Magazine article Metro Magazine

'Who Am I? Who Are You?' (1): On the Narrative Imperative of Not Knowing Who You Are in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (TV: Views from the Couch)

Magazine article Metro Magazine

'Who Am I? Who Are You?' (1): On the Narrative Imperative of Not Knowing Who You Are in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (TV: Views from the Couch)

Article excerpt

This paper was originally presented as a conference paper to an audience of fans and academics at the Buffyverse Symposium held at Melbourne University, November 12 2002. It is, therefore, addressed to a general readership. Whilst the identity theory it rehearses is far from new, the attempt to link this with notions of character development in the long-form drama series signposts a new direction in thinking about the construction of narrative on television.

IT'S HARD TO KNOW WHO'S WHO IN Buffy when even the characters lose track of their identity, or have it stolen, or switched, or doubled, or find themselves morphing into vampires, monsters or even Gods. While a certain instability of identity is a given in many long-form drama series such as soaps, this is usually explained in terms which make sense in the 'real world'. In the Buffyverse, however, magic happens 'and identities can be altered in the wink of a spell. Thus while the instability of identity in Buffy may be partly a consequence of the narrative demands of a long-form drama series, it is also a consequence of supernatural forces which play havoc with the characters' sense of themselves. In this way all the characters in Buffy struggle to come to terms with identities which are always subject to powerful forces over which they have little control. I would like to suggest that it is this constant struggle to know who they are and achieve a coherent sense of self which makes the characters of Buffy both sympathetic and compelling to an audience inevitably engaged in a similar, though probably less spectacular, quest.


Buffy is a hybrid long-form drama series. In other words, Buffy combines the episodic narrative structure of the television series (featuring a regular cast of characters engaged in a different adventure/problem every week with little or no ongoing development of the characters--such as in the A-Team (NBC, 1983-1987) or The Rockford Files [NBC, 1974-1980]), with the ongoing narrative of the never-ending soap. This hybrid drama form emerged in the 1980s when the episodic drama series began to mutate into something else. In her book Seeing Through the Eighties, Jane Feuer (2) argues that this was the principle move made by television in the eighties, as it sought to maximize audience attention to prime time drama by employing the strategies of day-time soap. Thus while each episode of a new hybrid drama series might deal with one or two finite stories (plot line A and plot line B), beginning and ending in that episode, attention would also be given to the ongoing characters and their relationships across the episodes. Thus in Hill Street Blues (MTM/ NBC, 1981-1989) the policemen on the street would address a different crime every week, while romance and conflict waxed and waned between the regular cast of characters across episodes and even across seasons.

Buffy, in common with many popular TV drama series then and since, makes good use of this hybrid narrative structure, marrying the high-school serial drama of unfolding relationships as in Beverley Hills 90210 (US, 1999-2000), to the 'monster of the week' scenario employed by the early X-Files (Fox, 1993-2003). However, in Buffy, as in The X-Files, it is the ongoing narrative development of the central characters and their relationships which has tended to dominate our attention, especially during the opening and closing episodes of the seasons.

Buffy, however, does not operate quite like a soap opera in terms of the ways in which characters and storylines develop. In a soap opera, in order to produce new storylines and thus maintain viewer interest, characters may undergo major identity make-overs, going from good to bad and back again, they may forget who they are, or find themselves confronted by an evil twin. And strange things can happen. For example, season eight of the eighties prime time soap-series Dallas (CBS, 1978-1991) was simply dismissed in season nine as the bad dream of a character (see: www. …

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