A cult sci-fi musical showdown: Xena vs Buffy

By Sheryl-Lee Kerr

(Written for Kathy, in exchange for her Buffy musical tape. Thanks buddy.)


The premise that brought Xena to the creepy Illusia underworld with Gabrielle was as powerful as it was horrifying to watch. Each had killed the other’s child directly or indirectly. And a crazed Xena had but moments before tried to hurl her beloved partner off a cliff. It therefore gave everything that happened in that musical world an edgy, frightening, "will they be okay??" undertone that had the viewer gripped from the first moment. We were emotionally invested in where they were and what they were singing about and what happened to them in a way that simply wasn’t possible to replicate in Buffy without a chilling five-episode preceding rift arc.

The stakes were higher on Xena, and the investment from fans was also therefore higher. Thus, it could be argued, the fans had further to fall if it failed.

On Buffy the premise is very threadbare – a hastily and poorly mapped out idea that Xander had somehow summoned a demon while seeking more music in people’s lives. Apart from one self-immolating stranger, and child bride-to-be Dawn looking perturbed sitting in that big chair, the danger seems far less threatening. And even when tension builds to a point of edge-of-the-seat drama, it is pricked quickly with an injection of humour – a quick joke to bring us all down and remind us The Powers That Be aren’t taking this too seriously (just in case it fails).

For example, in one song where the Scoobies are preparing to follow a lone Buffy into battle, Willow sings: "I think this line is mainly filler." Funny, yes, hell I laughed, but by adopting this approach of a joke for every serious moment, TPTB do themselves a huge disservice.

It’s like they feared to go so completely out on a limb, as Xena did, and because of that, cannot reap the glory the other show did when parts of it worked. This was no place for the timid, and yet timidity was the very thing Buffy offered at times – as if afraid of the honesty it was bringing to the surface, and afraid of the incredible intensity it was coming up with. These are not things to be frightened of or to quickly hose down, these are things to be celebrated and amazed by. Use the force, build the tension, hey, milk it for all its worth!

That’s not to say a bit of humour used well is wrong. The Anya Bunny song was pretty hilarious and cleverly placed. My argument is against using humour to undermine a powerful moment when it’s in the middle of building the emotion. Xena in contrast was completely focused on tension building and worked without it all the way to the crescendo.

Another problem Buffy struck which Xena did not was the dead moments between songs. These killed off the tension and pace and were easily distracting. For instance, the group are walking along the pavement and all around we see a (brilliant) song by a woman trying to avoid her traffic ticket and street cleaners doing a jig. No one at all could have been able to focus on what any one of the A characters were saying when the Z characters are stomping and singing up such a mighty storm. If this was to be included, it should have been done at a time when nothing else is happening, so the focus really can go to these bit players. A good example of this was the dry cleaning song – it did not take anything away from what the Scoobies were doing or split our focus.

But I still would argue these great little vignettes nonetheless really interrupted the flow - another problem Xena didn’t have because it was about only two people and only those two, either alone or together, were allowed to take centre stage at any given time.

With Buffy you have the problem of multiple players, with multiple issues … thus you don’t have the one, single dominating theme Xena did, ie anger, loss and resolution. You have themes like Anya and Xander’s kooky couple problems; Tara and Willow’s darker couple problems; Giles’s ‘father leaving the nest’ syndrome; Spike’s unrequited love/hate relationship with Buffy, and Buffy’s confusion and disinterest in life post-death. How to get cohesion in this?! Well one way is to NOT draw the eye off to the extras willy nilly, and not crack jokes at inappropriate moments, no matter how funny.

Pace, tension and focus were needed and not supplied. The dance numbers and choreography were distracting and thin, in that order, and costumes were clearly not a high priority; unlike on Xena which pumped a hell of a lot of money into all these things – and were amply rewarded for it.

But, and a very big but it is too, Buffy did excel in a number of ways too. Important ways. Like character honesty. It was so damned honest, unnervingly so, to see these people, friends of so long on Buffy, singing their hearts out - literally. Exposing their raw nerve and sharing and let us all in on their naked feelings. How exposing that was. Buffy’s opening number about not caring really made me sit up and go, heyyyy…. Not because Sarah Michelle-Gellar is a great singer or dancer - she aint - but because she really caught the mood of her character and set us up for her later finale. So my attention was there from scene one.

The sweet number of Tara’s, where her delightful singing voice beautifully also captured her character and how she shines now because she has Willow by her side was lovely.

The torment of Giles, a ‘father’ knowing he must do the hardest thing in his life and leave his ‘daughter’ for her own good, beautifully dovetailing into a duet with the betrayed and saddened Tara was a huge highpoint. And all of it absolutely in keeping with their characters.

