Earlier this year we began a look back on a show that defines the phrase “cult classic.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer is exactly the kind of TV series this website was founded to celebrate. It was a small show, with a meager but zealously devoted fanbase, whose legacy has lasted far longer than its impressive seven-season lifespan. The Spring of 2022 will mark the show’s twenty-fifth anniversary so this year we’re counting down to that date and looking back on the show, its themes, greatest episodes, and—starting this month—its spinoff series, Angel.
Let’s start with the more seasoned of the two shows. Buffy’s first year was a rough one, as we noted in previous articles. While the show basically knew exactly who its characters were from the start, it took a little while for the writing team, led by Joss Whedon, to nail down exactly what kind of stories to tell. In terms of the big picture, it was clear they were going for a “High School is hell…literally” parable, and never is that mantra more of the show’s focus than in season one, where everything from social anxiety, depression, bullying, horny teachers, and more things that kids have to face in High School were tackled with a supernatural flare and plenty of teenage wise-cracking. The show was barely about vampires, despite the title character’s primary role. The very episodic nature of the season, coupled with a lack of fan feedback until all episodes had been written and produced meant the series would need a second season to iron out the kinks, minimize what didn’t work, and focus more on what did. The trouble was Buffy’s ratings were not setting the world on fire, and the WB did not greenlight a second season until the very last minute.
Still, greenlight they did, and Joss and co. dove headfirst into season two now armed with the confidence that they had a winner on their hands, albeit one that needed a little polish. The resulting season is one of the most drastic jumps in quality from one year to the next in genre TV history. It’s one thing to say “iron out the kinks, minimize what didn’t work, and focus more on what did” but it’s easier said than done. Most shows slide into a rut almost immediately and never break out of it until it’s too late and the cancellation hammer falls. Buffy, however, was a show almost defined by how willing it was to try new things, to shed seemingly established ideas, and even to take what worked and reshape it just to see if it could work under different circumstances. The season’s biggest improvement was the addition of serialized elements, particularly with the Angel/Angelus arc, which carried the second half of the season and gave every episode, even the one-offs, a throughline that kept the audience invested on the road to the finale. And what a finale it was. As said in the season two article, the finale featured a gut-wrenching dramatic finish that “earned” its ending thanks to weeks of buildup and with the help of writers that weren’t afraid to make hard choices. The season ended with fans giddy to see what would happen next, and yet once again, the WB dragged its feet and left Joss and co. wondering if they would get a season three. Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, they did.
Season three is Buffy at its most confident. Joss and co. knew they had a potential winner in season one and knew how to craft it into a winner in season two. All that was left was to go out and put all the pieces together and present the best season yet. It’s here where many shows falter; they run out of ideas or they get too comfortable repeating what worked until it becomes stale. Never ones to keep things stagnant, Joss took advantage of the third season—the title character’s senior year of high school—and treated it like the closing of a chapter. After two previous years not knowing if there would be next season, the team entered season three with the exact same thoughts, not knowing if there would be a season four, determined to leave it all on the line. Joss has said in interviews that the constant uncertainty that surrounded the show’s future meant he felt obligated to create season finales that could stand as “series” finales if it came to it. With Buffy entering her senior year of high school, Joss ended the year by literally blowing up the show, obliterating many of the locales we had come accustomed to seeing our heroes frequent, and graduating away (metaphorically and literally) at least two critical characters to the show’s early success, Angel and Cordelia. Buffy’s third season was its most focused, its tightest, its cleverest, and its best written overall, climaxing with a finale that, had it been the actual end of the show, was still good enough to propel the series into cult hit status for years to come. Instead, fortunately, the show was once again renewed by the WB at the last minute, meaning Buffy and her friends would enter their fourth year together in an entirely new environment.
