It would be hard enough to rank Joss Whedon's oeuvre if we were just talking about his television work. How do you compare his shows that had longevity (Buffy and Angel) to his short-lived shows that never had the chance to experience the same peaks and valleys (Firefly and Dollhouse)? But it becomes even more difficult now that he's made his recent foray into movies. What's the criteria for comparing movies, which come in a short 2-hour burst, to the weekly installments of television? Somehow, despite these questions, I managed to concoct a list in which I order his movies and television shows from my favorite to least favorite. Take these rankings with a grain of salt, because I love everything he does so much that, aside from my number 1 (which is clearly the greatest thing ever), most of these are interchangeable. So without further ado...
8. Much Ado About Nothing (2013)
7. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)
Speaking of downtime, it seems to be the case that Joss Whedon works well when he's supposed to be on "vacation," because Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was entirely written and produced during the WGA Writer's Strike of 2007 and 2008. It also marks his return to musicals after the legendary Buffy episode, "Once More, with Feeling," where he showed his surprising ability to translate his wit and emotion into song. A short 44-minute webseries broken up into three acts, Dr. Horrible is Whedon in a microcosm: fun and funny until it becomes beautiful and tragic. Despite its ending, the whole thing is just insanely rewatchable and it's hard not to get the songs stuck in your head after a while.
6. Angel (1999-2004)
Bucking the trend of disastrous TV spinoffs, Angel branched off from Buffy after the third season, and moved on to have his own adventures in Los Angeles for 5 increasingly great seasons. Fans of both shows always tout Angel as being darker than Buffy, but I don't know. It's certainly less overtly comedic than its predecessor, and more mature in the sense that it was about being firmly established in adulthood, where Buffy was about the transition into adulthood. One of the biggest and most beneficial differences is that it was much more intensely serialized, particularly in seasons 3 and 4. There is just some thrilling, head-spinning plotting at times, allowing for a sense of momentum that thrusts you through the seasons. While the characters are slightly less engaging than the ones on Buffy -- possibly due to the workplace format -- I still found so much to love in Fred and Gunn and Lorne. Like all Joss Whedon shows, it gets off to a slow start, but it's the rare show that gets better every season. Stick with it and I promise you'll be riveted.
5. Dollhouse (2009-2010)
For a while, Dollhouse had a reputation of being Whedon's lone misstep, but there's been a bit of a critical re-evaluation lately, and rightfully so. It was the first Joss Whedon show that I watched, so it'll always have a special place in my heart, but it makes a qualitative argument along with the sentimental one. People still knock the first season a bit, but in rewatching it, there's really only one truly bad episode ("Stage Fright") and even that one isn't as bad as people say it is. It's definitely a more cerebral show, and its themes of manipulating technology to manipulate people are some of Whedon's most complex yet. Dollhouse was never able to live up to its full potential of being a series that changes from week-to-week due to Eliza Dushku's limited acting abilities, so the second season benefited from the way it drifted away from her and became more of an ensemble piece. And let me tell you, that second season is glorious, easily one of Whedon's best seasons. It's just a relentless forward-moving narrative, with Whedon and the writers basically knowing that they're going to get cancelled and going balls-to-the-wall, burning through about 3 seasons of plot in 13 episodes. It's a shame that we couldn't get more of this show that was rapidly blossoming into something special, but what we got was wonderfully insane while it lasted.
4. The Avengers (2012)
There was alot riding on The Avengers being a success, after so much buildup in the individual films. I thought many of the lead-up films were fine, but not amazing, so I was hoping that the one that brought everything together was going to make all of the piece-moving worth it. Many may see its success and retroactively think "well of course the film was good," but another director could've easily dropped the ball. So the choice of Joss Whedon turned out to be a really smart move, because he reminded us that superhero films don't have to be gritty to be good, choosing to go in the opposite direction and embracing the splashiness of it all. There's a reason why it broke box office records -- because it's such a crowd-pleasing film, one that takes total advantage of the communal experience of going to the theater. There's something magical about feeling the gags and large-scale action setpieces with an audience that's collectively having a blast. But underneath all of that, it's just a good movie -- perfectly paced, containing very little filler, and having clearly delineated characters. The 3rd act alone, which contains the greatest shot of 2012 in that long tracking movement through Manhattan, is enough to justify its placement on this list.
3. Firefly/Serenity (2002, 2005)
There's an argument to be made that Firefly is my least favorite Joss Whedon show. That's not a statement against Firefly, which is wonderful. It's just that there's such a close race between it, Angel, and Dollhouse. Unlike his other shows, which always take a while to gel, Firefly had a fantastic setting, great use of its mission-of-the-week structure, and fully-formed characters from the jump-off. Not only that, but it probably also has the best dialogue out of any of the four shows, ingeniously melding western phrases, pseudo-Chinese slang, and classic Whedon witticisms. But what elevates it to number 3 status is its movie, Serenity. There are some fans of the series who don't like the film, and I can't even wrap my head around that idea. Serenity takes the concept of the show and allows it to finally be the rollicking, universe-spanning romp that its television predecessor always wanted to be, but couldn't be due to budgetary restraints. Whedon goes all out for this one -- big setpieces, roaming long takes, and a super tight story -- and delivers such a satisfying sci-fi flick. Plus, it's the first time I truly liked River as a character, so that's something.
2. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
My favorite thing about episodes of Joss Whedon shows, but especially Buffy and Angel, is that they would often be one thing for a while, before completely shifting into what the episode is really supposed to be. Cabin in the Woods, the other Whedon-related film to come out in 2012, is like one of those crazy episodes of Buffy or Angel, but expanded to 90 minutes. It so skillfully teases out what's really going on in the story, using the structure of horror/slasher films as a jumping off point for some crazy genre-experimentation. Essentially a horror movie about horror movies, it fully commits to its meta-narrative, with all its talk about "The Director" and "the rules." There's even some funny commentary on how horror functions differently in various parts of the world, culminating in a gag about Japan that's just perfect. Like The Avengers, the 3rd act is what elevates the film to legendary status, which is just a gleeful (and gleefully violent) thing to watch. Self-reflexive without being self-indulgent, and biting without being bitter, Cabin in the Woods is a blast from start to finish.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Listen, this is just no competition whatsoever. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not only my favorite Joss Whedon show, it's my second favorite television show of all time (and if you don't know what my number 1 is, then clearly you haven't been reading this blog for very long). I've seen the complaints from people who don't think it falls in the pantheon of the best Golden Age television dramas: it's messy, it's inconsistent, the latter seasons are too bleak, etc. But those are all the things that I love about it. To me, Buffy is possibly the greatest piece of artistic expression in any medium. There's no need for it to be perfectly constructed and airtight when it's so darn personal. You don't just watch it, you get it injected into your veins. Whedon used a show about a young woman slaying vampires in order to explore grief, depression, growing up, friendship, family, and every other idea under the sun in a beautiful fashion. Over seven seasons, you see a group of people grow, change, die, and disappoint and betray each other in the same way that real young adults do. With other great shows, you pretty much know what you're getting from week to week. Give or take a "Fly" or "The Crash," an episode of Breaking Bad or Mad Men is always going to be an episode of Breaking Bad or Mad Men. But Buffy was capable of literally being anything. Surprising, exciting, witty, moving, relatable -- Buffy is everything. BUFFY IS LIFE.