Joss Is Just Not Popular Enough

Posted Wednesday, October 20, 2010, 6:00 PM

I have never been a big a fan of Joss Whedon's work. He created and masterminded such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spinoff Angel, the SF Western Firefly and its movie sequel Serenity, and most recently the hard-to-define Dollhouse, while dipping his finger into a few other pies here and there throughout.

I have tried to watch and enjoy Buffy, but it just didn't work for me. So much of it seems tailor made for my demographic: It's a fantasy adventure show, with great characters, witty dialogue, complex story arcs, all well acted; and yet whenever I tried to get into it, I'd get bored halfway through an episode. Many of my friends absolutely adore it, so I tried multiple times to give it another chance, but I just couldn't sustain any interest in it. I didn't even try with the spinoff, Angel. I don't even know what the plot of that is.

The science fiction show he made next I had better luck with, I found Firefly to be much more my cup of tea. Similarly, it had adventure, complex story arcs, witty banter, and brilliant acting, but even then, I just didn't find it compelling; I have only watched the series once. I know I would have kept watching if it had been picked up for more than 13 episodes, but it wouldn't have ever been in my top ten must watch list.

Dollhouse just left a bad taste in my mouth. A company wiped the personalities of people, and replaced them with manufactured ones, made to order for whatever they were hired to be. Be they prostitutes, assassins, or something in between, they were kept dormant and placid until they were implanted with whatever talent, skill, or personality the client requested. Presumably the plots started to explore the immorality of this, and it began to unravel, but I gave up on it before it reached that point. I may give it another chance some day, but I found it so unlikeable and distasteful I'm not going to seek it out.

Here's the problem. Almost all of the above shows have not had good ratings. Buffy is the exception, the rest skated on thin ice and died before the real meat of the series kicked in. Some blame the network, Fox, for this, as it seems to operate like it has no faith in Joss's work. For a while I accepted that analysis, because the evidence seemed to suggest that.

But here's the thing, I think Fox were right to have no faith in Joss Whedon's work; I don't think he knows quite what he's doing. Yes, he has an excellent grasp of plotting and character and dialogue, but he doesn't understand what appeals to a wider audience; he can't formulate a concept that will appeal to the demographics a Network needs to sustain a show.

What made Buffy a success with the geeks that obsess over anything Whedon-esque wasn't what made it the ratings winner that kept it going over seven seasons. It certainly made it an entertaining show to follow, but it wasn't enough to grab a wider audience. What Buffy had going for it was the teen Soap factor. It had a lot of pretty teens battling relationship drama, all set in a High School. That is a very tangible concept to sell to a wide audience. People know what they're getting, and it's just what they want. The vampire and demon hunting is just the mcguffin, that a lot of people can overlook to get to the meat of the issues. But the fanboys don't care about the good looking teen stuff, they like the monster hunting and the witty banter.

Take away the wide audience appeal of a teen soap, and you get Angel, a broody demon saga. In theory it should've worked again, as a good drama often grabs an adult audience, but in this case the teens who liked Buffy didn't like Angel, and adults who like drama don't like fantasy demons and vampires. They didn't follow. Only the fanboys remained.

Science Fiction adventure in the vein of Star Trek is even harder to find new audiences for. You tend to get a small hardcore fanbase for that, which is disappointing as the shows tend to be expensive to produce so require a decent audience to justify the costs involved. Firefly just doesn't have enough going for it to draw in the wider audience, not even the Trek fans. For whatever reason, and I think it's in the cynicism in some of the characters' attitudes, they didn't come flocking to Firefly. Once again, only the Whedon fanboys remained (they have now started calling themselves Browncoats; this really annoys me, for some reason).

Dollhouse was a failure of an idea from the start. And to be fair, Fox did re-jigger a lot of the early episodes into something the show wasn't supposed to be, which didn't become clear until later in the series when Joss started to get his way more often (or so I have gleaned from reviews and articles). But nevertheless there was no wide audience appeal for its style. It just didn't have what it takes to get the eyes trained on the screen.

Joss Whedon may be great at dialogue, character, and story arcs, but he sucks at understanding the audience he needs to be a true success in the Industry. He is a huge nerd, his fan base are huge (HUGE) nerds, and that's fine in and of itself, but if he wants to get anywhere he has to make a show that has 70% non-nerd-appeal.

I'm not holding my breath.