Step right up, folks, step right up to the ultimate urban fantasy battle! Three urban fantasy shows enter; one urban fantasy show leaves. Then the other two also leave, but without the coveted title of Most Engaging, as given out by me, Mythcreants’ most accomplished expert at comparing things and saying which is better. We’ve rated the ANTS of Marvel shows and Netflix cartoons on a scale of 1 to 10, but this time we’re going by genre. Which of these shows will walk away with the top prize for its first season,* and can they surpass the previous champions?
The oldest of our three contestants, Buffy remains a classic of the genre despite some extremely troubling revelations about its creator. In many ways, this story of vampire staking and high-school drama is the urban fantasy gold standard, with newer shows and books described by how similar they are to Buffy and the Scoobies’ adventures. Naturally, no nostalgic favorite is above critique here at Mythcreants.
Like a lot of long-running TV shows, Buffy eventually comes to rely on attachment more than any of the other ANTS. By season seven, you probably really care what happens to the characters, even if the First Evil’s plan is completely inscrutable to you. But this is still the first season, and that long bond hasn’t had time to form yet. Fan favorites like Spike, Oz, and Tara are still a ways off,* and some of the existing characters haven’t yet had their rough edges sanded down.
Even so, attachment isn’t terrible. Buffy and Willow lead the pack when it comes to likability, as the fiery slayer and adorable nerd are always winning archetypes. Buffy gives us someone cool and badass to live vicariously through, while Willow is easy to identify with as the unpopular kid who’s trying her best.*
Giles is pretty good, too, as the archetype of a stuffy British professor with a heart of gold. He isn’t yet the show’s father figure, but he’s still enjoyable to watch. Then we have a handful of decent side characters like Joyce and Ms. Calendar. Joyce will have real problems in later seasons, but here she does a decent job as the unwitting parent that Buffy has to sneak past for slaying adventures. Meanwhile, Ms. Calendar has an intriguing air of mystery; surely this character won’t be killed off for shock value next season!
The two who really drag attachment down are Angel and Xander. I’m not sure if it was because of the acting or the directing, but there’s something very stiff about Angel’s affect that makes him unpleasant to watch. At first I thought it was just that he doesn’t quip like the other characters, but it’s more that his emotions don’t feel natural. His relationship with Buffy also feels increasingly creepy with each rewatch. Per fictional immortality rules, Angel appears to be frozen at the maturity level of a guy in his mid-20s, while Buffy has the maturity level of a 15-year-old. Yikes. It helps that she’s physically more powerful than he is, but it doesn’t help a lot.
Speaking of creepy things, there’s also Xander. He’s clearly supposed to be relatable and sympathetic like Willow, but wow, does he ever act like an entitled jerk. A lot of his “jokes” are really just sexism, and much of his character is composed of resentment toward the women who won’t date him. What a winner.
Final Score: 6
Monster-of-the-week shows are great for novelty, and Buffy’s first season takes full advantage of that. Standouts include the hyena spirits, the mantis demon, and the invisible girl. The hyena spirits in particular are genuinely creepy in a way Buffy rarely is, with the sound design and acting skill giving the possessed characters a genuine air of predatory menace. Unfortunately, the spirits’ African origins dip into some unsavory stereotypes, something that is depressingly common in urban fantasy.
Likewise, the mantis demon is very cool looking, but the whole episode is based on sexist seductress tropes. The invisible girl story is much better, not depending on any bigoted ideas for its core premise. Instead, it channels the fear of being ignored, something that most of us can sympathize with, whether or not we’re in high school. Social isolation leading to supernatural invisibility is just a cool idea that I wish the show had done more with.
A final bonus to novelty is the show’s famously quippy dialogue. While too many jokes can get tiresome eventually, humorous characters are still fun to watch. In general, the writers know when the mood is serious and they need to ease off on the one-liners, so the show can keep a reasonable balance of somber and light-hearted scenes.
