If you were a new or casual viewer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy does a nice job of recapping Joss’s screenwriting career and his intention to make BtVS into something more than its big-screen predecessor.
Now that we’ve gotten the niceties out of the way… If you have been a follower of BtVS since the early years, were ever involved in an online Buffy community, or bothered to read any press about the show during its seven-year run, you won’t learn anything new. In fact, you can probably fill in the blanks in Joss Whedon’s glossy history with all the unflattering stuff they didn’t print.
Written by syndicated television reporter Candace Havens, Joss Whedon reads like a fangirl’s college research paper. It is a perfect example of why fans sometimes shouldn’t write about their fandoms: sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. In this biography, Havens paints Joss as a quirky and ambitious maestro who is either misunderstood or worshipped by his peers. Every day at Mutant Enemy (Joss’s production company) is portrayed as if it’s their tight-knit family against the world, fighting for quality television, respect, and Joss’s Way. While this is certainly one version of the truth, Havens completely ignores any difficulties surrounding Joss or his creations. Although the biography is unauthorized, Joss did provide comments and corrections to the script, so the omission of even a hint of trouble between cast/crew/creator seems fishy.
The book starts with a quick chapter about Joss’s childhood (he was a “strange, unlovable” child), and then jumps right into the disappointment of the first Buffy movie. Campy rather than darkly witty, the film was not what Joss imagined it would be. “The director ruined it,” he says, in the first of many comments that make him sound spoiled and arrogant. Havens speeds through Joss’s experiences as a writer on the television show Roseanne, and movies like Toy Story and Speed. She then slows to a crawl to comment subjectively on Buffy, such as Chapter 4, which outlines the “seven key ingredients” that made the show great. Chapter 5 summarizes each season of the show, with special attention to episodes written and/or directed by Joss. Some of the commentary is insulting to opinionated, long-time fans, like when Havens says, “There was some fan discontent in season four, over specific issues (like Willow and Tara), but mostly regarding the quality of the season. This discontent was misguided; while not all of the ambitions in season four were realized, the overall quality was strong.” Did I buy a biography, or did I buy an episode guide?
Havens fills in her narrative by quoting Internet sources, such as the archives of Joss posts from the old official posting board at Buffy.com. Dropped into the narrations are unrevealing interviews with cast members like James Marsters and Nick Brendan, as well as Havens’ own years-old recaps of set visits. The most-quoted source for the book is Professor Jeanine Basinger, who taught Joss at Wesleyan University. She is very flattering about Joss and his natural gifts, but her manner of speaking is very ivory tower Ivy League, and it’s often off-putting.
In addition to the old-news feel of the narrative, and the opinionated stance on any number of topics, Joss Whedon is sloppy and sophomoric. By page five, I had already found three typos. Most pages of the 162-book are littered with large pictures or pull-quotes, which eat up space without adding any value to the reader. It’s the equivalent of bumping up the font on a term paper so you can reach a certain page limit.
Ever since I first heard that Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy was going to be available, I began to teasingly call it “Joss Whedon is a Big, Fat Idiot.” Secretly, though, I wanted for it to be a smart and proper tribute to the man who created an iconic television show that brought about a historic Internet fanbase that in turn introduced me to some of my best friends today. The truth is that this slender volume is a big, fat nothing.