In every generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the podcasts. She is the slayer.
In When We Were Young’s 12th episode, Chris shares his teenage infatuation with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. (The TV show, not the movie. Obviously.) He also brings in the podcast’s very first guest host, Kevin Murray, Buffy fan extraordinaire, to help him slay the apocalyptic criticisms rising from Seth and Becky’s Hellmouths.
We know Joss Whedon fans still love Buffy, but how does it hold up for newbies to the Scooby gang? In honor of the show’s 20th anniversary, we look at episodes from each of the show’s first five seasons, including standout classics like “Hush” and “The Body” and the phenomenal musical “Once More, With Feeling,” to see what made the series such a groundbreaking cult hit. Grab your crossbow, get your vamp face on, and be prepared to die a couple of times (at least), because we’re off to Sunnydale!
My affinity for Buffy The Vampire Slayer has hardly been a secret, least of all on this blog, where I ranked my Top 25 episodes.
So I needn’t go too far into the weeds to sing my praises of Joss Whedon and Sarah Michelle Gellar and all the rest. Doing a podcast on this series was daunting, because I knew I’d never be able to cover everything that made this show so meaningful for so many, and I knew I’d never be able to catch my co-hosts completely up to speed in only a handful of episodes.
In the end, I decided to give them a sampling of Buffy‘s first five seasons on the WB, which nicely coincided with my high school years. There’s so much about Buffy that matters, I distilled it down to one quality per season that particularly stood out (and the podcast still came in at over two hours).
Extra thanks to my friend Kevin Murray, the Faith to Buffy for this episode, for helping me fight back as a knowledgeable Whedon fan.
The show’s first season is considered by few, if any, to rank as Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s best. It’s always a conundrum, trying to hook new fans into the show with the proper background and context, without allowing the campy tone, so-so special effects, and uneven writing of Season One to turn them off completely.
Despite these factors, Buffy made its mark when it debuted as a mid-season replacement on Mondays at 9 PM on The WB, following (yes) the squeaky-clean 7th Heaven. Two things stood out above all else: the performances of the cast, and Joss Whedon’s writing.
The acting in Season One is the show at its most iffy, I’ll admit. Anthony Stewart Head was solid from moment one, and Alyson Hannigan rarely takes a misstep as the smart but shy Willow. The rest of the supporting cast can be hit or miss, and the guest stars are more often than not unremarkable. The show rests on Sarah Michelle Gellar’s shoulders, of course, and it’s not an easy job. She has to convincingly sell snarky quips, fight scenes, heavy drama, horror sequences, and plenty more. She has to believably embody a capable superhero and a vulnerable teen girl. Few actresses are ever called upon to show such range in a single role. Many don’t display this much range across their entire careers.
As a longtime fan, it’s difficult or impossible to step aside and look at Gellar with fresh eyes. As our guest Kevin said in the podcast, she is Buffy, plain and simple, and having watched her entire performance as the character (many times), she is absolutely the most powerful and meaningful character in all of pop culture for me.
As for the writing, Whedon’s style is distinct and polarizing. Along with Kevin Williamson, he ushered in the self-conscious teenspeak of the late 90s, a reaction against less self-aware teen characters we saw in horror and elsewhere. Obviously, I love this, and I love it the most in Buffy and Scream, when it was fresh and new. (I’m the first to admit that it got stale when too many pale imitators jumped on the bandwagon.) I’m not one to blindly worship at the altar of Whedon, though I greatly admire the originality of what he brought to television. I still believe Buffy The Vampire Slayer is far and away his best work. Feminism is far from a solved problem two decades later, and you can nit-pick Whedon’s portrayal of women as filtered through a straight white male perspective, but Buffy broke new ground in portraying a female hero who was layered, vulnerable, and truly admirable, who was neither stripped of sexuality nor oozing with it, who did not exist primarily to be ogled, who did not need to be raped or brutalized by men in order to be a strong woman. Plus, with Willow and Tara, he’s still responsible for one of the best gay relationships on television to date. Even considering Season One’s many shortcomings, these talents are evident and, I believe, what kept fans like me on board for greater things on the horizon.
Despite Season One’s bumpy beginnings, Buffy The Vampire Slayer took a fairly big bite out of the pop culture landscape during 1997, if not exactly the ratings. Not every critic was a fan from moment one, but a lot of them were (including my Bible at the time, Entertainment Weekly).
Here’s what the critics had to say during the show’s first season:
Todd Everett at Variety: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays like an uneasy cross between The X-Files and Clueless.”
John Levesque at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Buffy to perfection in this witty, intelligent and thoroughly entertaining series based loosely on the 1992 film, and if she isn’t the next closet-door poster queen — or the Internet-shrine equivalent — I’ll be stunned.”
By Season 2, Buffy was a veritable phenom. Gellar was one of the hottest teen stars around, appearing on the cover of every teen rag and in hit horror films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2. It was a heavenly time to be alive for a Buffy fan.
Many episodes in Season Two have the same flaws as the worst hours in Season One — “Inca Mummy Girl,” “Some Assembly Required,” and the dismaying “Go Fish” adding insult to injury by popping up right before the season finale. Depending on which episodes you tuned in to, you could be forgiven for dismissing Season Two as more of the same.