In contrast, the vampires themselves aren’t very interesting, even by late ’90s standards. They seem to be intentionally generic, with every vampiric weakness you can think of* but few special powers. It’s easy to see why, in later seasons, they would be eclipsed by a succession of increasingly flashy demons.
Final Score: 7
In a fun twist, Buffy’s tension is much better than I remembered. Before the latest rewatch, I recalled season one as little more than a collection of fight scenes where the villains get easily defeated, but it’s more complicated than that.
To be sure, the bad guys’ many losses are still there. Despite this being a short season by Buffy standards, the slayer completely destroys the Master’s minions at least three times, and it rarely seems difficult. In one episode, the Master destroys his own most capable minions, seemingly out of spite. In another, Darla tries to kill Buffy with guns, which not only breaks the show’s melee-combat theme but also makes the vampires look even weaker, as they now have to rely on firearms.
Balancing this out somewhat are two factors. First, the show’s episodic nature means that it can introduce new enemies whenever it likes, and they each start with a clean slate. Just because Buffy has made short work of vampiric minions doesn’t mean she has what it takes to defeat a pack of demonic hyenas.
Second, while his minions are consistently chumps, the Master himself remains a threatening opponent. He’s powerful enough that in their first fight, Buffy is easily defeated. The Master also gains some threat when he successfully creates the Anointed One despite the heroes’ best efforts. Of course, the Anointed One’s plot immediately fizzles out in season two, but we haven’t gotten there yet.
Final Score: 6
Despite the episodic format, Buffy’s first season is clearly building toward a confrontation with the Master, and that confrontation goes relatively well. At first, Buffy can’t hold a candle to the ancient vampire, and he actually kills her.* When Xander revives Buffy, it’s a pretty effective turning point, even though CPR doesn’t work that way in real life. It also feels reasonable that Buffy’s near-death experience would make her immune to the Master’s hypnosis, allowing her to win in their second battle.
Perhaps more important than the quality of the fight itself, Buffy’s first season actually resolves something in its climax, namely whether the Master will continue to be a threat to Sunnydale. He won’t, because he’s dead. This seems basic, but a lot of stories forget that things need to be different after a climax than they were before, or there’s nothing to be satisfied about. TV shows, in particular, like to end on cliffhangers, or they simply have the villain run off to continue their evil plans another day.
That said, the ending is far from perfect. The show employs a big evil puppet to represent the Hellmouth opening, but it looks more gross than scary. Buffy’s second battle with the Master is a bit perfunctory, and the fight choreography just isn’t great in general. In one sequence, a vampire is supposed to tackle Angel, but it looks more like he runs up and then half-heartedly pushes the angsty romance interest over. We also see a number of instances where the bad guys seem to pause whenever the heroes are knocked down or otherwise indisposed, as if it would be rude to attack under such circumstances.
Despite those weaknesses, Buffy’s first season leaves you pumped and ready to watch the next season, which is exactly what an ending should do.
Final Score: 7
Two brothers hunt monsters across the Midwest, and also search for their father a little. Maybe. If there’s time. Supernatural’s first impression is that, wow, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles were so young when this show started! The second impression – possibly the first, if you haven’t kept up with the whole 15-season saga – is that everything is very dreary. Supernatural strikes a much more serious tone than Buffy, but will that help or hurt it in the rankings?
We’re not off to a great start here. Our two costars are certainly not the worst urban fantasy leads I’ve ever seen, but they aren’t winning any prizes either. The writers try to create a straight man/joker dynamic with Sam and Dean – Sam likes to be slow and methodical, while Dean counts on his devil-may-care attitude and trusty .45 to get through most problems. That could be fine, except that the writers don’t seem to like Sam very much. When the two of them disagree, Dean is nearly always right, and he keeps getting candy well after he’s had his fill.
