(Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available in its entirety on Netflix instant.)
As someone who discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer later in life, I will be the first to admit that I didn’t think much of the show from my vague cultural awareness of it and the odd rerun I used to stumble across flipping through channels on the TV. I knew people loved it, but I didn’t think it was exactly in my wheelhouse. Before I had ever seen a full episode, I had dismissed it as a supernatural, teenage melodrama from the mother of all melodrama peddling networks: The WB. Despite my preconceptions, a friend convinced me to give it a try, and I found that my expectations were, for the most part, correct. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is often tiresome with its focus on high school relationship drama and it’s certainly showing its age with its dated special effects and soundtrack choices (especially in its stumbling first and second seasons).
What I didn’t expect, however, was to find a masterpiece of television: a show that simultaneously works on both a grand and personal scale, a show that’s smart, funny, entertaining. And perhaps what surprised me most about Buffy was how innovative it was for television. It’s hard for me to think of another show that explored the possibilities and limits of narrative television the way Buffy did (especially for the nineties–just before the so called “Golden Age” of TV). I truly believe that separate from film, novels, poetry, visual media, and music or whatever artistic format you might choose, television is a unique method of artistic expression (not better or worse), and it can, if used to its potential, do things and produce feelings in its audience that other artistic forms just can’t. Before Mad Men, before The Wire, even before The Sopranos, Buffy was exploring just what exactly dramatic TV could do. There are a handful of episodes that really stand out in the way they defy their genre and their format and stretch creative boundaries. Over the course of several articles, I’ll examine each of these episodes and the way they brought out the best of what TV has to offer.
“The Zeppo”–The Side Stories Are the Story
One of the great things about television is its versatility with scope. Multiple seasons and hundreds of hours provides lots of time for exploring different themes and characters. Ensemble dramas like The Sopranos or The Wire did a great job spending time getting to know multiple characters, examining the narrative from multiple, often distant, perspectives. Even within a television episode, there is often an A-story and a B-story, and presumably the A-story is more “important” than the plot line happening in the sidelines. “The Zeppo” is brilliant because it turns this assumption on its head while simultaneously commenting on the infinitely complex nature of story, the idea that you can divide any story into two pieces, take the smaller of those pieces, and focus in on it until it becomes just as compelling as the original narrative. It’s a great place to start because, in many ways, it marks the beginning point in which Buffy went from a mediocre show to something bigger and fantastic.
“The Zeppo” focuses on Xander Harris who is, admittedly, the least important member of the “Scooby Gang.” He has no super powers like Buffy and later Willow, and he’s not particularly smart like Willow and Giles. In this episode, recently spurned Cordelia calls him out on his meaninglessness. She taunts him, calling him “the Zeppo”–a reference to the youngest member of the Marx brothers, the “straight man” in the group, the unremarkable foil for his brothers’ wild antics, essentially the Ringo Starr of comedy. In Buffy, however, the roles are reversed. Xander is the Zeppo because he’s the comic relief in the group. He laughs in the face of danger because he can’t fight it. What’s great about this episode is that it doesn’t take the cheap way out and make the story about how Xander does something important for once. The “important” story, the A-story, is going on elsewhere, off screen. Buffy and the rest of the gang are battling the reemergence of the beast in the Hellmouth (a big bad reserved strictly for the most dire and apocalyptic of plot lines). Even the characters themselves can’t seem to stop talking about how epic and life altering their adventure is, but the whole thing goes mostly unseen by the audience.
Instead we focus on a “one-wild-night” style adventure focusing on Xander and couple of bumbling, murderous zombies in a surreal, comic, fast-paced blur of events reminiscent of something like The Big Lebowski. At the end of it all, Xander is forced to face and accept his potential death, an unremarkable, unnoticed death at that, the kind of death that the majority of mankind will experience, but here in this framework, from this perspective, Joss Whedon is able to bring out the significance that is, of course, always there to the person under the knife (or bomb in this case). While the world is potentially ending on the floor above them, Xander is dealing with a smaller battle, but to him it’s the most important conflict he’s ever faced, and the way the story has been structured, we as the audience are forced to care more about Xander’s mortality than the high stakes going on on the upper floor because we’ve just spent a bewildering hour watching him get pushed around and sidelined and told that he means nothing to anyone.
What’s the point of all this? How is this relevant to TV as an art form? “The Zeppo” demonstrates the potential of TV to act as a narrative microscope, able to zoom in to any level and find that the structure of a story, the pieces that compel an audience in a narrative. are just as present in the component parts as they are in the larger machine. It’s a point that has to be made using the long-game of the television format. A film that attempted to make the same point as “The Zeppo” does, would just turn out as an underdog story–it’s not the same effect. The impact is enhanced by the pre-established nature of Xander’s role within the Buffy universe. He never was “important” in multiple senses of the word, and he never will be, but the audience’s understanding of his character will always be that much richer because we’ve visited his level of the narrative fabric. That’s what makes “The Zeppo” a masterpiece of television. The episode shows off the way the medium has the time and the ability to explore itself, to turn inward and examine every inch of the worlds and stories it creates, and the result is something like mitosis as stories splinter and divide like growing cells into something organic and fully realized. It’s a rich method of story telling, and Joss Whedon is particularly adept at fully exploring the worlds that he’s built.
Speaking of world building, more on this topic next time.