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Monday, July 1, 2013

Top 10 Lists

Entertainment Weekly's latest issue has a bunch of Top 10 and Top 100 lists for different categories (best TV show, best drama, etc.). Top 10 lists are fun, but they tend to be pretty subjective and not very convincing to those who don't share your tastes. Still, EW ranked Buffy pretty high on several lists, so I thought I'd comment on them.

Buffy rated No. 1 in the science fiction category. This is nice, except that the show wasn't sci-fi by any reasonable definition. I guess they meant fantasy/sci-fi, because they didn't have a fantasy category. The rest of the top 10, though, was sci-fi.

Buffy also rated No. 2 in the category Cult Classics, behind The Wire. It finished No. 3 in the Best Drama category, behind The Wire and The Sopranos.

I never watched The Sopranos (I don't have HBO and never picked up The Sopranos later), but I have seen The Wire and liked it a lot so I thought I'd explain why I think Buffy was the better show.

First, the best episodes of The Wire don't match up to the best of Buffy. The Wire was more consistently written -- no episode of that show is even close to as bad as, say, I Robot, You Jane. But Buffy hits peaks in episodes like Passion, The Body, and OMWF that The Wire can't match. I'm a big believer that peak performance counts for a lot (see my discussion of Mozart in the Introduction), so Buffy gets the nod.

Second, Buffy ran far longer than The Wire. The Wire only had about 50 episodes total, while Buffy had 144. This is important: most shows decline over time, and The Wire is so consistent in part because it never went through that phase (and at that, S5 wasn't up to the standards of 1-4). If we were to take just the top 40-50 or so episodes of Buffy, the seeming advantage The Wire had in consistency of writing would disappear. Moreover, Buffy then produced an additional (arbitrary) number of very fine episodes above and beyond that. Again, the advantage goes to Buffy.

Third, I can re-watch Buffy almost endlessly (and have). I think The Wire is terrific and liked it enough to watch it three times, but at that point felt I'd gotten all there was to get. I take this to mean that Buffy has layers -- depth, if you will -- that The Wire can't match.

In short, my Top 10 list is objectively better than EW's. :)


  1. Hear, hear.

    Just thought that I'd drop a commentto say that I am currently in the middle of a re-watch of BtVS, in accompaniment with reading my way through the fantastic pieces that you have written for this blog. Your insights and points of analysis and argument have made for excellent reading, and have definitely enhanced the experience - thanks for all the great work!

  2. Thank you! I hope you love the re-watch.

  3. (been a while -- I just got a paper finished fairly recently)

    I'm just watching The Wire for the first time and I'm fairly floored with it -- but I also feel like it is not really about character in the same way BtVS is. Or rather: I think The Wire has an attention to detail of how specific systems work which goes far beyond BtVS. But BtVS is about something both vaguer and maybe more universal than those systems.

    I think BtVS' length shouldn't be underestimated; 144 episodes of television drama maintaining a fairly high (IMO) standard of quality is exceptionally rare. It's not even really fair to compare it to The Sopranos or Mad Men, which were/are longer running than The Wire, because those still have 13 episode seasons or so. In the >100 hours of TV drama department, there aren't really that many competitors. The shows that do go that long either tend to be non-narrative procedurals or repeat their main narrative (e.g. House, which was good for a while but eventually only has one real story to tell -- plight of the screwed up genius -- and has to keep retelling it). Off the top of my head, the only hourlong shows besides Buffy in the >100 episodes category which I like a great deal are Angel, and Star Treks The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and none of them are in Buffy's league (and all have longer rough patches -- TNG's first and last seasons, Angel's first season before Faith shows up, etc.).

    P.S. -- I actually like I Robot - You Jane, or rather I think there is a lot of interest there, if in a cheesy package. But, you know, still not exactly a high water mark. :)

  4. Good to see you again. Congrats on the paper!

    I very much agree that it's much easier to write for a season having 10-13 episodes than one having 22. BTVS was (in)famous for its intense production schedule. That's a testament to Joss in one sense, but it's also hard to keep that up for 7 seasons @ 22 episodes each.

    The Wire, to me, deals with the interaction between people in a structure which ends up controlling all of them. It's terrific, but I'm not sure it's universal -- the specifics of West Baltimore and the drug laws are crucial. It's definitely a great show though.

    Sorry, IRYJ is my go-to episode for one that's low on the list. I'll use Teacher's Pet or Go Fish if you promise to comment more. :) The problem is, no matter which episode I choose, somebody is going to like it.

  5. Hi Mark,

    just popped by and saw a few new pieces up . . .

