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An Emmy for a Vampire Slayer?

Why the "The Chosen One" is never chosen…

When it comes to Oscars and Emmy awards, there's little doubt that the Hollywood of 2002 is biased. Knowingly or unknowingly, the "powers that be" shun science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Sure, there have been some breakthroughs over the years to point at with a sense of pride. For instance, way back in 1991, the horror psycho-thriller The Silence of the Lambs took home Academy Awards for best actor (Anthony Hopkins), best actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Picture, and just last year great fantasies like Lord of the Rings and Moulin Rouge were nominated for Best Picture. But really, isn't that a pretty meager accounting considering the high quality of so many genre offerings, and the long history of the awards? Films such as The Exorcist (1973), Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. (1982)—all landmarks of the genre—were bridesmaids but never brides on Oscar night. Even the great Sigourney Weaver didn't win an Oscar for her exceptional performance in Aliens (1986)—another movie that should have been a contender for Best Picture. And what of Blade Runner (1982)? The Matrix (1999)? The Others (2001)? Zilch, zilch and zilch…

Sadly, the realm of television has proven just as hostile to the genre as filmland. Sure, The X-Files and stars Anderson and Duchovny were nominated for a few Emmys a couple years back, and if I'm not mistaken, Star Trek: The Next Generation even once garnered a surprise nomination for "best dramatic series." But that's it! What about Gary Cole in American Gothic (1995)? Lance Henriksen or Terry O'Quinn from Millennium? Chris Carter for best writer for either The X-Files or Millennium?

Such oversights beg an important question. Why—with so many great TV series (and great performances…) on the air today, is Hollywood still so unremittingly stingy about handing out its most coveted awards to genre programming? Why, for instance, hasn't Sarah Michelle Gellar been nominated (let alone honored with an award…) for her fine work over six years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

The simple answer is an ugly one: snobbery. The people who choose these awards would probably rather cough up a lung or lose a kidney than turn over any award to a series with the words "Buffy" and "vampire" in the title. There's no other explanation. And of course, that's prejudice, pure and simple. It's a shame that it's easier to shower honors on hackneyed lawyer shows (like The Practice), repetitive cop shows (like NYPD Blue) and tightly-structured but ultimately meaningless justice shows (Law and Order) than a TV drama that is actually innovative. After all, we've had cops and lawyers on TV forever, since Joe Friday and Perry Mason. What is particularly new, innovative or "outstanding" about these aging series at this point, all well into their too-long runs? Not much. Soon, if someone isn't merciful, we'll probably have a Law and Order network to contend with. On the other hand, how many vampire slayers have we seen before?

Frankly, it was a travesty that Sarah Michelle Gellar didn't win an Emmy for her work during the series' fifth year. One episode, "The Body,"—in which Buffy's mother died unexpectedly—had the best female performance on TV that season. This year, Gellar outdid her already splendid work in fine episodes dealing with issues such as guilt, alienation, abandonment, sexual addiction, and even rape. And best of all, she made it look easy, natural—believable. That's no small talent in a world populated by floppy-eared demons, cemeteries and other horror stereotypes. Frankly, Gellar has a much more difficult task than playing a cop, a district attorney or a defense lawyer. She must successfully ground the audience and provide a believable human anchor in the world of the fantastic. Anybody that believes this is an easy job should glance at recently cancelled genre series like Dark Angel and Roswell. When this kind of part isn't handled with precisely the right note of humanity and wit, the audience tunes out. Buffy, need I remind anyone, is going into a seventh year, with higher ratings than ever. There are many reasons for that, and one is SMG (as the fans call her.)

By the same token, there are at least two other performers on Buffy worthy of an Emmy nod: James Marsters (who plays the tortured vampire, Spike) and Amber Benson (the dear departed Tara—a lesbian wiccan…). Each one vetted major plot lines this year, and did so with a high degree of elegance and charm. Marsters, in particular, was an engrossing study in angst: be-deviled by his "evil" nature as a creature of the night and his surprising and contradictory love for Buffy. There hasn't been a vampire this interesting on the tube since Jonathan Frid played Barnabas on Dark Shadows thirty years ago. (I know fans will point to David Boreanaz and Whedon's Angel, but the very nature of that character—the sullen, monotone characteristics—make him a less interesting character than the animated, sometimes schizophrenic Spike, a real loveable loser.)

Folks may read this column and think that all this commentary is just the raving of a crazed Buffy fan, or a Sarah Michelle Gellar groupie, but the fact of the matter is that I was dragged kicking and screaming into the universe of Buffy. And yes, I was biased by the title too. It was my stalwart wife who watched it from the beginning, who insisted I take a look. I'm glad she did. I came in after the second season (during summer reruns), and have been hooked ever since. This is—like The X-Files used to be—one of the very best programs on TV. What those who have never watched the series don't understand is that the title of the series—Buffy the Vampire Slayer—is as ironic as the show itself. Buffy is a character who is yanked in two directions. She is a young California girl with funny friends who wants to experience a life filled with love, romance and happiness but, because of her "calling" as "The Chosen One" must instead serve as a constant fighter in the war against darkness. "Buffy" and "Vampire Slayer" are two descriptors that don't seem to go together, but juxtaposed they make an ironic point: this little girl, this kid, is the savior of the planet (or at least Sunnydale). It's a clever conceit, not a paean to stupidity or valley-girl ideology. However, as I've always insisted, that title just flat out turns people away, despite its brilliance. People who don't watch the show get the impression that Buffy is just another WB-like show about twenty-something clothes horses with pouting lips, six-pack abs and soap opera problems. They don't take the time to look at the series itself, and that's a terrible mistake. The caliber of writing, directing and acting on Buffy makes it several cuts above the crappy teen-pack.

But, the great thing is that this year it's going to be harder than ever to deny Buffy the Vampire Slayer the critical nods. It had a terrific, surprising season—one of its best ever (despite the cries of fans who can't handle change and growth) and at least one high profile, stand-out installment: the musical hour "Once More with Feeling," written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon. There's some buzz here—and rightly so. A science fiction/fantasy show hasn't been this daring or entertaining, since the heyday of The X-Files, about five years ago. On top of all the heavy drama, Buffy's cast proved that it could sing and dance with aplomb.

Here's hoping the Emmy Awards choose "the Chosen One" this time. It's about time…


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