The New York Times
September 22, 2002
"Every once in a while, I'll just look up and say, 'My
spaceship!"' says Joss Whedon, bouncing on the tips of his sneakers.
The 38-year-old creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" grins and
gazes up at the Serenity, a pirate vessel of the future. The ship
dominates the Hollywood set of Whedon's newest genre-bender,
"Firefly" -- a show that is part cowboy shoot-'em-up, part space
opera, with a sneaky existential streak. At once majestic and junky, the
Serenity resembles a blown-up kid's toy, and its interior has been filled
with oddball details. A tiny plastic bobble-headed dog sits on the
dashboard, and the ship's low-tech engine is reminiscent of an overgrown
Scenes from Firefly - Whedon's spaceship "Serenity" shown
As he delivers notes to
Nathan Fillion, the strapping actor who plays the Serenity's captain, Mal
Reynolds, Whedon looks notably less than strapping -- and more like a
frazzled grad student who missed laundry day. ("Write 'doughy,"'
he suggests, hovering over my reporter's notebook. "Write
'jowly."') But his schlubbiness is a bit of an act, concealing a
charismatic, prickly intensity. After one successful take, he jumps up
with a cry of "Sweeeet!" then murmurs: "Don't give him
coffee! You don't know what he will become." Between scenes, he edits
scripts for "Buffy" and its spinoff, "Angel." Like
more than one ex-nerd of my acquaintance, Whedon compulsively peppers his
speech with self-deprecating asides: "Oh, my God, I am a hack,"
he moans as we watch Fillion, his thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his
skintight slacks, swagger back onto the ship's bridge. But like his show's
hero, Whedon exudes confidence.
And why shouldn't he? After all, Whedon has created one of the most
intelligent, and most underestimated, shows on television. Like the
Serenity, "Buffy" might look at first sight like a disposable
toy, something cobbled from materials that most adults dismiss out of
hand: teen banter, karate chops and bloodsucking monsters. Before the show
went on the air in 1997, executives at the fledgling WB network begged him
to change the whimsical title, arguing that the show would never reach
intelligent viewers. But it did. "Buffy" is about a teenage girl
staking monsters in the heart, but her true demons are personal, and the
show's innovative mix of fantasy elements and psychological acuity
transcends easy categorization. Despite being perpetually snubbed at the
Emmy Awards, "Buffy" has become a critics' darling and inspired
a fervent fan base among teenage girls and academics alike. The show's
influence can be felt everywhere on television these days, from tawdry
knockoffs like "Charmed" to more impressive copycats like
began its run this Friday on Fox, is an opportunity for Whedon to build a
fresh new mythology, what he calls a "drama with landscape."
Audaciously combining two more neglected juvenile genres, westerns and
science fiction, the series began as Whedon's most experimental yet --
until Fox rejected the pilot and forced him to whip up a more accessible
premiere episode. But although the new season opener has a kickier and
more commercial structure than the meditative pilot he originally devised,
Whedon was able to maintain his central vision. Yes, it's a space show,
but it's also an intellectual drama about nine underdogs struggling in the
moral chaos of a postglobalist universe. Adventure and ethical debate are
melded in one sexy package. "It's about the search for meaning,"
he explains. "And did I mention there's a whore?"
As technicians nudge a glowing white spaceship into the sky, Whedon talks
about his frustration with those who mistake his creations for guilty
pleasures. "I hate it when people talk about 'Buffy' as being
campy," he says, scarfing takeout chicken with a plastic fork.
"I hate camp. I don't enjoy dumb TV. I believe Aaron Spelling has
single-handedly lowered SAT scores." But despite these inevitable
misreadings, Whedon's heart will always be with genre fiction. Like Buffy
herself, genre fiction is easily undervalued, seen as powerless fluff. But
Whedon finds it uniquely forceful: using its vivid strokes, you can be
speculative, philosophical -- and create stories that are not merely true
to life but are metaphors for a deeper level of human experience.
"It's better to be a spy in the house of love, you know?" he
jokes. "If I made 'Buffy the Lesbian Separatist,' a series of
lectures on PBS on why there should be feminism, no one would be coming to
the party, and it would be boring. The idea of changing culture is
important to me, and it can only be done in a popular medium."
