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Joss Whedon: Master of cult TV

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ewu_logoFor the second class in our EW University course on TV Auteurs, Prof. Adam B. Vary offers this overview of the TV career of Joss Whedon, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dollhouse. Also, check out this photo gallery of our favorite shows by four legendary showrunners.

buffy_lWhat Stephen Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), Norman Lear (All in the Family, The Jeffersons), and Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) were in the 20th century television, Joss Whedon has become today: Nothing less than a television brand. His name alongside the “Created by” credit during the opening titles guarantees you are about to watch a show that swings for the fences; a show as keenly attuned to its female characters as its male ones; a show that tackles Big Ideas and Big Themes without skimping on Great Entertainment; a show that is unafraid to Go There, from allowing the lead heroine or hero to make some profoundly unlikable choices to killing off a beloved character; a show that is steeped in genre tropes yet also lovingly tweaks them; and a show that has a tone, style, and voice so singular that it’s earned its own adjective: Whedonesque.

And yet Joss Whedon has never been at the helm of a bone fide mainstream hit. From his seminal first series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to his current distaff genre series Dollhouse, Whedon has instead become a master of cult TV, fostering a small(ish) but rabidly loyal fan base for each of his series. A critics’ darling if ever there was one, he has failed, however, to win the respect of Emmy voters, who have — in the unimpeachable opinion of Whedon fans everywhere — unforgivably snubbed his shows, their writers (well, mostly), and their actors. No matter. If all he had done was make Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s first three seasons, Whedon’s place in the TV firmament would be secure. As it stands today, his ongoing body of work is a testament to the heartening truth that unique and uncommonly great network television is still possible in an era dominated by reality TV and endless procedural crime show spin-offs.

Whedon comes by his TV showrunning skills quite naturally: His grandfather John was a writer on The Donna Reed Show, and his father Tom was a producer on The Golden Girls. Joss Whedon got his start in television at 25 as a writer on the second season of Roseanne, an experience he once described to EW as “baptism by radioactive waste.” Soon after getting the gig, however, Whedon sold his first feature screenplay, a feminist twist on the old high school slasher film called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But the filmmakers played the script strictly as a jokey camp-fest, and the film was ultimately forgettable. (Well, for most.) It was unfortunately typical of Whedon’s experiences in the movie business for the next half-decade, where he mostly toiled as an uncredited script doctor on films like Speed, Twister, and Waterworld. (One quite pleasant exception: Whedon earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing Toy Story.) Alien Resurrection, his first sole screenplay credit since the Buffy movie, had a third act so wildly different from Whedon’s vision that he’s admitted he regrets having any involvement with the movie.

So in 1996, when Whedon was approached to adapt Buffy for the small screen, this time on his terms, he jumped at the chance. He moved the story from Los Angeles to the fictional California town of Sunnydale, cast soap opera actress Sarah Michelle Gellar as the title slayer, and shot 13 episodes (including an unaired pilot) for a mid-season berth in the spring of 1997 on the brand new network The WB. A mash-up of teenage high school soap opera and bad-ass horror monster movie — but, you know, classier — Buffy‘s literally-fighting-your-demons ethos made it a ripe and emotionally rich metaphor for high school and early adulthood. Practically from the start, the series’ dramatic chops and youthful viewership gave its struggling mini-network some needed credibility and advertiser-pleasing demographics, but Whedon has said that it wasn’t until the show’s fourth season that he knew for certain that it was going to be renewed for another year. And that is the great Whedon paradox: The very things that make his TV series such addictive fun for their fans — unpredictable plotlines that arc over an entire season, pop-culture references steeped in in-jokey geekery, throwaway callbacks to minor moments from previous shows and seasons, an unabashed genre mythology that belies its deep bench of fully-realized characters you desperately care about — also limits them from developing the kind of double-digit ratings usually expected of popular TV hits. Indeed, in its seven season run, Buffy never averaged more than 5.3 million viewers a season.

That ratings reality has meant that Whedon has found himself in a seemingly constant struggle with network brass. The WB dropped Buffy in its fifth season, forcing Whedon to develop a storyline that (SPOILER ALERT!) could reasonably conclude the series (i.e. killing Buffy) that season, while also scrambling to find a new home for the show, which ended up being mini-network UPN for two more years. But at least Buffy was allowed to conclude its run on Whedon’s terms. In 1999, Whedon premiered the Buffy spin-off Angel, about the Slayer’s doomed vampire boyfriend (David Boreanaz), who moves to L.A. to get away from Buffy and become a private eye. Darker, harsher, and, at first, more episodic that Buffy, Angel had a solid run, banking ratings that matched its parent show. But The WB cancelled Angel after five seasons, a move that blindsided Whedon, since he felt the show had just started firing on all cylinders. “It was like ‘Healthy Guy Falls Dead From Heart Attack,'” Whedon told EW in 2004.

And then there was Firefly. A sci-fi western — literally, the show’s opening credits played to a Whedon-penned folk song and ended with a ramshackle spaceship flying over a galloping herd of horses — Firefly launched the career of star Nathan Fillion, who played a rascally spaceship captain trying with his crew to make a living, honest or otherwise. Fans and critics marveled at how quickly Whedon established Firefly‘s teeming universe, but the show’s network, Fox, never took a shine to it. Instead of airing Whedon’s two-hour pilot as its first episode, Fox forced Whedon to write a more action-packed hour-long ep for the series premiere, dumped the show on Friday nights, aired episodes out of order, and ultimately cancelled it before all 14 shot episodes had aired. The ordeal so gutted Whedon that he took the project to Universal, rounded up the show’s cast, and directed a feature film version, Serenity, in 2005.

