Quality and substance in storytelling tend to succumb to the weight of their own seriousness, leaving behind the lighter fare and less morbid cousins of popular culture in order to continue on in their overly serious need to prove that they do indeed have something worthwhile to say. Where the seemingly sillier stories are assumed to reside in that other, more popular world, usually occupied by soap operas and other shallow vessels of mindless fun, there are exceptions that prove the rule. Joss Whedon is one of those exceptions. Pain, sacrifice, and the overwhelming need constantly to grow and change in a way that actually makes us care, are qualities necessarily of neither style, but which when aligned in the focus of Joss Whedon, are made to converge into a glorious melding of allegory, emotion, and maybe even, guilty pleasure.
Regardless of the dynamics of any particular group of characters in a Joss Whedon story, the freedom afforded both the characters and the fictional world to draw upon whatever inspiration makes sense for that character or that moment, and the corresponding ripple effect it might bring to the rest of the story, is a deeply woven ingredient in all the works of Joss Whedon, amounting to a deep and scathing disregard for the status quo. This quality has become one of the most identifiable marks of a Joss story, and has made his fictional worlds seem as fully destructible as the one we live in, with nothing and no one immune from change, or able to escape fully the orbital pull of those around them. His stories exist within a construct that borrows heavily from real life in the sense that, there is a consequence to every action, which requires a constant cycle of consequence and change for people, places, and even, in some cases, objects. This is a theme which remains consistent throughout his works, not only elevating his stories beyond the surface pop-culture reference point of which they are so much a part but also serving to help keep his stories grounded in a reality that reacts and responds very much like the one we experience every day, as sometimes painful and heart-wrenching as it is. Partly because of this, the fantastical worlds of vampires, demons, mind-wiping tech, and post-civil war space adventurers, can become as real, compelling, and believable, as the world we live in today.
For the simple reason that he had more time to fully develop his characters and the world they lived in, due to the seven seasons it was on (eight if you include its continuation as a comic), this culture of change is perhaps most recognizable in the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Buffy progressed from the ordinary teenage high school student that she started as (her first words to her Watcher after sucking on her lollipop were a clueless, “Huh?”), to a Vampire Slayer who had no equal (“Apocalypse? We’ve all been there/The same old trips/Why should we care?”), she watched her world become increasingly dangerous while fighting, among other things, personal as well as real demons, transforming herself into almost a completely different person in response to this. Buffy changed, her friends changed, and the world around her changed, and the effect was seen in a slow progression over each season in how she dealt with her enemies and her friends. By the end of the series, almost nothing was as it had been when the show had started.
This use of consequence and change has continued from Buffy through every other story Joss has told, most recently in the television series Dollhouse, but also in the web video, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. In many ways, this stands in direct contrast to the typical Star Trek-type “he’s wearing a red shirt, he must be going to die” style of storytelling, which may move the plot along and keep the main characters intact to live another episode, but which does nothing for discriminating viewers who know that that’s just not how the world works.
In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, for example, Dr. Horrible, who desires to ascend to the Evil League of Evil, inadvertently kills the woman he believes he loves while trying to kill his nemesis Captain Hammer, getting everything he wants as this “assassination” indeed gives him passage into the elite league as Bad Horse required of him for it. But it also deadened his emotions at the same time when he announces in the final scene of the video, that he doesn’t “feel a thing” with Penny now gone. The death of Penny has a real, lasting effect on Dr. Horrible, one that fundamentally changes who he is, which will have to be dealt with in the sequel. In typical Joss fashion, the end result of the story is that the characters change (Dr. Horrible loses himself, Captain Hammer goes into therapy after the death gun deals him real pain for the first time, and Penny dies). There are consequences to every action in the story which demand permanent changes in the characters themselves, and almost no character remains the same by the time it ends.
It is this permanency which has helped make Joss’s stories almost infinitely rewatchable. We feel what the characters are feeling each time through, gaining a deeper understanding of their motivations, and why they react as they do. When something changes in a Joss Whedon story, it usually changes for good with no turning back; there is no magical “reset” button which brings the world or characters back to where they stood before the episode started (except for one unusual case which will be discussed). There is no easy escape; the only way out is to continue forward, painful step by painful step. What the characters become as they forge ahead, is a direct response to what it is they are going through, or have gone through. The consequences are displayed in the personality and actions of every character, in every way, requiring them and those around them to change along with it. In different hands, Dr. Horrible may have gone into the League the same as he was before Penny was killed after a swift reconciling of emotions, her death being nothing more than an excuse to get him into the League. In Joss’s hands, it becomes the focal point of the story, and the jumping off point for the sequel.
Penny, in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, makes a journey of her own, which is almost completely overshadowed by her death at the end. When she first begins to date Captain Hammer after believing that he saved her life from the runaway van, she is oblivious to his flaws, even wondering in song if she had finally found her man (“have I finally found the bay”), blinded by her infatuation. In the scene where she dies and Captain Hammer makes his speech for the dedication of his statue, she begins to realize that he is not the man she thought he was, and in fact is the very antithesis of what she believes in. This dismay is displayed on her face as she sinks to the floor in a corner of the room in shame as Captain Hammer continues embarrassing her with his speech (“Me and Penny, we totally had sex”), finally realizing what should have been obvious to her all along. The fact that she died removed the need for her to come to grips with this misjudgment, but it did nothing to lessen the impact it had on the other characters, or the story arc.
