Snubbing the Slayer
Nowadays, I'm fairly blasé about awards shows. But when the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced their 2001 Primetime Emmy nominations, I found myself flabbergasted. I don't know why. The Emmy Awards are not known for looking outside the box or rewarding innovation. But please! Not one measly nomination for Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Buffy saved the world a lot. What else does a girl have to do to drum up a lousy nomination?
It's old news that BTVS has gone through several seasons of snubs by the Emmy Awards. Last year, at least Emmy voters had the good sense to nominate "Hush," a truly spooky and stylish episode about some creepy ghouls who came to Sunnydale and stole everyone's voices. Joss Whedon, writer and creator of BTVS, penned the episode, but Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland of The West Wing (NBC) took home the prize. This year, the BTVS snub is particularly irritating. First and foremost, the best writing of the show, easily on par with heavyweights like The Sopranos and The West Wing, occurred in the now-much-talked-about BTVS episode "The Body," where Buffy's mother, Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland), dies. But it wasn't just the writing and the performances of this episode that made it a stand out -- it was much more.
Silence and ambient sound played a big part in the "The Body," as it did in "Hush." When Buffy finds her mother dead on the couch, she launches into the expected reactions -- shock, disbelief, fear, horror. But instead of gilding her reactions with stock background music and sound (wailing violins, for example), her actions are accompanied by the ordinary sounds of the house, Buffy's heavy breathing as she tries to resuscitate her mother, and at one point, the chirping of the birds outside the window. After the paramedics arrive and declare Joyce dead, they leave her body in the living room, telling Buffy that the coroner will come by for the body later. Later? In TV-land, the obligatory next scene is ordinarily the cloth-covered body hoisted away among a flurry of flashing emergency lights. In this case, an enactment of what must really happen took place: Buffy was left with her dead mother clueless as to what will happen next or when. It was chilling and wrenching, and a lot more frightening than the forces of evil.
Another reason the episode was great was that it was able to realize some of other ways that television can work. Most television has become busy, aurally and visually. Jarring camera shots, constant talk, sound, and action, action, action punctuate television programs from music videos to game shows. But this episode stepped away from the typical and, in doing so, reminded viewers that as a medium television can have depth, texture, and style.
Part of the reason Emmy overlooks BTVS is the conundrum of where to categorize it (and I'm not even going into the chauvinism reportedly dealt to the WB and UPN, BTVS' new network next season). So get this: In an uncharacteristically "swift" recognition of reality programs, the Emmy folks expanded the nonfiction categories, thereby inviting nominees like Survivor (CBS), Eco-Challenge (USA), Road Rules (MTV), and E! True Hollywood Story (E!). Road Rules has aired for 10 seasons, but since Survivor made an appearance on one of the major networks (i.e., not cable and not one of the netlets), it appears that the genre is now worthy of recognition. The good news that comes with the expansion of the nonfiction categories is that shows like R. J. Cutler's American High, and Michael Moore's The Awful Truth (Bravo) get a nod.
So why not create a category that BTVS can participate in? Certainly there's no shortage of fantasy-adventure series. Not all of them are notable, but several come to mind: BTVS, Angel, Dark Angel, Lexx, Witchblade, The Chronicle, Babylon 5, not to mention The X-Files and Charmed. Next season, CBS will premiere a series loosely based on werewolf lore called Wolf Lake, and UPN will launch the much-anticipated Star Trek: Enterprise.
Just what is it that award shows are rewarding? At some level, I suspect the pageantry sucks everyone in. Stars get to walk around in tuxedos and gowns, wearing ribbons for this cause or that. For fans the thrill may come from seeing your favorite performer or program rewarded, and gaining a sense of being "in the know" about this program or that movie, this trend or that flash in the pan. For industry insiders, depending on the award, it means respect, legitimacy, and a claim to having reached the level of art. That's what we like to think. But at the present juncture, the Emmy Awards seems to be all for playing it safe.
Whether Emmy voters like it or not, the spectrum of television has exploded beyond the big four networks. The big four -- it wasn't that long ago when Fox wasn't even considered a contender. For all its nicks and missteps, TV is in a period of percolation. As in its early days, when people were trying to figure out what to do with the new medium, a wave of creators, like Joss Whedon, have been there to push the medium beyond its limits. Sure, it's messy and -- omigod -- different. But the sooner Emmy voters take off their blinders, the sooner the medium can evolve. At least that's what I hope. In the meantime, give Buffy a nomination already! It's long past overdue.
E-mail Belinda Acosta at firstname.lastname@example.org