Joss Whedon: The Biography

“So, why do you write these strong female characters?”
“Because you’re still asking me that question.”

I love Joss Whedon. Good thing, because so does Amy Pascale, the author of the new Whedon biography.

This book is a love letter, written by a fan for fans. It takes us through his career to date, from his early years writing for Roseanne, through his shows, his comics, and his movies.

To be fair, Pascale did her homework. The bibliography at the end of the book is impressive as is the list of people whom she interviewed. What seems odd, however, is that when one looks through the people interviewed, all of them are well-known members of the Whedonverse.

The book is filled with quotes about how wonderful Whedon is, what a talented writer he is, what an inclusive director he is. All of which, I am sure, the people interviewed believe. He is, after all, their friend and, occasionally, their boss. After a while, however, I got the sense that those who were interviewed were chosen because either Pascale or Whedon knew that what they would say would be positive.

I find it impossible to believe that everyone in Hollywood thinks Whedon is the second coming. Yet, nowhere is there any evidence of that. The cynic in me wonders if Whedon’s power is now so great that people who may not be as big a fan as the rest of us were too concerned about future employment prospects to speak against him.

For example, we get tantalizing hints that life on the Buffy soundstage was anything but joyful. When discussing Firefly, everyone (including Whedon) talks about how quickly that cast gelled, how well they all got along, and how inclusive Nathan Fillion (as number one on the call sheet) was. It is easy, therefore, to extrapolate that this was not what Whedon had experienced on his two earlier shows. In fact, several broad hints are dropped that Sarah Michelle Gellar was a right pain to have around and that she felt she was greatly unappreciated for her part in Buffy’s success.

Broad hints are all we get, however. Pascale either was not able to get anyone to go on the record about what really happened or she chose not to include it. Either way, it is frustrating to read only the good. Biography should give us a more rounded picture of who this person we are reading about is.

The unfortunate result of all this positivity is that Whedon the man becomes uninteresting. It is a person’s flaws and quirks that make him compelling. It is seeing a person fail and rise above that creates drama. Whedon is more than a sum of his works; we never see who that person is.

Pascale does a good job taking us through Whedon’s life and career. She does not, however, try to put this career into the context of the man himself. We read that he writes strong female characters because of the love he had for his mother. If you’ve listened to any of his DVD commentaries, you already know this. We read that he came to his love of Shakespeare through his father. Again, Whedon has told us all this before.

Whedon’s life outside of his role as a writer and director are all but glossed over. Pascale provides long plot descriptions of movies most of us have seen (I’m looking at you, Toy Story), yet only mentions in passing the birth of Whedon’s children. Kai, Whedon’s wife, is portrayed simply as the woman who supports her husband — she rebuilt their house so that he could film Much Ado there. The only personal thing that either Whedon reveals about the other is that they slept together on their first date. Again, more context would have been interesting. Was this out of character for them? What is it about the other that is so compelling they instantly became intimate and have remained together all these years?

Throughout the book, the section I found most interesting was a long discussion of the Bronze, an internet board that was very active during Buffy’s run. Pascale talks about the early days of the internet and how this board was one of the first of its kind. Not only was the show discussed in great detail, but many of those who posted became friendly. Whedon, the writers, and the cast embraced this new way of connecting with the show’s fans. All of them posted from time to time and all of them read the posts frequently.

The section would have been stronger, however, with some deeper context. Why did Whedon so eagerly embrace the Bronze? Was he so visionary that he knew this was how all shows would be discussed in the future or was he so insecure that he needed to know that he was loved by the fans? Pascale never attempts any analysis at all.

Finally, this is a book that collects information about Whedon and puts it all together in one volume. It is well researched and well written. If you are a fan, as I am, it is a fun foray through shows and movies the man has made. If you are not already a fan, this will not change your mind.

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.

11 comments:

drnanamom said...

Great review Chris. I will probably still read the book but I agree that a more balanced look at the man would be better. It would be interesting if he was just this guy who was really good at TV and movies. Just a really nice, talented guy. I think we are so used to connecting genius with bad behaviour that we don't remember the people who are just nice guys. Not that anyone is perfect and I'm sure Joss Whedon has his faults but what if he is boring? A boring, genius.

Billie Doux said...

It would be nice if we'd gotten some of the negative side. I remember during the run of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, Whedon was quoted as saying it was refreshing that Nathan Fillion was not a prima donna. I heard through the grapevine that Gellar and Boreanaz took that as an insult and there were very hard feelings.

sunbunny said...

I'm not a big fan of biographies, particularly one-sided ones so I think I'll give this one a miss. Just curious, how did Pascale explain Charisma Carpenter's exit from Angel? Or did she mention it at all?

ChrisB said...

Doc -- I agree that on the nasty/nice scale, Whedon is most likely closer to the latter than the former. But, as nice as I am sure he is, all of us is a flawed human being. Seeing more of his flaws would have made him more interesting to read about.

Billie -- ah! That makes sense.

Angel is the show that gets the smallest amount of coverage in the book. It is also interesting to note that Boreanaz, Richards, Carpenter, and Marsters are not among the names of the people interviewed.

THE REST OF THIS COMMENT CONTAINS A SPOILER FOR ANGEL:








sunbunny -- Using old interviews with both Carpenter and Kartheiser (Connor), Pascale talks about how badly the fourth season of Angel went off the rails and how unhappy both Carpenter and Kartheiser were with the direction their characters had taken. The general consensus is that Whedon was stretched too thin (with three shows on the air) and David Greenwalt had left, so no one was steering the ship.

Kartheiser hated his character and couldn't wait to leave. Carpenter was relieved that Whedon was returning for the fifth season, but then she got a phone call from a writer at TV Guide asking for her reaction to being removed from the cast list. Whedon had told the press before he told her. She was less than pleased.

Even more interesting is how she was treated later. Jeff Bell and David Fury were running the show during the fifth season and decided that Carpenter really needed to be a part of the 100th episode. She was reluctant to do it, but finally agreed under one condition -- that they not kill off her character. They assured her they would not and she signed her contract for the episode. After she signed it, they told her that Joss planned to kill her all along.

Furious, she refused to do the episode until Fury talked her around. As Pascale says, "Carpenter was still heartbroken that the writers had blindsided her with such deliberateness. But she was won over the poignancy and levity of her exit."

Gavrielle said...

Great review, Chris - I don't think I'll bother. All the questions you ask are what I want to know as well.

Poor Angel. Always the red-headed stepchild.

Josie Kafka said...

Am I officially the only person who likes Angel Season Four? It's my favorite season.

Billie Doux said...

I like every season of Angel more than the previous season, so four is my second favorite. It's pretty wild and crazy. That might be why I like it.

Anonymous said...

Not a fan of Angel Season Four. Poor Charisma/Cordelia...from what I remember, Joss was upset that she became pregnant and that event altered a lot of what they had planned for that season. If it's true that he told the press that he killed her character off ("mystical coma," whatever) without telling her first, it shows that he has a vengeful side.

I like Joss and the stories and worlds he builds but he seems to be really petty at times.

Juliette said...

I get the sense this comments section is considerably more interesting and contains more information that is new to me than the book!

Troy said...

Interesting interview with Vincent who played Connor on Angel. He even hated his character. And apparently, according to Vincent, Joss had practically no involvement with Angel Season 4 due to Firefly. Explains a lot. A few mentions of Charisma Carpenter in there as well. They both hated the direction their characters went in season 4.

http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/15242440.html

ChrisB said...

Thanks for the link, Troy. Pascale quotes this interview at length in the book.