So, I am continuing to work my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, watching all the episodes in order, as I have been doing for quite some time. I am now about a third of the way through season 6. I’m getting there.
There are many reasons why I love Buffy. (This is a topic that I will not exhaust anytime soon). A lot of it, of course, has to do with the particulars of the characters, the changes they go through, their relationships, their transformations and growth. (By season 6, the teen angst of the first two years has been left behind, for other — equally heart-wrenching — difficulties). But rather than writing a dissertation on Willow, or Giles, or Spike (let alone Buffy herself), I want to work through something about the generic aspects of the show.
Buffy works for me largely because it’s melodrama: you know, like Douglas Sirk, or daytime TV soaps. Melodrama is a machine for producing and amplifying affect. It gets its “truth” by abandoning naturalism and verisimilitude in favor of a certain kind of artifice, in which emotions are frozen and held static, and magnified and intensified through a kind of collapsing of time and place. “Melodramatic” often means “exaggerated”: and melodramas get their power by exaggerating the fluctuations of feeling, by stretching everything out into a roller-coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, and especially by theatricalizing emotion, so that all the situations and relationships the characters are trapped in seem operatic, or — to give a more postmodern turn to it — are ostentatiously placed “in quotation marks.” This artifice is a sort of distancing, which is what often makes melodrama ridiculous; but at the same time, the melodramatic focus can be intense and devastating, in the way a more naturalistic treatment could never be. At the movies or on TV, I only cry when emotions and situations are placed “in quotation marks”; if they are presented naturalistically, I remain completely unmoved. (Think of the climactic scene in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at the Club Silencio, when Betty and Rita are utterly moved to tears by the ostentatious fakery of Rebekah Del Rio’s lip-synching of her own over-the-top Spanish-language rendition of a Roy Orbison song).
Melodrama is not quite “psychological” in the way we usually understand this word. It’s at the opposite extreme from modernist or Freudian “depth psychology.” Psychology in melodrama is literally without depth, because the psyche and all its affects are externalized. Todd Haynes, commenting on Sirk’s melodramas, said that the characters are “pre-psychological.” But I’m not convinced they are any more “pre-” than “post-”. The characters in melodrama don’t have “inner lives,” because everything they feel is acted out, made overemphatic or “melodramatic”, and “sublimated into gesture, decor, color and music” (here I am inaccurately quoting Thomas Elsaesser, who has written the best account of 1950s Hollywood melodrama). Instead of cognition, we get passion: in the literal sense that the characters suffer what they do not understand. And instead of repression and symptom-formation we get expression and objectification, often in the form of character doublings, or episodes of hypnotic influence and of possession (Personality-changing possession, or occult influence, is of course a continual theme in Buffy; and there are lots of character doublings as well, literally in the episode when Xander gets split in half, more metaphorically in rivalrous pairings like that of Buffy vs. Faith, who actually exchange bodies in one episode).
It’s precisely because melodrama is not “psychological,” not oriented towards interiority, that it so often functions as social critique. Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, as is well known, work through the gaps between what women want (or emotionally need) and what they are actually able to get; as well as the gaps between the American promise of happiness, and the dissatisfying emptiness of material wealth or commodities. More generally, and still in social situations that differ as much as middle-class American life today differs from middle-class American life in the 1950s, melodrama is always about desire as unfulfillment (or what the Lacanians call “lack”): for even if it is a general psychological truth that desire always exceeds its objects, so that it is intrinsically unfulfilled, still the hole of this unfulfillment is always filled by the social, or (better) is where the social can be located within the psyche. Because melodrama exteriorizes everything, it is always social and political, often more so than other genres that have political themes as their more explicit subjects.
