The Definitive Ranking of Joss Whedon's TV Shows

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

After the huge success of his first outing with Marvel, there’s no doubt that Whedon is going to smash the box office once again when Age of Ultron hits theatres in May. But as we prepare for him to blow our minds on the big screen once again, let’s take a moment to appreciate the format that made Whedon famous: television. It’s in Whedon’s TV work, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that many of us first discovered our undying Whedon devotion, fueled by his snappy humor, his kickass female leads, his tightly-knit ensembles, and his gift for combining genres like horror, sci-fi, fantasy with emotionally compelling drama.

Joss Whedon has been active in a variety of formats—including television, film, web series, and comics—but in this post, I’m looking only at his work on TV (which sadly cuts out the excellent, hilarious Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), and only at shows that he’s helmed (eliminating from contention his work on shows like Roseanne, Parenthood, Glee, and The Office). That leaves five series, spanning 18 years, 17 TV seasons, and hundreds of episodes, to duke it out in this definitive ranking. Let’s get this party started:

5. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013- present)

After a huge amount of hype leading up to the premier of the Marvel Comics Universe spin-off, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., many viewers were disappointed with the show’s first season, arguing that the series failed to deliver the well-drawn characters and absorbing storylines they’d come to expect from a Joss Whedon production. After its shaky start, Agents has made major strides in its second season, transforming into a twisty-turny drama with increasingly complex characters and a solid bit of humor. Only time will tell if this latest entry into the Whedon canon will live up to its predecessors.

4. Dollhouse (2009-2010)

Dollhouse has arguably the most ambitious premise of any Whedon show, but, unfortunately, the final product didn’t quite live up to its potential. The first season is particularly weak, being basically an episodic “adventure of the week” series, and ignoring the inherently horrifying aspects of having rentable-people with erasable memories (The first half of the first series, for example, barely addresses the fact that the primary use of the dolls is to rent them out for sex. The fact that this is a show essentially about sexual slavery doesn’t really get addressed until late in the season, which drove me CRAZY.) For all the weak episodes, one can only admire the about-face that comes at the end of the first season, when the show sends us into a nightmarish apocalyptic future in which people can be remotely “wiped”; throughout the rest of the series, gone are the light “filler” episodes—instead we get an increasingly intense, dark descent into global chaos.

3. Angel (1999-2004)

Never quite reaching the heights of its parent show, Angel is nevertheless a solid presence in the world of Whedon. The show took a while to find its footing, but by the end of its 5-season run, it had established itself as distinct from Buffy, darker in tone with more moral gray areas. Angel as a character became both funnier and more complex the further away he got from Sunnydale, and Cordelia Chase convincingly transformed from stereotypical mean girl to a complex, sympathetic, grown woman.

2. Firefly (2002)

Firefly, Whedon’s space-Western about a group of misfit travelers on the fringes of society, was famously cancelled after only half a season, much to the eternal grief of the show’s fans. Firefly boasted a cast of compelling characters, including the charismatic Mal Reynolds, the perpetually cheerful Kaylee Frye, and the fabulously badass Zoë Washburn. Amid the interpersonal dramas between characters and their continuous battles to stay afloat in a universe that doesn’t welcome them are broader mysteries: Who are the Tams, and what happened to River? Why are the Reavers so completely terrifying? What’s going on with the Blue Sun Corporation? Some of the questions get answered in Serenity, the film sequel to the series; others will remain a mystery forever. The Browncoats will never get over it.

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon took a concept that should have been little more than a joke—a teen cheerleader who kills vampires!—and made it into an epic saga of good versus evil, real life and fantasy, and the universal struggles of growing up. Throughout its 144 episodes, the series had its hits and misses, but the hits were so good and so memorable—“Hush” (terrifying!), “The Body” (completely devastating!), and “Once More With Feeling” (musical!!) spring immediately to mind—that the general impression that we’re left with after finishing the show is one of sustained awesomeness. Buffy was funny, scary, engrossing, and, at times, incredibly moving. Buffy4Life, y’all.

Images: Fox; Giphy (5)