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Let's get serious, not - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Let's get serious, not
So, I've been amusing myself recently by going over to Television Without Pity and reading the recaps of Buffy and Angel. The recappers seem very annoyed at Spike for turning good, which strikes me as really, really off the mark, especially given what they were complaining about, none of which had to do with Spike being evil, per se. All of it had to do with Spike losing his sense of humor... and quite frankly, that is the problem with the later BtVS episodes (and quite a few of the later AtS episodes). Which got me thinking about fantasy in general, and its tendency toward the turgid.

Fantasy always deals with some pretty heavy metaphysical themes; it comes with the territory. And that means there are always going to be the most serious kinds of character questions going--can he resist evil? Can she keep the world from sliding into the clutches of a madman? And so on. Because of this, I think fantasy writers tend to go into sudden bursts of seriousness, often to the point of self-parody, which can--almost counterintuitively--really undermine the actual serious themes. It's actually kind of hard to explain.

I re-read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe on Saturday (because I just know what a good idea it is for me to brush up on canon details of a book before I go to see the latest probably mangling adaptation; it always makes me so happy), and while what I'd remembered of it was the fairly heavy-handed re-telling of the passion, what I'd forgotten was Lewis's kind of amused, friendly tone (Edmund forgetting how stupid it is to shut oneself inside a wardrobe, for instance). It's not roll-around-on-the-floor funny, but Lewis has a decent handle on what he's doing. Even Tolkien, who tends toward the turgid, has a sense of humor about his hobbits. And Rowling has an odd and quirky sense of humor that raises its head very frequently despite the fact that she opened the books with a double-murder and, as she put it, that pretty well set the tone. One of the things I really liked in HBP was that what finally sent Harry over the edge into grief was remembering Dumbledore's really surreal sense of humor ("Nitwit, oddment, blubber, tweak"), which no one else completely shares (though I suspect Luna Lovegood gets it, at least).

Buffy, in its early seasons, was very good at using humor not to cut the horror and seriousness, but actually to augment it. It's not an easy trick. But you have villains like the mayor, or early Spike, or freaky Dru, or the Master... they all used dark humor a lot. VampWillow was the same in her two episodes. The cast and writers worked well with it. They could go abruptly serious, because the material was there, but they also understood the absurdity of the premise and played with it. That made the horror more horrible, because it was set against recognizable skepticism and because it was taking place at the same time as a amusing little quips. They weren't separated.

It was the same idea that fueled the early seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, both of which I adored in the beginning and which largely became drudgery after they passed some mysterious point and started crumbling under their own weight. Rather than jumping the shark, the show kind of slinks under the shark and gets stuck in the mud. I can't put my finger on what it is that starts this process, but there's usually some storyline that makes it clear... and often it's heralded with a show, that, on its individual merits, may even be stellar. In Buffy, I think that point was "The Body," which was technically a good piece of work, with good performances and good scripting... but which very forcibly announced that we weren't dealing with metaphor anymore--we are dealing with real issues, the death of a parent, and nothing is going to change it. Once that line was crossed, the show increasingly got into knotty real world issues... became a whole lot of "very special episodes." In Xena, it seems to have been the Hope plot arc. I'm not sure exactly where it was in Hercules, but when they got into issues like Iolus dying, it's pretty obvious that we're in a severe funk.

Now, I'm not a total detractor of the later seasons of Buffy, which I think had some quite beautiful dramatic moments. And I like the redemption of Spike. But the problem Spike has is not that he fell in love with Buffy, or that he got redeemed... it's that, like every other character and the show itself, he lost his sense of humor far too often.

But really, once you've crossed that line, how can you go back to making snarky comments and weird little quips? You can't without it feeling out of place. So the seriousness that becomes humorlessness ultimately turns into completely turgid plotting.

