So Buffy the Vampire Slayer is now 20. Well. The truth is a little more complicated than that – the movie is a few years older and Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar turned 40 on the 14th but the fact is it’s a good time to say “Happy belated birthday, Buffy”.
There have been a lot of articles about the impact it had on television, with some making extraordinary claims about how it was the birth of the golden age of TV we’re currently experiencing. This is to ignore the super-serious grown-up shows being made around the same time and the rise of HBO as a creative force, but critically it ignores Buffy itself. Creator Joss Whedon always intended it to be a TV show, nothing grand or fancy. When it moved to widescreen in season five, Whedon objected strongly and insisted it be shown in pan-and-scan 4:3 when possible. It was a little show for a little box. Instead of ushering in a new age, it now looks more like it was winding down an old one. It might be accidental that Spike is a big fan of old-style American soaps (His stories!); it might just be a goofy joke, or it might be a nod to the modest ambitions of a show that got maybe a little bigger than it was ever intended to be.
As ever with Buffy, it is likely to be both. The ease with which the show mixed wit, horror and heartbreak genuinely did set a template that many have followed (the rebooted Dr Who, another show that has found itself in a widescreen box that seems somehow smaller than the show inside, owes it at least a small debt), and is one that Whedon has never managed to quite replicate. In short, the seven seasons are a television masterpiece. This is a reasonably uncontroversial (though not uncontested!) view here at MostlyFilm dot com – some of our writers even found their way here via Buffy fandom – so it seemed appropriate that we took a little time out to consider the big question: All of Buffy is good, but which season was the best?
Welcome to the Hellmouth
Season One by CaulorLime
I can’t really claim it’s the best, obviously.
Season One of Buffy had too much staked against it in comparison with the later seasons. For a start, it was noticeably cheaper and was infused with the fear of cancellation. Too many of the episodes were standalone and the show only really picked up a story arc in the second half of the season, when it became clear they would be allowed to have a second half of a season. That cheapness means a huge number of the fight scenes take place in near total darkness, which isn’t great for a show which kind of relies on its fight scenes.
The cast is too small, and frankly not that great at the old acting. By the end of season 2 SMG and the others had really grown to inhabit their roles, there genuinely wasn’t a bad performance from a Scooby gang member for the rest of the show’s lifetime – that isn’t strictly true for season one, unfortunately. Also, there’s no Oz, no Drusilla or Spike, no utterly, utterly wonderful Anya.
What Season one does perfectly though, far more perfectly than any of its superior younger siblings, is fulfil its original brief. Seasons two and three are set in a school, but season one is about school. The good Buffy stories always work on at least three, usually four, levels; they are straight horror stories, pastiches of golden age horror movies, knowing and witty commentaries on TV tropes and, for season one more than any other, they are explorations of school life. The genius of season one is that the terror didn’t usually come from the hellmouth – the terror was the school, it was merely amplified and exaggerated by the magic emanating from the hellmouth.
The opening episode, Welcome to the Hellmouth, focuses as much on the fear of starting a new school as it does on the vampires. There’s as much danger in negotiating a new set of rules, in making the wrong friends, in sitting at the wrong table in the lunchroom as there is in the prowling undead. When Giles tells Buffy who he is, and that he knows who she is, her dismay is not merely that she’ll have to risk her life here, too, but also that she won’t be getting the chance to re-invent herself, to affect the change that a new school should offer.
Most of us have never been cursed by a creepy zoo keeper, turned into a slavering hyena and later had to worry whether we’ve consumed a headmaster; and that’s why Xander, to whom this happens, is not the protagonist of The Pack. Rather it is Willow who is our proxy, and we’ve all experienced the pain of watching a friend change, become mean, succumb to peer pressure.
