11:24am PT by Tim Goodman, Daniel Fienberg
TV Critics' Chat: In Praise of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'The Shield' on Their Premiere Anniversaries
Daniel Fienberg: It's a good week to feel nostalgic, or at least to feel old. As the internet has surely already told you, Friday (March 10) marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As the internet is most likely to forget, though, Sunday is the 15th anniversary of the premiere of The Shield. Those are two shows that helped define or redefine TV notions of heroism and two shows that helped viewers learn to look for quality TV outside of the three-network bubble. While The Sopranos is usually used as the starting point of our current Golden Age, I could argue that Buffy the Vampire Slayer predates HBO's mob drama when it comes to establishing TV's new parameters. Tim, what do you remember about March 1997 and your first introduction to Buffy Summers?
Tim Goodman: Well, I was only 10, so ... no, but I was barely finding my way as a TV critic then and learning about quality and the gaping maw that surrounds it when, yeah, that show appeared and really changed things. I remember thinking Sarah Michelle Gellar might be going places and marveled at how the comedy mixed with the horror and allowed room for actual, believable drama. And that, of course, led to realizing that Joss Whedon was something special. And that despite the title — which seemed to forever work against it in the early days — and despite the network, people really needed to hear that something special was going on with Buffy. So in some ways it was one of the early series where I remember trying to champion something into the ether and hoping someone, anyone, heard. Of course, as the show got better and better, it was important to get louder and louder about it. Not everybody listened, though. Did the show or Whedon or Gellar and cast have an impact on you? Notice how I didn't say, "Were you bitten by ..." Oh, wait.
Fienberg: It was just so easy to make fun of, because the movie had basically been a joke title and little else, and even then, back before every dumb movie nobody cared about automatically was made into a TV show nobody cared about, doing a Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show seemed like a questionable idea. But I was in college and I was able to tell within 10 minutes of the pilot that there was something better there; I wrote a review for the school newspaper in which I called it "The Best Show on TV That You Would Make Fun of If You Didn't Know Better." My review is very appreciative of Gellar and of the show's sense of humor, but it's not such a fan of the show's attempts to initially build mythology or flesh out its supporting cast. Also, writing in my callow youth, I wasn't appreciative enough of the show's genre subversion and feminist underpinnings. But I still recommended it, so I feel good about that. As you look back, either in pure hindsight or in going back to something you may have written, can you pinpoint the moment at which you realized or recognized that Buffy was more than what it initially appeared to be?
Goodman: Well I can't say with certainty, other than realizing it was something unexpectedly different, that I imagined the highest highs in the first season. I was just happy to have something not like other things on TV. But by the second season, it was clear there was a real confidence to Whedon and in the writers room (and the directing, too). Once they introduced Spike, that was clearly a game changer. You could argue, looking back, that there were other signs. But I would say having a really well-developed character like Spike, who would go on to have so much nuance, was really when the series shifted gears. There are a lot of memories to shift through here. This is a series that lasted a long time and I'm probably guilty, even though I loved it, of sometimes overlooking it when I start to put it into historical perspective. Not forgetting it, of course, but maybe not giving it that loftily ranked love it deserves.
Fienberg: Definitely the second season was when Buffy began to transition from inspired-but-scattershot into a thing of real substance and the "Surprise"/"Innocence" two-parter was either a pivotal point or a point at which the shift in quality and emotional depth became too obvious to deny. Buffy's nightmare at having her perfect (other than being a vampire) boyfriend become a vicious killing machine after they had sex for the first time was such a smart raising of subtext to text, a perfect execution of what the show had tried with mixed success to do in the first season. Angelus, plus Spike and Drusilla, were also such an improvement over The Master, as the show pioneered (or helped pioneer) the Big Bad seasonal story structure that everybody does now. Who was your favorite Big Bad, Tim? And who was your favorite of the men in Buffy's life? You're a Riley guy, I can tell!
