high school tv showdown

Why Buffy Can’t Win a Vulture Bracket (and Why That’s a Compliment)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Why can’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer win a Vulture TV bracket?

We have reason to wonder. For the second time in three years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer made it past the first round of a Vulture TV bracket only to get nudged out before it could cross the finish line. In 2012’s Vulture Drama Derby, it got past round one (besting Deadwood, no slouch of a contender) only to get knocked out by Mad Men. (The final round, which I adjudicated, came down to The Sopranos vs. The Wire, with The Wire very narrowly winning.) In this year’s contest to determine the greatest high-school show, Buffy got a lot closer, battling all the way to round three, where it lost to Friday Night Lights.

Ken Tucker, who wrote the essay for that matchup, clearly struggled to choose one over the other, noting, among other things, that “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.”

The key phrase there, as I see it, is “a far wider range of adolescent experience.” Obviously Buffy offered a formidable range of such experience, beginning with the heroine’s instant outsider status, conferred by being anointed the Slayer; this automatically separated her from all of her classmates and loved ones because it caused her to bear a uniquely heavy burden. Even when she was joined on her adventures by other ass-kicking quip machines (including her undead sometime-lover, Angel, and fellow slayer Faith), the weight that never seemed to leave her shoulders came to feel like a stand-in for any event or combination of circumstances that forced a teenager to grow up before she was ready. The supporting characters grappled with love, lust, crises of morality, and faith and courage, and struggled to make sense of themselves in relation to their friends, their families, and their community. All of this is integral to the high-school genre, and as overseen by showrunner Joss Whedon, Buffy examined all the different facets, mostly with humor, but sometimes grave (pun intended) seriousness.

But there’s another telling phrase in Tucker’s piece that jumps out as well:

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.

This is all true. By season four she’d moved on to college, and even during the first few seasons, Buffy very quickly tired of focusing its attention on the social life of the school, even as a means of drawing supporting characters and guest stars into that week’s supernatural dust-up.

More to the point, if a person who’d never seen Buffy asked me to describe it, I would think of something more all-encompassing than high school. The main setting is a high school (at least during the first few seasons), the exteriors were shot at a real one, and many of the main characters are active high-school students. Inside, however, the school is often depopulated and doesn’t look or feel like anything resembling a real (or even “real”) high school — even the school on Veronica Mars, with its neo-noir lighting gels and tilted camera angles, seems more lived-in and functional. Sunnydale is more of a staging area for personal and societal conflicts, many of them primordial, and a makeshift stage that can be refashioned from week to week depending on if the writers and filmmakers want to create their own version of a musical or a silent film or a screwball farce.

The high-school tropes on Buffy are ultimately a means to an end. Where every other show in the High-School-TV Showdown deals with the emotional and physical facts of being an adolescent, and how they affect the adults who are involved in teenagers’ lives, Buffy treats adolescence mainly in terms of metaphor, to present stories of characters discovering themselves and trying to harness their maturity (their power) without becoming jaded or succumbing to evil. Many of the high-school characters seem at once too mature and too immature to be in high school, while many of the adults seem as petty or shortsighted as the most stereotypical teenager. They all inhabit a sort of developmental twilight, rather like the characters on Community, which is set on a college campus but might not necessarily be a series you’d sum up as “a college show.” The Buffy characters slide along a spectrum of sophistication, not just from week to week but episode to episode, depending on what issues the writers want to illuminate. There are many plots that are “about” high school on the most basic level (Xander falling in with a group of popular boys who turn out to be a literal pack of wolves; graduation day being reimagined as literally the end of the world), but these associations are presented in a way that’s at once sincere and winking, with enough imaginative wiggle room that you can apply them to situations in grownup life.

Which brings us back to the brackets. There’s a reason why Buffy was instinctively included in the Vulture Drama Derby even though it is not obviously a drama in the way that, say, Mad Men or The Wire are (mostly melancholy in temperament, despite many humorous bits); it has the formal expansiveness and prankish ambition that we associate with a lot great TV dramas, and is more radical than a lot of them, particularly in the way it shifts from kidding to serious and back again within the space of a few lines of dialogue.

But when you hear the title of the show, do you think, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what a great drama”? Probably not. Likewise, you might nod if somebody called it a great horror series (which it certainly is, though not entirely) or a great comedy (which is certainly is, a lot of the time) or a great romance (which it often was). But it’s not mainly any of those things. It might be more of a “high-school show” than a drama, a comedy, or a horror series, but not by much. This is part of the reason, I suspect, it was never nominated for a single Emmy. It’s not just the bias against science fiction and fantasy (which receded thanks to the success of Lost and Game of Thrones).

No, the real issue here is the generic elusiveness of Buffy itself. It is a series that is impossible to classify with only one label. It is not fish, not fowl, not mammal, not reptile, not amphibian; if some other TV series were to be convincingly labeled a platypus, I could envision it looking at Buffy and thinking, “I’ve never seen anything that reminds me of so many different animals. What are you?”

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Buffy fans should not be terribly disappointed whenever the series fails to win the top prize in a contest like this one. It’s further proof of the show’s specialness. Try to pin Buffy down with one descriptor and it changes form and slithers away, or flies through the nearest open window, or vanishes in a puff of smoke.

Why Buffy Can’t Win a Vulture Bracket