Much ado about Joss
So, is Whedon trying to drag the “kids” towards Shakespeare? Is he hoping to trick Buffy fans into swallowing Elizabethan drama? He adopts a very convincing mock-posh accent.“Oh, young people nowadays need to know these things!” he brays pompously. “Ha ha! No, not in that sense, I hope. Everything I do is part of the same mission. If somebody says: ‘I don’t care about superheroes, but I thought Avengers was dope’, then I am seriously thrilled.”
Whedon always seemed destined for that mission. He is one of the very few people who can claim to form the third generation in a family of television writers. Wheelwrights and cobblers used to create such dynasties. His grandfather wrote for The Donna Reed Show in the 1950s. His father, John Whedon, wrote on such shows as The Golden Girls. Did the family grandees try and scare him towards a less precarious profession? “My dad very kindly did both, just as his father had warned him,” he says. “But the moment I decided to start, he couldn’t have been more supportive. Three or four of the best pieces of advice on writing I ever received I got from him.”
Such as? “Well, he always said that if you have any decent ideas on story structure you don’t need jokes. All the jokes in the world won’t save you.”
That advice must have been useful when Whedon found himself working on the TV series Rosanne. If the rumours are reliable, the writers’ rooms for those shows are bear pits. Ambitious young turks elbow each other aside in the rush to get their jokes considered. Whedon recognises that caricature, but says the most political, most aggressive writers rarely produced the best material. He remained polite. He persevered. Ultimately, he prospered. Various script doctoring jobs presented themselves. He got a gig on Toy Story
The route to Buffy was twisty. A full 20 years ago, Whedon wrote a film of that name. It was not a hit. He returned to script doctoring, but the concept nagged.
“It wasn’t the movie I set out to write, which is not to say the movie I set out to write was a grandly ambitious thing. It was a pop culture send-up. It was a horror comedy with a cool character in it. When the notion came of making something for TV, the idea was there waiting. But there wasn’t much else.”
It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Buffy changed television. The series’ sideways feminism opened up new possibilities for female actors. The extraordinarily playful approach to form (famously, one episode was presented as a musical) awakened the mainstream to odder, less formulaic thinking. Whedon acknowledges that he was working to an agenda.
“I was so tired of the fact there were so few decent role models. I felt I must create a role model. It wasn’t just that. I really wanted to see an ass-kicking female on TV. There was an agenda. But it was an emotional thing too.”
I wonder when he realised he was at the head of a phenomenon. Beginning on the Warner Brothers network, Buffy was initially treated as something of a novelty. Within a year or two, the shelves of gender-studies departments were groaning with PhD theses on the show.