Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Season/Episode combination

I got in a discussion on Twitter about what the best "number" for an episode of a TV series to have might be. My initial feeling was that the middle of the third season was probably best: shows have settled into a pretty good groove, they know what they're good at, by sticking with the middle, that allows 13-episode seasons to work with 22-episode seasons.

So, using that logic, I poked at Wikipedia, and found several classics huddled around the 9th-12th episodes of the 3rd season of some of my favorite shows:

The X-Files might be at its best at this point. Its 3x09 and 3x10 are my two favorite mythology episodes, "Nisei" and "731." 3x12 is the excellent "War of the Corprophages," which might be my favorite overall.

Star Trek: The Next Generation has a pretty good set of episodes here, highlighted by 3x10 "The Defector," one of my favorites so far. On the other hand, 3x12, "The High Ground" is a completely ridiculous terrorist episode.

Buffy's season 3 is rightfully heralded as its best, and this is around when it started moving from good to great. 3x09 "The Wish" is a great episode, as is 3x12's "Helpless." 3x11 "Gingerbread" is very good, and 3x10 "Amends" is 2/3s of a classic, 1/3 horrible deus ex machina.

Angel's ninth episode of its third season is my favorite of the whole run, "Lullaby." Its next three episodes are good but not quite classic.

Babylon 5 has one of its strongest runs ending here, with the strong "Point of No Return" and the all-time classic "Severed Dreams" at 3x09 and 3x10. Its next two episodes are weaker, though.

I haven't gotten to this point in The Sopranos, but 3x11 "Pine Barrens" is usually considered among its best.

The Wire is finishing up one of its strongest seasons at this point. 3x09 and 3x10 build the tension to a breaking point, and 3x11 features the shocking death of one of its most important characters. All are great choices.

The Simpsons is also coming into its own, with two classics: 3x10 "Flaming Moe's" and 3x12 "I married Marge."

Arrested Development was, sadly, winding down, but included some great episodes. I really dislike the potential finale "S.O.Bs" at 3x09, but each of the next three are fantastic, especially 3x12 "Exit Strategy."

The Boondocks was very good throughout most of its third season, but has two transcendent episodes, 3x09 "A Date With The Booty Warrior" and 3x12 "Mr. Medicinal" which probably made me laugh harder than anything else that aired this year.

Finally, Battlestar Galactica may have been at its weakest here, oddly. 3x09 ("Unfinished Business") is excellent, but 3x10 "The Passage" could be my least favorite Jane Espenson script ever, and yes that includes "Doublemeat Palace." 3x11 and 3x12 have the confrontation on the algae planet, which wasn't bad, but turned the Final Five into a big thing. I didn't like that thing.

Based on all that, I lean towards 3x10 as my favorite, but I could easily be swayed to 3x09 and 3x12. Other people have suggested that 3x10 is good for Breaking Bad, Dr. Who, Lost, Futurama, and more, but I'm not expert on those, so cannot judge.

As a wildcard, I checked out 4x10, which could also contend: Buffy's "Hush," Angel's "Awakening," Battlestar Galactica's "Revelations," The X-Files' "Paper Hearts," and The Wire with a very good episode towards the end of its fourth season.

Only one other person suggested another collection of episodes, S2 E05. I don't watch most of the shows mentioned, so I can't really judge, but hey! I didn't do this alone!

Friday, December 17, 2010


When I read previews of the Fall TV season, Terriers was one of the shows I thought had the most potential. I think Donal Logue has an easy charm to him, Shawn Ryan has showrunning pedigree, and I think Tim Minear has done great stuff on a wide variety of cancelled shows. But when I watched the pilot, I wasn't terribly impressed. It was interesting enough, to be sure, and it made me laugh, but it seemed like such a trifle.

I've continued watching, though at a fairly slow pace (just finished the tenth episode) and I don't believe that Terriers has gotten much better than that initial pilot. On the other hand, I have a much higher opinion of it. Yes, I know that seems counter-intuitive.

The thing that makes Terriers work is that it totally buys into its premise. In most TV shows, the characters have baggage, but it doesn't come into play often. So-and-so might be a recovering alcoholic, but it only comes into play in specific episodes when they're tempted into it. On Terriers, being a former alcoholic informs virtually everything that Donal Logue's character does. Same thing with his partner's dark past.

Because these characters are trying so hard, and because they're so well-defined and acted, this has the subtle but impressive effect of changing the overarching narrative of the show to one about characters instead of plot. While I think novelists have realized this for generations, TV shows (and most visual media, to be honest) have tended to rely on plot to drive their narratives. The Wire, for example, is such a success because while it is a plot-based show, it's the characters who drive the plot - everything stems from them and their understandable motivations. (Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, collapsed in large part because it started letting the plot drive the characters, most notably the Final Five fiasco.)

