Joss Whedon on the future of his shows and himself
By MIKE McDANIEL
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
If television has a cult hero, it’s not the guy with the S on his chest on Smallville. It’s Joss Whedon.
His first two TV series, UPN’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the WB’s Angel, attract small but rabidly loyal audiences — 4.6 million viewers for Buffy, 4.3 million for Angel. That’s 24 million fewer viewers than CSI, TV’s No. 1 show.
The beauty of Whedon’s audiences is not their size but their youth and their fidelity. The numbers hold steady week to week, year in, year out. Even Buffy’s move from the WB to new network UPN last season did not temper its viewers’ allegiance. This year, the WB made the risky decision to move Angel from Monday to Sunday; so far its ratings are up.
Viewers follow because they believe in the Power of Joss. He may be the world’s first third-generation TV writer. His grandfather, John, wrote for The Andy Griffith Show and The Donna Reed Show. His father, Tom, was a writer on Alice, Benson and The Golden Girls.
A graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Whedon landed a job as a staff writer on Roseanne in 1988. It is a time of his life he does not relish; staff writers are low on the pecking order, and Whedon did not feel appreciated.
UPN’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Sarah Michelle Gellar in the title role, was the first of writer-producer Joss Whedon’s three popular television series. The show about a smart and beautiful young woman who battles the undead has been a consistent cult hit since its debut on the WB.
He wrote for another TV show, NBC’s Parenthood, before fashioning a movie script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). He also became a writer and script doctor for such films as Toy Story, Speed, Alien: Resurrection, X-Men and Titan A.E.
In 1997, he finally became a part of the public consciousness as creator, executive producer and head writer of the seminal WB series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show — about a quick-witted young woman (Sarah Michelle Gellar) on a mission to save the world from the undead — became a hit among critics and, especially, young and young-adult audiences.
That led to a 1999 spinoff, Angel, about a demon-fighting vampire cursed with a conscience (David Boreanaz). This year came Firefly, about 26th-century renegades opposed to a unification of planets under a totalitarian government.
His ideas for series are high-concept — present-day vampires and their slayers, space cowboys of the future. But they also are populated by fully developed, fully engaging, everyday people, just like us.
Unlike other popular shows, such as ER, which have four- and six-episode story-line “arcs,” Whedon’s shows have arcs that can last a season and more. His series are his children, and like every good daddy, he has grand plans for what he wants his charges to do and say — and a destination for each of them.
He is prolific, but part of his genius is that he allows himself room to breathe. He’s not trying to write every show, which makes him different from The West Wing guru Aaron Sorkin and David E. Kelley, who helms The Practice and Boston Public.
In Whedon’s newest “child,” Firefly, Gina Torres, from left, as a soldier named Zoe, Nathan Fillion as Capt. Malcolm Reynolds and Adam Baldwin as Jayne, a mercenary, lead the show, which has struggled with its time slot, a pilot that has not yet been broadcast and, until recently, competition from Major League Baseball.
“I make up every story, with the writers, for every show,” said Whedon, 37. “I look at every single script, and I either punch it up or give specific notes about it. But I only write the ones I direct.”
He turns his children over to nannies who are intimately familiar with Whedon’s wishes and see that they come true.
“I love all my children equally and for very different reasons. One is good at sports, one is smart, one is pretty,” he teased.
Then, seriously: “I love whatever show I’m working on. Buffy was my first child and made an inroad into popular culture that I’ll probably never equal. Obviously that’s enormous.
“Angel has a lot of my best friends on it, is the most fun for me to shoot and is an extraordinary melodramatic action show in its own right. And the best time I ever had was shooting it last year — the best filming experience of my life.
“Firefly is the most adult work I’ve ever done and has an unbelievable cast and incredible crew. Even though we’ve had our struggles finding the stories, once these (characters) start talking, I can’t shut them up — and I know that the actors are going to bring even more to the party than I’ve put on the page.”
Matters at hand
Whedon’s attention is necessarily focused on his newborn, Firefly. He’s writing many of its episodes this season and is also more hands-on in terms of producing and directing.
“It’s a new show,” Whedon said. “You have to find the voice.”
But he wrote and directed tonight’s Angel (8 p.m., Channel 39), in which the cast members are thrown back to their high-school years. He’s delighted that the show has proved to be “robust” in the ratings.
“It definitely has a better lead-in (Charmed), and Sunday’s traditionally a good night (for television viewing),” he said. “The show’s stronger. It’s really hit its stride, and people know about it.”
Six-year-old Buffy may be having its best season ever — after a year in which the show (7 p.m. Tuesdays, Channel 20) seemed to stew in its juices. It had a terrific start, in which Buffy’s best friend, Willow, used magic to raise the Slayer from the dead. It also had a fantastic finish, in which Willow, her magic out of control, almost destroyed the world.
David Boreanaz is the title character in the 1999 Buffy spinoff Angel, about a vampire compelled to battle even his own kind because he has a conscience.
In between, however, Buffy and cohorts seemed to wander, and an inordinate amount of attention fell on Buffy and her friends working at a burger joint and on the sexual exploits of the heroine.
What happened to the crescendoing plot line?
“I don’t think it was the episodes themselves that people had a problem with as much as the fact that we had taken Buffy away from them,” Whedon said. “It was dark, depressing, strange, weird, upsetting, funny, unexpected episodes about characters that people weren’t that invested in.
