Buffy The Vampire Slayer turns 20 today, which is hard for me to believe mostly because I can’t remember a world or language without it — without Big Bads, “bitca,” Spuffy, kitten poker, and Giles’s grouchy muttering (“…Pillock!”). Joss Whedon’s tiny, mighty hero and her Scooby gang fought evil, and at the same time became our friends, feminist icons, and family members.
As a cultural force, Buffy’s place in the pantheon is assured. As a show qua show, it’s a very good, almost great monster serial whose ambitions never faltered even when its latter-season execution did big time. I rewatched the entire series a couple years ago, and if I had to pick one season of Buffy in all the world? Here’s how I’d rank all seven, from worst to best:
7. Season seven
You can violate the laws of the universe you created, using a raft of new characters in whom we have no investment (except perhaps in hoping they get killed off, Kennedy), or you can drag nine episodes’ worth of doing so over 22 hours of TV. Not both.
Season seven did both, and when it wasn’t providing a different — but always inadequate — explanation for the Potentials every week, it was overestimating our investment in Spike’s soul-reacquisition project, or belaboring the concept of the First Evil without seeming to understand that a literal fight against a figurative concept is not narratively workable.
The finale came as a relief; I didn’t like that Buffy’s unique “one girl in all the world” power, the foundation of the show, got transmuted into some kind of “Kumbaya” collective consciousness … but at least it was over.
DIG IT UP: “Conversations With Dead People,” “Touched,” “Chosen”
STAKE IT: The other 19 (and “Touched” isn’t that great either, to be honest)
6. Season six
I adore “Once More With Feeling” like it’s a person, but your opinion on season six comes down to your opinion on “Spuffy.” Mine is this: On paper, I like it. Great performances by James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar and the game-recognize-game chemistry they had from the moment the characters met. Plus it makes sense that, in her circumstances, Spike is the only one Buffy can really talk to about having died or being the strongest one in the room.
But m’God does that shit drag on, and the reason it’s apparently so important to the show and Buffy is retrograde horseshit. She’s degrading herself because she’s Doing It with a guy she doesn’t love? In … the 21st century. What? Here again, the Buffy writers start with a complex dramatic conflict (a hero brought back from the dead, with unforeseen consequences) but don’t unpack it all the way. Throw in a different writing team from week to week, writing Buffy all over the place emotionally, and it’s a depressing bunch of episodes, and not in the way the show intended.
And then there’s the bungling of Willow’s “magi-crack” addiction. Buffy had laid years of groundwork for the idea that Willow, an underestimated “nerd” with a gift for schoolwork and coding, would find her calling in magic, then get carried away by new feelings of importance and power. Giles had called her on it. We’d seen her use her powers for petty vengeance as often as in season-finale showdowns. Why not give Willow responsibility for her behavior?
Until Tara is killed to set the climactic events of season six in motion, the Trio are less credible as Big Bads than they are tiresome — an undifferentiated grab bag of clichés about geek culture. And Buffy never really explains why stopping a baddie like Warren by any means necessary is such a blot on Willow’s cosmic ledger. “We don’t kill humans” is too pat an answer to yet another question the writers avoided addressing by putting Buffy in a chicken hat, and having Xander dump Anya at the altar for … reasons. Credit for thinking big, but most of season six is a big miss.
DIG IT UP: “Once More With Feeling,” “Two to Go,” “Life Serial”
STAKE IT: “Doublemeat Palace,” “Hell’s Bells,” “Gone”
5. Season five
I like Dawn more than most fans did, but season five occasionally suffered from its focus on her. It suffered more from not knowing what to do with Riley, then writing him off in highly irritating fashion. It’s completely credible that a Slayer might struggle in relationships with human men who feel threatened by her superior strength, and it’s completely disappointing that the show sells Buffy out with a lecture from Xander of all people about how she should go after Riley because she’s lucky any man loves her. Shut up, Xander. Your crush on Buffy ended, what, 20 minutes before this scene started?
The writers never stepped into that emotional tangle again, putting Buffy back with a vampire (or positioning her as a solitary samurai/social bumbler) for the remainder of the show’s run. If only they’d devoted their energies to the season’s Big Bad, and how to make captivating drama from a literal god. Buffy bit off way more than it could chew with Glory, revealing her true nature too early and then changing its minds from episode to episode on whether she was an omniscient brain-draining villain the Scoobs couldn’t stop, or just a shoe-obsessed brat who liked room service. It’s a waste of Clare Kramer at best.
Season five has its moments — a perfectly eerie and disorienting meditation on grief in “The Body”; the beautiful sadness of “The Gift,” as the gang contemplates Buffy’s broken body. Gellar is a pro throughout, and her Buffybot performance is delightful. The idea that good and justice don’t triumph every time is worthwhile; this treatment of it isn’t quite.
DIG IT UP: “The Body,” “Real Me,” “Intervention”
STAKE IT: “Into the Woods,” “Fool for Love,” “Checkpoint”
4. Season four
When it was good, it was very, very good. When it was “Beer Bad,” it was awful. Okay, the fourth season seldom sinks to outright putridity, and its failure to really catch fire is partly bad luck; Lindsay Crouse, the intended season-four Big Bad, and Seth Green both asked out of their contracts, leaving the writers room scrambling to reimagine FrankenRoboCop, Adam, as the season’s chief villain.