Joss Whedon's family has worked in television for generations: his father
wrote scripts for "Alice" and "The Golden Girls,"
while his grandfather worked on "The Donna Reed Show" and
"The Dick Van Dyke Show." But in many ways, Whedon says, his
deepest influence is his mother, Lee Stearns, a high-school teacher who
wrote novels during her summers, novels that were never published.
"She was very smart, uncompromising, cool as hell," he recalls.
"You had to prove yourself -- not that she wouldn't come through if
you didn't, but she expected you to hold your own."
His parents divorced when he was 9 (a "good divorce," he says).
He lived with his dad, but he spent summers with his mom and stepdad at an
artists' commune in upstate New York. As a teenager, Whedon attended a
private boys' school in England; he became "the world's biggest
Sondheim freak" as well as an avid comics fan. But at Wesleyan
University, his sights narrowed to film. "I'd go out and see three
classic films, stagger home at 2 a.m. and then watch whatever was on
HBO," he recalls. "It was glorious." Majoring in film and
immersing himself in women's studies, Whedon became convinced that the pop
genres he loved -- sci-fi and horror movies among them -- could be more
than just entertainment. They could carry subversive ideas into the
After college, Whedon drifted out to Los Angeles. An eccentric wannabe
auteur with bright red hair down to his waist, he fiddled with weird
projects like a musical parody of the Oliver North hearings; despite his
father's industry connections, he had disastrous pitch meetings. Then he
got his big break: a staff writer's job on "Roseanne." By the
time he left, he had a solid writer's rep. For several years, Whedon
worked as a bored but well-compensated script doctor, contributing to good
films ("Toy Story," for which he received an Oscar nomination)
and many bad ones ("Waterworld"). But he had an escape plan in
the works, a screenplay with a mission statement. Whedon wanted to create
an iconic female hero, but also "a world in which adolescent boys
would see a girl who takes charge as the sexiest goddamn thing they ever
saw." His mother died in 1992, but they had talked about his
"Buffy" screenplay, and, he says, she knew he was on his
Then, in a classic Hollywood tale of disillusionment, he lost control of
his screenplay -- only to see his vision of "populist feminism"
turned into a schlocky comedy. He recalls sitting in the theater, crying.
"I really thought I'd never work again," he recalls of the
experience. "It was that devastating." But in a second chance
few get, Whedon was able to resurrect "Buffy" on television,
restoring the show's powerful central metaphor: adolescence is hell, and
any girl who makes it through is a superhero.
Joss with some of his Buffy stars: Left to Right -
Amber Benson (Tara), Joss Whedon (Genius),
Michelle Trachtenberg (Dawn) and Nicholas
With each of Buffy's six
television seasons, Whedon's reputation grew. The show took startling
structural risks. There was the silent episode, "Hush" -- a
virtuoso spook show with wordless scenes as witty as any dialogue. In
"The Body," Whedon broke television taboo by treating the death
of Buffy's mother with raw, mournful realism. In the fifth-season finale,
the heroine herself died, a scenario that managed to resonate as both a
beautiful Christ-like sacrifice and an act of suicidal despair. Last
season featured her painful resurrection -- she literally dug herself out
of a grave -- as well as an exhilarating all-musical episode, "Once
More With Feeling." (The soundtrack comes out on Tuesday.)
Over time, the show's
mythology has become as rich and multilayered as any work of literature --
eternally complicating its own notions of morality, allowing characters to
grow up in a way rare for television and generating enough internal
allusions to fuel its own media-studies department. Indeed, several
academic anthologies focus on the show; other high-flown analyses appear
on "Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies."
The show's daring and
complexity have earned it many smarty-pants fans, from those who
contribute to the show's insanely challenging Internet discussion groups
(some of which feature posts from Whedon himself) to Ira Glass, the host
of the radio program "This American Life."
Television creators like David E. Kelley and Aaron Sorkin may be better
known, but to many critics, Whedon is the more original artist, one who
has been unfairly denied prizes and high ratings. To J.J. Abrams, creator
of "Alias" -- a show about a tough female spy -- Whedon is a
pioneer, stubbornly resisting the pressure to take the easy route to
cultural respect. "He's not the normal adult in any way that I can
see," Abrams says. "He's the mischievous kid and the wise-adult
kid in one package. You know, if he wanted to be taken seriously in the
conventional way, he could write a medical show or a legal show. But he
cares more about telling stories he wants to tell, and he's being taken
seriously on his terms. It's like the title 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': if
you don't smile, you're not going to get the show anyway."
