drama derby

The Greatest TV Drama of the Past 25 Years, Round One: Deadwood vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding the ultimate Drama Derby to determine the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years. Each day a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 23. Today’s first-round battle: Actor-writer Paul Scheer judges Deadwood versus Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can place your own vote on Facebook or tweet your opinion with the #dramaderby hashtag.

It’s a classic tale: Two outsiders, each new to their respective town, and each getting a lot more than they bargained for. For one of them, it’s vampires, ghouls, and the occasional John Ritter robot. For the other, it’s dirty politics, dirtier whores, and constant exposure to the word “cocksucker.”

This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer versus Deadwood.

I love both of these shows. When they were good, they were the best shows on TV. And when they were bad — well, they were still better than everything on The CW. I’ve been assigned the unfortunate task of choosing which is better, and it’s hard. It’s like making me pick who’s my favorite Die Hard character: Argyle or Sergeant Al Powell. For the sake of this essay, though, I’ll pick a winner. And your @paulscheer tweets will tell me if I’m right, if I’m wrong, or if I just won a free iPad.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the first show that I can remember really “getting into” — besides, of course, Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts, which somehow didn’t make it into this “Best TV dramas” bracket. Weird. Anyway, I’ll admit I was initially embarrassed about being a Buffy fan. Whenever I’d say the title, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER — and yes, I’d say it in all caps — people would look at me with a smirk of condescending derision: “You like that show?” Maybe they couldn’t get past the title, or the fact that Buffy was spun off from a mediocre 1992 Kristy Swanson–Luke Perry movie. For whatever reason, many of my friends dismissed Buffy sight unseen, writing it off as little more than a teenage Ally McBeal, albeit with vampires.

But for those of us in the know, Buffy was funny, sincere, action-packed and, at points, utterly gut-wrenching. What’s it about? Long story short — way short: Once in every generation, fate chooses a Slayer to do battle with vampires, demons, and various other forces of evil. Buffy is one such Slayer, a mix of Linda Hamilton in T2 and Shannen Doherty in Beverly Hills, 90210, only funnier. She has a core group of friends, nicknamed “The Scooby Gang,” who fight alongside her. No one else in Buffy’s misleadingly idyllic hometown of Sunnydale, California — which is built on top of a giant Hellmouth —knows Buffy’s extracurricular demon-stabbing, including her own mother.

Over the course of the show’s 144-episode run, creator Joss Whedon built a giant world. Even more impressively, Whedon wasn’t afraid to turn it upside down, as evidenced by the number of key characters Whedon killed off, and not just because contract negotiations broke down. Buffy racked up casualties left and right, with even Buffy dying (twice). These weren’t soap opera–style deaths; this was real Game of Thrones–style shit.

Don’t believe it? Let me point you to “Villains,” the season-six episode in which Willow — Buffy’s chipper, good-witch pal — turns evil, avenging her girlfriend’s death by ripping off the killer’s skin. Yeah, it was gross. And it was on network television (although, by this time, Buffy was on UPN, which only barely qualified as a network).

Speaking of Willow, Buffy was one of the first shows to feature a realistic gay-teen coupling. The romance between Willow and fellow witch Tara, introduced halfway through the show’s run, wasn’t some ratings stunt, à la The O.C. It was as heartfelt and honest a relationship as any other on Buffy, and just one of the many ways Whedon pushed the boundaries of the small screen. Consider the infamous fourth-season episode “Hush,” which nixed all dialogue, years before The Artist came along. Or season six’s “Once More with Feeling,” in which the entire show was reimagined as a musical. Prime-time song-and-dance numbers may feel cliché now, but in the post-Cop Rock era, they were an act of downright bravery.

Now let’s move from Sunnydale, California, to Deadwood, South Dakota. Though separated by only a thousand miles, the two towns — and the shows that established them — were worlds apart: While Buffy was about protecting society from chaos, HBO’s Deadwood was about how chaos created a society.

From the outside, Deadwood looks like your typical western. It’s set in a villainous 1870s gold-mining camp that’s populated by schemers, thugs, prostitutes, and the occasional law-abiding citizen. Our ostensible hero is Seth Bullock (Tim Olyphant), a former marshal who puts aside his law-enforcing ways to make it rich in the gold rush. But he’s immediately drawn back into keeping the peace, guarding a town that’s quickly evolving past the black-and-white nature of the Wild West. The easy-to-spot bad guys are gone, replaced by politicians and businessmen.   