That’s another remarkable quality of Whedon’s: He is so unfailingly loyal to everyone who works with him that he’s essentially created a stable of writers and actors that could collectively be called the “Whedonverse.” To wit: After Firefly was cancelled, Whedon cast Fillion and co-star Gina Torres as Big Bads (Whedon-speak for major villains) in Buffy‘s final season and Angel‘s fourth season, respectively. After talk of another Buffy spin-off series and Angel and Buffy TV movies proved fruitless, Whedon launched “Buffy Season Eight,” an ongoing comic book series written by many of Buffy‘s most beloved writers. (In fact, many of the writers who got their start on Buffy — Jane Espenson, David Fury, Marti Noxon, Drew Goddard — have gone onto robust careers on other iconic TV series, including Battlestar Galactica, Lost, 24, and Mad Men.)

In 2008, in the wake of the Writers Guild strike, Whedon dreamed up Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a three-part musical mini-series about a wannabe supervillain made specifically for the internet. For the lead title role, he recruited Whedonverse newbie Neil Patrick Harris (who, it should be noted, currently co-stars with Buffy alum Alyson Hannigan on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, and was in the running for a series regular role on Firefly). For Dr. Horrible’s bete noir Capt. Hammer, however, Whedon called on Nathan Fillion again, and for the role of the girl they fight over, Whedon reached deep into the Buffy bench, casting Felicia Day, who’d appeared in a handful of episodes of the final season as a “potential” slayer and had gone on to create a successful web series called The Guild.

And Dollhouse, Whedon’s latest TV series, is stacked with Whedonverse alumni: It stars Buffy favorite Eliza Dushku (i.e. bad-girl slayer Faith) as Echo, one of several “Dolls” who work for an underground company that implants them with specific personalities tailored to the desires of high-playing clients. Angel co-star Amy Acker plays a mysterious doctor with the company, Firefly alum Alan Tudyk showed up at the end of the first season as … well … best not spoil that one, and Dr. Horrible‘s Felicia Day showed up in a special “bonus” episode that appears on the Dollhouse season 1 DVD set. The show’s tricky premise won Whedon yet another cult following, but practically everyone (including Whedon) was surprised when Fox picked the show up for a second season, which premieres Sept. 25. With Whedon now branching into filmmaking again — The Cabin in the Woods, produced by Whedon, written by Whedon and Drew Goddard, and directed by Goddard, premieres February 2010 — it seems like the 45-year-old TV auteur may finally be finding the kind of career stability and respect he earned years and years ago. Hopefully, the only epic struggles in Joss Whedon’s life from now on will be the one he writes on the blank page.

Extra Credit Viewing:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Animated Series

One of several aborted attempts to broaden the “Buffyverse” was this animated version set during Buffy’s high-school-era seasons. Featuring the voices of original actors Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, and Anthony Stewart Head, this teaser trailer for the show hits all the right notes; it’s a shame (though not a shock) that no one put up the dough to make it a full-fledged series.

Roseanne – “Chicken Hearts”

Whedon penned several episodes of the second season of Roseanne, including this standout, about the title matriarch’s attempt to butter up her adolescent boss at a local fast-food joint so she wouldn’t have to work weekends. Below, that episode’s final act.

Buffy reunion at PaleyFest 2008

Whedon reunited with practically the entire Buffy the Vampire Slayer gang for this 10-year anniversary celebration of the show. The whole thing is definitely worth watching, but this clip, in which Sarah Michelle Gellar and Whedon talk about the organizing metaphor for the show, is especially choice.

Whedon accepts Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism at Harvard’s Memorial Church

One of Whedon’s most outstanding legacies is how seriously his worldview is taken by academia — and that’s partly due to how seriously (though not too seriously) Whedon takes his worldview. This speech, from this April, in which Whedon full-throatedly defends his secular humanism (i.e. non-believer-ism, i.e. atheism) is as eloquent and apt a distillation of that worldview as you’re likely to find outside of his shows.

Whedon’s speech to Equality Now

OK, I lied. This is as eloquent and apt a distillation of Whedon’s worldview as you’re likely to find outside of his shows. (And no, Meryl Streep isn’t mistaken when she said in her introduction that Whedon’s working on Wonder Woman — after Whedon made this speech in 2006, he left the super-heroine project due to creative differences with the producers.)

Extra Credit Reading: Slayer Slang: A ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Lexicon by Michael Adams

Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon by K. Dale Koontz

Existential Joss Whedon: Evil and Human Freedom in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Angel,’ ‘Firefly,’ and ‘Serenity’ by J. Michael Richardson and J. Douglas Rabb

For Discussion: For dyed-in-wool Joss Whedon fans, what episodes from his shows — written by Whedon or otherwise — do you feel best exemplifies the word “Whedonesque”? Which episode from his show was the one that got you dying your wool for Whedon in the first place? And for readers new to the Whedonverse, what is it about his shows that has kept you at a distance?

More on TV Auteurs in EW University:

Aaron Spelling: The king of guilty-pleasure TV

Aaron Sorkin: Talker, walk with me

J.J. Abrams: Pop-culture polymath

TV industry brass: Why so white?

Photo gallery: From Love Boat to Lost, great shows by four TV titans

Final Exam: Test your knowledge of these auteurs’ best shows