The messy anteroom to Whedon's office at Mutant Enemy, his Los Angeles
production company, is filled with "Buffy" memorabilia and piles
of videotapes. On the walls hang glossy framed posters: "The
Matrix," "Written on the Wind," a pen-and-ink drawing of
Mickey Mouse hanging by a noose. Whedon hands me a snapshot of a fellow
redhead with a wicked grin; it's his wife, Kai Cole. "The funniest
woman I've ever met," he says. On their honeymoon, Whedon scribbled
the names of "Buffy" characters in a notepad. And it was on a
long-overdue London vacation with Kai that Whedon found the inspiration
for "Firefly." When the jet-lagged couple read through the
night, Whedon dived into "The Killer Angels," Michael Shaara's
fictional recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg. "I thought, That's
the show I want to make!" he recalls. "It was about the minutiae
of the soldiers' lives. And I wanted to play with that classic notion of
the frontier: not the people who made history, but the people history
stepped on -- the people for whom every act is the creation of
civilization. Then again, there's also gunfights and action."
From this blueprint, Whedon has built a show that, like "Buffy,"
twists comic-book structures into novel shapes. It's science fiction, but
there are gunfights instead of laser battles, and no alien foreheads to be
seen. "This is my first nonlatex show," he tells me, grinning.
"The show is set 500 years in the future, but humans are still acting
worse than any monster." It's a character-rich drama, but one full of
violence and slapstick comedy. And while "Firefly" contains
plenty of Whedon's favorite TV-friendly tropes -- whip-smart caper plots
and ricocheting sexual subtext -- the show has a grubby, realistic look to
it, quite unlike the shiny suburb of Sunnydale on "Buffy." Such
juxtapositions can seem at once down to earth and charmingly weird. As the
Serenity drifts through space, it's accompanied by twangy music right out
of a Civil War documentary. "I want viewers to equate the past, the
present and the future," Whedon explains, "not to think of the
future as 'that glowy thing that's distant and far away."'
And woven into the action, there's a juicy (and prescient) political
allegory. At Wesleyan, Whedon was deeply influenced by his professor
Richard Slotkin, the creator of the theory of "regeneration through
violence": the notion that frontier myths allowed conquerors --
including the pioneers of the American West -- to rewrite bloody history
as heroic fairy tale. "Firefly" is set in just such a
postimperialist universe, after China and America have formed a corporate
supergovernment, the Alliance. In essence, it's Coca-Cola as the White
House. Our heroes are post-Reconstruction crooks scraping by on the
serrated edge of the law, and depending on which way you turn the moral
prism, they might resemble an antiglobalization cadre or followers of an
outer-space jihad. In the show's first episode, Captain Reynolds taunts a
drunken Alliance member with the Confederate refrain "We shall rise
again," and the implication is clear: these characters may be
underdogs, but whether they are heroes (even to themselves) is a loaded
But as with Whedon's other shows, "Firefly" is as much a
character study as it is an abstract debate. The ensemble includes a
courtesan, a thug, a preacher, a rich-boy doctor, a tomboy engineer and a
psychic. They are all archetypes with inner lives. Leading this crew is
Mal Reynolds, who is, like Buffy Summers, a singularly thorny pop
creation: a mordant, dark-humored fellow with bile boiling just beneath
the surface. (Think Han Solo, only with more interiority.) His former
enemy is now his government, and frankly, he's not coping well. When
Whedon cast Nathan Fillion, he encouraged him to watch John Wayne films,
aiming to help him capture elements of Wayne's physical grace as well as
his dark undertones.
"Mal's politics are very reactionary and 'Big government is bad' and
'Don't interfere with my life,"' Whedon explains. "And sometimes
he's wrong -- because sometimes the Alliance is America, this beautiful
shining light of democracy. But sometimes the Alliance is America in
Vietnam: we have a lot of petty politics, we are way out of our league and
we have no right to control these people. And yet! Sometimes the Alliance
is America in Nazi Germany. And Mal can't see that, because he was a
The show's other central concern diverges intriguingly from Buffy's
universe, where fate and destiny loom large. "I'm a very hard-line,
angry atheist," Whedon says. "Yet I am fascinated by the concept
of devotion. And I want to explore that." (His existential revelation
arrived during an adolescent viewing of "Close Encounters of the
Third Kind" -- an experience soon followed by a reading of Sartre's
"Nausea.") Mal tells the preacher who is a passenger on his
ship, "You're welcome on my boat; God ain't." If Buffy is the
chosen one, forced to struggle with a responsibility that comes from
outside, Mal is defiant in his belief that his fate is meaningless.