Willow does get to be the lead in her own story, though, as in I Robot, You Jane the show explores the comparatively new dangers of online grooming of young girls. Needless to say it’s an ancient demon inhabiting the internet, rather than a perverted bank manager with whom she’s conversing, but the sense that she’s finally found someone who understands her, with whom she can share her true self, is beautifully portrayed, and the pain when the deception is uncovered is raw and convincing. Once again, it’s the lie that could exist in reality, rather than the demonic robot that couldn’t, that is the real story.
These narrative structures go on through the show’s run, and if I’m honest, they get better done. Season One’s Teacher’s Pet deals with schoolboy bravado and sexual obsession, and touches on the taboo of student/teacher relationships, but it’s a bit schlocky and daft when compared with the beautifully tender treatment of that idea in season two’s I Only Have Eyes For You, for example.
So, no. Not actually the best season. Probably the worst, I guess. But without it, no others; and though season two probably covered school life as well, and with better stories, fight scenes, characters and lines, season one did it first.
Season Two by TheTramp
What was fun about Buffy from the off was that it was never just her show, what happened to the gang and her class mates was equally important. It was about growing up and learning to be an adult; just in the context of a high school that dealt with an uncannily high number of ‘unexplained events’ of the monstrous and vampiric kind.
Once you have great characters you want to give them more to do, you also want more of them. In season one the Master was always rather sketchy. There was a ‘fate has interlinked us’ narrative, but really it was a simple case of ‘I’m bad because I have to be, I’m the villain’. This changed in season two.
For starters there was Billy Idol-alike Spike and his ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ girlfriend Drusilla: the Bonnie & Clyde of vampires who warranted proper back-stories and an investment in their increasing frustration in being thwarted in their slayer slaying ambitions. What’s more there was the juxtaposition fun of Buffy busily, if reluctantly, growing up and Spike, despite his many decades, doing his level best not to. He may have looked like a 30 something with a penchant for teenagers, but Spike was essentially the rebel yell of vampires with a strong grasp of sarcasm and heavy hand with eyeliner.
But two villains was hardly upping the game and so Joss brought us Angel – one shag and he turns bad – the ultimate in one night stands you wish you had never had. Where he had been the mysterious, tall dark and handsome protector who appeared from nowhere in the nick of time in season two he became the out and out stalker – the cat that murders your beloved pet bird and leaves it on your pillow as a gift – and all with an Irish accent so bad it made Dick Van Dyke’s cockney sound convincing.
Indeed sex beat a throbbing drum across season two, which I posit was really all about relationships and love in its many, not always positive, forms. There was that of carer, illustrated by Spike and Drusilla, ironically the healthiest relationship of the bunch. There was the abusive love of Angel for Buffy. Willow and Oz learnt that inner demons can come between even the most timid of lovers. Giles and his gypsy witch lady dealt with the corrosive impact that lies can have between people. Xander and Cordelia kept it in the closet, and all that that meant to them. Whilst Buffy battled jealousy; as she met Kendra and her Mum met Ted (a killer robot, but dating as a middle aged mum is hard when you live by the hell-mouth people!)
Oh yes, Kendra. The OTHER slayer. The one who does as she is told, spends all of her time training, can’t grasp the point of friends, is shy around boys, has great dreads, is super-cool in a school swot way (if your school is the school of kick arse!) and who has a stake aimed at the place where Angel’s heart should be. There is love here too, that of sisterhood and kinship.
And if all that isn’t enough to convince you of season two’s awesomeness, well I could mention bug man assassins, ancient mummy crushes, old school pal crushes, Xander in a speedos for a whole episode just to prove that he had worked out and of course the rather marvellous ‘Halloween’ episode where the burden of self was thrown aside as the gang become their costumed alter-ego’s and got, quite literally, to be someone else for the night. And not once did the characters need to sing about how they felt, which can only be a good thing (yea I’m looking at you Once More With Feeling). And did I mention the episode with Xander in speedos?! Awesome.
Season Three by Jim Eaton-Terry
If TV shows, like pop stars, can ever be said to have an Imperial Phase, then the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer surely qualifies. By 1998 the show had risen from a “midseason replacement show on the WB” to the network’s second most popular series, and was as ferociously entertaining as any run of television I can think of.
