Like most dorks I’m a fan of Joss Whedon’s 90s moderns fantasy horror show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What’s not to like? Great characters, good acting, clever stories, creative story-telling, some nice eye candy, and tongue-in-cheek campiness.
Whenever one Buffy fan talks the show with another the topic of “favorite episodes” comes up (along with least favorite episodes but let’s keep it positive!) There are a few that are on everyone’s favorite list and I have two favorite episodes: One, Season 4’s Hush is almost universally in everyone’s favorite episode list. My other favorite, Season 3’s The Zeppo, has been catching on, though many fans seem to decray it’s goofy tone.
The plot is simple, with Buffy’s “Scooby Gang” all filling specific roles (Willow and her witchcraft, Giles and his knowledge, Buffy’s slayer-ness, etc) perennial mean girl Cordelia tells regular Joe, Xander, that he is useless. He takes up space. He’s the eponymous “Zeppo” referring the Marx Brother straight man. Xander then goes on an independent, relatively low-supernatural adventure on his own, whilst the rest of the gang saves the world off screen. So why has this episode, that not only follows a non-story arc event but also lampoons the series’ more series elements, achieved such popularity? Here’s why:
1.) Creativity: It’s hard to tell a new story. Most stories have been told. One way to add new life to your stories is to tell them in a new way. Buffy and crew had “saved the world” several times by this episode. While it was always done with high drama and often with personal impact to characters, we had seen it before. We hadn’t seen a story telling the tale of what one member of the crew not involved with saving the world spends his time when he’s not “on camera” during a more traditional episode. So Xander goes on his little journey, sometimes crossing paths with the rest of the team, always catching them halfway through something important, and interrupting their melodramatic events. It’s great to see Xander ask for help from Buffy and Angel as she tearfully tells Angel she can’t lose him, while Xander blunders in…then says he can come back if it’s a bad time, to their awkward silence.
2.) Perspective: After the intro sequences you see events only through Xander’s eyes. The hellmouth opens, we see it only as he scampers by in terror. Demons are battled, we see these events only when he crosses paths with more “important” characters in their world-saving quest. Perspective is a very important creative element often overlooked (too many stories are given ubiquitous third person omniscient) in favor of being informative or simplicity. First person, or even semi-first person can give a known world a whole new feel and make events, even small events, all the more personal.
3.) Playin’ it Straight: As I said in my Lampreys review, satire is funnier when those participating don’t act like they’re making fun of anything. The rest of the cast plays the episode as though it IS one of the most poignant and emotional of episodes. Buffy and Angel’s encounter mentioned above is as powerful as ever, only given a new feel due to Xander’s oddly timed interruption. A run down at the end of the episode where the characters refer to all the exciting world-saving events we didn’t see is similarly effective. Even Xander’s antics aren’t comedic or goofy, he stays true to his character as the in-over-his-head friend of heroes, his exciting odyssey being marginalized only by the fact that it is occurring while demons are being unleashed on the world just out of frame…
4.) Character Growth: Shows like Buffy go through “season arcs” that tell one long story over the course of a season with a few non sequiturs here and there. Many of these are one offs that might be referred to in passing later but don’t have a lasting impact. This episode does. Xander’s feelings of never being useful come up in the season finale with definite poignancy. His encounter with Faith is brought up again, with similar important story elements coming out of it.
So why spend time talking about a show that’s almost a decade old? As a writer I can attest it can be painfully difficult to write a story that feels fresh. Even worse is writing a piece and going over it and feeling it is entirely derivative… Seeing creative work really does give you hope and, even better, ideas. Much like the Sliding Doors format a lot of shows would later take (many not terribly effectively) it provides a format of experimentation. Follow a lesser known character. Write it from their perspective. Tell a story backwards (see Seinfeld’s “The Betrayal” for that one!) Do whatever you can to gain inspiration. I know I need whatever I can get to gain inspiration, especially for stories I’ve lived with for years, but knowing it CAN be done goes a long way!