The season’s true villain may be the transition to college, one Buffy didn’t make much more gracefully than other shows that began their protagonists’ lives in high school, but BTVS: The College Years might have worked better if it had pushed the Initiative farther. The governmental-military take on handling matters supernatural had seasons and spinoffs’ worth of fodder in it; the show never took advantage, betting instead on a poorly made villain with a floppy drive over his nipple.
“Hush” is one of TV’s all-time spookiest hours, and “Restless” one of television’s better dream sequences. Willow’s voyage of sexual self-discovery might seem twee to us today, but represented a real departure back then. The body-switching episode works thanks to Gellar and Eliza Dushku. But season four never catches fire. And Veruca is so, so terrible.
DIG IT UP: “Hush,” “Restless,” “Pangs”
STAKE IT: “Beer Bad,” “Where the Wild Things Are”
3. Season one
Most shows take a few episodes, even an entire first season, to hit their strides, but not Buffy, whose truncated first season began with a remarkably confident two-part series premiere. Joss Whedon struck a smart, compelling balance between inverting tropes, like the helpless tiny blonde who meets her demise in a horror-movie alley; and leveraging stock high-school-drama characters and situations, like the bookish nerd and the dark stranger with a secret.
Buffy season one is typical in some ways (funny, well-acted, unable to write 45 full minutes of material for Xander-centric eps) and atypical in others, chiefly its length, though looking at it now, you wonder how a shorter time frame might have improved the meandering and retconned internal logic of later seasons. It has a couple clunkers, but the show’s crack timing and genuine fondness for its characters mean that if it debuted again in 2017, even in its 1997 form, I’d still get onboard for a second season.
DIG IT UP: “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” “The Puppet Show”
STAKE IT: “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” “I Robot, You Jane”
2. Season two
I can’t remember why I happened to watch the second-season finale, having never watched Buffy before — probably because it came on before Dawson’s Creek — but I immediately got sucked in, cried at the end despite having zero grounding in the show, and immediately phoned my bestie Juanito, a huge fan who taped every episode, to help me get caught up before season three.
Most Buffy fans have a story like this, one they can’t not tell when the subject comes up, one that usually derives from a season-two episode. So why didn’t I rank the season as the show’s best? You could easily make a case that it is. Certainly it’s the show at its most itself, as the fizzier first-season take on Buffy’s central metaphor — the “monsters” of high school and growing up, shifted to a darker and more mature perspective.
There’s fun in season two, too: Giles’s guitar-god past, the introduction of Oz (and the refreshingly direct way he just calls up his aunt to ask if his cousin Jordy is a werewolf now or what), sarcastic invisi-Willow in “Halloween,” and the campy pleasures of Wentworth Miller’s log-like “acting” in “Go Fish,” a crappish episode that gave viewers a much-needed break from the emotional havoc.
Season two is where Buffy best balances Buffy’s save-the-world destiny and just-fit-in daydreams without letting her descend into pouty self-pity. The cast does its best acting. (We’ll just leave Kendra’s “accent” aside.) It bags the biggest possible dramatic game — you give your virginity to your first true love and it literally turns him into a monster, so you have to kill him — with wry compassion. It’s just not my favorite.
DIG IT UP: “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered,” “Ted,” “Surprise”
STAKE IT: “Inca Mummy Girl,” “Reptile Boy”
1. Season three
Is season two the better, more consistent season on paper? Probably. Is the imagining of Faith as the Slayer id, in opposition to Buffy’s superego, a little heavy-handed? Probably. Did my rewatch reveal that some historically beloved aspects of the third season — Mr. Trick, “Band Candy,” the ever-shifting explanation as to Angel’s whole … situation — didn’t stand the test of time? Sure did.
A germophobic Big Bad whose occasional lapses into human feeling make him all the more terrifying, the still-chilling alternate-reality episodes “Wish” and “Doppelgangland” that feature some of the most effective slo-mo in TV history, the Class Protector award in “The Prom,” and a final battle that not only facilitated Willow-Oz sex, but smithereened West Beverly High all add up to my favorite season.
Once I hit “Bad Girls,” it’s hard not to keep watching straight through to the season-three finale. The writing can’t always decide how it feels about, say, whether Faith is worth saving, or why sometimes it’s hilarious that vampires are single-minded murderers and other times it’s a threat to humanity. But you can’t deny the writing’s momentum, carefully built over three seasons, the payoffs of dozens of relationship moments, throwaway lines, and nightly patrols.
It’s also the last time the whole gang’s together, before spinoffs, contract kerfuffles, and Joss Whedon’s 42 other shows splintered Buffy’s focus. If the show had ended with “fire bad, tree pretty,” Giles’s paternal pride in his fierce charge, and Angel disappearing in an actual puff of smoke from the hulking crater over the Hellmouth …
But it didn’t. Buffy continued for another four seasons — with diminishing returns, it’s true, but with noble failures, too, and it never stopped trying to tell us something, about heroes’ journeys and the families we create for ourselves, about demons real and metaphorical, and the hope with which we fight them.
DIG IT UP: “The Wish,” “Doppelgangland,” “The Prom,” “Bad Girls”
STAKE IT: “Amends,” “The Zeppo,” “Gingerbread”
Sarah D. Bunting is the East Coast editor at Previously.TV.