I don't know if I have a conclusion or a suggestion to fix it, but it is a curious problem in fantasy.
31 comments or Leave a comment
hermia7 From: hermia7 Date: November 7th, 2005 08:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't have anything too substantive to say except "word." I read the Chronicles of Narnia about a million times as a kid (and adult), and there were always passages that amused me greatly—I performed Lucy's meeting with Mr. Tumnus in a readers theatre class once, in part because I adored the confusion of "The Land of Spare Oom," etc.
(On a random and unrelated note, isn't TWoP the best? I'm friends with one of the founders here in NYC and sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have thought up something that amuses so many people.)
sonetka From: sonetka Date: November 7th, 2005 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I reread the Narnia series last summer and was surprised to discover how amusing they were - as a child I always liked the stories, but didn't remember them being so funny, except for the obvious "Spare Oom, War Drobe," type stuff. I think a lot of it was elements that flew right over my eight-year-old head, for example the name of Jill and Eustace's school, Experiment House, and the fact that the Head finally found her place in Parliament, where she didn't have to be functionally competent at anything :). Not to mention the bit in "The Magician's Nephew" where Uncle Andrew, reeling under the shock of having seen Jadis, sneaks into his closet in his room where he keeps his very special "nasty-tasting grown-up drink." The following scene makes so much more sense to me now that I realize that Uncle Andrew is considerably less than sober.

Ahh... I should go reread that again.
narnian_dreamer From: narnian_dreamer Date: November 7th, 2005 10:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I loved that scene too! I don't remember whether or not I understood it as a kid, but I remember laughing hysterically over the animals and their "pet 'Brandy'" later on. Much more child-accessible humor.

But I thought the funniest part was when the kids are about to ride the flying horse, and he says he doesn't mind taking too as long as the elephant doesn't want to come along. The next sentence starts "The elephant had no such wish,..."

And I cracked up! I don't know why I thought that particular phrase was so hysterical. It is a nice wordplay and is slightly funny in a narrator-pretending-to-take-the-horse's-joke-seriously kind of way.

But as a kid, I thought it was the funniest part of the series. And I have no idea why.
spookykat From: spookykat Date: November 7th, 2005 08:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
What I adored about the earlier seasons of Buffy was that there was good. There was evil. And then there was Spike. This is, essentially, the same appeal that Snape holds for me, as well...but that's neither here nor there. On the surface, he's nothing more than a baddie. But he's got this side to him with traces of humanity. He had a wicked sense of humor, and used it as a weapon. That's where Spike differs from almost every other character in the Buffyverse, who used their sense of humor to deal with the absurd.

Oddly, I think his sick sense of humor was the thing that made early Spike slightly human. If he can make us laugh, then he can't be ALL bad, right? Same goes for The Master and The Mayor. But as soon as he was redeemed, I think the thing that Spike lost was the very thing that made him so appealing as a villain--there was no more duality. We saw this guy who was good because he loved a girl who tried not to love him back. And although love is the most human of humanities, I don't really think it's what made us identify with Spike in later seasons. There was no more of the duality anymore. No more shades of grey. Spike lacked roundness as a character. He went from this badass with a wicked sense of humor to this pathetic little worm who's obsessed with a girl who was formerly his favorite target. In those later eps, Spike lost his believability.

I honestly don't think the show started to fall apart after The Body. I think the show started to fall apart when Dawn joined the scene. It felt like they just didn't know where to go show-wise, so, hey! Why don't we give Buffy a sister! Granted, her coming-out-of-knowhere-ness fit in with the absurdness of the show, but it still wreaked of plot-holes. Not that it still wasn't worth watching. I just felt it slipping from that point on.

spookykat From: spookykat Date: November 7th, 2005 08:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Scratch my first statement in that comment. What I adored about the earlier seasons of Buffy was that there was Good, and then there was Evil, and then there was just about every freakin' cast member in the series. Just Spike seemed to be most exemplary of that. Joss, in his element, is great at making characters three-dimensional. He used archetypes, but I think fantasy is the kind of genre where if you don't use archetypes, you're in trouble.

keestone From: keestone Date: November 7th, 2005 09:24 pm (UTC) (Link)

I've been working through Buffy on DVD lately, and I actually just watched The Body on DVD last night. One of the things that struck me most about the writing of the episode was the transformation of the use of what we might generally see as humorous quirks in the episode. Anya is a good example of the technique used to handle each individual character's reactions to death. Anya's the character who most consistently makes me burst into laughter with her complete and vocal lack of hypocrisy, yet it's that exact literal vocalisation of her questions that is so painful in The Body.

I don't think Buffy ever shied away from the "We're dealing with Real Issues" idea to begin with. Aside from the whole "High School is Hell" metaphor of Sunnydale High being on the Hellmouth, the earlier seasons of Buffy dealt with 'serious' issues like teenage suicide / High School shootings, death of someone close to the main character, broken families, runaways etc. at a realistic level as well as dealing with knotty issues at a fantastic metaphorical level.