In Dollhouse, even though the characters underwent their own transformations—especially Echo, who began as a typical Doll, although one with a secret, and ended as the key participant in the attempt to destroy the Rossum corporation and its mind-wiping tech—the character which saw the greatest change was probably the world itself. When the series began, the world was very much like the one we live in now; by the time the series ended, it had become a post-apocalyptic nightmare, having endured the result of the Rossum Corporation’s remote mind-wiping of most inhabitants. By turning the entire world into a place where most people had gone mad without knowing how or why, Joss moved the scale of change from the town of Sunnydale in Buffy, which was turned into a crater as the Hellmouth collapsed in the final episode of the series, to the entire world in Dollhouse. It’s a big jump, but the premise remains the same; we can’t outrun our past or our actions, and sooner or later, we’ll need to face both in order to move forward. For Topher, the only way to move forward was to attempt to absolve himself of his self-prescribed sins (“I did all of this. I’m the one who brings about the thought-pocalypse”), by creating a device that could reverse the effect of his remote mind-wipe tech. In the end he did, and the smile on his face as it went off was a sign that he had in some way perhaps finally made peace with himself for what he believed he had done.
Exceptions to this rule of permanency seemingly can be found in Joss’s work, but they are rare, and upon further examination do not actually violate the rule. Spike, for example, dies in the last episode of Buffy, and is resurrected by an amulet in Angel. While it’s true that Spike does die, and does come back to life, nothing changes as a result of this. He is still Spike, and he has not escaped any of the history that has brought him to that point in the story.
Topher Brink’s use of a last-minute deus ex machina device, undoing much of the mind-wipe tech with a single explosion that had been so much of the focus of the series, would seem to be a giant exception to the rule as well. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Although the mind-wipe tech had been reversed and a possible cure found, the damage had been done, and even though humanity had found a way out of the mess that had been created thanks in part to Topher, the characters, and the world, would still need to deal with the damage that had been inflicted as a result of it. Joss’s method of providing no easy way out remained intact, along with a surprisingly optimistic ending to arguably his biggest scale change to date.
Is there an advantage to this style of storytelling, given the presumably more difficult task of keeping track of so many moving targets? The fact that Joss’s fans have reacted so strongly to his works shows that there is “something” to this style of storytelling that they connect with, but it doesn’t answer the question of substance. It is much easier to write episodic, standalone stories that advance an overall story arc but leave the central characters more or less the same as when it started, so that viewers can, in effect, have their cake and eat it too. This is a style Joss has consistently avoided. Popular television shows have seemingly for the most part taken the Star Trek approach referenced earlier, advancing plotlines without requiring substantial changes in the characters. This asks much less from viewers, guarantees a consistent entertainment experience, and also guarantees that, in the end, nothing really changes in the shows. Joss’s fans have come to expect a much more involving experience from his stories, one where consequence and change are the guideposts for everything else in the story.
Beginning with Buffy and continuing to his latest projects, Joss has chosen to center his stories with the motivations of his characters rather than simply have them react to external forces. In a typical spy show, for example, the real star is the plot; characters are simply trying to make their way through the story to come out alive on the other side, the story having little if any effect on them when they continue on to the sequel. In a Joss story, despite highly detailed plotting, the journey of the characters IS the star. It is the added element of permanency that makes us care so deeply, and what moves the story beyond the pop-culture world in which it resides.
The bubblegum setting of superheroes in which Dr. Horrible is set is a clever artifice that allows viewers to quickly relate to the premise of the story, before taking them on an emotional journey they probably didn’t see coming, or even believe existed, until reaching the end. Understanding the deeper meanings of this journey is a typical consequence of a Joss story, and it’s this quality of consequence and change that provides the foundation for the more fantastic elements in his stories. More than that, it has allowed him to carve out a unique place in the entertainment world, one that has made him a fixture in the minds of those looking for substance without having to forsake the easy immediacy found in the pop-culture world where his stories usually reside.
Joss Whedon does in fact have something serious to say, serious enough that his stories can be picked apart and debated like any good work of fiction. Through the use of consequence and change, he has fashioned a style of storytelling that manages to strike that elusive chord within us where things that matter find a way to resonate in the same way they do in our own lives. Things like character, story, and most importantly, the common thread of allowing the consequences of actions and events to change substantively his stories and characters. This is a theme that has given his works a foundation that is rare in any medium, and also runs counter to the less honest and adventurous styles. It’s a theme that, more than any other, has come to define what a Joss Whedon story is really all about, even more than his ability with characterization, plotting, or big ideas. And the consequence of this is that he has produced a legacy of works which have impacted pop-culture far more than it would seem they should. A super-hero based webisode, with over-the-top characters and an impossible plot? A pop-culture phenomenon for sure, Dr. Horrible is still being talked about not simply for the fact that it blazed a new trail in the online world, but for the emotional impact of the story itself. This focus on story has contributed to the fact that to millions of fans, his stories actually matter. It’s among the highest praise available to any writer, pop culture, or culture.