What makes this interesting is that, in the aftermath of Terriers' cancellation, some of the statements by the FX network president indicate that audiences didn't find the show "edgy" enough, that it didn't fit the brand. The bitterly ironic part of that is that Terriers was edgy, in that I'm constantly emotionally on the edge of my seat (or the edge of a cliff) while watching it, because that's where the characters are. Its tranny hookers and cuckold-fetish husbands aren't particularly light fare either. You just have to do a couple episodes of digging to get to that point, and it seems that most people weren't willing.

This also seems especially non-revolutionary when you consider that it's generally how the best sitcoms work - they make you feel comfortable hanging out with the characters, and the characters' personalities, quirks and fears drive the storylines. Perhaps Terriers' foray into genre-bending helped lead to its demise. Still, I hope that its character-based long-term storytelling helps to influence television in the future - it's the best we can hope for after its cancellation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dreams can come true! And then....

After I graduated from college in 2005, I spent some (but perhaps not enough) time trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. One of the goals that I came up with was writing game reviews for The A.V. Club. I was a long-time reader, liked their voice, and they covered all kinds of media except games. A few months or perhaps just weeks later, I was delighted and unhappy that they introduced a game review section. Delighted because, well, that's what I wanted, and unhappy because it wasn't me.

I should note at this point that I had no connection to the AV Club at that point other than being a reader, and I had no particular reason to expect that I should have been involved. I had no clip collection, I wasn't emailing anyone, making connections, or anything. I was entirely aware of this, but still somewhat disappointed.

A few years later, I was in Chicago with a part-time job when they posted the need for a part-time intern. I jumped on that, and suddenly had the connections that I'd been missing . I didn't utilize them all at once, as I got distracted by my college closing, but a few years later I started doing a bit more writing, had a decent portfolio, called in those connections, and I got my staff box with a few TV reviews. I asked into a few new things, got invited to join, and today, my dream came true: my review of the new Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is live on the site.

Now, as cool as this is, and I do smile when I think about it, it kind of shows the limits of realistic dreaming. I'm still a freelancer. This will help my finances, of course, and will certainly help my portfolio, but (and I hope this isn't a trade secret), the AV Club freelancers would have to work pretty damn hard and do a lot of writing to make a living. It's one down, and God knows how many to go.

I'm sure my slightly younger self would have realized this and wanted to follow this dream anyway. It's just that my current self recognizes this far more as a starting point for bigger and better things, and much less as the realization of a life goal. Onwards and upwards, I suppose.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


I'm pondering changing my research-and-writing methods for my book on game history. So far, I've been going chapter-by-chapter. I decide to write on a genre (and time, if I break it in half), put together an outline, and try to play (if necessary - most of them are pretty firmly ensconced in my memory) and write on the games in order. However, my current chapter on real-time strategy game has exposed some flaws in this process, namely, that if I don't really like the games to begin with, it takes a lot longer. I'm pretty ambivalent about RTS games, so this chapter is in around its fourth month of work. At that rate, I might finish my first draft in three or four years, which seems a little much for me.

So I'm pondering switching writing about each game individually, and putting the segues in later. I've already kind of done this, having played and written about Half-Life while in the midst of my RTS binge. I see two major problems with this: first, it'll be harder to feel a sense of accomplishment like finishing a chapter. Second, it may just be an attempt to satiate my gaming ADD, and may make it harder for me to force myself to write instead of just play. I suppose I'll find out.

After I posted my excerpt on FF6, I had someone ask me on Twitter if I was also going to include Chrono Trigger. Ideally, the book will be mostly comprehensive, at least mentioning if not analyzing most of the influential games, massive hits, games representative of trends, cult classics, and major disasters. Here's an example of the preliminary games list for the first-person shooter chapter:

Catacomb 3-D
Ultima Underworld
Wolfenstein 3-D
System Shock
Doom 2
Rise of the Triad
Dark Forces
Duke Nukem 3D
Team Fortress
Jedi Knight
Quake II
Rainbow Six
System Shock 2
Unreal Tournament/Quake III
Perfect Dark
Serious Sam
Deus Ex
Elite Force
Red Faction

Some of these games may just get a mention (Dark Forces) or a reference to a different chapter they fit in better (the RPGs, Thief), some a paragraph (Serious Sam). Many of the bigger will get a page (Wolfenstein, NOLF) while others may get multiple pages of analysis on different levels (Doom, Halo). One of them will get a particular in-depth analysis using lots of screenshots. In this case, that's Half-Life and its storytelling-without-conventional-plot.