Goodman: See, now you're just lashing out with the Riley thing. I could rise and take the bait and defend Riley and his whole existence, but I think I might need to do that with my Big Bad choice: Glory. I'll keep it simple and relatable: She was crushtastic! If Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught us anything it was to be forthright with our feelings because they matter and it's OK to be unguarded so, yeah, Clare Kramer really put a spell on me. Also, she was the perfect sassy-ass BB that Buffy used to perfection. If you're going to monologue in a fight scene, it might as well be clever. OK, so now that my lust for Glory is exposed, I'd say the favorite men of of the Buffyverse were fairly predictable for me (and no, not Angel ... I never really liked Angel ever): Giles and Spike. I think Giles was essential to ground the series and give it some gravitas. That can't be overlooked. And what's not to like about Anthony Stewart Head? And Spike, as the second component, was both evil and then funny (and a little bit pathetic later, but that was also a helpful twist). To me, they were two of the most compelling characters in the show. Every scene they entered was changed, for the better. By the way, if you pick Michelle Trachtenberg and Nicholas Brendon I'll know you're just in a mood to argue. Wait, actually, I can totally see you picking Xander.
Fienberg: You know this is on-the-record, right Tim? Glory, you say? Can you rave about the Glory season, while simultaneously preventing me from praising Dawn? Don't worry. I'm not going to. When it comes to favorite supporting characters, I'll speak up for Emma Caulfield's Anya, a former vengeance demon forced to come to grips with human emotions like love and, as the surprising emotional linchpin of "The Body," grief. By way of Big Bads, I'm always going to stand by Mayor Wilkins, played with marvelous comic undertones by Harry Goener. The Mayor's ultimate final form may have pushed the limits of the show's CW-friendly budget, but he was even scarier in human form, especially when it was manipulating the deceptively vulnerable slayer Faith.
Buffy wasn't able to remake The WB in its image and it moved to UPN to close its run just before both The WB and UPN exited, but it still played a crucial role in the reshaping of of kick-ass female lead characters and in beginning the process of educating viewers that quality TV, TV worth obsessing over and worth celebrating, wasn't limited to ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and HBO. How do you look at the show's legacy?
Goodman: The Mayor is a great pick. I just never had a crush on the mayor. As for legacy, well, I think you nailed that, at that moment in time, it opened people's eyes to quality as defined as other than what the Big Four and HBO were offering. And though it was a stepping stone in elevating the quality at what was then the country's fifth, and with UPN sixth, broadcast networks before they merged into The CW, the show didn't define the brand.
One show that is in the history books for doing just that is The Shield, which launched on March 12, 2002, and immediately put FX on the map. You could make a case for it also opening up the gates to better-quality series in ad-supported cable as a whole, but there's no question it was a game changer for FX. I'm not sure a lot of people understand how big that was, especially since — fast-forwarding to the present — FX is one of the best curated channels in all of television, with an absurdly high number of top-tier scripted series. But back then, it was ... well, a channel. The Shield changed all of that. And by then I was no longer a newbie TV critic so the full force of what The Shield meant was something I deciphered pretty quickly after watching that first episode. I think my initial reaction was, "Holy shit, this is amazing," followed almost immediately by, "How is this ever going to be allowed on the air?" I mean, that was an HBO-quality show at at time when HBO was the only entity making HBO-quality shows. So to have this small-time channel churn out a dramatic gut-punch like The Shield was, and I'm not using this lightly, revolutionary. That's how big The Shield was. And how good. I poured over those episodes and each one confirmed that, yep, it was the real deal. What are your memories of The Shield and how it put FX on the map?
Fienberg: This is a instance in which I have to admit that I blew it. The Shield premiered when I was in grad school and didn't have the same idle time as I had in college, and police procedurals have never been my favorite genre. I wasn't eager to follow the career path of the guy from Daddio and even though plenty of critics raved about the premiere, especially its shocking conclusion, I didn't watch it initially and even once I saw the premiere, I didn't stick with the show. It was only after The Shield had its full run, and after I made my list of the best TV of the '00s and didn't include it, that I binged the entire series in a month and felt like an idiot. By the time I got to The Shield, I'd watched large amounts of Damages and several other FX shows of variable quality. And you know the remarkable thing? Even backing into The Shield as I did, even already knowing the FX brand and having watched 50 cable shows with white male anti-heroes, Vic Mackey still stood out and stands out as a character whose villainy, spiked with impossible-to-process nobility, rewrites all the rules for viewer empathy and sympathy — as did characters like Kenneth Johnson's Lem, Jay Karnes' Dutch and especially Walt Goggins' Shane, whose final season caps one of the great TV character arcs ever. Put Vic and The Farm in some context for the kids, Tim!
