One of the many debates that rage amongst those of us who have way too much time on our hands is which Joss Whedon show is the best. It can’t be Dollhouse, because it clearly isn’t Dollhouse. It can’t be Firefly, though this is arguably only because the sample size is too small. So it comes down to Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs. its spinoff, Angel. Conventional wisdom then falls on the side of Buffy as the better show, though as is often the case with conventional wisdom, it’s dead wrong.
Buffy was a genius conceit – the metaphor of high school as hell was brought to literal translation with the image of the tiny blonde girl cowering helplessly in the dark before the big scary monster flipped on its head, culminating in the third season finale when the high school graduation is the site for the actual apocalypse, saved by a cast who ended their nouns with an extraneous ‘y’.
In both Buffy and Angel, the shows revolved around a central character who is essentially Superman. Surrounding these superheroes were plucky but ordinary, or certainly less powerful, friends. These characters, despite their limitations, chose to stand by their superhero friend and battle evil, oftentimes armed only with pluck and snarkiness despite the long odds on survival. In Angel, practically every character is killed by the end of the series, and if they’ve miraculously survived, they’ve had their lives and relationships destroyed along the way. It’s dark stuff.
This is ultimately why Angel is relevant in a way that Buffy could never be, for Buffy operates in the realm of fantasy, and not in the Whedon/genre sense of the word, where you get to wield a sword, fight demons and at the end of the day you go home to your screwed up relationship, but rather in that realm where we get to do anything we want without fear of consequence. In Angel, the supporting characters make the conscious choice to stand by their superhero, knowing full well they are overwhelmingly likely to die in the process. It’s Angel’s steadfast refusal to take the easy way out that separates it from Buffy, which fails repeatedly to take the show to its logical conclusion.
For instance, in season seven of Buffy, our heroine faces off against a supervampire, and initially she does not fare well. It takes several episodes for her to kill it, and in that irritating fashion where the beaten and bruised hero succeeds at the eleventh hour despite demonstrable proof that the bad guy is far superior. In the series finale, she and a handful of teenage girls battle thousands, literally thousands, of these vampires and win. That’s fantasy fulfillment, not drama, precisely because without any logic or realism or potential for surprise, there are no stakes. Since Buffy can’t possibly lose, then why tune in to see what happens, as we already know the outcome.
In the series finale of Angel, the surviving members of the gang set out to murder a relatively secret cabal of superevil sorts, a group that is much stronger collectively and individually than the good guys. Not everyone makes it to the end credits, and given how powerful the opposition is, this is how it ought to be. Both finales set our heroes against impossible odds, but Angel gets the nod for treating the circumstances with the gravity they deserve.
Okay, now that I’ve got all that off my chest, where was I? There was a point, I’m fairly certain. Hm. What was the ostensible point to this piece? Oh, right, sharks and jumping and whatnot. So Angel, despite being amazing and slightly better overall than Buffy, turns to total shit in season 4. The season is simply bereft of goodness and quality. One of the characters even takes a moment in the middle of season 4 to describe the events as a turgid supernatural soap opera and he was lowballing how painful it all felt.
And then in season five, the show finds it’s footing again, sending the whole thing off on a high note. There are many reasons the final season was successful, from re-structuring the story engine to bringing back old villains, to finally and satisfyingly fracturing the relationships between the characters that had been on the edge of ruin for so long, but all of that can be tossed out the window when you consider the fifth season of Angel has an episode where Angel turns into a puppet. You can’t beat puppets. It’s the greatest episode of television ever. Think I’m lapsing into hyperbole? Nope. It really is that good.
Season five isn’t perfect by any means, but if creates the perfect dynamic to end the show. The characters functionally sell their souls to the devil, and by the end of the season, they’ve each paid their own price. Plus, there was an episode with puppets, in which they’re singing about self-esteem and then killing children. It’s everything I want television to be.
Angel absolutely jumped the shark towards the end of the series run, but rebounded nicely, using its fifth and final season to avenge the horrors inflicted upon the viewing public by a season four that was catastrophically awful. The main problem Buffy faced as the show went along was the characters inevitably had to grow up and while the show was still entertaining after high school was left behind, it limped to the finish line, it’s seventh and final season by far its worst, and sadly, the show never had an eighth season to redeem itself. The difference then is a matter of degrees, I suppose, for both shows were hugely entertaining, but when it comes to jumping the shark successfully, there can be only one.
 Van Damme vs. Segal (clearly JCVD), best Alien movie (Aliens, but it’s close), which airline has the best frequent flier program (Southwest), which baseball statistic is the most meaningful (there is no one single stat to define greatness in the game, but rather a combination of the following – OBP, SLG, win shares, Eqa+, VORP and WAR. If you’re reading this and asking, “But Geoff, what about batting average?” please email me immediately so we can have an important talk about why you are wrong), which Muppet is the coolest (Gonzo…by a nose (ha!)), best movie with boats (Wind. Suck on that, Jaws. And all those other movies with boats that are probably better.), worst movie adapted from a great novel (Striptease), and my current personal favorite, the long-term viability of string theory (obviously it is doomed to failure, for much of string theory is still only a divergent series of approximations, and ones that are formulated perturbatively at that. I mean, really, if you want a cosmological constant inclusive of dark matter that corresponds to and is quantitatively identical with the standard model, then for God’s sake you have to create a plausible mechanism for cosmic inflation. Can you believe this doof won the Fields medal? http://www.notablebiographies.com/newsmakers2/2006-Ra-Z/Witten-Edward.html
 Thanks, Fox.
 In fairness, they also usually had large axes and commercial breaks.
 Which is that everybody dies. I know it’s a downer, but this is what you get for fighting the forces of evil who are significantly stronger and more plentiful than you and your friends. Think about this when making career choices, kids.
 Overcoming adversity is a classic trope, but sometimes it is taken to extremes, as in this clip, which enters the fight scene long after our hero had taken more shots to the head than anyone outside a Rocky movie should ever endure. Plus, if you haven’t seen the film, he started the fight with a broken rib. No, sorry, I call shenanigans on this one – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeFocnqhnQM.
 If you disagree, please go to a bar, find someone (preferably a jerk so you can still be the good guy or girl in this scenario) who is four inches taller than you and fifty pounds heavier, punch them in the nose, and watch what happens.
 I thought about doing a Highlander joke here at the end, but it’s late, and I can’t find the energy. Instead, enjoy this clip of American Dad doing it for me.