buffyverse"). But, If you really must know, I attended Patuxent High School in Lusby, Maryland.

PHS was a fine school, especially for a public one, where I participated in a number of programs ranging from soccer, cross country, and track and field, to the band program and everything involved therein. Starting junior year, I even had a fairly healthy social life and walked away with (arguably) acceptable social skills. But, that's pretty much what I have to say about that experience. I'm not very sentimental about the past. I believe in learning from mistakes, looking forward, and moving upward. I am far more interested in the stories of others than I am my own, fictitious or not. Also, most anything about you wish to know about that particular school has already been spelled out in wonderful detail here, written by personal O.G. and fellow Gent. B. Graham. I'll leave the personal details to those who where there and those who currently involve themselves in my life.

Regardless of its existential definition, I still managed to spend considerable time at Sunnydale High - typically once a week on Tuesdays from the hours of 8 pm to 9 pm*. Of course, these forays were private. I had been a closeted Buffy geek since the show first aired (while I was in middle school) and I didn't find anyone with whom I could share my fandom until a year after Buffy finished its run. Given, I also didn't tell many people about it - being male, straight, six-foot two, sixteen years of age, an athlete, and capable of growing a full beard in a week made my Buffy-love seem kind of out of place to everyone else. Anyone who found out would squint their eyes, tilt their head for awhile, and then their face would light up like they just figured out a $1 million question as they asked, "It's 'cause she's hot, right?" Admittedly, that didn't hurt (although, I was more of a Faith fan, truth be told). But, what can I say? I love vampires, strong-yet-flawed female leads, clever dialogue, and well-developed, relatable characters. And, that pretty much explains my man-love for Joss Whedon. But, I digress - when talking about Buffy it all inevitable boils down to one argument - should Buffy have left High School? Or, more to the point, did Buffy lose its point once the titular hero graduated?

It's hard to argue against the fact that Buffy was firing on all cylinders during Seasons 2 and 3. It's core concept was great - High School is actually Hell. Sunnydale High was located directly above a supernatural hotspot called a "Hellmouth." Guarded by an unnamed, giant, multi-headed demon (referred to by fans as "the Hellmouth Monster"), the Hellmouth(s) forms where the boundaries between dimensions are particularly thin. These inter-dimensionally fragile places are spots of mystical convergence - pooling supernatural energies, attracting various demons, and facilitating other paranormal activity. Many of the mystical events and demons represent different problems your average teenager may have to battle and overcome - and thus you had your engine for the show. Female teenager fights various demons inherent to graduating high school and growing up. That's Buffy in a nutshell - well, until she graduated.

I will defend to this day that Buffy's graduation didn't actually ruin the show. But, it did make things harder. Season 3 had a (near**) perfect wrap-up and the final exchange between Oz and Buffy represented it perfectly:
Oz: Guys. Take a moment to deal with this. We survived
Buffy: It was a hell of a battle.
Oz: Not the battle. High School.
Obviously, challenges surmount when this whole idea jumps out the window. However, I don't think Buffy, at this point in time, inherently "lost" its engine. Engine loss is a mislabeling of what happened. Instead, I think this reaction concerned Buffy growing up, its engine along with it, and an audience reaction to a show that changes. Following high school, Buffy went to college and eventually became an adult, while the engine reflected this slow evolution - and some didn't like that.

I should admit, the new engine in Season 4 was a little less stable. "College on a Hellmouth" does have a harder time standing on its own two feet. But, while the Initiative's presence (an underground, government operation representing the adult realization of "not knowing everything that causes everything") functions as an (albeit farfetched) stabilizing force, Buffy still worked as Buffy. Problems still arose with which people through the ages of 18-21 had to deal and battle - Buffy at this point in time, was still breathing (heh). Joss and co. were able to crank out quality episodes and a cohesive story arc - marked with some of the most poignant moments of the series. Season 5 came around and the engine solidified around a single premise - preventing inevitable doom by an actual god - and ended strongly with Buffy's foreshadowed*** death. And then, UPN happened.

