Micro-procedurals in Urban Fantasy

When Buffy the Vampire finished up its run, I was ready for it to be over. I had loved the show, but over the course of the seventh season I’d been feeling a palpable sense of de ja vu bordering on boredom with stories that felt well-worn. It was Episode 6 “Him” that really killed my interest, and even though the second half of the season tried to turn everything around and change all the rules, it felt very much like more of the same. As time has worn on, I’ve found myself revisiting Seasons 1-4 with interest and enjoyment, but when I try to pick up and run with anything after that it’s not that it’s bad, it just always feels like an inferior version of something that came before. So it’s been with some confusion that I’ve been catching up with Supernatural and enjoying it despite the show almost explicitly recycling the same stories they’ve done with fractionally different results. How many more times can I watch Sam and Dean discuss whether Sam really wants to be a Hunter – i.e. the main dramatic tension from the very first episode? Apparently as many as they’ll make. So I watched another couple of episodes of late-run Buffy to try and figure out what the difference was, and my usual structuralist emphasis broke down pretty hard, because each show appears to have the same basic monster-of-the-week procedural structure.

In Text and Subtext I argued that there was a fundamentally different approach to the construction of each show’s mythology and zoology, which in turn suggests different procedural tools are used. Buffy relied a lot on an occult version of “Treknobabble”, where an essentially arbitrary requirement is fabricated really as a dramatic foil, where you really feel like the script at first-draft stage just had a heap of “insert occult-sounding phrase here” whenever there was a procedural hinge. Not quite as hand-wavy as a Timelord’s sonic screwdriver, but still fairly nakedly a storytelling fiat. It’s what allows magic to be sex in Season 4 and drugs in Season 6 – anything is just what you need it to be for the purposes of your drama, which makes Buffy fundamentally a character drama, rather than a supernatural procedural. This emphasis on character growht and change makes sense given the show’s characters are in that crucial transitional phase toward the close of high school. In a big-picture sense, I think that’s what’s so unsatisfying about Seasons 5 to 7 – the characters are beyond a coming-of-age meta-plot, and so largely experience the kind of aimlessness that is probably a reasonable reflection of life post-education.

If we break this down into conflict-by-conflict or moment-by-moment, it’s not clear how Buffy fits into Robin Laws’ Iconic/Dramatic dichotomy, because at different times there is a different emphasis – Season 2’s best episode “I Only have Eyes for You” she’s a dramatic character who learns and changes as a result of the subtext-interrogating ghosts. In Season 3’s opener “Anne”, she’s a character recreating her iconic identity in a mini-origin story (an essentially Dramatic story construction). In “Doomed” from Season 4 she expresses a pure version of her Iconic identity to initiate Riley into the Scooby Gang. Trying to think about Dramatic versus Iconic story construction at a macro level doesn’t seem to tell us anything. Instead we need to forget the big picture and focus on the small-scale, almost background, activity of the early seasons. What’s happening in the moment is that each of the characters plays with different identities to try and find something that fits. Each of the characters gets reinvented several times before finding the core of their identity in the climax of Season 4. Think about Xander as the not-quite-uncool kid in the pilot, who tries out the role of undercover in “Go Fish”, explicitly experiments with identity in “The Zeppo”, and spends all of Season 4 hopping from self-identification to self-identification. All the individual moments in the show are essentially asking a simple question “who is this character”? Each attempt at an answer shows us more of the character, building a better and better picture, until somewhere around the close of Season 4 I think the characters begin to reach their final forms. When we see Giles murder Ben at the close of Season 5, it’s not shocking or surprising because we’ve seen “The Ripper” in Season 2.

Thus, underpinning all of those early seasons of Buffy is that “micro-procedural”, informing the details and structure of the drama from the micro-scale of moment-to-moment dialogue. You might think of that as the “point” of the show: to ask and answer what is the identity of each of the main protagonists? This accretion of small moments with no obvious dramatic consequence or procedural element informs the big-picture chassis of each episode, building what you might want to think of as a “dramatic arc”. It’s a kind of background radiation of the Buffyverse. Consider for example, the scene where Riley first discusses the possibility of dating Buffy with Forrest and Graham. The scene is based explicitly around the conversation of “who is Buffy?” and her comedic antics breaking ice-cream vending devices etc are not dramatic, but they are comedically revelatory. Buffy is “a little strange”, she does just accidentally break things, and people, while not poorly-intentioned, she is a minor source of chaos. Asking, and answering, this question is what the show does in the small moments when it’s not concerned with whatever this week’s obvious plot is, as well as informing those dramatic arcs.

If we use that insight, we’re better able to understand the a large-picture question like a Dramatic Arc or an assertion of Iconic Identity, and we better understand what’s good or bad about the early or later episodes. It shows that Buffy is essentially a Dramatic story, whose later seasons suffer from a constancy in character. Spike remains the only interesting character in Seasons 6 and 7 because he is the only character still undergoing fundamental questions of identity, and hence the only participant in what was the fundamental building-block of the early show. Buffy in Season 7 is a fully iconic character that doesn’t change, largely experiencing procedural challenges that are recycled from an earlier, more dynamic phase of her story.

Supernatural pretends that it’s doing the same thing. When Dean first rolls into town in the pilot, he enlists Sam to help on just one case, purely in order to find their father who’s “on a hunting trip”. Jess’s murder prompts Sam to embrace the family business, but it’s a question they return to repeatedly. Dean, similarly, has what I think Americans describe as “trust issues”, which forms a feedback loop with Sam’s ambivalence. While never losing interest in these definitional questions, the show actually deploys them quite sparingly, as more of a gesture towards each character having a Dramatic Arc than as something that fundamentally drives their actions. Raising these questions is a way of taking a break from the primarily procedural action of each episode. Both questions really only have one answer, which is a threat to the basic premise of the show and hence can never really develop fully. If Sam really retired, or Dean finally pushed Sam away completely, there would be no more show. In that way, these are very safe but very limited questions to add moments of dramatic flair. The incredibly limited scope of this dramatic interest is just coloration on their essentially Iconic identities.

In keeping with the Iconic nature of the characters, the world they inhabit is reasonably rigorously structured around inviolable laws. For example, they establish the rules for Ghosts in Season 1, and then 7 or 8 seasons later, they’re playing with and experimenting with the implications of those rules, and playing with specific versions of ghostly motivation, but essentially the Ghost stories they tell are all rule-based and truly procedural. If we again zoom in, away from larger questions of plot structure, what we see is that the basic currency in any given scene is to uncover more about the specific monster they face. That is the basic currency of the story – information about their foe. Compared to Buffy, where the basic currency of the story is information about the characters.

I think this is the key to Supernatural‘s greater longevity – a Dramatic Arc necessarily has a beginning, middle, and end. Buffy‘s true dramatic arc ends at the completion of season 4 because that is the moment when the characters are fully formed. Iconic identities are inherently not limited, and in fact, infinite replicability is in some ways the very hallmark of that mode of storytelling. The crucial difference doesn’t exist however in those large-scale story structures, but in the micro-scenes that exist in moment-to-moment storytelling. Buffy’s micro-story has an answer with a kind of finite scope, of what is the essential nature of a character, but that answer accrues over the whole course of the show and hence reaches a critical density beyond which it’s not interesting or useful to go; Supernatural’s micro-story has an even more categorically finite scope, one which doesn’t fundamentally accrue, because it is just the details of a particular week’s monster and hence on a micro scale we begin each new story with a clean slate and end each story with all we need to know, ready to start again the following week.

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