In my weekly blog series (and stealth newsletter), I discuss what I've been watching, what I've been working on lately, what's coming up that I'm excited about, and any other thoughts that seem worth sharing. If you would like to receive these posts by email as a weekly newsletter, please email newsletter@unaffiliatedcritic.
When I announced my plans for 2021, one of the projects I was most excited about was writing on all seven seasons of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003). The show has been a favorite of mine since it was on the air: I was arguably on the old side of the demographic (I was 28 when Buffy premiered), but its combination of humor, genre adventure, and found-family dynamics was right in my sweet spot. And—though I couldn't have articulated it then—I recognized that Whedon was doing something new with serialized television. Buffy was one of the first series to understand and predict what television would become in the 21st century: not just disposable episodic installments, but long-form storytelling, in which plot-lines and themes and character arcs could be meaningfully developed over seasons and years in ways that no other media allowed.
(In those days before DVD release—and long before streaming—Buffy was the first show I felt the need to own and rewatch as a complete unit. Certain story-arcs were released as VHS box sets, so I greedily bought those, and for the rest I maniacally taped reruns and new episodes on my VCR, printing out custom labels with the Buffy logo to keep my collection in order. And, of course, Buffy became the first TV show I ever bought on DVD, when 20th Century Fox began releasing the complete seasons in 2002.)
The point is, Buffy was formative in developing my appreciation of serialized television as an art form—something that has become a bit of a preoccupation for me ever since. And Joss Whedon was one of the first recognizable television "auteurs," whom I would follow wherever he went, trusting that the result would prove worthwhile: from Angel to Firefly, from Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog to The Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods. Even when some projects didn't work as well for me as others—I never quite loved Angel, and Dollhouse was an ill-conceived, deeply troubling conceit with rare moments of brilliance—I was part of the Whedon cult all the way. (I ended my review of the underwhelming Agents of SHIELD premiere with four words that trouble me now: "In Joss We Trust.")
And, needless to say, that's all over with now. This week Charisma Carpenter (who played Cordelia on Buffy and Angel) courageously released a statement describing her horrific treatment at Whedon's hands on the set of Angel, a campaign of harassment and abuse that began when she announced she was pregnant, and ended with her firing and the killing off of her character. Many of the other Buffy cast members have come forward to support Carpenter, several bringing their own disturbing remembrances and allegations. Amber Benson (Tara) described the set of Buffy as a "toxic environment." Michelle Trachtenberg (Dawn)—who was 14 when she joined the cast—has described Whedon's behavior as "very not appropriate," and said there was a rule on set that he "was not allowed to be alone in a room with Michelle again." Marti Noxon—a writer and executive producer on Buffy—has come forward to "validate what the women of Buffy are saying and support them in telling their story." Jose Molina, a writer on Firefly, has described Whedon as "casually cruel."
Carpenter released her statement in solidarity with actor Ray Fisher, who this summer publicly accused Whedon of "gross, abusive, and unprofessional" behavior on the set of Justice League, leading to an internal investigation by Warner Bros. that resulted in unspecified "remedial action." At least two cast members of that film—Jason Momoa and Kiersey Clemons—came forward to stand with Fisher. And, just a few weeks ago, Fisher reported that he has since been removed from the cast of the Justice League spinoff The Flash, and described how his complaints were met by executives with "racist, coercive, discriminatory, and retaliatory behavior."
Obviously, I don't have any way of knowing the truth behind all of these allegations, but I find them credible, and troubling. (For those of us who were in The Cult of Joss, it is worth asking ourselves, I think, why the allegations of white women like Carpenter, Benson, and Trachtenberg were the final straws, when those of Fisher, Momoa, and Clemons—all actors of color—were not. It troubles me now, looking back, that I was somehow okay with planning to write about Buffy after Fisher's allegations, but not after Carpenter's. I'm going to have to grapple with that.) But, taken all together, it is clear to me now that I can't possibly write about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Which is what—finally—I really wanted to talk through today. I imagine a few of my readers might accuse me of participating in so-called "cancel culture," which is—for the record—a bullshit term employed by people who want to maintain the right to be awful while avoiding all consequences for their words and actions. My line on that has always been that no one has a right to a career in the arts: Artists are just people we like, people we want to hear from because we think they have something of value to say. When we stop liking you—perhaps because we have new information about your character, and decide you might be a bit of an asshole—your career is probably going to suffer, but at no point in that process were anyone's "rights" violated. We're just not buying what you're selling anymore.
