ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 11/04/09
I like Joss Whedon. I like the hell out of him. He’s kind of every geek’s dream of what they’d like to be - funny, respected, brilliant, prolific, and a self-made man, if we discount the two generations of screenwriters named “Whedon” before him. A reasonably self-made man, then, but the other attributes all still fit without qualification. Sure, he’s a bit too liberal for me - I mean, I find the entire “Third Wave Feminism” thing to be a bit eye-rolling, so when a guy describes himself as a Third Wave Feminist it’s a bit cringe-inducing - but I believe his heart is in the right place.
And I *do* like what he does with his female characters, from what I’ve seen of it. I loved every single woman on Firefly, and while Eliza Dushku has never really won me over with her thespian ability, or looks (She’s got those droopy eyes that kind of put me off), I do find I like more than half of what he’s done with the female characters in the series. In fact, we were long, long, long past the point where believable female characters started coming in to TVSF, and arguably no one managed to do it consistently nor even well before he came along - look at the so-called “Empowered” women in the Trek franchise, for instance. Major Kira? That’s what a career military chick and a former terrorist is like? Pardon me while I bwa-ha-ha-ha madly.
A girlfriend of mine in college once said that Hollywood tended to portray women as victims (“Psycho”) or villains (“Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.“) While I don’t know if that’s true or not (There’s a long, long, long tradition of June Cleaverdom in Hollywood as well), it is mostly true SF on the tube. So Whedon’s done some long overdue and solid work in portraying the chickies as something other than, well, the chickies. Good for him, and we’re all in his debt. Really.
That said, he’s had four series, and I haven’t seen half of ‘em. I’ve never seen a single episode of Buffy because it’s fantasy and I don’t give a damn about fantasy, and I’ve seen exactly one episode of “Angel,” which kinda’ bored me because I don’t give a damn about fantasy. I loved the hell out of Firefly, however, and while I don’t love Dollhouse, certainly I’m not bored with the affair yet. So - full disclosure - the man has produced something like 15 seasons of TV entertainment, and I’ve seen two of ‘em. I count myself a fan, I genuinely like the guy, but I’m certainly not a “Whedonite” - you know the kind.
The question is “Why isn’t he successful like he once was?” and I think the reason is that the networks - and people in general - don’t really want Whedon, what they want is Whedony stuff. Ok, so he had the Buffyverse, and eventually, doubtless, he’ll return to it in some fashion on film, and that was screamingly successful, but that was the argot of the times, the zeitgeist. If Buffy premiered this year, would it be a screaming success? Probably not. Allow me to use a musical comparison: INXS was (note the tense) a great band that had a whole bunch of massive hits in the mid/late 80s, each album growing solidly better than the one before it. Then, suddenly, come 1990, they couldn’t get arrested. It wasn’t that they stopped making good music for the next seven years, and it wasn’t like people stopped liking them. No one ever said, “Yeah, I liked ‘em when I was young and stupid, but I’m embarrassed by that now” as people do with, say, Huey Lewis. The tastes simply changed, and an album that would have made you a superstar in 1985 just didn’t cut it in 1992. So there’s your “Buffy” thing, I think.
“Firefly” was effectively dead before it hit the air, and though “Dollhouse” is more successful, it’s clearly bleeding to death before our eyes, ratings-wise.
And yet, if you look at shows that have been on TV recently, it’s like a lot of other people have been dipping in to the Whedon Well:
“Bones” stars David Boreanz, who played “Angel” in both Buffy and his own spinoff. Bones is a comedy-crime drama that is similar (Though not the same) in feel to a Whedony show, features a bunch of whedonesque crew of supporting characters who natter and bicker in Whedony fashion, and is arguably about an empowered, attractive (Though rather weird) woman. This is CSI if Joss Whedon had done, it, which he didn’t.
Summer Glau played the attractive, quirky, not-quite-right-in-the-head killing machine “River Tam” on Firefly, and she played the attractive, quirky, not-quite-right-in-the-head literal killing machine “Cameron” on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a show about a messiah-boy who’s protected by a hot, ass-kicking robot chick and mentored by his mother, a gun-totin’ ass-whuppin’ surprisingly hot MILF version of the Virgin Mary. The show isn’t really good enough to be considered “Whedony” and yet, it plays out like a darker, pissier version of Whedon, centered around his basic trope: “What if the cheerleader kicked Jason’s ass when he tries to kill her?”
Somewhere in the middle is “Numb3rs,” a crime procedural starring David Krumholtz (From Whedon’s “Serenity”) that likewise involves a gaggle of whedony supporting characters - a bit darker - and involves a…well, you get the picture. It lacks the really strong female presence, but on all other fronts, it works.
“Castle” stars the Robert Urich of our generation, Nathan Fillion, (Firefly) as a superficial, frivolous, smartass writer and Stana Katic as a more typical Whedon leading lady (Though she’s not terribly funny.) The show is openly drippingly pleadingly whedony, and even features a pretty teenaged girl who’s emerging as a woman, blah blah blah. That’s not to say that the show is particularly good, but it’s trying really hard to be a Whedon-lite crime drama.
There’s others, too: “Warehouse 13” is like a really bad knockoff of one of Whedon’s fantasy shows, complete with the prominent, improbably centered women, and the somewhat peripheral guy characters.
So there’s a passel of Whedon-wannabe shows out there, and a number of ‘em are really successful, and yet Whedon can’t keep his own shows on the air? Why is that?
My thinking is that Whedon is considered to be more like a mixer than a drink. Everyone likes Gin, no one cares for Tonic by itself. No one drinks straight vermouth, you know? Mankind continues its eternal war against the orange, and yet the screwdriver continues to be popular.
Networks like him as a harbinger of changes yet to come, they certainly love his casting abilities, they like his dialog skills, but they don’t like him enough to actually let him do this, rather they view him as an endlessly strip-mineable resource.
That’s what it looks like from here, at any rate.