For the next three weeks, 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 charged 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: The Fug Girls judge Buffy the Vampire Slayer versus Dawson’s Creek. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which show you think should advance.
Let’s be honest: This task is a bit scary, like being confronted by the Hellmouth, or worse, Dawson Leery’s hair. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek are the two seminal high-school-set soaps of the late ‘90s — Donna Martin was well into her eighth hair color and third cup size by this time — and, with apologies to twinkle-toed mascot Michigan J. Frog, these shows were the only reasons anyone even considered taking the WB network seriously. And, all appearances to the contrary, they have more in common than just a network and a cast of attractive young unknowns. Each turned its screenwriter creators, Joss Whedon (Toy Story) and Kevin Williamson (Scream), into showrunning icons. Both featured gay romances, which was extraordinary and noteworthy at the time. Buffy’s protagonist was the Chosen One; Dawson’s acted like he thought he was. Both could easily top lists celebrating Best Teen Angst, or Shows for Which You Were Maybe Technically Outside the Demographic But Were Obsessed With Anyway. Kicking one to the curb so early in this process feels wrong, like telling either Key or Peele to go sit down because it’s not his turn anymore. But into the breach we plunge.
Buffy launched first, with arguably a harder row to hoe — not least because it was spun off from a Luke Perry movie. Vampires in 1997 were not then, as they are now, the stuff of teenage fangtasies (zing; sorry, we couldn’t help it). It starred a girl from All My Children and the dude from the Taster’s Choice ads. It was a mid-season replacement. It shot at the same Torrance, California, school used in Beverly Hills, 90210 — somehow all roads lead back to Luke Perry — which threatened to be at least visually distracting.
But Buffy’s premiere set Monday-night ratings records for the WB, largely because of Whedon’s ability to cut through that noise and deliver a show that routinely aced the metaphor of high school as, quite literally, hell (given that this one sat right on top of it). Team Slayer dealt with life and death and afterlife in ways more literal than your average prom queen or jock or nerd, but the setting was never incidental. Buffy was able to fearlessly push things deeper and darker, balancing drama and despair and terror with humor because Whedon knew it was so solidly anchored in a relatable human rite of passage.
An obvious example is season three’s “Homecoming,” which overlays the usual social-hierarchy clashes with a macabre, amusing murder contest called Slayerfest ‘98. “Band Candy” features hexed fund-raiser sweets that turn all of Sunnydale’s adults into their own high-school selves, a witty inversion of the existing dynamic. Season one used a talent show to make hay out of everyone’s secret conviction that ventriloquists’ dummies are plotting all our deaths (that’s your fear, too, right?), and there is no more logical way to make and break teenage relationships than by combining Valentine’s Day and magical accidents. Sunnydale High was, brilliantly, never just a convenient location or a gimmick.
Buffy was also emotionally sweeping, as in its rightly heralded season-two arc in which Buffy and Angel consummate their love, the completion of which — ahem — ignites a curse that turns the latter into the grisly Angelus, an alter ego so rotten and homicidal that Buffy must eventually run him through with a sword and send him into a hell-dimension … which she does one half-second after his curse is reversed and his soul has been restored. It’s enough to make you, too, want to leave town on a bus while drowning in Sarah McLachlan. But what truly set Buffy apart was its sense of humor, its distinct voice, and a point of view that elevated high-school sarcasm into high art. Take this line in the Whedon-penned pilot, as our heroine pauses before unleashing her awesome ass-kicking fury upon a couple of vampires: “Okay, first of all? What’s with the outfit? Live in the now. You look like Debarge.”
The reference was a decade old then, but even today, the comedy of it stands tall: pithy and perfectly specific. That unimpeachable and distinct tonal DNA carried eager viewers beyond the Scoobys’ teenage years, through all seven seasons (and across to another network) of deep mythology, death and possessions, villains and lovers, villains who used to be lovers, and lovers who used to be villains. Buffy became so much more than a high-school show, or demon-of-the-week. Indeed, one of its best visual metaphors is that when the gang graduates, Sunnydale High actually ceases to exist: They have to blow it up to save the world. Again.
Nothing blew up on Dawson’s Creek, other than several tender hearts. It premiered almost a year after Buffy, and because it was styled in the What Your Kids Are Really Doing vein, it was the subject of much pearl-clutching from the get-go. All these teens! Talking about sex! Using an insane amount of SAT words! Their mouths manhandled syllables the way Buffy wielded a wooden stake: with laser purpose and without hesitation. Prior to Dawson’s Creek, teen soaps of this ilk seemed content to kowtow to their advertisers (like when Brenda and Dylan had to regret having sex) or preach to their audiences — literally, at times, in the case of WB mainstay 7th Heaven. Conversely, Williamson painstakingly crafted a show that refused to condescend to its audience. He — and WB execs, to their credit — trusted that teen viewers would recognize themselves in these witty and wise souls wielding a vocabulary list as long as their yearbooks, and he treated adolescent feelings as respectfully as any adult’s. If a consequence of that was an occasionally bizarre hypermaturity, well, his target demo could only be flattered. You might not be ready for this yet was often the implication from 90210; with Dawson’s Creek, it seemed to be We totally hear you.