This lopsided treatment makes it difficult to get super attached to either of them, and their other traits don’t help. Sam’s main emotional arc is being sad that his girlfriend died, something that never lands because we barely knew the girlfriend before she was stuck to the ceiling and set on fire. Dean, on the other hand, mostly creeps on women while they’re working. He doesn’t even have his famous love of pie yet!
Speaking of women, there are almost none in this show. The few we do see either die, are one-episode love interests, or die after being one-episode love interests. That’s really off-putting. Later seasons boost attachment with beloved secondary characters like Bobby and Castiel and by adding some depth to the brothers themselves. Right now, all they really have is occasional drama over their father issues, and that’s just not enough.
Final Score: 4
Judged purely on its own merits, Supernatural’s novelty is a little better than average. There are some pretty cool monsters in this season, especially the ghosts and demons. In later seasons, demons will slowly devolve into disposable minions, but they’re genuinely fresh in season one. The ghosts are pretty cool, too, with each ghost requiring a different type of banishment depending on how they died. At least, that’s what actually happens. Sam and Dean keep saying that you can defeat a ghost by burning the bones, even though that almost never actually works.
There are some real stinkers, though. Bad CGI bugs and the racist truck quickly come to mind, as do the sheer number of ghosts. I like the ghost episodes, but there are so many of them that the novelty starts to slip. You can tell that the first season is operating on a shoestring budget, both from the low-quality special effects and from the way so many monsters are just humans with oddly colored eyes.
So far, that all adds up to some decent, if not exceptional, novelty. But there’s an X factor, depending on when you watched it. Supernatural first aired just two years after Buffy’s finale, and in that context, the show was an amazing breath of fresh air. Everything about Supernatural seems designed to be as different from Buffy as possible. Sam and Dean don’t have any powers, and they kill things with guns rather than martial arts. Buffy spends an entire season working a job she hates so she can pay the mortgage; the Winchester brothers just defraud credit-card companies. Most distinctive of all, there’s no drama with Sam and Dean trying to balance their mundane and monster-hunting lives. They live fully in the supernatural world, if you’ll forgive the pun.
That context is so specific that I can’t give Supernatural full points from it – most people who start the show now won’t have had their entire urban fantasy experience defined by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Instead, Supernatural gets a little bonus, as a treat.
Final Score: 7
If there’s one area where early Supernatural shines, it’s tension. Sam and Dean are just two regular humans fighting against magical monsters, and the only special power they have between them are Sam’s mysterious visions. Those don’t really help defeat the monsters, so tension remains consistently high.
Most enemies are resistant or immune to bullets, so it’s usually a race: Can the Winchester brothers figure out the monster’s weakness before they get eaten? Ghosts are particularly good for this kind of plot, as they have no corporeal form to shoot. It’s also pretty neat that the brothers aren’t immune to supernatural attacks. In one memorable scene, Sam is compelled by a ghost to kill Dean. The expectation is that Sam will shake off the compulsion through brotherly love or what have you, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, Dean has to banish the ghost on his own.
The season’s big bad, a yellow-eyed demon named Azazel, is also quite threatening in his own right. That’s partly because the actor is really good at portraying casual menace, but it also has to do with the plot. Our heroes spend a good chunk of the season looking for a gun that can actually kill Azazel, only to discover he can dodge bullets. Top-quality stuff.
Finally, while Sam and Dean clearly have plot armor, most of the secondary characters do not. It’s often questionable who exactly the writers choose to kill,* but the fact that so many characters can die helps raise tension across the board. Even Sam and Dean’s father doesn’t feel safe, and he’s the closest thing the first season has to a third main character.
Final Score: 8
It’s a bit of a letdown after such high tension. At first, the season’s overarching plot is Sam and Dean trying to find their missing father. This raises a major question about what happened to him. When the boys finally catch up with their dad, it turns out that he’s simply been avoiding them on the flimsy pretext that they’re more of a target all together. Considering that the bad guys keep trying to kill them anyway, this obviously doesn’t hold water.
