What Is It About Joss Whedon?

I think it’s been pretty clearly established that I’m a fan of Joss Whedon’s work; why else would I devote so much time to shredding it? (I critique because I care.) And I interact with a lot of Joss fans who are in the same boat I’m in; we like his work a lot, or we like at least some of it, but we also feel like he continually frustrates and lets us down, as a creator, in a way that other creators don’t, because we expect more of him.

Not because of the way he positions himself, although there certainly are grounds to expect more of someone who positions himself like Joss does, although I note he’s not like Ryan Murphy and isn’t interested in trying to convince everyone that his shows are a deep social commentary (although unlike Ryan Murphy’s, they are), but because of the record of his work. I’ve seen Joss do really good stuff, so I expect him to keep doing good stuff. Sometimes it feels like he’s regressing creatively and I want to mail him some smushed cupcakes and tell him to shape up.

I have a strange sense of standards around Whedon. Some of the things he does are the kinds of things that would make me walk away from a show, and a creator, without a second look. They are the kinds of things I point at when I talk about aha moments and when I decided to give up on something because it was clear it would never improve. I talk about those things a lot, I discuss them and analyse them, but I haven’t stopped watching, because some of the things he does.

Some of the things he does.

Some of the things he does are fucking amazing. Sometimes Whedon has a way of just nailing something, elegantly and beautifully. A sweet spot across a whole season is rare but there’s often a cluster of really fucking good episodes, story arcs that really speak to me as a viewer, and when I go through to really pick at a season of his, I often find that out of, say, 23 episodes, it’s only really three or four that are really painful, that feature and focus on a story arc that makes me want to scream; for example, the magic use as drug abuse metaphor on Buffy season six that always feels so ridiculous and drawn out when I think about is actually only in a couple of episodes.

Joss writes good characters and he tells good stories, even if he sometimes falters in the telling. And I guess that’s just what it is about him. I let him get away with a lot more than I would with any other creator because I am hooked on the stories. I love what Buffy says about friends and relationships and family and partnership and cooperation, for example, and I love how that theme expresses in Angel and Firefly. I haven’t seen anyone else managing to accomplish that in precisely that way and I love that Joss took and embraced the epic format and kept it running strong right up until the end, and knew when it was time to walk away.

Even as there are things about Firefly and Dollhouse that make me really angry, there are also things I keep coming back for. That dream sequence episode in Dollhouse was Joss at his finest; macabre, mysterious, beautiful, artfully crafted, layered, complex. I could watch an entire series of Joss dream sequences, I am not even kidding. Sometimes I line up his dream sequence/out of reality episodes and watch them all in a row because they are just that good.

Joss keeps coming back to themes that I can tell really bother him; institutionalisation, for example, keeps coming up. Sometimes he handles it really well and makes a pretty solid commentary on institutions and mental illness and reality and how we construct the world around us. Sometimes he does it really, really badly and I want to throw things at the screen. But I will keep watching even as I’m infuriated; he’s managed to hit the tipping point of being able to piss me off without actively making me want to stop watching, which is a rare knack.

We could talk about how Joss is creative and tells good stories and crafts good characters and works with good actors and how this pulls together into an artful and crafty blend, but there seems to be some other, less tangible ingredient that I can’t quite figure out. It’s not the palpable love of his work; lots of creators have that and I do love it, as when I’m watching, say, Six Feet Under and getting the sense that Alan Ball was really into what he was doing and he was infusing everyone with enthusiasm. It’s not the feminist notes in his work, because for me good pop culture and good art is about a lot more than whether you hit my feminist approval checklist.

There’s something else there, and I can’t quite figure out what it is. I don’t know why it is that I continue to get excited about his new projects even when I suspect they’re going to piss me off, why I watched his Glee episode and held out hope to the bitter end that he was somehow going to turn it around and take the episode somewhere really exciting, make it a metacommentary with the way he directed and handled it. Joss reminds me of that cake at the bakery, where it’s usually pretty good, sometimes you get a slice that’s just fucking awful for no apparent reason, but you keep ordering it because you remember how, a couple times, you had the most perfect slice of cake you have ever seen, moist but not soggy, right frosting ratio, perfect blend of flavors that rolled around in your tongue and threw a little party. And you keep hoping the next slice is gonna be another one of those slices.