HALLOWEEN 2011: BY LYDIA WATSON
If there is one show on television that stands out the most for its creative use of music during its run, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is it. The seven seasons include an episode almost entirely without speaking, one without any background music and one filmed as a musical; each did something no other show had done on television before and made Buffy all the more unique. Creator Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed each of the episodes, understood how music affects the viewer and used it as an effective storyteller.
What made the series unique was its intelligent use of dialogue. Buffy would take out a vampire while having a conversation about philosophy with him or even talking about college classes with her friend Willow. So, if you create a show popular for its witty remarks, the next course of action would be an episode without words. It was a challenge Joss was willing to take on. In the commentary for Hush, he comments how as a director, he felt he’d gotten into a rut of the same shots over and over. He referred to TV as “radio with faces” and he really wanted the show overall to work visually. So when thinking of “Hush” he knew he’d have to create an episode that did a lot of visual storytelling. But the show doesn’t just exhibit visuals, it also relies a lot on the musical score. Music is a large part of television and movies. Even though life doesn’t have background music, an episode seems odd without music moving your emotions. Whether it’s a pop song during an emotional montage or an orchestral score in an intense moment, it helps to tell the viewer how they’re supposed to feel. But to completely rely on a musical score to tell your story was something that had not been done before. The episode begins normally with characters exchanging information, Buffy’s dating issues with new boyfriend Riley, and Anya arguing with Xander about whether or not he really cares for her, each instance setting up conflict for the characters that demonstrate problems they can’t work through even though they can speak. It was this conflict that Joss was looking for. He said, “When people stop talking, they start communicating. Language can interfere with communication because language limits.” So after the end of act 2 and the beginning of act 3 when the characters cannot speak they must figure out how to deal with their issues silently.
This not only creates a challenge for the actors but also the viewer. Often words and voices can communicate feelings, so we have to rely on how the actors behave and on the musical score. Composer Chris Beck had the challenge of creating mood through music in a way that had not been seen or heard before. Not only did the actions have to move the plot, but the music had to create the emotions.
A good example of the way emotion was portrayed through music was Buffy and Riley’s first kiss. They had been dating for several episodes but had not kissed yet. Buffy tells Willow the reason this was due to her big mouth, again to show how much we communicate when language doesn’t get in the way. Buffy and Riley are both out to keep the peace, Buffy in her Slayer capacity and Riley in his military capacity, neither knowing about the other’s night job. It is a brief yet emotional meeting for as soon as the two begin to part Riley changes his mind, grabs Buffy and kisses her. The music known as the Buffy/Riley theme starts out quiet but then comes across clearly as the two kiss, making the viewer react as well, knowing this is right and what we want to see.
A second episode Joss wrote and directed that dealt with music is the season five episode, The Body. It deals with the death of Buffy’s mom, Joyce Summers. And where as in Hush the story was told through music, The Body had no score at all. Every emotion and moment had to come across clearly to the viewer because there was no music telling you how to feel. This is probably one of the most real feeling episodes of the entire series. The viewer is completely drawn into to each moment. In the commentary Joss states he wanted to focus on the physical reality of what was going on. Each act opens with a shot of Joyce dead, reminding the viewer what the episode is about. This meant coming in from a commercial break with music to the image of a dead woman and silence. The viewer is jolted back into the story, which helps create the physical reality of the loss. The musical score is very obviously absent but at the same time, it’s not. Because of the way the characters interact with each other, and how it is scripted, adding music would have affected the story in a way that would not have created such a sense of reality. Joss wanted to show what the first few hours are like after someone dies; the rituals we go through, how each person deals with death differently. By having no background music, the viewer is totally reliant on the mood of the actors and the lighting and cinematography to evoke feelings. And this is exactly what happens. The lack of music in this episode is more powerful than if music had been present.
The most memorable episode that used music to great effect is the musical from season six, Once More with Feeling. Joss felt it was a sequel to Hush because singing gives people a chance to express what they may not normally tell. It opens in the style of an old musical, with the score over different credits, then we see Buffy in the graveyard and she begins to sing. All the characters are singing at odd times but don’t know why. Soon it becomes apparent that a demon is in town and causing mayhem which ends with people spontaneously combusting. None of the characters seem to be able to control what they say or do, and this is what helps to move the story along.
Joss comments on this narration by using the example of the relationship between Buffy and Spike. The two characters have a back and forth relationship. Spike has been in love with Buffy since season five, but she has never reciprocated this feelings. Joss knew he wanted Buffy and Spike to kiss at the end of the episode because that’s what happens in musicals but he had to convince the audience that this was right. For this to happen, two things needed to happen: “for Spike to tell her to go away, then that he would save her.” Buffy has already been feeling distant from her friends, who believe they saved her from hell after resurrecting her when they actually pulled her out of heaven. This has brought her closer to Spike yet still she seems to reject him. Joss wrote Spike’s song “Rest in Peace” to have him tell Buffy to go away. But even as he sings it to her telling her to leave, he can’t stop following her. In the end, when she is singing about what is there to sing about, Spike stops her from burning up, both of them singing about their feelings, which they would not have expressed unless compelled to by the spell. The curtains close on their kiss.
This is one of Joss’ favorite episodes because “I love TV… what you can do with it. To be able to go this far emotionally, and be this silly, on a regular episode of TV, is a way of saying this is just an episode. This is just what we do. It’s not better, it’s just TV in all its glory. I celebrate musicals and this medium.” And it is clear that he put a lot of time and effort into it. Filmed in the style of a musical with many long shots, big dance numbers and very visually exciting moments, it remains unforgettable and makes Buffy stand out among her contemporaries. These episodes aren’t done just to make Buffy different, they still move the plot along and were created out of a desire from Joss as a challenge to try something different. He says several times in the three commentaries that he always wanted to write a musical, do a silent episode, and show the grim reality of death. In the end, he did all those things and used music or the lack of it as his master storyteller. Whether its presence helps tell us know to feel or a lack of it makes us feel more in the moment, we can be thankful, because someone who did not know the power of music might not have created such brilliant episodes. ■