There is melodrama in books and plays and of course in the movies; but melodrama really finds its home on television. The intimacy of the small screen, and the serial structure of televisual narrative, are ideal conditions for melodrama. In daytime soaps, but also in weekly evening shows with a melodramatic tinge, character is iconic, conveyed by definite, recognizable gestures; devastating plot turns are frequent, multiple plot strands can be carried through at once, and narrative closure is almost never really attained (since there always has to be something to justify another episode). One might even argue that the continual transformations of melodrama, and the continual repetitions of the same configuration in sitcoms, are the two most basic televisual forms. In TV melodrama, there’s leisure for repetition and amplification, as well as for the characters’ gradual growth on the one hand, and sudden transformations on the other. A TV series also allows for multiple allusions (e.g. to other TV narratives and genres, and more general features of popular culture) as well as self-referential turns self-parody, and so on. Dramatic television series these days tend to alternate between self-contained episodes and ones that advance the overall “plot arc,” to include topical episodes now and then (like a Christmas episode — or in Buffy, a yearly Halloween episode), and occasionally to involve crossovers with other, related shows (especially with spinoffs: in the case of Buffy, this of course means Angel). One should also mention the ways in which TV series allow for a particularly intense sort of contact with the shows’ fans, who argue online in astonishingly minute detail about the pros and cons of every episode, as well as writing fan fiction and otherwise offering alternative directions in which the show and the characters might have proceeded, but did not. (This has to do with how television remains, as McLuhan said it was, a “cool” medium, one which therefore solicits its audience to project themselves into it, and participate in it in depth: the artifice and artificiality of melodrama are strongly consonant with the artifice and artificiality of the televisual medium itself).
Buffy, of course, is something of a closeted melodrama. Its official genre, I suppose, is horror, or more precisely the supernatural thriller. And we expect that every episode will contain at least one good fight scene, where Buffy kicks ass. And that there will be some comedy to leaven the prospect of apocalypse, or Buffy’s pain at always having to do what she does. Nonetheless, melodrama is never far from the surface. Buffy’s relationship with Angel in season 2, and the death of her mother in season 5, are perhaps the two most obvious examples of melodramatic plot lines. But melodrama is everywhere in the show: it’s all about impossible situations, unfulfillable desires, and people confronting passions that they didn’t know they had, or that feel to them as if they were coming from elsewhere. Relationships frayed, and yet inescapable. The supernatural elements of the show — the vampires, the demons, the multiple Hell realms outside our own, and always threatening to break in — these are all othernesses that yet seem all too close to us, intimately close, closer perhaps than what we take for granted in the everyday. In the course of the seven years of Buffy, vampires become everyday. And if horror as a genre is about our intimate contact with radical otherness, then melodrama is precisely its obverse, the genre that projects everything intimate into the outside, into otherness. Horror, and supernatural excess, become mundane, even as the mundane is the realm where the most unbearable things continually happen. And Buffy is all about this identity-by-inversion; indeed, it’s only through Buffy that I have come to understand it. This inversion is what grounds all the great, heart-wrenching moments of the show: Buffy’s having to kill Angel precisely at the moment when, after so much suffering, she has gotten him back; Buffy having to sacrifice herself to save Dawn; the tenderness of Faith’s daughter/father relationship with the Mayor, even as this relation has drawn her into the utmost abjection; Spike’s pained lust and crippling inhibition beneath his punk sneer; Willow’s moments of desperation and grim determination and rage…. The list could go on. What Buffy does is to linger on all these moments, to draw them out, to make them both painful and awkward (I mean both the awkwardness that the characters often feel, as well as the frequent awkwardness of the show itself, as if it were continually trying to express something that went beyond its means, and that it could not portray quite convincingly). (This is also why the show’s bizarre juxtapositions, its invocations of the most unlikely and artificial genres — like the 1950s musical in the “Once More With Feeling” episode — work so brilliantly. There’s an arbitrariness that fits perfectly with the strained unnaturalness of melodrama itself).
The thing that I find most fascinating about it all, however, is something that includes but goes beyond melodrama, or (better) something that Buffy shares, not with other melodramas, but with other examples of science fiction or speculative fiction. This is the need to take the show’s situations literally. By this I mean that the supernatural elements of the show’s melodramatic situations cannot be read as allegories of more familiar emotional states, but have to be taken precisely for what they are. When Buffy can’t have sex with Angel, because of a Gypsy curse that means such consummation will take away his soul and turn him back into an evil vampire; when Buffy, returned from the dead, cannot experience life with anything but pain and dread, because she has been riven away from Paradise: these do not symbolize or allegorize any actual or possible situations that you and I might really experience ourselves. They are impossible, strictly unimaginable situations; and their emotional intensity depends on the fact that we cannot really conceive of their possibility, and yet we have to accept them (in the “suspension of disbelief” — a formulation I am not at all happy with — of our immersion in the show) as being not only “real,” but even mundane. This is the part of the experience that I find it most difficult to “theorize,” or to make sense of in terms that satisfy me.