Creatively, Season 3 is the point where the original incarnation of Buffy – the irresistible central pitch of John Hughes meets Roger Corman – reached its absolute peak. From the writing to the acting to the fight choreography, every aspect of the show had transcended the slight ricketiness of the first two years, while the offscreen problems that started to emerge once the characters left high school were still invisible; most of all, the show’s slow transition into Joss Whedon’s Hollywood Launchpad hadn’t started.
The core ensemble was also at its peak in ’98, without a single weak link from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s tough, sad, funny hero’s journey to Charisma Carpenter’s casually brilliant unravelling of Cordelia Chase. Many of the actors here have never been half as good again – Alexis Denisof may have gone on to do his best work on Angel but it’s hard to argue that Seth Green or Eliza Dushku have ever approached the richness of Oz or Faith – and the addition of the brilliant Harry Groening as Mayor Richard Wilkins enables the entire cast to snap through the dialogue, never missing a beat. They even avoid asking David Boreanez to do the Irish voice.
What really makes Buffy Season 3 the single most satisfying season of TV I’ve ever seen, though, is that the emotional architecture of the story is the best ever constructed out of an episodic network show. Whedon takes Buffy from the rubble of season 2 and gives every single character a funny, touching, unexpected and heartbreaking story. Buffy’s journey from isolation to acceptance, the hormonal surge of the Willow/Oz/Xander/Cordelia love rectangle, Faith and the Mayor’s the twisted father and daughter bond and – of course – the final resolution of Buffy+Angel4Ever, each story works on its own terms and builds towards the crescendo of the final three episodes. Later seasons may have worked on a wider canvas and built to equally devastating conclusions, but The Prom and Graduation Day have the benefit of being the finale of Buffy Mk I, and deliver more emotional payoffs than, I think, the end of any TV show I can remember.
As well as the overall structure, Season 3 is relentlessly entertaining on an episodic level. Every single episode is tightly plotted, every guest star is perfectly cast, and not a single hour passes without at least one unforgettably great line. There’s also more love put into flowing ideas and gags between episodes than almost any show I can think of; come to think of it, what is a stevedore?
Season Four by Mr Moth
Season four is the pivot point, the middle of the whole show. By the end of season three, high school was over and the whole supernatural-monsters-as-metaphor-for-school-issues motif looked played out. Either you quit at the absolute peak – the Mayor erupting into his demon form, the school blown sky high, Buffy’s cover blown, Angel leaving town, the show as we know it over – or you ride the maelstrom and see where the debris settles. Whedon chose the latter, of course. You don’t stop growing when you leave school (and, more prosaically, you don’t drop a TV show as it finds its audience).
You don’t have to spend long with season four to see its intentions. By the end of the first episode a vampire has snapped the Class Protector Award that capped the high school years – all the trust, respect and recognition gained there have been wiped out and Buffy is facing the adult world from the bottom of the heap once more. For a series growing with its audience, it’s a good place to be.
Having said that, season four does NOT have a good reputation. I suspect this is due to a) a number of dud episodes, b) Buffy’s romance with plankish Riley Finn being a major disappointment after the complex, heart-wrenching love story with Angel and c) Adam being a somewhat low-wattage villain following the outrageous good time of Mayor Wilkins. These are all fair, but there is are counter-arguments for them all and I’m going to give them you can’t stop me.
Yes, not every episode knocks it out of the park. Pangs is terrible. Where the Wild Things Are is boring. The Yoko Factor feels very much like filler. And Beer Bad omg. Fine. But when it’s good it is really really really good. A New Man and Fear, Itself are tremendously funny, with the characteristic heart and soul of the series meaning they don’t feel throwaway. Faith/Buffy body swap two parter This Year’s Girl/Who Are You is remarkable in that neither episode lets down the other even a tiny bit. Primeval and Restless end the season in new and surprising ways. And Hush is, well, Hush. Its reputation precedes it, and if you don’t know Hush… find out.