But the decision about how to deal with the art itself is ultimately a personal one. I think there are persuasive ethical reasons for not supporting, in any way, people who are credibly revealed to be abusive and toxic. I don't flatter myself about the influence of my tiny little website, so I don't imagine my decision not to engage any longer with the works of people like Woody Allen, Louis CK, or JK Rowling has had any effect on their bank accounts. Nor do I imagine my Buffy reviews would have led to a sudden lucrative rush on Whedonverse DVD sales, or contributed one iota to a rehabilitation of Whedon's reputation. I'm just not that important. Nonetheless, it feels like a sound ethical position to decide not to spend a year of my life celebrating and publicizing work that—to all reports—was both generated under, and enabled, abuses of power. (I am glad that a few people have told me they are discovering Deadwood for the first time because I'm writing about it; I have no desire, at this particular moment, to encourage anyone to seek out Buffy.)
The real problem, however, is that I just couldn't engage with the work in the same way, even if I wanted to. We can talk all we want about separating the art from the artist—and few of us are ignorant of the fact that many of the great works of art, in every medium, have been produced by fairly terrible people—but knowledge about the artist (and the conditions under which they created) can seriously alter our perception of the art itself. When it was airing, I thought Louie was an absolute masterpiece, partially for its inventive use of the television format (which is undeniable), and partially because I interpreted it as a brilliant and fundamentally empathetic critique of toxic white masculinity (which I have come to seriously question in light of revelations about CK's behavior and his own response to the backlash). The art itself has not changed, but how I read it has changed dramatically, and irreparably.
The same would be true of Buffy. It was never a perfect series—there are entire seasons I find both creatively fumbled and thematically problematic—but it would be impossible for me now to write about the stuff I thought was worth exploring about the show. I can't celebrate "female empowerment" in work from a creator who reportedly used his power to bully, abuse, and fire one of his pregnant stars. I can't discuss "humane themes" and "found-family dynamics" in what seems now to have been a toxic and mistrustful workplace environment. I could not, I suspect, even laugh at a lot of the jokes, because they just wouldn't seem quite so funny now. I can still admire and value the work of the people involved—many whom are speaking out now, at great risk to their own careers—but I just don't trust Joss Whedon anymore. I am no longer buying what he is selling.
And I just have to say, at the end of this long ramble: The work is ultimately not that important. I have been a voracious consumer and student of fictions (written and filmed) my entire life, but there is no novel or movie or TV series I can't live without. There is no level of creative genius that justifies abusive behavior. A lot of us who feel passionately about works of art tend to frame these conversations as a lament for the art we have "lost:" Joss has ruined Buffy for us, as Louis CK ruined Louie, as Rowling has ruined Harry Potter, as Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey and Mel Gibson and Harvey Weinstein and other unrepentantly awful people have ruined movies we once loved. I know I'm guilty of talking that way myself some times. But fuck 'em: Their work is just not that important. The tragedy is not the "loss" of their work, but the actual abuse suffered by actual human beings. The tragedy is how their lives and careers—those who endured the abuse—were harmed. The tragedy is the loss of all the great work we didn't get because of systemically misogynistic, racist, homophobic, transphobic systems that elevated the wrong people and enabled them to grow and abuse their power.
I took a lot of pleasure from Joss Whedon's work over the years. But I can live without it. And I can definitely live without writing about it. I went into 2021 determined to spend the year writing about things I love, and I'm just not feeling the love anymore.
Let's be honest, I had a bad week: For the first time in 2021, I published no new content this week, except for last week's blog post. Being a little behind on everything since the new year began finally caught up with me, so—inevitably—I'm now woefully behind on everything.
(I did manage to weatherproof all the windows in our apartment this week. Does that count for anything?)
Everything I said last week would come this week is still in the works, and will appear. I'm working on my piece on the first Deadwood season finale. I'm working on my next Independent Study in World Cinema, which may be in the process of morphing from a piece on Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), to a piece on Rossellini's entire "War Trilogy," which includes Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948).