“The fact of the matter is, you always had Buffy, and she was always your hero. But last year, she really wasn’t. She was in such a dark place, and I don’t think people were ready to go with her. Which meant that an episode that wasn’t hit out of the park, in your face and obviously fun, was going to turn people off. This year we’ve had a sort of return to the heart of the show.”
Indeed, almost every episode this season has been riveting, focusing on a seasonlong plot involving the opening of an all-new Sunnydale High — still, of course, atop the Hellmouth. Another apocalyptic ending surely awaits.
If Gellar does not sign a new contract, will Whedon allow his firstborn to die? Will Buffy go out with stakes blazing?
“I think she should go out with a tea party, where she and the vampires talk about their differences,” Whedon said, his extreme sarcasm the result, no doubt, of having heard this question once or twice before.
“Yeah, no, there’s going to be a bang this season,” he said. “Whatever happens next season, this season is going to be unbelievably epic.”
He does not say whether Gellar will slay or go.
Would the show still be called Buffy if Buffy left the show?
“The show will be called Buffy if Sarah re-ups. If she doesn’t and there’s still a show, it will not be called Buffy.”
But he would support a show about a slayer without Buffy?
Would he create a new show in the style of Buffy or Angel?
“Could be. Again, I’m still trying to get through next week. I’m not too worried about what we’re going to do next year. I have a battle plan based on a lot of contingencies.”
When does he need to know the contingencies?
“It won’t really affect what we’re doing this year because whatever happens works either way. But one likes to know sooner rather than later.”
A numbers game
How’s this for strange?
Firefly has more viewers than Buffy or Angel, but it is also Whedon’s most vulnerable show. That’s because it airs on Fox, which has higher viewership expectations than UPN and the WB.
Firefly has struggled. It opened Sept. 20 with a respectable 4.0 rating and 8 share, attracting 6.2 million viewers.
The show dipped after that, reaching its lowest point on Oct. 11 with just 4.3 million fans. But now that baseball is over and the season schedule is finally unfolding, Firefly is inching back up. The Nov. 1 episode drew 4.7 million viewers.
Maybe it’s too soon to call the show Fireflop, as one reporter did recently. For the season, the show is attracting an average of 4.9 million viewers.
Asked to describe the show’s health, Whedon said, “I think Firefly has a little sinus thing.”
Yet the series has had problems that gallons of antihistamine could not remedy, beginning with Fox’s pronouncement that Whedon’s $8 million, two-hour pilot episode lacked the action and adventure its executives were looking for. So the pilot has been pushed back to December, and some reports hint that the series could exit shortly after that.
Whedon did not agree with Fox’s decision to shelve the pilot.
“I still don’t agree,” he said. “I never will agree. But that’s a punch you roll with . . . It’s their call, it’s their slot, it’s their money. All I can do is turn out episodes I think are worth seeing.”
He has been working backward from that decision ever since, however, because the pilot set up the entire season, describing how the crew of the renegade spaceship banded together.
“We do our best to make every episode clear enough that somebody who’s never watched it will understand what’s going on. We have had some people who are confused; there are a lot of characters. I think once the pilot has aired, some of that confusion will go away.
“It took us awhile to find a paradigm that the network agreed with, that had the adventure they were looking for and the meaning we were looking for. But we seem to be meeting in the middle and turning out episodes that I think are kind of spectacular and that they’re really responding to.”
Meanwhile, the show is stuck in a “death slot” — 7 p.m. Fridays, Fox/Channel 26 — a place where Millenniums and Pasadenas before it have died premature deaths. There are rumors the show will be moved to Wednesdays or Mondays.
“If they (Fox) have any plans in that respect, we don’t know what they are,” Whedon said.
“I knew the show was something of a risk and not every person would come out and say, ‘Yeah, finally, at last, a space western. I’ve been waiting for it all my life.’ But I think it’s starting to find its audience; we’ve definitely found its tone, and Fox is very comfortable with that.”
Whedon looks ahead
What’s in the future for Whedon and his shows?
Look for major plot developments next week on Buffy, when Tom Lenk — who plays Andrew, the middle member of last year’s bad bunch, the Trio — resurfaces. And expect Willow (the wonderful Alyson Hannigan) to find a new love interest sometime soon. (Yes, it will be a woman, but not Tara. A deal to bring back Amber Benson, who played Tara, could not be worked out.)
As for Angel, the seasonlong nemesis will be revealed Nov. 17. Then the show will go away, returning with fresh episodes in January.
An animated edition of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not going to happen, Whedon said, but he has not lost interest in developing an adult spinoff, The Ripper, a Buffy spinoff starring Anthony Head (Giles). That show originally was intended for British TV.
You can forget other all-musical episodes of any Whedon shows. Even though an all-music Buffy earned him critical raves, he vowed “never again.”
“That took six months!” he said.
And he is not interested in becoming another TV factory, like those associated with Steven Bochco or David Kelley.
“It’s time I made some movies,” he said. “I don’t want to turn out series for the sake of turning out series. I have a lot of ideas, and some of them are TV series.
“But this year, three series is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I never want to do it again because it would kill me, and I will not phone them in. I will not turn out two good series and one contractual obligation,” he said.
“I believe making movies is a gentleman’s game. It’s leisurely. And it’s beginning to interest me because I’m very, very old. Working on TV is like dog years.”