Although Riley is not the most fascinating character, it’s the stolid, all-American, corn-fed dullness of him that is the central attraction for Buffy. And kudos to the production team and Marc Blucas for having the courage to make Riley someone the audience dislikes. Not only is he Not Angel, it turns out that he’s actually much, much worse. A Nice Guy who turns out, as Nice Guys so often do, to have hidden depths of awfulness. As the season goes on his image is kicked away, leaving the real man beneath and although it’s handsome, it’s not pretty. Even if you’re not convinced by that, the Willow-Tara-Oz love triangle and the blooming Xander/Anya relationship is there for you. What more do you want? Spike falling in love with Buffy? Well, not yet. Not for real.
Last but not least, Adam. By this stage, the had taken on and taken down three Big Bads – The Master, who was kind of crappy but you have to start somewhere. Then the Angelus/Spike/Drusilla triumvirate; a dream team of soured love, dangerous madness and Whedon’s patented snark. This was followed by Mayor Wilkins, a brilliant, chilling creation who set a high standard of villainy. For the next season to have Buffy face down a slightly taller than average man with a minidisc player in his tit… well, it felt like a step down. Even Joss Whedon calls him boring. Maybe, though, that was necessary. Buffy had just fought a pure demon – by the end of season five, she would be fighting a god. The world needed a break, and season four’s focus is inward, with the characters examining the world and their place in it. Given the philosophical horror this can engender, what better monster than Frankenstein’s?
Season Five by Spank the Monkey
Back at the start of the 21st century, we didn’t have TV box sets. Well, we did, but they were made of tapes, the size of breezeblocks, cost a fortune, and only held half a season. So when I finally gave in to peer pressure in 2000 and began watching Buffy, there was no question of me starting from the beginning. I jumped straight in with Buffy vs. Dracula, the opening to season 5. Buffy engaged in some post-modern banter with the most famous vampire of them all, Xander briefly became one of the worst assistants Dracula ever had, and the whole thing wrapped up with an amusingly anti-climactic spat between Buffy and her sister.
Obviously, I had no bloody idea what had just happened. I remained oblivious until I went online to see what my favourite discussion board had to say about the episode, and discovered that there was a wee plot point that I’d missed. Sadly, I’ll never get to experience the thrill of cognitive dissonance that the long-term Buffistas got at the end of that particular season premiere.
Buffy’s always enjoyed pulling the rug from under the viewers’ feet, and season 5 does even more of that than usual: when you’ve got a Big Bad capable of altering people’s perceptions of reality, all bets are off. At the same time, the darkness that threatened to overwhelm the show completely in its latter years started cranking up here. Even a superficially frothy episode like The Replacement (the one which uses Nicholas Brendon’s twin brother as a low-budget special effect) has a couple of discussions between Xander and Anya about the nature of mortality that will take on a very different hue a couple of years later.
These two strands come together in The Body, one of the show’s most spectacular rugpulls and – in my opinion – its best episode ever. After four and a half seasons of allegorical representations of teenage traumas, Whedon takes an actual teenage trauma and shows it in the starkest form possible. You could argue that the absence of a musical score is The Body’s primary gimmick, but that’s just one of a battery of stylistic devices that he uses to unsettle you. The off-kilter framing (foreshadowed by an art class discussion about negative space). The unpredictable editing, sometimes abrupt, sometimes languid. The line “I have to lie to make you feel better.“ It’s one of the most radical things ever to have aired in prime time, a bold evocation of the numbness that hits us when we lose someone close.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that an episode about the harsh realities of death was followed by a season finale that treated it all as a bit of a game. To be fair, The Gift came at an awkward time for the show, finding itself between networks and uncertain about what was to come next, if anything. But nobody ever believed that the finale was as final as it seemed: hell, Sky even spoiled its closing shot in their trailers. You knew that a reset button wasn’t too far away. The Body, on the other hand, has no possible reset button, which may be why it remains the high water mark of Whedon’s career to date.