"This is a man who has learned that when he believed in something it
destroyed him," Whedon explains. "So what he believes in is the
next job, the next paycheck and keeping his crew safe." It is a
typical Whedonian inversion: much the way Buffy is a demon-killer obsessed
with the morality of killing, Mal is a man of action frozen by his
conviction that nothing really matters, a man forced to choose his
morality at each juncture. "Whatever I may think of him politically,
he's a guy who looks into the void and sees nothing but the void -- and
says there is no moral structure, there is no help, no one's coming, no
one gets it, I have to do it."
Can Whedon bring these bleak undercurrents to television intact? If
"Buffy" is any indication, the answer is yes -- but only if
"Firefly" wins an audience. For despite Whedon's clout, the show
wasn't easy to get on the air. The original two-hour pilot was
idiosyncratic, with slow, John Ford-style pacing that thrilled Whedon but
baffled Fox. He agreed to speed things up, but the network wanted other
changes, like turning a married couple into flirting singles. He refused.
"I wanted a marriage on my show, not 'Melrose Space,"' he says.
Such prickly negotiations flashed Whedon back to his earliest experiences
in Hollywood -- and left him nursing a very Mal-like resentment against
the strictures of Fox, his own personal Alliance.
Whedon discusses these frustrations with me one night over dinner.
"There were so many times I thought, It's time to retire in rage and
confusion," he says. "Some of this was just forgetting how
difficult it is getting a pilot on the air. And some of it was
hubris." He pauses to sip some chardonnay. "As I learned, pride
goeth before a fall season. Or, as my writer Mere Smith put it, 'There are
no atheists in Fox shows."'
But if Whedon is expert at nursing a grudge with the suits, he is also
buoyed by the recognition that he commands a deeply loyal audience. His
fans have been waiting for "Firefly" with a mix of eagerness and
trepidation -- and a sometimes unnerving sense of ownership. The previous
eventing, at a pre-Emmy panel discussion in the lush Academy of Television
Arts and Sciences auditorium in North Hollywood, Whedon was pelted with
demanding questions: Why was Buffy's last season so dark?
("Oops!" he replied.) Was he spread too thin, cheating on his
other shows in favor of his new creation?
Joss Whedon directing an episode of Angel
But afterward, as he
crouched by the stage, these critics turned worshipful, clutching DVD's
and Sunnydale High School yearbooks, their faces dented with the desire to
say one smart thing to the guy who created their favorite show. "In
the season finale, Xander's crayon speech -- did you mean that to have
Christian imagery?" a middle-aged man inquired. A 9-year-old girl
told him that she wanted to join the "Buffy" cast. And then a
dewy young woman leaned forward and gripped his hand between hers, pulling
him in for enforced eye contact: "I just want you to know -- we trust
you. We know you know what you're doing. We know it will be
Such damp effusions are the kind of thing that many television creators
would shy away from. But Whedon loves it down there in the geek trenches.
"That's the only reason I'm alive!" he says, placing his palms
flat on the tablecloth. "We're paying homage to the same thing: the
storytelling. I wanted to create a fiction that would affect people's
lives. And this has affected people's lives. It's affected my life.
Without it my life is meaningless."
Atheist though he may be, Joss Whedon has a kind of faith -- in narrative
passion, the kind that creates lasting loyalties. "Every time people
say, 'You've transcended the genre,' I'm like: No! I believe in
genre." For Whedon, fantasy inspires a visceral response that realism
can't match. "Law and Order' is the most enjoyable thing in the
world!" He laughs. "But I do not go through life imagining
myself as Sam Waterston, breakin' a case, prosecutin' a guy."
There are other, more ambitious TV shows that he admires, "The West
Wing" among them. But Whedon is clearly not tempted to create that
kind of "grown-up" show -- no matter how many Emmys he'd win.
"I'm not an adult!" he says, shaking his head. "I don't
want to create responsible shows with lawyers in them. I want to invade
Emily Nussbaum is the "Summary Judgment"
columnist for Slate.