BUFFY SEASON FOUR
Buffy’s fourth season is the most difficult one to rate. On the one hand, it has, arguably, the largest collection of “best one-off episodes” in the series, while on the other hand, its overall arc is the weakest since season one (which basically didn’t have an arc). As we’ve noted before, every Buffy year tackles some aspect of maturation and adolescent development. In season one, Buffy tackles her calling. In season two, it’s her first love. In season three, it’s the end of childhood that comes with a “graduation into adulthood.” At least that’s what everyone before they graduate always thinks, that they’ll get their diploma and then suddenly boom, you’re an adult. Nope. In reality, you’re still the same person you were before, only now you’re thrown into the deep end of the pool and forced to sink or swim. That messy aftermath of graduation is the focus in season four; it tackles the awkward transition from being immature to being mature.
It’s no surprise then that the two characters who best represented Buffy as a still-developing adolescent—Giles and her mother—see the biggest changes in their characters versus how they had been presented in seasons one through three. In the first three seasons, Buffy’s mother was a recurring character there to make rules, give lectures, and “not understand” Buffy’s grand calling. Typical mom stuff. Giles, on the other hand, knew everything about Buffy’s calling; he played the role of Merlin to her Arthur, mentoring her both as a quasi-teacher and quasi-father. The post-graduation life means the world expects you to make your own decisions more often and rely less on the counsel of parents. Buffy’s mom is seen less than ever in this season, and Giles—a much more pivotal “character”—spends the year going through a kind of late-blooming mid-life crisis, wondering what to do with himself now that his library is blown up and his Slayer is off in college.
Oh yes. College.
Buffy season four never quite knew what to do with its college backdrop. Being at a university is radically different from being at High School. An incoming Freshman might think College is just “harder high school” but that’s not it at all. It is harder, yes, but the real culture shock comes when you realize there are ten times as many kids on campus and literally none of them know who you are, or care, and the teachers aren’t paid to coddle and quasi-parent you, either. You’re on your own. The writers of the show understood this, thankfully, so they didn’t try to create a “high school 2.0” environment for the show. Instead, they used the college as a backdrop that just happened to be where various one-off episodes were set, and where the arc of the season was centered.
In fact, the show really only used its “college setting” to any great effect in one episode, the sublimely hilarious “Living Conditions” (4×02). Every other episode could have happened basically anywhere with only minimal changes, but “Living Conditions” depends entirely on Buffy being a Freshman at the University, forced to share a dorm room with “the roommate from Hell.”
The best part about the episode is how the viewer is left to wonder for most of the runtime if Buffy’s roommate really is a demon or if Buffy is just reacting to being an only child who suddenly has to share her “living conditions” with a peer. Granted, the roommate is a supremely annoying person, which leads to the greatest editing/camera gag in the series, when Buffy’s roomie “borrows” her sweater and then drips ketchup on it. Buffy’s reaction to this is…
You can almost see the writers trying to work out what they want to do with the college setting within this one episode, as it ends with Willow moving in to be Buffy’s roomie, and the perfect last shot before the credits…
This episode is going to be overrated so much by me when I finally post the full ranking list.
But again, other than this one episode, the show never really made the college setting work, choosing instead to focus on Riley and the Initiative, a secret government division operating out of the college’s secret underground basement, whose mission is to capture and experiment on various demons, vampires, and other supernatural ghouls that Buffy regularly interacts with. The premise is fine but the execution suffers. A big part of the failure is the complete lack of credibility whenever these supposed military foot-soldiers are depicted doing “regular military stuff.” When they bark orders, debate tactics, and run drills it’s all so hokey and embarrassing. The writing is bad, the acting is worse, and the stark white rooms of their secret lair allow no visual flair to come through. Everything about this arc fell flat, and the writers knew it too, as they chose to wrap it up one episode before the finale, leaving the season’s last episode to stand alone as something entirely different.
Speaking of stand-alone episodes…
This is where Buffy’s fourth season redeems itself.