As far as characters losing their sense of humor goes. . . it seems like a lot of the time, fans don't like it when a character changes. But if a character doesn't change, it stagnates. One of the great things about Buffy is that it's not just Monster of the week, the characters learn and grow throughout the seasons. So far, the sense of humor doesn't disappear, it moves to different characters. One thing I've been noticing lately is how Xander has become more of a serious character as the series goes on. Yet just as he becomes more of a "grownup," he starts interacting with Anya, who has all the subtlety of a three year old.

I've only seen a few episodes of seasons six and seven of Buffy, but in the Sunnydale setting, there's only so much room for Spike's "Bugger off and see if I care" humour. It's great when its there, but if it stayed that way unchangingly, there wouldn't be any room for growth. When Spike moves to Angel, the rivalry hasn't been dealt with, so you get the hilarious Spike and Angel dynamics in all their glory.

I do agree with you on the danger of a story taking itself too seriously though. One of the reasons I love SF in general is that, to me, it seems much less likely to take itself too seriously than "Realistic" fiction. It can deal with serious themes without getting so wrapped up in the serious import of the message it must carry because of the metaphorical distancing.

parallactic From: parallactic Date: November 7th, 2005 09:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
You've pinpointed something that I noticed about later BtVS seasons, but couldn't quite pinpoint. I experienced it as a shift in dialogue, but when I went back to look at earlier seasons, the syntax and linguistic playfulness were still there. There were times in the later seasons where the show poked fun at itself, and made meta jokes, but it wasn't quite the same. The earlier dark humor rested on shifts of context, liking showing a situation on its epic scale and shifting it to something trivial. Kind of like, "OMG, the world's going to end! ...if the world ends, does that mean I don't have to study for the test?"

Buffy, in its early seasons, was very good at using humor not to cut the horror and seriousness, but actually to augment it. It's not an easy trick.

Yes, exactly. That was BtVS' greatest strengths, and something I loved the show for, and I strive to reproduce it, in a watered down pale imitation.

I think fantasy tends towards the turgid because it wants to deal with the epic, good vs. evil, humanity, worlds imperiled and the fate of nations, and all that stuff. And humor brings things down to a smaller scale.
disturbed_kiwi From: disturbed_kiwi Date: November 8th, 2005 10:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

Icon, Icon!!

Do you know the answer?
narnian_dreamer From: narnian_dreamer Date: November 7th, 2005 10:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I thought a lot about Harry Potter when it first got really popular wondering, though I love the books, why these have achieved general popularity and become such a phenomenon and not the other fantasy books I was reading at the time, and the only thing I could come up with was Rowling's sense of humor. I've read others that have the likeable characters, the sense of adventure, the pacing, the mystery, the goood vs evil plot, and even the accessible yet sophisticated writing style, but I haven't found another book that uses humor quite the way she does. It tends to be more satirical or tongue-in-cheek in fantasy, while I've found hers more absurd and fun.

It's just my own opinion, though.

On a more related note, I've noticed the opposite with some other series I've liked: as they go on, they tend to loose character and plot development and focus more on the humor. Charmed is a case and point. I loved it in the beginning, but eventually it seemed to become just a vehichle for wacky screw-ups and situations with spells and excuses to get the heroines into more and more revealing clothes. At the same time, paradoxically, the plot-lines got more and more complicated and weird stuff about the "Source of All Evil" started.

It was very strange.
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: November 7th, 2005 10:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree about what happened to Buffy - yet at the same time, I loved the fact that the later seasons still had hysterically funny moments in between the seriousness. Even Seeing Red had a few jokes. In the seventh season there was some brilliant humour - the episode with the jacket (which was in many ways a return to the earlier seasons), the chip/soul/trigger conversation with Principal Wood ("So the military gave him a soul?") or Angel and Faith's reactions to Spike's change of sides. Admittedly the show could have done with a lot more humour. But it definitely wasn't lost altogether.