Likewise, the big fight against Azazel ends inconclusively. They fail to catch the demon, who escapes into the night to keep doing whatever he was doing. They do defeat a secondary villain named Meg, which is better than nothing, but it still doesn’t feel like there’s been much movement on the main plot. And then the season ends with a random car-crash cliffhanger, which is just annoying.
Fortunately, we still have the satisfaction from individual monster hunts. Those prop up the main plot to some extent, but they can’t carry the whole season. I can understand why the writers wanted to keep Azazel around as a villain for season two, but to do that properly, they still needed something to resolve. If it were up to me, I’d have built the finale around the Winchesters finding a special way to kill Azazel, but with the twist that their strategy fails and will never work again. That would end with the heroes receiving a major defeat, which seems to be what the writers wanted, but it would still have had a resolution.
Final Score: 5
There’s something existentially weird about the fact that Teen Wolf first aired when Supernatural was already six years old and that the Winchester brothers would keep on hunting for another three years after Teen Wolf’s finale. Sorry, what were we talking about? I was briefly overwhelmed by the inexorable passage of time.
As the name implies, Teen Wolf is about teenage werewolves. Also teenage banshees, teenage kitsune, and a few teenage humans. There are even, gasp, adults in this show! It’s definitely the least well known of our three contestants, something I keep hoping will change if I feature it in enough Mythcreants content.
From the first episode, Teen Wolf hits the ground running with a host of lovable characters. Stiles is undoubtedly the standout example, as he’s basically Sokka in live-action form: the normal human who uses smarts and sarcasm to keep pace with the supernatural characters. Scott, the main character, is also quite good. His kind, humble demeanor makes it easy to cheer for him as he learns to use his new werewolf powers, and his friendship with Stiles is one of the best on TV.
A number of the side characters are great as well. Derek is the perfect unreliable ally: dark and broody but with an undeniable charm. Scott’s mom, Melissa, actually manages to be a hindrance character you don’t hate! Mostly, this is because she cares about Scott so much that you sympathize with her when she won’t let him stay out late for secret werewolf adventures. Unlike certain other urban fantasy parents,* she acts out of love rather than out of irritation with her child.
The show has a big cast, so I can’t list them all, but most are above average on the attachment scale. Lydia and Jackson both start off as minor antagonists but then get a surprising amount of development until they’ve teamed up with Scott in the finale. Love interest Allison could do with more development, but she isn’t actively bad.
The only characters I’d say detract from attachment are Allison’s parents. Her dad leans heavily into the overprotective father trope, which is just unpleasant, though he gets much better later. Meanwhile, her mom is just bafflingly bad. I do not know what the goal was with this character, but the result was someone who was in automatic aggro mode against everyone, even her own daughter.
Final Score: 8
Unlike the previous two entries, Teen Wolf isn’t a monster-of-the-week show, which reduces its opportunity for novelty. The first season is mostly spent with Scott learning how werewolves work. This has some novelty, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen or read about in other urban fantasy stories: super strength, fast healing, anger issues that get worse during the full moon, etc. In season two, werewolves get the genuinely unusual ability to absorb pain from others, but that can’t figure into this rating.
Teen Wolf’s main novelty actually comes from watching Stiles and Scott try to figure out how being a werewolf works. The only other werewolf around is Derek, and they don’t trust him, so they have to figure things out for themselves. They run experiments to see if anger triggers the transformation and whether physical pain or calming thoughts are the best way for Scott to maintain control.
This stuff is all new to the characters, and by going through the learning experience with them, the show adds some novelty even for viewers who already know how werewolves work. The show also gets a small boost of novelty from Peter, the big bad of season one. He mostly appears in his fully transformed state, which looks pretty good despite the limited special effects. It’s more apelike than wolflike, but that actually helps, since everything else about the show’s werewolves is so standard.