Spike’s "stay here and leave me alone" crisis was absolutely fitting and again nailed all the torment the character has been going through with Buffy’s "come hither-now bugger off" vibe.

Kind of funny was the too-long duet between Xander and Anya. By the time they got to her hairy toes I realised this song was probably going to go on forever… Cute idea, but again the humour element meant we were robbed of hearing what they were really feeling, unlike the other characters’ whose hearts were laid bare.

Okay we got a sense of what their fears were, but because they’re the comic reliefs, it’d be like expecting Joxer to expose his soul. So my point is, while it’s appropriate for the comic reliefs to be light hearted about what they’re feeling, it’s obviously at odds with what everyone else in the show is doing and it stood out. Besides, don’t we all want to know what Anya REALLY feels (and it aint about bunnies…)? And what Xander really thinks when he isn’t being goofy? What, they have no thoughts beyond smelly old cheese?!

This mismatch of styles and pace, while amusing, gave a really patchy quality to the Buffy musical. You’re left to go, are they aiming for drama or humour? Er, both…

No, mixing it on a special ep like this does not work. Pick one style and stick to it. The only thing that matched this Anya/Xander song was the opening and closing credits with that cosy old 50s TV show/Rocky Horror feel…

Meanwhile, why they gave Dawn only a mere handful of lines to sing when she has such a lovely voice, I know not – unless she was dubbed.

Dancing on Buffy could have been cut to next to nil…It either featured other people, in which case had the ‘I so don’t care’ factor, or featured our characters doing it pretty averagely. No point drawing the eye to a weaker point when the strength of acting is what we could be looking to.

I did like the boldness of letting all the actors do their own singing, whether their voice be good, bad or indifferent – of course they had to, to stand up that threadbare premise they were all being forced to sing. Nonetheless that was brave for all concerned on the less gifted side of the singing gene.

But the absolute, incredible highlight for me, edging out the Giles/Tara duet was the deliberately off-key, off-kilter "liiiving" song of Buffy’s where she exposes the heartache of being wrenched from ‘heaven’ by her friends. The power really hit home - of her would-be dancing suicide to flee to hell, only to be stopped by Spike, and his matter of fact summation of what life is all about. The profound irony that it takes a dead man to tell her how to live is no accident. Clever fellow that Mr Whedon.

It was a real show stopper. The composition of that song was nothing short of exceptional: The song itself and the keys used told a message just as well as how the actors sang it.

The Xena highlight, meanwhile, of a duet between Xena and Gabrielle, went from exposing their angst brilliantly to resolving it with no real credible explanation apart from they have suddenly apparently forgiven each other.

For those of us so profoundly relieved to see them together again that we’d have accepted virtually any happy conclusion, this was not such a worry. For those of a more clinical bent who actually wanted an in-character resolution to each woman essentially killing the other’s kiddie, and not merely a duet and they’re all happy again, the ending was a profound disappointment after so much build-up. All the power ballads, all the fabulous costuming, singing and rolling around in wet sand in the world can’t change a contrived forced ending. No matter how much I personally loved it – the hard facts are they skated over the actual ending in Xena’s Bitter Suite.

The Buffy highlight meanwhile resolved nothing. Because how can you resolve a person being back from the dead against her will? Someone who no longer has a will to live? You can’t. And the honesty in the song, then the wry ‘what happens now’ from Giles et al so beautifully sums that up. There are no neat resolutions all tied up in a bow. No cutesy group hug and everything’s fine for next week. Now THAT’S honest. It gave me very pleasant goosebumps.

And it’s in honesty that Buffy wins a musical showdown with Xena. It also wins in character consistency.

Xena wins on all other grounds, from musicality and look, feel and a better set-up. But both are incredible feats of work, and deserve to be commended. If I had to describe each to a friend, on Xena I’d say: Lush, rich, colourful, powerful. And Buffy: Weird, funny, so very very honest.

All admirable traits in their own right.

So the winner is:

Costumes: Xena
Character consistency: Buffy
Song composition: Xena
Singing: Xena.
Characterisation: Buffy
Acting: Tied
Dance: Xena
Choreography: Xena
Courage to put it all on the line: Xena
Emotional whammy: Xena, just


Xena 9.5 out of 10
Buffy 8.5

Closing thoughts – if Buffy’s Joss Whedon had had the courage to really go for it, and not self-consciously dropping in all the we’re-not-serious self-effacing gags about ‘lines being fillers’ etc, and had worked on the tricky focus and beefed up the plot, he could easily have knocked Xena off its very impressive perch. Because, when all is said in done in story telling, the acting, characterisation and consistency count for a whole lot more than singing/dancing ability. And he had all three in spades. Next time buddy, just cut loose and go for broke. You’re so damned close my teeth itch.

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