Once More, With Feeling
Season Six by Sarah Slade
What happens when the Slayer dies and nobody knows who or where the next Slayer is, or even if there is a new Slayer? Who’s will protect us from the demons and nasties? Are we strong enough?
So Buffy’s dead. Properly dive-into-big-glowing-pile-of-bad and save the world dead and buried. You can’t help but wonder if most of Sunnydale’s problems would be solved if they just did a few more cremations, but let’s run with the Scooby Gang, guided by Willow’s magic, stumbling around graveyards with stakes and Spike, trying as hard as they can to pretend that nothing has changed, not really. Look! They’ve even created a robot Buffy to fool the foe. She’s not as good as the real thing, but she can kick really really well.
Season 6 is about loss, grief, finding a way out, losing your way, breaking out, coming back and finding that nothing is as you left it. The real Buffy returns, summoned from eternal bliss by Willow’s magic spell, and is immediately pitched into the middle of an all-out war for the soul of Sunnydale; not only from the usual demons and nasties, but also from the malignant nerd trio of Warren, Andrew and the short one. Then there’s the growing fissures in the Scooby gang. Willow’s increasing dependence on magic, Xander and Anya pulling away into their own unit, Giles’ quasi-parental frustration, and Buffy, poor brave, capable Buffy, grief-stricken at the death of her mother, bitter at being dragged back to life, has to learn to carry on.
Season 6 is about the pain of adulthood. All grown up, with jobs and relationships and futures to consider. Without her mother holding the rest of her life together, Buffy has to learn how to earn a living, keep house, rescue a teenager a million times…oh, and there’s the post-traumatic stress as well. This series was the first to air after the September 11 attacks in 2001, while it was filmed way before September, seems to echo the darker mood in Bush-era America.
So how does Buffy respond? Well, she kicks demon butt. But then she’s always doing that. She tries various ways of earning money, with varying degrees of success. She’s too tough for Xander’s builder gang, too impatient for retail, and she can’t handle college because she missed a lot of school while saving the world from Evil and being dead and all. She has to save the world from vengeful nerds, marauding demon biker gangs, a recidivist revenge demon finding comfort with her unsuitable secret boyfriend, and her best friend’s white hot grief. Life, it seems, is just a repeat of high school for Buffy, only bigger and more expensive. As she says in Episode 3, “This is Hell.”
There are so many classic episodes in Season 6, and I’m not just talking about the one everybody talks about (Once More With Feeling), which I thought was nice, but it ended up being another ‘Rescue Dawn’ ep, with a bit of Spikery thrown in, and the songs were… OK, but not worthy of the hype. This season was the one where every single cast member brought their best to the table (along with several kittens).
Spike’s accent was almost believable; Anthony Stuart Head’s Giles burying his bitterness with a push on his glasses; Alyson Hannigan’s perky girliness dissolving into a howl of sociopathic pain as her lover dies in her arms; even Michelle Trachtenberg as Dawn manages to spike her first date (a curiously ambivalent vamp). At the centre, as always, is Sarah Michelle Gellar, who had veered dangerously towards cutesy MaryJaneness* in previous series. In Series 6, she becomes more than the wise-cracking, kick-boxing machine that Willow tries to recreate in the first couple of episodes. The Buffy that emerges from the emotional torment of this series is stronger, wiser, sadder and fucking dangerous.
(*in later years, doctors came to refer to this as “Clara Oswald Syndrome”)
End of Days
Season Seven by Jim Eaton-Terry
It couldn’t have ended any other way. There’s no denying that Buffy limped to the finish line, crippled by the combination of a creative team first distracted by the creation of Firefly then destroyed by that show’s failure and a cast – with the honourable exception of Alyson Hannigan, whose entire career has been characterised by the ability to stay gamely committed to franchises long after her co-stars check out – visibly ready to move on.
