Before the show ended last year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an odd place for Christians to find spiritual truths, but those who did could find similar spiritual themes being explored on the spin-off Angel. Created by Joss Whedon, who also created Buffy, Angel's finale will be tonight. And like Buffy, the show attracted a theologically-minded audience. Jana Riess is the author of What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. She has an M.Div. from Princeton Seminary and a Ph.D. in religion from Columbia University.
What are the basic story lines of Buffy and Angel?
Buffy is about Buffy Summers who, as the show begins, is a high school sophomore, who wants to have a normal life. She's just moved to a new town, but her calling follows her. Her calling is to be the Slayer, the one person in her generation who is chosen to stand against the vampires and other evil creatures that plague the world. And this lovely California town that she moves to, named Sunnydale, is situated on the mouth of hell, so all of these nasty creatures are drawn to this place because of its deep, mystical energy.
Angel started after Buffy had been in production for three years. It followed Buffy's on-again/off-again boyfriend, who is a vampire with a soul. Most vampires are soulless, but Angel, because of a gypsy curse, struggles with having a soul, which makes him feel, on the one hand, absolutely terrible for all of the murders that he has committed through his decades as a vampire but, on the other hand, just as committed to working on the side of good to try to achieve some kind of redemption for himself.
Some people would argue that it's occultish, it's about vampires, it has a violent premise, that it's got a lot of adolescent sexuality, that the very nature of it's popularity is mindless, that it can't really be a setting for spiritual lessons. How do you understand this mix of the profane and the spiritual in these shows?
I think you're asking two different questions. One is, is this mindless entertainment? And the answer to that question is no. People can find very profound spiritual themes. They're there. They're there intentionally and sometimes they are quite profound.
The other question is about graphic violence and depictions of adolescent sexuality, which a lot of people have raised, particularly in the sixth season of Buffy, which was the darkest season. The Parents' Television Council, which is a Hollywood watchdog organization, named Buffy their public enemy number one, the least family-friendly show for of everything that was on television that season, including Temptation Island.
The show Friends has just closed down, Angel is closing down, Buffy has closed down. But those shows, particularly Buffy and Friends, have as one of their central themes the idea that you need companions, you need friends.
Isn't it interesting to compare that to some of the other shows that are popular now like Survivor, where you're voting people off the island. What could be more individualistic than that?
What do you make of that?
It's a tremendous dichotomy. I think we're kind of schizophrenic. We value community but we don't necessarily want all of the messy, entanglements that real community entails.
A friend of mine described Buffy as a show about empowerment, and Angel is more about redemption, the vampire with a soul looking for redemption. Is that accurate?
That's a very accurate summary. Angel is clearly a show about redemption and it's also a grittier show than Buffy. Even just watching it you can see visually how dark it is. Angel is a vampire, so he doesn't go walking outside in broad daylight. Most of the scenes are either interior shots or they're night shots. The whole show has a darker, grittier, almost a noir feel to it. Buffy takes place in Sunnydale, where, at least superficially, it looks all bright and happy, even though the mouth of hell lurks below the surface.
Knowing what we do about the writers, what would you think they were trying to do? Is Angel supposed to be a spiritual counterpoint to Buffy?
I think that they are very interested in the question of how to atone for the sins of the past when those sins are so grievous. We see some of the scenes from Angel's past through flashbacks. We see him murder a young woman, a maid, and then she begs for her life because of her baby. He makes some glib comment about how he's going to eat the baby, too. This is hard stuff. We see some of the things that Angel has done, we see the monster that he was, and then it makes us appreciate his struggle all the more.
You say ultimately the message of both Buffy and Angel seems to be that although it's great for us to have our own quests and spiritual journeys, it doesn't mean anything unless it's in the service of others. How does Angel's service for good define him and the show Angel? And what motivates that desire?
It is this constant quest for atonement. It's been interesting in these last few weeks of Angel to see what's going on with his character and to imagine how they're going to go out. He's making decisions that put people's lives in jeopardy, he's not caring about the innocent people that he used to care about, that he used to get out on the streets of LA to fight for. It really makes us wonder what's going on. As it turns out, he has made this choice so that he can go after all the big guns of evil if he wins their trust. To win their trust, he has to show them that he doesn't care about the little person anymore. So it's kind of a ruse, but he does make this decision that causes several people's death. Again, it raises that issue, which is more important? The big picture or these people?
How are the group dynamics of the characters on Angel different than they were in Buffy?
I think that Angel is a darker show. The characters are older. They've been through quite a lot, not only together but in their own journeys, and the issues that they deal with are a little bit different. They're not coping with not getting asked to the senior prom. They're beyond that. Buffy is a mature show, but Angel is a show that really is geared more for the adult mindset.
What did Angel bring to the culture that wasn't there in Buffy?
I would have to say it is the constant question of redemption. Where does it lie? Will I ever make up for the sins of my past? I know people whose sins are far less serious than Angel's, who never seem able to forgive themselves, can't move on, can't move past it. I think Angel, as a show, has provided some very interesting examples of how that happens.
What do you think creator Joss Whedon was able to do with Angel that he couldn't do with Buffy?
He explored some darker themes that he only got to toward the end of Buffy, as those characters had matured and been through some very serious things. But Angel begins from that place. Angel has been around for more than two centuries and he has seen and done just about everything that there is to see and do.
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Are Evangelicals Fueling Teen Fascination with the Powers of Darkness? | The horror of Buffy Summers and the fantasy of Harry Potter draw from conservative religious imagery while fans feed on conservative opposition, says the author of From Angels to Aliens. (July 11, 2003)
Evangelicalism's Dark Side and Popular Culture | Evangelicals may feel that stories of supernatural battles between good and evil belong to them, but they cannot control how these stories will be reconfigured once they enter the realm of entertainment media. (July 11, 2003)
Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 05, 2003)
Don't Let Your Kids Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer | But you can tape it and watch after they go to bed. (Sept. 18, 2002)
Buffy's Religion | Like her show, Sarah Michelle Gellar's faith is a hodgepodge of belief. (July 17, 2002)
Dick Staub is president of the Center for Faith and Culture, which examines intersections between popular culture and religious belief. Complete transcripts and audio versions of Dick Staub Interviews can be found at dickstaub.com. Recent Dick Staub Interviews for Christianity Today include:
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