Final Score: 6
Teen Wolf continues to do well here, but in a very different manner than Buffy or Supernatural. Without a monster of the week, Teen Wolf needs something else to provide content while the big bad’s plan builds in the background, and in this story that content is largely provided by Scott learning how to manage his transformation. Oh, and social drama. Lots of social drama.
This show is a great example of how a conflict doesn’t need life-or-death stakes to be compelling. One of the big conflicts is over Scott playing in his school’s big lacrosse game. Lacrosse is really important to Scott, but if he loses control on the field, he might hurt someone. Scott is a likable character, so we care about the things that matter to him. That’s right – Teen Wolf has the power to make even a jaded nerd like me care about sportsball.
Most of the other conflicts follow similar lines. Scott falls behind in class because he’s not getting enough sleep on account of all the nighttime investigating he does. He and Allison arrange for a first date, only for it to awkwardly become a double date with Scott’s rival Jackson and the caustic Lydia. Without the high attachment score from earlier, this would all be meaningless, but since we like the characters, it’s important. It also helps that the consequences of failure aren’t death. It’s much easier to believe that the protagonist will mess up his date than that he’ll die.
Unfortunately, there’s a drop in tension from the actual big bad’s plan. The issue is that while the villain is killing people, it’s quickly clear that he only kills nameless extras. Not only does this bring down the threat level of his plan, but with each episode, it also becomes less likely that all the deaths will be related in a satisfactory way.
On the bright side, the villain is still quite threatening in his own right, easily strong enough to defeat the good guys in a conventional fight. He also has a mystical connection to Scott, so one of the conflicts is whether Scott will succumb to temptation and join the bad guy’s pack.
Final Score: 7
Since Teen Wolf is more overarching than the other two entries, it depends a lot more on its main plot for satisfaction. While each episode is still part of the fractal structure, they don’t usually have separate enemies to defeat. That could have been a disaster if the big showdown didn’t go well, but luckily for us, it goes quite well indeed.
Several plot threads all resolve in the final episode. The most obvious one is the throughline of stopping Peter, the big bad, but we also have character arcs like Scott learning how to be a werewolf, Allison and Scott’s relationship, Derek getting revenge for his sister, and the secondary villain’s plot that I haven’t even had time to mention so far.
There’s a lot going on, but nearly all the threads naturally weave together in a big battle against Peter. Scott finally masters his abilities and stands up to the werewolf who created him; Derek deals the killing blow to Peter, thus gaining vengeance; and several characters work together despite previously being enemies. The writers find ways for every significant character to contribute, even those without combat training, as they helpfully pelt the big bad with firebombs.
Teen Wolf even remembers to leave a few hooks for next season. Once he kills Peter, unreliable ally Derek becomes an alpha,* meaning he’s much more powerful now. What’s he going to do with that power, and can we trust him? We also have an intriguing mystery about what kind of creature a side character might turn out to be: it’s clear that she’s something, but no one knows what yet.
This is a nice middle ground between a story that wraps up everything and a story that ends on a major cliffhanger. We have a reason to come back for more, but we’re not left completely in the lurch. The only major problem with this ending is that some of the fight choreography just doesn’t mesh well with the special effects available. One sequence in particular is supposed to show Team Good fighting Peter, but since it’s impossible for Peter’s CGI transformation to interact with so many people, we instead get a very silly-looking sequence of everyone pointing at a dog-shaped shadow and acting very scared.
Final Score: 8
Our final scores are 26 for Buffy, 24 for Supernatural, and 29 for Teen Wolf. That’s honestly much higher than I was expecting when I started the article, and easily the highest grouping of the shows I’ve ranked so far. Looking back at previous examples, I think the reason is that these three shows paid more attention to the fundamentals of storytelling, giving us characters we care about with conflicts we can invest in. The Marvel shows depend heavily on gimmicks, while the Netflix cartoons are just more limited in what they can accomplish. Either that, or I have a huge bias for live-action urban fantasy shows. You’ll have to decide the truth for yourselves in the comments.
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