Shakespearean in tone and thematically epic, Deadwood was, at its core, about power. The first season focused on the slow-burn showdown between Bullock and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a “cocksucker”-spewing bar-owner-slash-warlord. But as Deadwood progressed, Bullock and Swearengen’s conflict grew far more complex, and the two men eventually found themselves with a common enemy: Greedy gold-mine baron George Hearst, played by Major Dad himself, Gerald McRaney. Faced with the threat of corporate capitalism, Bullock and Swearengen are forced to band together and fight — not just for their own self-interest, but to keep Deadwood’s individualistic ethos intact. 

These are pretty lofty ideals, and are hard to articulate, especially with men from this era. So on Deadwood, the characters’ internal struggles were often expressed through violence. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Deadwood is: EYE GOUGE.

It’s an image burned into my head from one of the most brutal fights I’d ever seen on TV. In the season-three episode “A Two-Headed Beast”, two characters — one aligned with Swearengen, the other with Hearst — were in a battle to the death. As the whole town watched, one of the scrappers plunged his fingers into his opponent’s face and pulled out a fleshy, slinky eyeball (sorry for putting that visual in your head; I’ve had to live with it for years, and now you do, too!).

That duel was a microcosm for what was happening in the town: Old power versus new power. Deadwood was populated with those who would take what they want at all costs, and do anything to win, in order to protect the life they wanted to live. I always thought of the show as the cooler, more artistic brother to The Sopranos’ All-American high-school football player. It never got as much respect — nor nearly as many viewers — but those of us who did watch knew Milch’s creation was just as good, if not better.

Both Buffy and Deadwood made for great TV, but in totally different ways: Buffy had deep-rooted, almost mythic story arcs and boldly experimental episodes. It grabbed the torch from Twin Peaks, bringing cool cult television into the mainstream, and even the show’s missteps — say, the episode where kids were turned into Neanderthals by drinking a magical beer — were redeemed by the show’s amazingly witty pre-Juno-esque dialogue, and the phenomenal chemistry between its stars.

Deadwood, on the other hand, was more about mood, subtle power plays, and notions about morality, expansionism and capitalism that are still debated today (albeit with fewer eye injuries). It upturned the sanitized, simplified, Clint Eastwood version of the Old West, and as a result, the show wasn’t always easy to watch: Creator David Milch expected his audience to be smart, and you got the sense that Milch would rather stab you in the hand than hold it (it didn’t help that the characters’ accents were frequently unintelligible; I watched the first two episodes with subtitles on, just to make sure I understood everything the characters were saying).

Unfortunately, Deadwood, to this day, doesn’t have an ending, with Milch and HBO unable to agree on how to continue the show after its third season. So instead of closure, we got John from Cincinnati. What a hit to the balls! We were like David Milch’s one-night stand: We thought we were going to have a long life together, but instead, he snuck out in the middle of the night next and ran off with a dumb alien surfer. Deadwood will be used as an example of brilliant writing and acting on TV for a very long time but, alas, it’s incomplete, the same way the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be incomplete until they let in Kiss.

By contrast, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is in many ways still alive — not just in the numerous comics and books that have been spun from the show, but in fans’ hearts and minds, as well. Perhaps no character demonstrates this better than Spike. Played by James Marsters, he’s one of the best characters created for TV. He’s a vampire (picture Billy Idol with fangs) who was originally introduced as the “Big Bad” out to destroy Buffy. But as most vampires in Sunnydale are prone to do, he fell in love with her, first in a hate-sex way, and then in a true-love type of way that made viewers forget all about that dope Angel.

Spike’s evolution on the show was astonishing: He started as a supporting character, but thanks to his sly charm, he grew to be the most fully developed character in the Buffy universe. He rose from the dead to co-star on the Buffy spinoff Angel, and has since spawned his own comic book series, which continues his adventures. Hands down, he’s the show’s M.V.P.

But Spike also demonstrates why, in my mind, Buffy ultimately trumps Deadwood. If Deadwood could be opaque at times, Buffy actively invited the viewer in; it was as though Whedon and Co. wanted you to be a member of the Scooby gang from your living room. Buffy yielded a fully living, breathing world where the continuing adventures of characters like Spike never truly die. Whedon knew that the best ending was no ending at all, and in the end, left us wanting what every fan wants: More.

Winner: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Reader Winner as determined on Vulture’s Facebook page: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Paul Scheer (@PaulScheer) is that guy from The League (FX) and also that guy with the wig on NTSF:SD:SUV::  (Adult Swim). Follow him for the latest news about Reba McEntire.

The Greatest TV Drama of the Past 25 Years, Round One: Deadwood vs. Buffy