(Probably one of the reasons behind Spike's loss of humour is that he became a protagonist far more than a supporting character - his plotline got almost as much time as Buffy's - and protagonists don't get to be funny as often.)
duncatra From: duncatra Date: November 8th, 2005 12:48 am (UTC) (Link)
I thought the last seasons of Buffy and Angel handled the balance pretty well, by throwing on one mostly-funny episode in the last set. With Buffy, it was Storyteller (and Andrew in general) that helped cut the seriousness; Angel did it even better, with so much of the interaction between Spike and Angel being pure hilarity, coming to a head with the episode where they go to Italy to look for Buffy. I really hated S5 of Buffy, and was rather 'meh' about Angel pre-Spike, but I enjoyed those last seasons quite a bit.
story645 From: story645 Date: November 8th, 2005 01:14 am (UTC) (Link)
*word* I'm a humor fan first and foremost, so not having it in books or tv shows drives me bats. (Also probably explains why "Horse and His Boy", although the least substantial Narnia book in terms of overall plot or theme, remains my fave.)
Oh, and the JK front, I totally love the woman for putting so much humor and well fluff cause well, I don't want the war to be the focus cause it kind of isn't. (Sorry for the rant, was sort of debating with someone who seems to be annoyed that HBP wasn't one giant ansgty war-fic.)
barbara_the_w From: barbara_the_w Date: November 8th, 2005 01:40 am (UTC) (Link)
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: November 8th, 2005 03:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Humor is almost more important in fantasy: it turns what could be a hard slog through Issues into a roaring ride. Unfortunately we miss a lot of the jokes in old epics, so we don't often realize that.

I thought immediately of Legolas and Gimli counting heads (literally) at the Battle of Helm's Deep. It's like, dude, we're gonna die, might as well have fun with this. Lewis could be flat-out silly, as you mentioned. It gives real life to the characters when they can recognize the absurd in life, when they can sit back and say, "Boy, that was crazy!"

It's one thing I love about Stargate. The show deals with just about every issue Star Trek ever took on--and a few more--but without the sticks up their butts. There's silly jokes and running gags through the whole series, and for some reason it makes the show mean more.

Anyway, the humor's only natural when you can step into the fantasy world a moment and really feel how it would be for the characters.
ladylavinia From: ladylavinia Date: November 8th, 2005 04:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
All of it had to do with Spike losing his sense of humor... and quite frankly, that is the problem with the later BtVS episodes (and quite a few of the later AtS episodes). Which got me thinking about fantasy in general, and its tendency toward the turgid.

I never thought that BtVS had lost its sense of humor during the later years. Episodes like "Help", "First Date", "Tabula Rasa" and "Life Serial" made that perfectly clear. Buffy's situation and her life simply became more complex as she grew older. And that seems to be the crux of the problem with many of the show's fans. I think they wanted Buffy and her relationship with the others to remain as it had been during the early years. They wanted Buffy to maintain her somewhat adolescent relationship with Angel. And they wanted the Scoobies to remain together . . . always. What they didn't realize or want to face was that Buffy and the others were bound to change, as time went by.

I recall that Joss Whedon had announced that Season 7 would be a return to the old days or the early years. And after dealing with the numerous tragedies in Buffy's life, her death and resurrection, Willow and Xander's personal problems, everyone was looking forward to a return to the "good ole days". What Whedon actually did was create situations that were similar to what they had experienced in the past. Season 7's "Him" was almost a re-creation of Season 2's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered". But what this did was reflect on how much the Scoobies had changed over the years. And how much they had stayed the same.

In the end, Season 7 did not turn out to be a return to the "glory days" (if you can call it that; I wouldn't). Buffy grew even more apart from the Scoobies. She grew closer to Spike and she became an authority figure. What Season 7 proved was that you cannot recapture the past. Nothing stays the same. Even the Slayer line changed in a way that disturbed a lot of people. I guess it's okay if a bunch of demons or vampires roamed the earth. But God help us if a bunch of supernaturally empowered young females did. Joss Whedon told us in Season 7 that you cannot return to the past. Nor can life remain stagnated for all eternity. And that was a lesson that many Buffyverse apparently had failed to learn.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: November 8th, 2005 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
The problem wasn't that it was complex--it really wasn't, particularly--it was that they moved from metaphor to actual, and once that's done, the flavor of the show changes. It also tends to the banal--forget the end of the world, let's have a date rape plot! It'll be just like 90210! Basically, it took the Bangel--which to me was the least compelling part of the high school years--and made that the tone of everything in the show.

