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On the Arts: Long distance ritual ends with 'Buffy'

Sunday, May 18, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

With the advent of low long-distance rates and television series that encourage discussion between friends, there's a phenomenon that's quietly sweeping the country. But to talk about it makes a person sound like, well, an obsessed geek.

I've been called worse, so I might as well be the one to shine a light on the increasing frequency of what Jennifer, a friend in Austin, Texas, and I call "the ritual."

We started calling one another years ago during commercial breaks in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (8 p.m. Tuesday, UPN) to discuss what had just happened. We can't agree on when it started; I say in the second season, she says in the third. One week, she'd make the calls, the next week I would. That is the ritual.

Oh, sure, there have been times it hasn't happened. But more often than not, we have kept the ritual sacrosanct, even stopping what we are saying as the end credits roll to partake in a mutual "Grrr, Argh," echoing the animated monster that's in the logo of the show's production company.

Jennifer and I often laugh at one another's attempts to turn down invitations to do other things Tuesday nights, being truthful but not revealing specifics.

"I'd say I had a phone date with an out-of-state friend," she recalled recently. "I just didn't mention the 'Buffy' aspect of it."

You can easily and quickly dismiss us as nerds with no lives, but by indicting us, you're slamming others as well.

A few years ago, I finally got up the courage to ask "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon what he thought of our weekly practice. In preparing to discuss it with him, I brought it up with Philadelphia Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray, who admitted she sometimes instant messages with Rich Heldenfels, TV critic for the Akron Beacon-Journal, during "Buffy" (and more recently, "American Idol").

Whedon, a self-admitted fanboy and geek extraordinaire, didn't dismiss our ritual.

" 'Buffy' was something that I designed to be loved with a passion, to be mythologized, to be more than a TV show, to be something people needed," Whedon said. "I love it like a teenager would love it, and that's how I wanted everybody to love it."

Whedon even admitted to his own TV habit: He used to watch "General Hospital" and then call his friends to discuss what happened.

"I knew it was bad, but you get involved with the soap of it," he said. "And I remember when James B. Sikking tried to shoot himself on 'Hill Street Blues.' " He called friends to talk about that one, too.

Whedon said these reactions to television stories hark back to the era of Charles Dickens' serialized stories.

"You build characters people really care about. They mythologize them and bring them into their lives. It's not that different from the people you know because, ultimately, everyone in your life is only your perception of them.

"When people start saying, 'Fox Mulder will protect me from the chickens from Venus,' then you worry," Whedon continued. "Those people need the help. You don't need the help. You're doing what I encourage people to do, to internalize this."

And more important, sharing my observations, criticisms and reactions with a friend. Although television has been blamed for destroying the fabric of American society, here's an example of TV bringing people closer.

Binding society together by giving everyone a common pop culture reference is something television did best back in the era of the Big Three networks. With cable, TV has become more fragmented, and that common reference point is harder to come by. But for friends with similar tastes, television continues to act as Crazy Glue -- er, maybe I should just say glue, -- a way to link people with common interests, both in anonymous online communities or across the miles on the phone.

Kevin Shelley, a Democratic San Francisco assemblyman who is now California's Secretary of State, said when he was away in Sacramento, he would call his wife to discuss "The West Wing" during commercial breaks in the White House drama. He told a reporter about this when explaining why he eulogized Mrs. Landingham, a fictional "West Wing" character, before adjourning the Assembly one day in May 2001.

"West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin said he'd heard that story and had no qualms about such a fervent response.

"I'm the last person to call people crazy," Sorkin said at an NBC party in January. "It's really flattering. We've passed around the article, and it makes us feel good when we read stuff like that. ... It's great that people get excited about the show. ... Television is an intimate experience. It comes into your living room and your kitchen."

Then again, Sorkin commented on fan behavior in an episode of "West Wing" last November. Presidential staff member Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) interrogated a White House employee who wore a "Star Trek" pin to the office.

"I'm a fan. I'm a sports fan. I'm a music fan. And I'm a 'Star Trek' fan. But here's what I don't to: Let's list our 10 favorite episodes. Let's list our least favorite episodes. Let's list our favorite galaxies. ... Let's spend the weekend talking about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians, and let's do it again," Josh said, taunting the woman. "That's not being a fan, that's having a fetish. And I don't have a problem with that, except you can't bring your hobbies to work, OK?"

Eulogies and costumes are a bit much for me, but I do understand devotion to a show and how much more enjoyable it is when you can share appreciation or criticism of a TV series with someone else.

My own "Buffy" ritual comes to an end this week. Other series also have encouraged the occasional commercial break phone call to Jennifer -- most notably "South Park" and "24" -- but I'm not sure any show will replace "Buffy."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to TV Forum.

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