And The Unenthusiastic Critic and I didn't get an episode done this week. For a variety of reasons—including the fact that Nakea's time is much more valuable than my own—our schedule might be a little erratic for a little while. Do bear with us.
I'm not going to attach dates to these things. (Would you believe me at this point?) But this coming week will be a prolonged bout of catching up for me: We'll see how it goes.
The only new thing I watched this week was the series premiere of Clarice (CBS, Thursdays), which was competent, and well-acted, and not something I ever need to watch again. Rebecca Breeds is fine as Clarice Starling, though she seems (in the pilot, at least) somehow more innocent than the character should be coming off Silence of the Lambs, and somewhat lacking in the flinty determination that made Thomas Harris's character compelling. The larger problem is that there's just no reason for the show to exist: The show seems to want to do something interesting with trauma, and the inherent sexism of law enforcement—which are, admittedly, aspects of the character worth further exploration—but otherwise it strikes me as typical network crime drama trading on name recognition. Unless I hear a few weeks or months from now that there's something more going on here, I'm okay with Bryan Fuller's Hannibal being the last word on Harris's source material.
Coincidentally, my idle-time rewatches lately have been far more interesting and genuine takes on female law-enforcement officers. After catching up with Sally Wainwright's Last Tango in Halifax last week, I've stayed on the Wainwright wagon for rewatches of Scott & Bailey (2011–2016, available on Hulu and HBOMax) and Happy Valley (2014–2016, available to rent from various streaming services). From plot perspectives, Scott & Bailey is the more traditional cop show—a sort of British Cagney and Lacey—while Happy Valley is more akin to a psychological, small-town crime-gone-wrong show like Fargo. But both feature fantastically complex characters, a delightful mixture of darkness and humor, and simply tremendous performances. (As I'll tell anyone who'll listen, Happy Valley—which made the top ten in my Best Shows of the Decade list—also features the single best performance of the decade in Sarah Lancashire's indomitable police sergeant, Catherine Cawood.) In a week when I'm thinking about the cult of showrunners, I can't recommend the work of Sally Wainwright highly enough.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), which dropped on HBOMax this week, turned out to be something of a disappointment. The film is very well made, and bringing Fred Hampton's story to broader awareness is laudable. But I'm not sure the film's portrayal of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) does justice to the man's work or charisma, and I seriously question the decision to make Bill O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield)—who betrayed Hampton as an undercover informant for the FBI—the real main character of the movie. The whole thing felt ill-conceived and frustratingly shallow. (I'd say more about this, but sometimes I read another critic's work and realize I don't have anything to add to it. So don't listen to me: Go read the review in Vulture by Angelica Jade Bastién, one of the best critics currently working. She nails it.)
I was not, however, disappointed with Saint Maud (2019), the acclaimed debut feature from Rose Glass, which finally became available in the states on EPIX. I went into it knowing virtually nothing about it—which is probably the best way to approach it—and I'm still not entirely sure how to characterize it. It will be discussed as a psychological "horror movie"—and earns its place alongside such recent masterpieces in that loosely defined genre like Raw and The Witch—but it's every bit as much an engrossing and progressively unsettling character study about loneliness, faith, and madness, located in a powerhouse central performance by Morfydd Clark. This film should make Clark a star, and propel Glass into the ranks of exciting new talents to watch.
Looking Forward To…
There's a lot of stuff dropping this week I'm excited to watch, including Harry Macqueen's Supernova (VOD, Feb. 16), Chloé Zhao's Nomadland (Hulu, Feb. 19), and J Blakeson's I Care a Lot (Netflix, Feb. 19). I expect to get to…some of these, by next week.
On the TV front, I'm excited for It's a Sin (HBO, Feb. 18), the new series from Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk) about gay life in London during the early days of the AIDS crisis, and the second season premiere of For All Mankind (Apple, Feb. 19), the alternate-history space-race show that was one of the under-seen gems of 2019.
Assuming I ever get caught up with my stuff, the canceling of my Buffy plans has left me with a theoretical hole in my 2021 schedule, so the floor is open for nominations of show's you'd like to see me write about in full, obsessive detail. (I can't promise I'll take your suggestions, of course—my personal criteria is indefinably specific and peculiar—but I'd love to hear them anyway.)