Joss Whedon is the man behind such television phenomenon as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and, more recently, the Dollhouse.
I haven't seen the Dollhouse, so for all I know Mr. Whedon has lost his touch. But I just got done watching the commentary for Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Weblog on DVD (It's ten bucks, people. A trip to Starbucks costs more than that.) so I'll assume he hasn't.
I will admit, however, that Buffy the Vampire Slayer never grabbed me. I've seen a few episodes here and there, and while the charms of Ms. Gellar are not completely wasted upon me (though I do wish she'd eat something, for goodness sake) I wasn't able to get into it. This is not a knock on the show-- I can most assuredly respect anyone so praised for his dialog that goes ahead and makes an episode where absolutely nobody talks. And anyway, Buffy has been lavished with praise enough to make anything I'd add even if I were a fan redundant.
No, what I'd like to talk about is Whedon.
The man is certainly passionate about what he does, or at the very least he does an excellent job conveying passion in interviews and making-of documentaries. But what is the root of his appeal? It's certainly not universal, but among geeks Whedon is a king. Why is that?
The obvious answer is his dialogue. Whedon is frequently praised for writing "real' characters. His dialogue rings true to his fanbase. The problem with that explanation is that Whedon's dialogue is not realistic. Not even a little.
Consider this excerpt from Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, hereafter referred to simply as Dr. Horrible because I'm too lazy to type in the rest of the title:
Penny: Unexpected. He’s a really good looking guy, and I thought he was kinda cheesy at first...
Billy: Trust your instincts.
Penny: But, he turned out to be totally sweet. Sometimes people are layered like that. there’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.
Billy: And sometimes there’s a third, even deeper level and that one is the same as the top surface one.
Billy: Like with pie…
Or this exerpt from Firely:
Kaylee: I'd sure love to find a brand new
compression coil for the steamer.
Mal: And I'd like to be king of all
Londinum and wear a shiny hat. Just
get us some passengers. Them as can
pay, all right?
Kaylee: Compression coil busts, we're
Mal: Best not bust it, then.
People don't talk like this. Not even in fantasy worlds where cattle rustlers fly spaceships, or nerds build freeze rays in their basements to impress quiet redheads at the laundromat.
I submit that Joss Whedon does not right realistic dialogue. So why does he get praised for doing so? The reason is that, while he doesn't write things people would actually say, he writes what people wish they actually said.
Whedon's writing is too sharp, and that's the appeal. He appeals to geeks, and as geeks we like to feel clever. But, as geeks, we tend to trip over our own tongues more often than not. If I had a nickle for every time I thought of a biting retort to a disparaging comment while laying in bed hours later, I would be the king of all Londonium and wear a shiny hat.
Whedon fulfills that fantasy for us. He puts the biting retort in the character's mouth right there in the heat of the moment, sometimes even a little before and one character will interrupt another character with something snarky or clever or both.
People think they want to be like Mal or Jayne. Actually, they want to be like Wash.
That's why some people love him and some people hate him. If you're not a person who was ever at a loss for words, or if you're satisfied with how characters on other shows or movies handle the situations the writers present, you're not going to get the appeal. But if you've ever wished you'd thought of saying something, or if you'd wished you had the guts to say something you did think of, then Whedon's characters are going to ring true to you.
Another thing Whedon's got going for him the the uncanny ability to write nuanced archetypes. A nuanced archetype is like one of those people who don't get enough air. Yet Whedon writes them. I'm not entirely sure how.
Take Jayne, for example. Jayne is probably the least complicated character on Firefly. He's big, strong, not overly bright but cunning. He's a bit too confident in be abilities of his guns to get him out of trouble that his mouth causes, but there's good reason there. He is, first and foremost, a mercenary, but he's loyal to people he respects. In the hands of a different writer, Jayne would be a cardboard cutout. Just a big, muscular brute O-D'ing on testosterone and cordite.
But he's not. He's sentimental, just about different things-- Vera, for example.
He's less complex than Mal, but he's not all that different from him. He's Ajax to Mal's Achilles (Yep, I went to the Iliad and compared Whedon to Homer), which is to say he has all of Mal's core qualities, just boiled down a bit more. Mal is more subtle than Jayne, and more rational. He's also more dangerous to have as an enemy, though you wouldn't necessarily get that from your first meeting. That's why Mal is the captain, and Jayne is the muscle-- even if Jayne doesn't necessarily understand why.
Another thing that makes Whedon’s work so watchable (and rewatchable) is the themes he hits on. The most frequent theme is the person who wants something that he can’t have. Buffy wants to be done with vampire hunting. Dr. Horrible wants Penny. Malcolm Reynolds wants to be left alone. The stories revolving around those characters show them striving toward that goal, and usually failing.
The failure wouldn’t be interesting except for the reason behind it. Whedon, as I mentioned, deals in archetypes. The thing about archetypes is that they can’t change, and the only thing that would help the hero get what he (or she) wants is to change who they are. Buffy can’t walk away from vampire slaying, because she is the vampire slayer. Even if she could turn her back on it, it would just come back and bite her from behind (Yeah, bad pun. No, not sorry). Mal will never be left alone, because he’s too honorable; he won’t walk away from situations that he could wash his hands of, because walking away would be wrong, so he ends up hopelessly outclassed in a sword fight to preserve the honor of a woman he makes a point of calling a whore. Dr. Horrible can’t have Penny, because he is the villain, and villains don’t get the girl.
Whedon’s heroes don’t get what they want because they’re too busy getting what they need. That’s something I think everyone can identify with.