    I'm at the beginning of a re-watch right now that I'm doing for a project I'm working on, and I just watched IRYJ last night. I was dreading it a bit - in fact, I've almost always skipped it on previous re-watches - but it turned out to be surprisingly better than I'd remembered. I think because I'm watching now more for thematic resonances and character development rather than for plot (arc-based or episode-based), there's more to like. Yes, it still has its moments of high cheese, but it does a fairly deft job of establishing some of Willow's insecurities that will drive a lot of her behavior in the future: specifically, I thought it was interesting the way she kept her relationship with "Malcolm" secret (as she would with Tara, later). I also thought her resentment of Buffy for questioning the relationship pointed towards some of her S6 feelings. And while the execution is silly sometimes (Moloch's face on the computer), and some of the dialogue about computers pretty laughable, the whole idea of the scanner "reading" the text is pretty cool. Plus, the final scene . . . and hello Jenny Calendar! So, definitely not a top ten, but better by far than I'd remembered. I enjoyed it more than The Pack or Teacher's Pet.

    Regarding The Wire, there's another thing about the two shows that for me gives BtVS the edge - a very personal question of taste. Like you, I really like The Wire. But I sometimes find its plotting and other construction a bit too forced, a bit too neat. I've got this theory (well, in very inchoate form) that some shows focus so much on getting everything "right" - continuity, mise-en-scene and other details, character inerations, etc. - that they can't breath. Whereas with BtVS (and, for example, Lost), the powers that be show a willingness to give up some of that sense of control, to overlook some of those details, in order to go for something more transcendent . . . or even just cool (Angel exhaling the smoke on becoming evil again, even though it's been established he can't breath, for example). It's not to say that one approach is "better" than the other, but the looser approach builds in more opportunities for surprise, delight, etc. And so I end up enjoying Buffy more than The Wire, even though I can completely understand why, according to some criteria, people think The Wire is "better." If that makes sense.

  6. Good points. Thanks.

    I wish there was a universally agreed "worst" episode so I could use it. You're right that there are good parts of IRYJ (especially the ending scene). Maybe I'll mix it up and use Teacher's Pet next time. Not The Pack, though -- I like that one.

    Interesting suggestion about The Wire. Isn't there a saying somewhere that every work of art must have some small imperfection? That gets to your point about Angel -- the exhaled smoke shocks us but it works perfectly. Shadowkat is always telling me that The Wire is more consistent; now I'm going to quote you back to her.

    Enjoy the re-watch!

    1. Maybe I'll mix it up and use Teacher's Pet next time. Not The Pack, though -- I like that one.

      The Pack is one of the best eps of S1 for me. 1) They ATE Principal Flutie? That was the first time the show shocked me because I didn't expect them to go there. The death of Jess was sort of "meh" for me but Flutie...whoa. Shit just got real. 2) The dodgeball scene was INTENSE. And brought back a lot of memories. Not happy ones. the dynamic of bullies/victims is of course exaggerated there but fairly accurate nonetheless. Teachers Pet or Inca Mummy Girl work for me if we're talking early seasons. AYW for the late seasons.*stabs*

      Of course I agree with your arguments for Buffy's supremacy (never mind that I've never seen the Wire, 'kay?) I agree that the sci-fi categorization is odd; the early seasons were a mix of horror movie and high school movie tropes. "Genre" if you have to label (as we use the term now) although everything has a category of some sort and so "genre" is pretty vague anyway.

      But also terms like "sci-fi" (or genre) and "cult classic" have the effect, for me at any rate, of acting as a sort of "ghettoization", implying Buffy is something off to the side, enjoyed only by a small but devoted following of oddballs (stereotypes of nerds and geeks, academics); and not really able to compete with the "big boys", the "serious" or "important" stuff. I can't think of any show I've ever watched that is more serious, takes on more RL themes (if not perfectly), is more universal than Buffy. Other shows I watch once and move on; Buffy S5-7 I've rewatched endessly. (And watching other shows in the year since I found Buffy? God I miss things like season arcs and character arcs and in-depth, complicated characterizations. Btvs ruined me.)

  7. Pretty total agreeage here. AYW is my own personal worst episode, but Teacher's Pet is pretty bad and has much worse production values. Plus, I'm pretty sure red_satin_doll likes Teacher's Pet, so I'll get in trouble if use that. :) Go Fish is pretty bad too, though it does have that great scene with Cordelia at the pool.

    Very much yes to your point about the categorizing of fantasy/sci fi. AFAIC, BtVS is a drama. It uses genre tropes to tell the tale, but it's still a drama. Just like The Searchers uses Western and Civil War tropes, but it's still a drama (and ranks high on most top movie lists).

    You should give The Wire a try. It's really very good (for a police procedural :)). But Buffy is better.