The WB's Big Daddy condescension

Another "Buffy" episode postponed. Are the paranoia demons running loose?

Published May 26, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

One of the recurrent clichés of those quickie rock 'n' roll movies of the '50s was some adult -- DJ, record company honcho, parent -- saying, "I don't get it, but the kids seem to like it." For sheer not getting it, none of those Eisenhower-era squares can hold a candle to the brain trust at the WB network, which yesterday announced that it was postponing the season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- the second-half of a two-parter -- until sometime later in the summer. In the postponed episode, graduation day coincides with "the Ascension," the time when Sunnydale's blandly evil mayor plans to assume his demon form and devour the graduating class. The show reportedly features scenes of Buffy and her fellow students arming themselves against the demon with any weapons they can lay hands on. According to the Associated Press, WB spokespeople said the network pulled the episode, the second one it's yanked this season, because it is sensitive to violence in the wake of the recent shootings in Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga.

"Given the current climate," WB network president Jamie Kellner told the Associated Press, "Depicting acts of violence at a high-school graduation ceremony, even fantasy acts against a 60-foot serpent and vampires, we believe, is inappropriate to broadcast around the actual dates of these time-honored ceremonies." Kellner went on to say that the network was acting "out of sympathy and compassion" for everyone affected by the recent shootings and, according to AP, out of a sense of responsibility to the WB's younger audiences.

What in God's name is he talking about?

Is Kellner implying that it has suddenly become irresponsible to expose younger viewers to a show that's been aimed at them for three years now? It's shoddy enough treatment to leave an audience hanging by postponing the concluding half of a two-part episode. There's something particularly appalling about a PR stunt like this being pulled by a network whose programs ("Felicity," "Dawson's Creek," "Charmed") are geared to young people. The WB's decision has an inescapable air of Big Daddy condescension. The network acted like a parent who suddenly decided that maybe the kids were too young for that shiny toy they'd given them after all.

As with most authority figures who are determined to show who's in charge, discussion didn't appear to be an option. When I called my local WB affiliate (WLVI in Boston) to complain about the network's decision, the woman who answered the phone patiently explained to me the reasons for yanking the show. When I asked her if there was a WB corporate number I might call to express my displeasure, she said, "Well, there's a hot line where you can leave a message. That's what they want you to call." "So, in other words," I asked, "they don't want to deal with viewers?"

I hate to say that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is the least deserving target of the ire over media violence (doing so implies that there are deserving targets), but in episode after episode "Buffy" has shown it knows exactly what to make of its violence. Typical of the effortless ease with which the show changes tone, it has always, without dampening the visceral charge of the action, cleared a space for its characters to react to the horror around them. In one of the finest examples, the last episode of the first season, Willow walks into the school's AV room and finds her techie pals have been slaughtered by vampires. "I thought I could take anything," she tells Buffy. "[But] I know those guys. I go to that room every day. And when I walked in there it wasn't our world anymore. They made it theirs. And they had fun." "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," for my money the smartest and wittiest entertainment any pop medium has given us in the past three years, has been able to keep its audience as it pushes its story line to
Gothic extremes because it has never broken faith with that audience, never shortchanged emotion, even when it allows the unthinkable to befall characters we've invested ourselves in.

But the WB's decision did break faith, with the talented people who put the show together and with the audience that has responded to it. In the most prescient "Buffy" episode of this season, the murder of two small children sets off a wave of fear and suspicion in Sunnydale. Parents start by questioning their kids' clothes, or their taste in music or friends. They impose curfews. By the end of the show, certain they can root out the evil in their midst, they're ready to burn their own rebellious kids at the stake. Reason prevails. The murdered children turn out to be two demons who have appeared over the centuries just to set off this kind of paranoid frenzy.

Those demons would appear to have gotten loose at the WB. I understand that networks and movie studios are under intense pressure now from the government and from organized groups of very vocal people who are certain that media violence causes real violence, even though there's never been a shred of proof to show that it does. People who make arguments based on unproven assumptions deserve to be taken about as seriously as Britain's Flat Earth Society. As John Cleese once said of that group, "You're not gonna change the name of the song to 'Across the World in 80 Days' just to please them."

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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