Buffy was supposed to end in Season 5, but was revived into Season 6 after UPN dropped a fairly large check on Whedon's doorstep - which can breed its own problems. Season 6 is a television anomaly because it had nearly no engine. Instead it relied on Sunnydale as a supernatural hotspot to push the general (emphasis on general) plot and three major themes - life is Hell, the aimlessness and loneliness of being a young adult, and discovering the aspects of life that are hard/impossible to control. You'll notice in this season the lack of a "Big Bad" - the primary antagonist being life itself for this season. It's a novel idea and I liked it, but listlessness does not translate well on television - especially if your engine is going to reflect themes as much as Buffy's tended. This is, of course, in addition to the criticism covering Buffy's change in demeanor and the overall dark premise of Season 6. Buffy had very much lost her way and all of this season was about Buffy slowly finding it again (i.e. not wanting to die). And then, Season 7 solidified again with another stabilizing premise, a return to high school to strengthen Buffy's engine, and a satisfying end to a 7-year series. Buffy had finally grown up and the show was officially done.

Buffy was a show about growing up, overcoming obstacles, and defeating your demons - even if it is Hell. It was a great show with a solid run that evolved over the course of time. Were there bumps along the way? Sure, but each season had a reason for watching, took risks, and succeeded in being a poignant, self-aware commentary on life. High school was definitely its heyday - no one's going to argue against that. But, it was also a show that grew along with its strong, quippy heroine. And, I really dug something like that.

* - covers the time during which Buffy aired during the first 3 years of the series, while Buffy attended high school. "Buffyverse" time, of course, extended to 8 pm - 10 pm on tuesdays - after Buffy graduated and Angel began its run.
**- in reference to Angel leaving. Also, I'm
still waiting for the cookie dough to finish baking.
***- I had no idea until today that in Buffy's dream sequence with Faith in "Graduation Day," where Faith says, "Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0" was actually referencing Dawn's involvement in Buffy's death at the end of season 5. "730" is the exact number of days before the episode airs where Buffy leaps from the tower and dies again.


Brett said...

You reading the Season 8 comics?

Ozkirbas said...

Yeah... ish. I read them whenever the trades come out and I'm probably a little behind on that. They're not bad, and the Faith Arc was fairly solid. I've heard mixed things about the art, though Jo Chen's covers are amazing looking.

Blogden Nash said...

Frankly, I think season 8 is really where Buffy lost its way. It's like Joss forgot what the show was all about because he was distracted by all the stuff he could do with a budget limited by his imagination. It was like have to make everything on a third rate network budget forced Joss to tell stories that were certainly supernatural, but at their core were about the characters and the way they relate to life. Now that he can do anything it's all armies, and giant goddesses, and superpowers and explosions. Biggers and crazier is not better in this case. I find the whole plotline about people embracing vampires and turning against slayers highly unbelievable and dumb. The last trade, in which Buffy and crew go to Tibet, was especially stupid and terrible.
Additionally, I assume that Brett at least has heard who Twilight is. Does anyone know how the Twilight storyline fits in with the events of "Angel: After the Fall?" Both are supposed to be canonical, and I just don't see how that is possible. Figuring this out is the most important thing in the world to me. Please help.

Ozkirbas said...

That's fair. I should admit I haven't taken too seriously any of what I have seen in "Season 8." This is also motivated by Joss's statement during the initial part its release that during the unlikely revival of Buffy's follow-up in film, he would instantly declare the comics non-canonical (can't find the reference to it.

I also can't answer for you how to reconcile the two cannons (Angel: After the Fall is another comic follow up I haven't finished. Though if it ends like I think it does, it may involve some time travel). However, I will stand by the my opinion that the series Fray was legitimately good, as well as both Tales of the Slayers/Vampires series.