The Best High-School Show of the Past 30 Years, Round Three: Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs. Friday Night Lights

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

From late October through mid-November, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be tasked with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on November 13. Today's battle: Ken Tucker judges Buffy the Vampire Slayer versus Friday Night Lights. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.

In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, adolescence is a curse; in Friday Night Lights, adolescence is fate. There are a lot of other things that distinguish these shows from each other — Buffy makes points about family, love, betrayal, death, and the afterlife through the lens of fantasy viewed primarily from a young, female point of view; Friday Night Lights grapples with family, class, love, betrayal, and football through the lens of realism viewed from a wide variety of points of view — but the difference between curse and fate is an elemental one.

Although it’s almost hard to imagine now in a Twilight–Hunger Games–Walking Dead era, Joss Whedon was taking a thoroughly discredited genre and attempting to both rehabilitate it and infuse it with tremendous emotion when he created Buffy, first as a lousy 1992 movie over which he had lost creative control and next as a series consigned to a critically disrespected channel, the WB (UPN for its final two seasons). Sure, The Walking Dead hasn’t won any more Emmys in major categories than Buffy did (the tally for both would be zero), but Dead exists in a climate in which the genre is assumed to contain metaphors for serious themes, whereas Buffy, in most critical circles, the TV industry, and most of the mass audience, never rose above cult status. That Whedon and a squad of immensely talented writers and directors managed to create seven sometimes uneven, more often brilliant, seasons of television is a remarkable feat that, as the years pass, seems ever more amazing.

By contrast, FNL existed in a post-Sopranos universe — and as a contemporary of Mad Men, the football drama’s seriousness of intent was immediately recognized via its large-scale, complex storytelling and its highly sophisticated, and in some ways still underrated, filmmaking style. Yet FNL didn’t get an easier ride than Buffy did — despite instant and widespread recognition of its excellence by critics and awards (including Emmys and a Peabody), it always lagged in the ratings and after each season was in perpetual danger of cancellation.

So, underdogs both — just as most high-school students see themselves. Buffy Summers, reluctant vampire slayer, latched onto her status as an alienated outsider who forms a family with Giles (the librarian, Watcher, and father-she-hasn’t-had), plus a group of differently alienated students that become her friends, her Scooby Gang, and her allies in battle against … well, against nothing less than evil incarnate. Evil was incarnated in various seasons in different guises, from a mummified Master to a deceptively mild-looking Mayor, as what Whedon and his fan-base alchemized into each season’s “Big Bad.” Oh, and one other thing about Buffy: She had an Angel, from whom she would learn the agony of true love and the pleasure of death.

Friday Night Lights offered a far wider range of adolescent experience with less intentional wit than Buffy but just as much, if not more, heart. By placing the series in tiny Dillon, Texas, and setting it against the backdrop of not just high school but the Holy Church of Southern High School Football, FNL’s creators — essentially, Peter Berg and Jason Katims “inspired by” (as the credit read) Buzz Bissinger’s source book — plunged American television into a world as rarely seen on TV screens as Buffy’s Hellmouth: working-class, racially diverse youths straining for adulthood, and adults straining to recapture their youth through hard work and idealism. (“Clear Eyes Full Hearts Can’t Lose” is as heartfelt a motto as the Vampire Slayer’s epitaph “Buffy Summers: She Saved the World. A Lot.”)

As Buffy proceeded, high school became increasingly irrelevant to its concerns; initially the literal site of potential world-ending doom, it eventually served as the low-budget sets from which to flee — its halls could not contain the great Gothic romance and horror of the Buffy-and-Angel relationship, nor the amusingly convoluted, post-grad mythology of supernatural creatures that served as enemies and allies.

In FNL, high school was a place from which the adolescent characters must escape, since it defined their trapped existences (Tim Riggins played out his James Dean/Rebel Without a Cause fate; Matt Saracen, saddled with caring for his infirm grandmother, eventually leaves for the bohemian life at the Art Institute of Chicago; Tyra Collette needs college as a business-degree refuge from trailer-park family life) even as the adults became more enmeshed in high school (Eric Taylor’s existence is defined by being called “Coach”; Tami Taylor finds difficult but ultimately satisfying growth by declining to remain Mrs. Coach and becoming first a guidance counselor and then school principal).

Lyla’s way of calling Tim out on his loutish behavior is to say, “Why is it the minute you walk into this school, you turn into a dumb jock?” In FNL-world, school roles are impossible to resist or break, whereas the outside world offers the possibility of new roles, new identities to be self-created. Tyra tells Landry she needs to light out for the territory or “I’m gonna become my sister [a stripper] and then my mama [a victim of abuse by a series of boyfriends].”

As someone with no interest in sports and little feeling for the fantasy genre, who was well out of adolescence when watching both shows, I was nevertheless pulled in and fell hard for the wit and grand melodrama of Buffy, and for the plainspoken poetry and all-seeing, multi-tracking-camera aesthetic adventurism of FNL. It also helped to have daughters who were caught up in both series, young women who identified with various characters and whose responses to these shows confirmed my belief that Buffy’s self-protective irony and FNL’s open-hearted sentimentality were tools of creative, empowering strength.

Where Buffy the Vampire Slayer beguiled with clever dialogue so impeccably phrased it inspired itself to commit an all-singing musical episode (happy 14th anniversary, “Once More, With Feeling!”), FNL made beautiful blank verse out of Matt’s monosyllabic grunts, Tim’s hangover groans, Tyra’s exasperated sighs. Buffy — through the dialogue of Whedon, Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, David Greenwalt, and many others — gave us speech, phrasing, and cadences that real people and fictional characters still use today (Willow to Oz: “We could be dead in two days’ time and you’re being Ironic Detachment Guy!”). Friday Night Lights made the real world that much more vivid, tense (all those rapidly shifting points of view as filmed by FNL’s signature director, Jeffrey Reiner) and tragic. It’s hard to think of a character in FNL who didn’t emerge from it not merely more mature, but also more damaged and compromised.

I’m not playing the realism-trumps-fantasy card here, and this was a decision I did not make until I was in the process of writing this out, but in the end, Friday Night Lights haunts me just that much more than Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s demons.

Winner: FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

Ken Tucker is Critic-at-Large for Yahoo TV.