Goodman: Well the anti-hero thing wasn't nearly as played out then as now, so there was some visceral freshness about taking one of television's tried-and-true genres, the cop show, and tweaking it so that the protagonist wasn't heroic. The Shield was into police corruption and rule-bending (shattering?) in a way that few others even bothered trying to tap into (NYPD Blue was the clear front-runner at that point; but this was really the territory of movies from Serpico forward). What The Shield did was imply that corruption was rampant, sometimes institutional and certainly inevitable. And while it had the "good cop" angle covered, there was nuance there as well. The Shield was dirty and it always felt dirty watching it. And yes, that other perhaps overused word: gritty. It was always good to have a shower after The Shield.
While it revolutionized FX and really jumpstarted ad-supported cable channels thinking in more ambitious ways about their quality, the unfortunate thing for The Shield is that it aired right alongside The Wire on HBO. No matter where you might place these two on an all-time great list (I'd have The Wire a few ticks higher), it was an amazing time to be watching television and the comparison to The Wire, which always kind of haunted The Shield, is actually a very helpful thing in historical hindsight. Because, think about it: Here was this super daring, creatively fearless series (which was way more violent than The Wire) living its life with commercials in the middle pack of random cable channels, not in the premium penthouse of HBO. It really shows how out-there FX was with The Shield. Of course there was great writing, in-your-face directing, the stunning lead performance of Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey — but The Shield really distinguished itself by how ugly and brutal it was. Corruption, violence, ruthless police tactics, dirty politics — it lived in that gutter while The Wire, in all its brilliance, really dealt more with the concept of institutional failure (including gangs). The Shield also had one of the best final seasons — and endings — in television. So if that's not enough to get people to invest, well, I can't help them (but they should also watch The Wire, of course).
Fienberg: There was definitely a lot of awfulness going on within the world of The Shield, which was necessary for it to operate. You couldn't have Vic Mackey seem to be even peripherally noble if you didn't have him in the streets dealing with people who were empirically worse. Vic might plant evidence or coerce confessions, or he might think it was perfectly reasonable to lock two rival gangbangers in a shipping crate overnight to force them to "work out" their problems; you had to constantly reinforce the show's "Sometimes it takes a monster to catch a monster" theme. It meant that Dutch, always distrusting of Vic, had traits of a budding serial killer. It meant that The Shield followed the Buffy model of bringing in a new Big Bad each season, including spectacular full-season guest stars like Anthony Anderson's Antwon Mitchell, Glenn Close's Monica Rawling and Forest Whitaker's Jon Kavanaugh. Who's your favorite Vic Mackey adversary, Tim?
Goodman: Well, if I were really being clever I'd say Mackey himself, or if I were in a hot-take mode for a dead cold show I'd say Claudette Wyms, but I'll go with what is probably the obvious pick: Forest Whitaker's Kavanaugh. They needed a really big presence at that point to make it feel like there were actual stakes, that Vic could actually go down, and Whitaker's performance was just unhinged and calculated enough to do that. But wow, looking back on it, there were some pretty good attempts by very good actors to get the job done.
Fienberg: And, as you mentioned earlier, it's hard to think of any pantheon show that had a better closing season — that Goggins didn't get an Emmy nomination for this run of episodes is one of the great TV Academy shams ever — or a better, more fitting finale. The Shield has pretty much made it impossible for me to watch any other Los Angeles-set cop show, even when they're fresh and worthwhile like Southland, or any other Los Angeles-set police film. My reaction is almost always, "We did this already. It was called The Shield. It was great." In our glorious age of endless reboot culture, it feels like only a matter of time before we get a brand extension for one of these shows, either a spinoff or a Netflix miniseries, and The Shield creator Shawn Ryan has always seemed open to the idea. Just to tie things up here, 20 and 15 years later, do you need more Buffy or Vic? Or are you perfectly happy to let done be done?
Goodman: I take a dim view of reboot culture because it either fails miserably or merely cashes in on nostalgia, which is not why I watch TV. So I can't imagine — in any scenario — a willingness to revisit The Shield, mostly because of that ending and also because it finished the story; it felt complete and satisfying. That said — Buffy? Hmmm. I think there have been, over the years, shows that were Buffy-like in spirit. Bad-ass female empowerment shows are always welcome. But you can't bring Buffy back. That's cheating. Although, honestly, Buffy-as-Giles in a mentoring role and a new generation Slayer is probably something I'd watch. So I've not only undercut my stance on reboots, I'm now willing to look the other way so Whedon can find a way to make this happen. On the other hand, Dan, we don't need any more TV shows. I think we're good.