Buffy the Vampire Slayer: An Exploration of Sound in Storytelling
Blasphemous is the television on mute. It is an amalgam of moving pictures, of pretty faces, and flashing lights. There is little structure, minimal coherence, and the bare bones of a story. (Yes, I realize that there exists something called closed captioning, but work with me here.) In the modern era of television, sound is the key to enjoying most narratives. Gone are the days of title cards and overdramatic actresses batting their eyelashes. These days, dialogue and music run rampant on just about every channel you flip to. But are they absolutely necessary to telling a story on television? No.
So what if one were to remove or alter one of these sound elements? What would happen to the nature of the story then? Years ago, a little television series attempted this feat not once, but three times. The cult-classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been lauded for its pro-feminist protagonist, its compelling characters, and snappy, pop-culture-dowsed dialogue. What Buffy also succeeded in was telling a story in countlessly unique ways. The episode “The Zeppo” took place from the perspective of Xander, one of Buffy’s non-superpowered friends. The usual narrative structure from our female lead’s point-of-view was tossed aside in favor of a comedic, oft-ridiculed character and his eventual development of strength and bravery. So if the writers of the show were willing to depart from traditional storytelling structures this early on, what was in store for the rest of the series?
Ask any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to list their favorite episodes and you’ll hear these names pop up frequently: “Hush,” “The Body,” and “Once More with Feeling.” These episodes all depart from conventional TV storytelling methods, but they also share a common factor: the unique employment of sound elements. “Hush” removes words and tells a story through music. “The Body” removes music to tell the story with only words. “Once More with Feeling” integrates words into music and vice-versa. Together, these three episodes form their own sort of trilogy, highlighting the importance of the presence (and absence) of sound can have on the television story.
The conception of “Hush” was creator Joss Whedon’s response to certain critics of Buffy. These critics claimed that the show’s only saving grace was its witty dialogue, a factor which could only carry the plot for so long. Whedon wrote up a script in which demons known as The Gentlemen invade Buffy’s town and steal the inhabitants’ voices. Chaos immediately ensues as classes are cancelled, voice-recognition software ceases to work, and innocents are unable to scream for help when attacked. The story progresses when the main characters learn to communicate in creative ways, from miming to tapping to writing on whiteboards. Nonverbal signals become essential to the unfolding of the plot. We see the initial chemistry between Willow, a witch, and newcomer Tara when they wordlessly create a barrier against The Gentlemen. Rupert Giles’ role towards Buffy as a father figure immediately becomes clear when she silently hugs him for support. Meanwhile, background music serves to relay the absurdity of the situation and heighten tension.
Next we move onto “The Body,” a difficult episode to view because of its stark realism, heightened by the lack of music throughout. The story unfolds when Buffy comes home to find her mother Joyce’s lifeless body on the couch. Joyce has died, not from supernatural causes, but because of a sudden brain aneurysm. The sudden news hits viewers as well as Buffy hard, as we are treated to disorienting camera effects and nauseating editing. She approaches the body slowly, whimpering, “Mom? Mom? …Mommy?” Throughout this episode, what we see of each character’s grief comes entirely from their words and dialogue. One of the most powerful scenes comes from a monologue by Anya, an ex-demon attempting to understand the human world. Having been overwhelmed by the anguish of her friends around her, she cries out, “I don’t understand how this all happens, how we go through this, I mean I knew her and then she’s, there’s just a body, I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead, it’s stupid, it’s mortal and stupid, Xander’s crying and not talking and I was having fruit punch and I thought that Joyce would never have any more fruit punch and she’d never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever and no one will explain…” The group is speechless. As in real life, there is no soundtrack, no melodramatic acoustic guitar playing in the background. There is no swelling overture, just a mutual understanding that tragedy has occurred.
“Once More with Feeling,” one of the most popular episodes of Buffy, marks a shift from “The Body” by having music emerge full force. The plot around this episode revolves around a demon named Sweet, who forces the townspeople to confess their secrets through musical numbers. Here dialogue between characters is scarce. Instead, songs reveal the inner turmoil of each character through uninterrupted musical confessions. Newly engaged couple Anya and Xander share their anxieties about married life and gripe over each other’s flaws in their number “I’ll Never Tell.” Meanwhile, in “Going through the Motions,” Buffy sings “I always feel the strangest strangement/ Nothing here is real, nothing here is right,” revealing her apathy towards being the constant hero. By the end of this “trilogy,” music and words work in conjunction to tell the story.
Sound is an integral part of any television production. Even in the most basic TV stories, dialogue advances the plot while music creates atmosphere. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer demonstrates, however, stories can still easily be enjoyed when the basic rules of sound are broken or defied. Through compelling plots and strong character work, one can transcend even basic storytelling conventions.
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