Now, I like redeemed Spike and am a fairly big Spuffy shipper, and the snide comments about the ship at TWoP were driving me pretty crazy after awhile (much the same way SW fans' griping about Anakin not having been born all cool and evil drive me bonkers). I think Spike had a pretty clear and compelling arc. What happened isn't the problem. There just came a point where the show became very heavy on the personal issues side. I'd point out that the TWoP attitude is part of the problem--they're constantly harping on how Spike's a murderer, etc, etc, and therefore shouldn't be redeemed and needs to be constantly punished and should never be happy and so on. But murder in a show like this is a metaphorical crime that demonstrates the loss of a character's soul (and a vamping is a metaphor for rape, which is why the introduction of real rape was jarring and out of place--it already had a strong metaphorical presence on the show), and therefore the redemption of the murderers isn't about being nice and sweet to real murderers, it's about the possibility that someone who has lost himself can find himself again. Taking things literally is what leads to the very humorlessness they were complaining about... it also leads to things like actual Very Special Episodes of Buffy.

Then there's the question of humor itself in the later seasons. You get things like "Him," which strike wrong notes with the tone of the season because it's very far outside of what's going on elsewhere. As you said, it's "to show that you can't... " etc, etc. Which means it's humor meant to scold and slap people for daring to question their plot arcs... which is humorless and very annoying. A better and funnier moment was the cookie dough speech, which a lot of detractors don't seem to realize was funny. It took one of the odd things that did work in the Bangel ship--the occasional self-awareness of how bizarrely they're talking--and moved it into a general character trait. Buffy's doing this weird metaphorical nonsense and then says, "Whoa, wait..." That's actually pretty sharp meta on their own writing style. "Storyteller" had some great moments, but of course in the end it had to be about Andrew getting all literal. Some of the scenes with Buffy as a counsellor were terrific, and the scene of Wood trying to get a handle on the chipping and ensouling and triggering was priceless. There just wasn't enough of it.

And I adored the musical in season six, and Tabula Rasa. I even liked the asylum one ("Normal Again"?) because it went explicitly into a problem in the show--that it was getting very close to realism, and that particular episode managed to pull it up and remind us of the difference for awhile.
disturbed_kiwi From: disturbed_kiwi Date: November 9th, 2005 12:51 am (UTC) (Link)
This is why the Princess Bride is one of the best Fantasy movies out.
kattahj From: kattahj Date: November 9th, 2005 08:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I remember in a fantasy discussion a couple of years ago, I mentioned that while I enjoyed Katherine Kerr (which I did until the series lasted too long) I found her rather humourless. The other people in the discussion countered that she was a Serious Writer.

But she really, really wasn't. I claimed that Terry Pratchett was more serious than she was - he was just funny at the same time. Diana Wynne Jones is so witty that it takes a moment to stop and realize just the gravity of what's going on somethings.

I also recently watched the interviews on the season 1 DVD of West Wing, where Sorkin pointed out that the show had to be funny - if it wasn't, it'd be absolutely intolerable in its Search For Good themes.

I absolutely agree with you that losing the metaphor was a mistake where BtVS was concerned. I hadn't previously connected it to the loss of humour, but you're absolutely right - in the later seasons, the humour is much more disconnected to the show, having specific eps set to "humour eps" while the rest are by and large serious to the extreme.

And for what? So that they could have a brain tumour storyline at roughly the same time as Ally McBeal? (As good as The Body was, it made me want to say "Go stand in the corner until you come up with something that's no being run on every other show, kthxbai.") So they could take all the storylines they'd used with light metaphors and do them in heavy-handed metaphor or turgid realism? It's not as if the end result was a Bergman movie. (Besides, many Bergman movies are pretty funny in places.)

Sorry to rant. I guess what I really want to say is "word".
ladylavinia From: ladylavinia Date: November 14th, 2005 07:59 pm (UTC) (Link)

I absolutely agree with you that losing the metaphor was a mistake where BtVS was concerned. I hadn't previously connected it to the loss of humour, but you're absolutely right - in the later seasons, the humour is much more disconnected to the show, having specific eps set to "humour eps" while the rest are by and large serious to the extreme.

What makes you think that BUFFY had lost its metaphor? The humor was the same to me throughout the series' run. I can recall Seasons 2 and 3 being very depressing at certain points - Angel losing his soul, Jenny Calendar's death, Buffy's post-Season 2 depression, and dealing with Faith. It was no lighter than the later years.
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