And yet, if Sunnydale High was a powerful symbol, Capeside High School was often just a place to stick the actors and let them talk. Sure, Pacey banged his teacher, but that was more about premiering with a splash than reflecting an experience that was real to anyone other than Mary Kay Letourneau. Once you get past the requisite teen tentpoles — college-admissions episodes; a school play; that infamous talent show where Joey warbled “On My Own” just like everyone else in the world — Dawson’s Creek dispensed with the high-school trappings because, frankly, it didn’t seem to want them. Instead, the show often came across like a years-long summer camp, all breezy Wilmington exteriors, and boats, and fish houses, and kids running around doing whatever they wanted in various configurations of sexual geometry. Jen loved Dawson. Dawson loved Joey. Joey loved Jack. Jack loved dudes. Dudes loved Jen. Jen grew to like Joey. Pacey loved Joey, and then Pacey loved Andie, but she went crazy, so Pacey loved Joey again, except she’d gone back to loving Dawson before coming to her senses. And that was just over a season and a half.
In terms of emotional fearlessness, Dawson’s does get major points, even if said emotions were tangential to the actual high-school setting itself. The show made history by airing prime-time TV’s first kiss between two men — send over a thank-you ham, How to Get Away With Murder — and, given that this show also killed off a man with an ice-cream cone, it’s significant that Kevin Williamson and then-scribe Greg Berlanti (and, again, the WB itself) treated their gay character’s evolution with care and resisted any cartoonish depictions of sexuality. Equally thoughtful was the growth of Pacey Witter, who busted right through the convention that the character whose name is in the title has to win at life. One of the best moves Dawson’s Creek ever made was letting the Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle evolve away from its ostensible romantic hero and straight toward the charming, sarcastic, supposedly secondary underachiever. But once it became clear that Joshua Jackson was six feet of charisma in a Hawaiian shirt, and that James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes by comparison had all the chemistry of a forehead and a desk, Williamson’s team actually allowed their heroine to burst into tears at the thought of spending one single summer day in Dawson’s company. Instead, it had her full-on run away from him and onto his best friend’s boat — named, perhaps too aptly, the True Love. That is a season finale. (Plus, it gave us the greatest GIF in history.)
It’s realism where the shows diverge the most when it comes to judging this match-up — but perhaps not the way you expect. Buffy peppered a surreal universe with relatable emotions, and Dawson’s Creek lived in an allegedly authentic world that was simultaneously totally preposterous. As such, Dawson’s has not aged well. Part of that is because its cast features more Oscar nominees (a sentence that seemed impossible in 1997) and Tom Cruise spouses (ditto) and Serious Actors (yep) and C.S.I. Cyber cast members than Buffy’s — and most of those evolutions are significant enough that it makes the reruns jarring. Also, we turned one on recently just in time to hear Andie McPhee screech to Pacey, “I got into this to get over you, okay? To give myself a new focus. And instead, your presence is giving me perpetual myopia!” We hate to echo all the buzzkills who complained about this at the time, but man, no one talks like that.
Worse, while Dawson’s Creek limped into old age with such storytelling as Joey Befriends Her Mugger and Then Sings Him to His Grave, Buffy was crafting creatively devastating episodes like “The Body,” where Buffy’s mother dies of the scariest thing of all — natural causes — or the terrifying silent hour “Hush,” in which a chilling band of ghouls steals people’s voices so that they cannot scream when their hearts are removed. Even the sixth-season musical episode “Once More With Feeling” was revolutionary at the time. To put it another way: Buffy never stopped trying, while Dawson’s Creek briefly made Pacey a stockbroker.
So while Dawson’s would be a defensible winner thanks to making TV history with Jack McPhee and giving us the truly divine Pacey Witter, Buffy is better written, more tightly constructed, and — in the framework of this contest — more reverent of its high-school years in a useful, thematic, and never-blasé way. And when it comes down the titular character carrying the narrative, Sarah Michelle Gellar blows the Beek out of the water. If Buffy had been on HBO, she would have a prime-time Emmy or three to join the daytime statue she won for All My Children. So, with relish, but also with reason, we can do what we’ve longed to for years: drop-kick Dawson’s clawlike coif straight into the Hellmouth, where it belongs. Eat up, beasties.
WINNER: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
The Fug Girls, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, write the celebrity fashion blog Go Fug Yourself. Their new novel, The Royal We, is out now.