But Season Two also kicked off Buffy as a truly serialized show, and its best episodes capitalize on that rather than the monster-of-the-week-ness of Season One. There’s lots of various pairing off, in true teen soap fashion, with Xander and Cordelia beginning an unlikely love affair and new character Oz’s courtship of Willow. Of course, this is also when the romance between Buffy and Angel hits a peak, resulting in maybe the series’ most potent storyline ever: sex with Buffy releases Angel’s soul, causing him to revert back to the evil Angelus.
This is what cemented Buffy as a landmark in teen culture of the 90s. Even if the show had been canceled after Season Two (God forbid!), it would have gone down as a classic. Many of us can relate to opening ourselves up to someone we have feelings for, only to see that person “change” the moment we do so. It all boils down to a spectacular showdown in the season finale, “Becoming,” which I still vividly remember being floored by when it first aired.
Season Three is Buffy at its most classic. The most egregious flaws found in the series’ first two seasons were (mostly) gone. Most Season Three episodes hold up pretty well, and some are flat-out stellar. The cast had also found its rhythm at this point. There isn’t really a weak link here.
It also introduces Eliza Dushku as Faith, the “bad” slayer, and one of the most compelling season-long arcs — the Mayor’s Ascension. As storytelling goes, it’s pretty punchy stuff.
One of my favorite “introductory” Buffy episodes has always been “Earshot,” because you don’t need much context to connect to it. It is also perhaps the very best example of the show’s central metaphor, “High School As Hell,” which worked quite well at times and also led to a few of the show’s most legendarily clunky moments.
I articulated my thoughts on this well enough in the podcast, but “Earshot” is a wildly entertaining hour of television that also has a powerful message, one that more people could stand to learn — especially those who feel so marginalized and ignored they turn to violence to get a point across. It’s shocking that this episode was set to air less than a week after the Columbine shootings, before it was delayed several months as the media grappled with its depictions of gun violence (a rather short-lived moral examination, if you ask me). At its best, Buffy tackled teen issues that really mattered and found a way to make the emotions of young people understandable through supernatural metaphor. Nearly anyone can find an episode of Buffy that speaks to their high school experience. With humor and pathos, this one explores what happens in American high schools when that “Hell” is actually unleashed.
Buffy is now known as one of the most inventive television series of the 90s, and of all time. It had a silent episode, a musical episode, a dream episode, and plenty more. Some also credit it as an important milestone in ushering in the second “Golden Age of Television” that The Sopranos is largely affiliated with.
TV is still flush with creativity, thanks to streaming. We tend to see more inventiveness on the small screen than on the big screen these days. Buffy was one of the first shows to make TV feel truly cinematic, and this is the first episode that did so in a major way. “Hush” is essentially a mini-movie — it helps that we know these characters already, but it would work just as well if we didn’t. It’s one of few episodes of Buffy that is truly scary, though it also contains some of the series’ comedic high points. This was also the series’ only nomination for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing. (It deserved a few more.)
At this point, Whedon established himself as more than a mere showrunner, but a real auteur. I don’t know that you could name another serialized TV show that changed genre as nimbly as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and did so to such great effect. The musical episode is a great musical, and “Hush” is a truly effective horror show.
“Fool For Love”
Aired: November 14, 2000
Focusing on: The Mythology / Complexity of Character
My Ranking: #9
As classic as its high school years were, there were some things Buffy did even better in its later seasons. The characters became more complex and adult, which is perhaps most evident in the relationship between Buffy and Spike, and Spike’s transformation from (mostly) monster to (mostly) man.
Spike was a true villain in Season Two. Granted, he was a villain we liked, and he often served as comic relief once the more straightforwardly evil Angelus became a part of the Big Bad team. He even teamed up with Buffy in “Becoming” to try and save the world.
A certain degree of goodness was always present in Spike, but he killed people. Lots of people. And would’ve killed a lot more if Buffy hadn’t stopped him. So the character’s transformation over the course of Seasons Four through Seven, mostly, was as gradual as it had to be to be convincing. First, Spike couldn’t do evil because of the chip in his head. Then, over time, he just didn’t want to. This was largely due to his growing feelings for Buffy, but this was hardly a cure-all for the vampire inside him. Season Six contains some fascinating wrestling with Spike’s inner demons, particularly in “Seeing Red,” but “Fool For Love” is the real turning point from Spike as a bad boy to someone we are actually kind of rooting for. The moment he lowers his rifle and decides to sit next to Buffy and comfort her instead is to die for.
“Fool For Love” also delves into the Anne Rice-y vampire mythology, as was often done here and on Angel. I always enjoyed seeing where these evil creatures had come from, and Spike’s is the best origin story of all. We also get a rarer glimpse at past slayers, one Chinese, one African-American, that adds some welcome diversity to the mythos. (Where’s my Nikki The Vampire Slayer spin-off?)
Buffy progressed many of its characters in fascinating ways — most strikingly, Willow and her dalliance with villainy in Season Six. Buffy herself went through a hell of a lot over those seven seasons. The show just got richer and richer over time — which is impossible to convey in a small handful of episodes. But the fans know what I mean.