In discussing The Avengers, Tim Grierson points out something that captures elegantly one of the main reasons that I tend to find Whedon’s works so compelling: Joss Whedon: Revenge Of The Nerd:
“As opposed to J.J. Abrams, whom Hollywood has decided to anoint as our new ambassador of geek culture, Whedon never seems to be trying to prove to us how much he loves this stuff. Maybe that’s partly why some people prefer Abrams’ movies: His Star Trek and Super 8 have an ironic detachment to them that signals that we’re supposed to know it’s OK not to really take this stuff seriously. Despite his great sense of humor, Whedon isn’t ironic. For all his cleverness, he takes his worlds seriously. And even when he’s being snarky, there’s a sincerity underneath it all. With Abrams, you never get the sense that he absolutely has to tell these stories: He’s more of a producer who has a gift for good ideas rather than an artist following a calling.”
Whedon’s best work have ridiculous elements to them. Buffy, in particular, had some tremendously goofy and cheesy looking effects and villains. And even though the characters would always laugh at themselves or the situations that they were in, the situations always had gravity. The humor develops from the dramatic tension. The season arcs always built towards dramatic tension where the stakes for the characters felt huge. And even if you finished an episode shaking your head in disbelief about the implausibility or just weirdness of what happened, it didn’t affect how the characters take it seriously.
It’s always important to take the characters and drama seriously. It’s why The Wire, The Sopranos, Buffy, and Parks and Recreation work so well. They’re not afraid to be funny or dramatic rather than always serious or silly without losing the investment in the characters.