high school tv showdown

The Best High-School Show of the Past 30 Years, Round Two: Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs. Daria

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: Hillary Busis judges Buffy the Vampire Slayer versus Daria. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.

Choosing between Buffy and Daria just feels wrong, probably because both scratch a similar itch for similar people (read: hyperverbal outsider nerds, a.k.a. the population of the internet). Sure, one’s a live-action, supernaturally flavored dramedy, and the other’s a bone-dry, quasi-realistic cartoon about teendom’s biggest misanthrope. But in addition to focusing on loner female protagonists, Buffy and Daria had a lot in common: Both were spinoffs, premiering a week apart on Mondays in March of 1997, that greatly improved upon their early ‘90s source material (Joss Whedon’s 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie and Beavis and Butt-head). Both were criminally ignored in their day by the shadowy figures in charge of handing out TV awards. Both were good for five seasons (sorry, Spuffy shippers).

Perhaps most important, Buffy and Daria offered similarly sharp, endlessly quotable commentary about the absurd nature of adolescence and the many ways that high school can be hell (albeit one more literally than the other). The title characters were wry and world-weary, often in the performative way of someone who hasn’t actually seen much of the world — making them relatable catnip for their demographic, as well as older, wiser viewers nostalgic for their own teenage years. They shared a snarky soul. Even though neither heroine really plays well with others, you get the sense that they might be pals if they met somehow — once Buffy got over Daria’s monotonous voice and Daria got over her innate distrust of cheerleaders.

That said: A decade after they both signed off the air, watching Buffy and Daria reveals that each is beginning, ever so slightly, to show her age.
Seeing Buffy’s pilot in 2015 feels a lot like spending an afternoon with a tenth-grader who’s desperate both to prove how smart she is and to appear as though she’s not trying very hard at all. Here’s Buffy, sassily entering a vampire’s tomb:

“Well, this is nice. It’s a little bare, but a dash of paint, a few throw pillows — call it home!”

The dialogue is as self-consciously quippy as a John Green book, stylized enough to distract from its substance. Its pop-culture references, too, have grown distinctly musty; did you know that Buffy and Cordelia’s first interaction hinges on a joke about John Tesh?

Of course, Buffy grew tremendously over the course of its first season — and especially in its second, which proved that the show could wring out tears as effectively as laughs. As the series moved away from monsters of the week and toward sustained, serialized, character-based storytelling, Buffy got a lot deeper than its jokey title would indicate it ever could.

By the end of that sophomore season — the year a devastated Buffy pleaded with Giles to “lie to [her]” about the way the world works, and Angel turned evil seconds after finally experiencing a moment of pure happiness, and ghosts from the Eisenhower era possessed Buffy and Angel and forced them to face their residual issues via spiritual role-play, and I’m not crying, you’re crying — the show had proven over and over again its power to pack an emotional punch. If you don’t get even a little bit misty when Buffy’s forced to let her one true love (again: sorry, Spuffy) get sucked into a hell dimension just moments after he regains his soul, then you might just be missing one yourself.

The writing could still get overly cutesy, a problem Buffy would face throughout its run. (Willow in season four: “No candles? Well, I brought one. It’s extra-flamey.”) Eventually, though, the words got less show-off-y and more natural-sounding, at least within the context of Buffy’s extra-natural universe — and they were always undercut by action that rang emotionally true.

Daria is dated in a different way. You know that episode of 30 Rock where Liz doesn’t want to go to her high-school reunion and face all the mean girls who tortured her when she was a teenager … only to learn once she’s there that she was actually the bully, a tart-tongued hellion who never even realized the cruel asides she muttered under her breath were scarring her classmates for life? Daria is basically a series-long variation on that theme. (In other words: Those paintball thingies really hurt!)

Daria Morgendorffer is brilliant, quick-witted, cripplingly perceptive … and, much of the time, a judgmental jerk. She’s antisocial, but not really because she’s been ostracized by a public that doesn’t understand her; over and over again, the show proves that Daria has chosen the life of an outsider because she really does believe that she’s better than the people who surround her. She even says as much in the show’s pilot: “I don’t have low self-esteem … I have low esteem for everyone else.”

Cool, edgy, enviable … if you also happen to be a self-important high-school junior (and a member of the MTV Generation). As an adult, though, it’s possible to see Daria’s aloofness for what it is: an act put on by someone who’s secretly every bit as insecure and vulnerable as everyone else, a coping mechanism she’ll hopefully recognize one day as neither more valid nor more righteous than those of her popularity-obsessed classmates. She criticizes them for being superficial — but does Daria’s own knee-jerk cynicism really make her any deeper?

At least a more complex series might have interpreted Daria’s posturing that way. Daria, though, was content to take it at face value — and often went out of its way to prove its heroine right, stacking the deck by setting her sardonic logic against one-off straw men like jackass jock Tommy Sherman and a particularly vicious Jane Pratt caricature. (I’ll always wonder what the Sassy editor did to piss off Daria’s writers room.)

Yes, Daria herself did grow and change marginally over the course of five seasons and two made-for-TV movies — which alone is enough to set Daria apart from most animated series. The closed-off girl we met in the show’s pilot would never have put herself on the line enough to have a serious romantic relationship or a life-altering friendship (that was almost ruined by said relationship), or a real bond with the sister who’s her diametric opposite.

Quinn also evolves over the course of Daria, going from one-dimensional punch line to an empathetic, if still overly squeaky, figure. Then again, it took five years for her to so much as admit to her friends that Daria, that weird girl who lived with her, was actually her own flesh and blood. Buffy, on the other hand, transformed Cordelia from stereotypical mean girl to sympathetic ally in one season flat — and even took time during that first season to look beyond her cruel exterior, giving Cordelia a monologue in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” that revealed how, yep, all her bitter bluster stemmed from a deep-seated loneliness.

In the end, that might be the real difference between Daria and Buffy. One was a cartoon, naturally interested in stasis; the other necessarily had to progress and age as its cast did, allowing it to reach new heights along the way. As funny and relatable as Daria was, especially for teens, the show didn’t work hard enough to be less shallow than its title character. Buffy was a series dedicated to upending stereotypes: the pretty blonde victim, the nasty queen bee, the stuffed-shirt librarian. Daria was a series populated by those stereotypes, most of whom never get a chance to prove they’re something more.

Plus, that episode with the anthropomorphized holidays is pretty unforgivable.


Hillary Busis is Mashable’s deputy entertainment editor.

Which Show Was Better: Buffy or Daria?