A few years back, a friend of mine, Raf, turned me on to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (You may remember – I was mocked at the time for blogging about the show too often.) I was late to the party, but I quickly became a BTVS convert. While I was watching the show, Smallville was still on the air, and Raf suggested that once that show had ended its run, I should compare them to see which was better. Well, once again my timeliness is just a bit off, but hey, better late than never, right?
Why compare these two shows at all? Just because they were both serialized “genre” shows with a sci-fi/supernatural/fantasy element? Sure, what more rationale do you need?
So let’s get started. (Warning that SPOILERS for both shows follow)
Smallville had a great benefit and burden in its initial conceit – namely the fact that the story of Clark Kent, Lex Luthor, and their friends had been told many times before. That gave the show some instant brand-recognition, but it also subjected itself to the familiar problem of any prequel – the audience knows what’s going to happen. Before we saw a single frame of the pilot, the audience knows that young Clark will grow up to be Superman, and that Lex Luthor will be his arch-nemesis. It should be noted that Smallville took many liberties with the established Superman mythology, but most of the big picture elements remained.
Buffy on the other hand, started off with a clean slate. Sure, the character was in one horrible movie, but that story was very clearly not a factor in the TV series. That gave Joss Whedon and the other writers/producers much more freedom to do whatever they wanted with the characters. And with that freedom, they were able to regularly surprise the audience. Advantage: Buffy
Both shows featured a cast of impossibly attractive actors that looked like they were way too old to be in high school (because, of course, they were.) And while Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, and Eliza Dushku are all beautiful, none of them come close to Kristin Kreuk. Advantage: Smallville
Over their seven and ten seasons, both Buffy and Smallville respectively endured some cast changes – that’s just what happens with these long-running shows, and that’s fine. But Buffy’s core trio at the start of the show: Buffy, Xander, and Willow – all remained in the series finale. Meanwhile, Smallville began as a show focused on Clark, Lex, Pete, Chloe, and Lana. Of those, only Tom Welling (Clark) remained as a series regular for all ten seasons. Pete only lasted a few years, and Lana and Lex both split after 7. One could argue that those characters had run their course (especially Lana), but Lex’s arc left a lot of loose-threads unresolved. Advantage: Buffy
On both shows, the main and supporting characters went on long journeys, learned lessons, and grew as people/slayers/Kryptonians. At times, both shows bungled those transformations – but Smallville is just hands down guilty of doing it more often. Both Lex and Lionel Luthor waffled so many times between good and evil that it was hard to keep track. And Clark continually was his own worst enemy in terms of taking the next steps he knew to be necessary. But Spike’s journey from bad guy to good guy? That felt organic and natural. Advantage: Buffy
Both shows featured the death of a parent of the protagonist, and they both made those moments feel incredibly real, in a world that was inherently unreal. The sudden and unexpected death of Joyce Summers was a brutal shock, and that episode dealt with the passing of a loved one in a brutal and emotional way. On the flip side, Jonathan Kent’s death was basically the result of Clark screwing up and using a Kryptonian crystal to reverse time. So yeah, less relatable. Still, John Schneider’s Jonathan Kent was such an amazing character, and an integral part of the show, that his death was more of a shock to the system. Advantage: Smallville
Buffy perfected the art of each season having a ‘Big Bad,’ one villain that serves as the main antagonist/driving force of each season, that is (usually) dealt with in the finale. Smallville eventually came around to this model, but it never quite mastered it as well as Buffy did. And while Buffy consistently delivered on season finales that wrapped things up in a satisfactory conclusion, Smallville’s finales often featured anti-climactic showdowns and gratuitous cliffhangers, where every character appeared to be in a life-or-death situation that they would quickly bounce back from in the next season premiere. Advantage: Buffy
This is more of a big picture comment, but Whedon and company always seemed to have a solid “big picture” plan. Major events were foreshadowed, sometimes even a couple of seasons ahead of time. On the other hand, Smallville never seemed to be sure of where its characters were ultimately headed from year to year, and major changes to the show were undone without much rhyme or reason. Kara couldn’t find a comfortable place in the show’s universe, so they just unceremoniously wrote her out. Both shows were able to end where they wanted to, which is no small thing, but ultimately this is another Advantage: Buffy
So yeah, Buffy wins. I still love Smallville, despite the fact that I was kind of picking on it in this post. I greatly enjoyed watching Clark Kent slowly transform from a humble farm boy with a crush on the girl next door to Earth’s greatest hero. And saying that a show isn’t as good as Buffy is not much of a criticism. Because when you get right down to it, for your average geek, it really doesn’t get much better than the Scoobies and their fearless slayer of vampires.