You want comedy? “Living Conditions.” You want holiday fun? There’s a great Halloween episode (“Fear, Itself”) that sees the Scoobies trapped in a Haunted Frat house. There’s also the wonderfully (admittedly, mildly tasteless) Thanksgiving episode (“Pangs”) that sees the Scoobies haunted by the spirit of a Native American ghost. Want a great two-parter? Faith returns for just that (“This Year’s Girl/Who Are You”). Love seeing the background characters enjoy the spotlight? The perpetually picked-on Johnathan literally takes over an entire episode with hilariously surreal results (“Superstar”). Want hijinks? In “Something Blue” Willow casts a spell, accidentally (she’s the show’s Orko in that way) making her every statement be taken literally by whatever magical force grants her requests. As a result, Giles goes blind, Xander becomes an actual “demon magnet,” and Buffy and Spike fall in love and decide to get married…leading to what is, perhaps, my favorite dialogue exchange in the entire show…
Seriously, this episode is exploding with great one-liners…
But the real crown jewel of the season is “Hush.”
Going into year four, the show was regularly praised for its smart and sassy writing. During its run, Joss—whose career began as a writer and nothing else—used his powers as showrunner to get behind the camera and direct. In his own words, he used Buffy as his own personal film school. Still, despite doing great work on episodes like “Prophesy Girl,” “Becoming 1-2,” and “Dopplegangland,” he was always viewed as a “number one writer who sometimes directed,” when he really wanted to be the show’s number one “writer/director.” Knowing his reputation as “the guy who writes all the great one-liners,” Joss challenged himself to write and direct an episode that featured almost no dialogue.
“Hush” features a group of hauntingly designed monsters that suck the vocal abilities out of their enemies, rendering them mute while their still-beating hearts are cut out of their conscious bodies. The first segment of the episode proceeds like normal, but then “The Gentlemen” arrive and the show turns into a silent horror film. This episode was, to this point, Joss’ masterpiece, and it’s only thanks to the sheer magnum opus achievement that is season six’s “Once More with Feeling” that “Hush” is not the number one episode of the entire series (spoiler alert for the big “ranking” article coming in a few months). Without dialogue, the show relies on the physical presence of the actors and a great score by Christophe Beck, along with enough visual gags to keep the laughs going even without Whedon’s typical quips and one-liners.
This scene best exemplifies how well everyone pulled it off…
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The one-off episodes this season carry the show, which is ironic as it was the overly-episodic nature of season one that held it back, and the powerful arcs in seasons two and three that propelled the show to greatness. Still, when the arc-heavy episodes this year stumbled almost every time they were given the spotlight, you could always count on a standalone gem to come along a week later to remind you why this show is one of the best.
As said, the failure of the arc was not lost on the creative team. Some of it was due to their own failure to make it work, while other challenges were forced on them, such as the sudden departure of the actress who was set to be the big bad for Buffy to have her showdown with. The deck had to be reshuffled, a new baddie had to be introduced late in the game, and the whole thing was rushed to a clumsy conclusion with one episode to spare. To be fair, the arc’s final episode, “Primeval,” at least does as good a job as possible to wrap things up, and the climax—featuring Buffy drawing on the combined powers of Willow, Giles, and Xander to become a kind of Super Saiyan Buffy is really cool, but the less said about The Initiative arc the better.
Needing something for a final episode, Joss Whedon crafted a surreal dream-centered episode called “Restless,” which sees the four principal characters Buffy, Willow, Giles, and Xander, all fall asleep at Buffy’s house during a “movie night hangout.” The result is a series of dreams with writer/director Whedon doing his best sendup to David Lynch. The episode features some of the best depictions of the fractured, non-sequitur-filled experiences that come with dreaming ever put to film, TV or otherwise…
Going over all the prophesies and hints at future storylines filled in this episode would cover an entire article in its own right. Suffice to say, “Restless” might not put a capper on the season the way “Becoming 1-2” or “Graduation Day 1-2” did, but it did finish the season, fittingly, by making us forget all about the misfire of an arc and instead gave us a stellar one-off to end things on a high note.
As was customary, the WB Network kept Joss hanging until the last minute regarding renewal or cancellation. Thankfully, a fifth season was approved, and much as he did after learning from the mistakes of season one, Joss would set out to make the fifth season one that corrected the mistakes here and built on the successes, setting the stage for an upcoming year that fans would never forget.
In the meantime, there was Angel…