What came close to strangling the show in its last year, though, was the sheer weight of tangled history which left so very little room for manoeuvre. The frustration is how great many of the ideas behind the season are, and how appallingly badly so many are fluffed. Bringing it all back to the school, the final enemy being the Hellmouth personified, and even the idea of a troupe of potential slayers, all work beautifully in concept but none of them manage to land with the snap Buffy had managed in previous seasons.
So what, even with so much distance, is so wonderful about the final season is that despite all the above, and despite a number of insanely bad creative decisions (I’m just not going to talk about Kennedy, OK?) the very end of the show manages to transcend it all and go out on an unarguable high note. For seven years, the show has put Buffy through hell, over and over again, never flinching from the impact her status as the Chosen One has on every aspect of her life, while at the same time pushing Faith through even more turmoil. So the decision to dynamite both the physical basis of the show, ripping the whole of Sunnydale apart as the Hellmouth implodes, and the concept that underpins it all (“in every generation there is a chosen one…”) in a single montage that shares the female empowerment at the heart of the show from the very first scene, would be powerful enough even without finally bringing Faith to the heart of the show’s family and closing with Buffy’s smile. But that smile, and the realisation underneath it that Buffy is finally free of the burden of saving the world (a lot, of course), makes every misstep in the season worth while.
In the end Buffy (the show) managed the almost impossible task of giving Buffy (the character) a genuinely optimistic and satisfying ending. And no, I’m not going to talk about the ways in which the final season of Angel, the following year, managed to undermine almost every piece of that carefully constructed happy ending and use it to get cheap laughs.
A Beautiful Sunset
Season Eight and Beyond by The Belated Birthday Girl
The first thing to say about the continuation of Buffy in comics is that there really was no need for it. Buffy the TV series had the luxury that many series don’t of stopping on its own terms: it wasn’t cancelled by the network, and was able to finish the story the way it wanted, and wrap things up in a way which made it unnecessary to carry on.
But carrying on in comics gave Joss and his writers freedom to do things that budget and effects wouldn’t have allowed on TV. Characters could go places and do things that would have been hard to realise convincingly on screen. And in Season 8, this is what was done, with a story where the scale sometimes overwhelmed, to the detriment of the development of and focus on the characters. Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should. To me, some of the best issues in the run were the one-shots, focussing on just one or two characters, away from the major arc. Although in the end, I do think that arc went to an interesting place, and set things up nicely for Season 9 and beyond.
As someone who wasn’t really a reader of comics before the Buffyverse moved into the medium, it took me a while to get comfortable with the pace, with each issue covering less ground than a single episode of the TV series, but longer gaps between issues than between episodes. I sometimes wonder whether the writers themselves took a while to get into that, too, as the series was originally intended to be about 25 issues, but ended up being 40. Later seasons did settle into the 25 issues run (with Season 11 bringing it in even shorter), with mini-series pulling out some characters into their own arcs, plus Angel got to have his own parallel series (alongside Faith, for Seasons 9 and 10, and then on his own for Season 11).
One big difference to me about the comics is the level of emotional engagement. I rarely find the comics giving me anything like the emotional tug of Joss’s TV work, although the death of one core character in Season 8 probably came closest. But ultimately, I think it is just easier to connect to a performance of an actor on a screen than to a drawing on a page, no matter how well written and drawn it is.
I also find it interesting the way the comics mix together pre-existing characters, whose traits and voices you already know from the actors, with new characters, whose traits are only what is on the page, and whose voices you have to imagine yourself. I think it is to the credit of the Buffy comics that so many of the new characters become ones you care about, although there is still really a hierarchy with the characters from the TV series remaining core.
Whether on TV or in comics, Buffy works best when the characters are facing not only vampires and demons, but the more real-life problems we all can recognise, and in spite of some big changes brought in over the course of the comics, at the end of the day, it’s the focus on the characters than continues to make it work for me.