Watching ‘Buffy’: Preliminary Remarks

On TV and Mixtapes

At the end of 2012, I found myself, for the first time in nearly five years, dating back to the beginning of my master’s degree, with little to do. I finished my Ph.D. coursework in August and completed my comprehensive exams in December, which timed out nicely with the semester break and the approaching new year. I made a resolution: I was going to try new things.

Moving through an advanced degree in the humanities is often a matter of honing in, of finding one’s areas of specialization, and, as a result, one can fall prey to tunnel vision. My goal for 2013 was to make time for things that would seem far afield from my primary work. It started with comic books, a hobby from my youth that I’d long since abandoned. I felt familiar with the superhero genre—and Watchmen had so thoroughly deconstructed it for me—that I wanted to explore new terrain. So I queried my friends and colleagues on  Facebook for recommendations for non-superhero graphic novels, resulting in me devouring Essex CountySwallow Me Whole, and Black Hole in short order.

I next wanted to turn my attention to TV. I have a fraught relationship with television, for many of the shows I tend to like ultimately disappoint me (I’m looking at you, Lost). Thus, the investment of time that serials narratives demand often makes me reticent to begin a new program. But the confluence of the semester break and the acquisition of a streaming Blu-ray player for Christmas gave me enough incentive to take a shot.

I considered a number of shows that I hadn’t seen, among them The WireBreaking Bad, and Newsroom. In the spirit of my new year’s resolution, though, I wanted to go outside my comfort zone a bit. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show that my colleagues spoke of with great enthusiasm, and it is inescapable in the TV studies literature. The deal was sealed when I read this article at The AV Club, which proclaimed that Buffy had “reinvented the face of television” and was “famous for its adventurousness, on both a plot and stylistic level.”

Here’s what I knew about Buffy going in:

1. I watched Dawson’s Creek during its original run, so I saw previews for Buffy and its spinoff, Angel

2. I remember at some point in the late 1990s Entertainment Weekly or some other magazine proclaiming Buffy to be the best show on television. In response to this article, I watched a mid-season episode. Without any narrative context, I didn’t get it. I moved on.

3. I also remember learning somewhere in the popular press that whole college courses were dedicated to the show. This, too, struck me as odd.

4. In 2008, I attended the Popular Culture Association Conference in New Orleans. 31 individual papers were about Buffy. This blew my mind.

5. I took a course on TV Studies, and the show frequently came up in the readings and in seminar discussions. I was lost.

6. I gleaned the names of two particular Buffy episodes: “Once More With Feeling,” apparently a musical-inspired episode that, in turn, inspired a sing-a-long at the PCA conference mentioned above; and, due to my interest voice and silence in sound cinema, I’d read a bit about “Hush” in the sound studies literature.

7. I taught a course on “Puzzle Films” included a week on TV to discuss seriality and narrative complexity. During that week’s discussions, the roles reversed: my students taught me about the narrative structure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This might be a good show to know if I ever teach this class again, I thought to myself.

8. [Spoiler] Somehow, over the years, I was informed that the band geek from American Pie was on the show and that her character came out of the closet during the series.

That was the extent of my knowledge of the “Buffyverse.”

I watched the first few episodes and was underwhelmed. I posted my frustrations on Facebook, and several of my friends rushed in to reassure me that my frustrations were normal and that, in season one, the show was still finding its footing. The overwhelming response from my friends, smart people whose opinions and instincts I trust, was to hang on until roughly the midpoint of season two.

I did. And they were right. After the season two two-parter “Surprise”/”Innocence,” I was hooked. From that point on, my one- to two-line Facebook posts about the show (largely grumblings or brief acknowledgements of a witty line) became longer, more elaborate. I began to take note of the show’s changing aesthetic, its narrative boldness, and absolute command of manipulating audience expectations. And as I began to post more about the show, my friends chimed in with increasing frequency.

As I moved through season two and into season three, I noticed a certain joy in the comments of those who were devoted to the show in response to my naive first viewings as they attempted to suggest the significance of the episodes I’d just seen without spoiling future plot developments. I’ve always enjoyed the unique community that tends to grow around television viewing, but the peculiar temporality of this instance intrigued me: here I was, watching a show that was 15 years old, and having conversations with people who had seen the series many times in the past. “Where are you in the show?” they would often ask. They would often question one another: “Wait, has he seen X yet?” or “Oh, he hasn’t met Y yet!” The most frequent response I received, though, was that my commentary made them want to re-watch the show again.

This reaffirms for me what I’ve often referred to, in the context of my teaching more so than my consumption of media, as my “mixtape philosophy.” There are many concrete reasons for teaching media studies classes, among them matters of basic media literacy, ideology, representation, and so on. But, ultimately, what gives me the greatest joy is sharing things I care about immensely with the uninitiated. As a teenager, I was fond of making mixtapes of my favorite songs for my friends. Simply handing over the tape wasn’t enough, though: I wanted to be in the room or in the car when they listened to the tape. I wanted to see them react to it. I wanted to know if their eyes would light up at the same part in the chorus, wanted to know if they experienced a similar affective response to the song that I did. In the end, the mixtape was about sharing experiences. With my Buffy posts, I was doing this, only in reverse. I was the recipient, and my friends and colleagues, it seemed, were getting a kick out of watching me respond to the show in real time.

This response, along with my Facebook threads getting annoyingly long for those not invested in the show, led me to shift my commentary here, to the blog. I’ve invited those who’ve frequently commented on my Facebook posts to join me as I start season four, to watch along with me, and to contribute to the blog in either the comments or in guests posts. In short, I hope to extend, and perhaps expand, the discussion happening within my social network, to share my initiation to the show with other’s who might, like me, enjoy seeing others enjoy something. The result might be the same half-dozen or so people from Facebook yammering on here. Or perhaps it might circulate further. Like a mixtape.