In other words, there's no way Chrono Trigger wouldn't make the book - and I hope I manage to get all the important games even when I get into genres I'm not really an expert on.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Video Game History - Final Fantasy VI

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. Today, I pander with Final Fantasy VI, or Final Fantasy III for those of you who only played on the SNES.

In a technical sense, Final Fantasy VI offers very few major innovations over its predecessors. The most obvious is a significant improvements in character graphics, primarily accomplished by using the same intricate two-dimensional sprites for the characters in both combat and in the outside world. This allowed for plot and character developments to take place during combat - when one character uses thought-to-be-extinct magic for the first time, another character reacts with shock, bouncing around the battle screen. But this is primarily an improvement based on the creativity of the designers - more time working with the harder limits of the SNES cartridges allowed more creativity within the form.

Final Fantasy VI also added customization within the game system. Just like FF4, FF6 has several characters in rigidly defined classes. Locke is a Thief, and the only character with the Steal command, whereas Strago is a Blue Mage who learns and uses monster's skills. However, each character can also be equipped with "Espers," summonable creatures who also teach magic skills and improve certain stats when the characters level up. This would provide the model for most future Final Fantasy games, as well as games from other companies: the characters each have their own personalities and are rigid when acquired, but can be developed in many different directions.

Perhaps more importantly, Final Fantasy VI offers massive improvements in thematic elements of the game. The rough edges of the setting are smoothed into a consistent whole. The coexistence of Tolkein-esque dwarves with science fiction Moon-dwellers has become a thematically consistent steampunk setting. This mixture of science fiction and fantasy was common in early RPGs, as we've seen. The early games in Final Fantasy have D&D settings with random airships, just like Wizardry and Ultima. But in Ultima, those previous embarrassments were ignored in future installments. In Wizardry, that artificial weirdness was maintained, but it was never a major focus. Final Fantasy reveled in its setting, and built its own style of science fantasy world, where airships and magic coexist.

In FF6, that setting drives the storyline, instead of the other way around. The evil empire in this game is using corrupting pure forms of magic in order to power their war machines to take over the world. The plot of the game derives naturally from the setting, and by and large, the major characters fit into both effectively.

I say "major characters" instead of "hero" or "protagonist" because Final Fantasy VI may well be unique in gaming history in that there isn't a character who fits that description. The first character we meet, Terra, is half-human, half magical Esper, and initially seems to be the protagonist, but is soon matched and eventually overshadowed by others. Locke the Thief is perhaps the most cliched, as the lovable rogue in the Han Solo mode. On the other hand, Celes, a general of the evil empire who turns against them, demonstrates much more depth, both tragically and comically, than her rough equivalent Cecil from FF4. Edgar is the king of a small nation which is trying to resist the encroaching empire, while Cyan was a knight of a kingdom which resisted and were all slaughtered, except for him. There are a few characters who don't entirely fit in the plot consistently, particularly some of the more gimmicky later characters like Umaru or Gogo, but one of the game's greatest achievements is how its most important characters are intertwined with the world and the plot. The Town-Dungeon-Boss conceit still exists, but it works organically with the rest of the game, instead of acting as an arbitrary challenge towards continuing the game.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Video Game History - Populous & Powermonger

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. Today, part of the genesis of real-time strategy games: Populous, Populous II, and Powermonger.

One major source of creative tension within the real-time strategy genre is the amount of control that you have over your in-game minions. On one side, the RTS games focus on micromanagement of each individual person (or alien, or robot, or what-have-you). They are usually intelligent enough to respond when provoked, and in some games they can be ordered to do work automatically. But by-and-large, every individual unit has to be told exactly what to do. On the other side of the spectrum are so-called “God games,” in which you exercise indirect control over your minions.

Peter Molyneaux, founder of Bullfrog Productions and later Lionhead Studios, was one of the driving forces behind the God Games of the 1990's. Starting with 1989's Populous and continuing with Powermonger (1990), Populous II (1991), Theme Park (1994), Magic Carpet (1996), Dungeon Keeper I & II (1997, 1999) and finally Black & White (2001), Molyneux and his companies released a series of games with significant similarities. All used a form of indirect control over the characters in the game; most were strategy games (Magic Carpet, an action game with strategic components being the exception); most put you in the role of a god or godlike entity who depended on worship, morale, or happiness; and most involved the altering of terrain as an important aspect of the game. They also all sounded more exciting to pitch than to play. Given the wild ambition behind them, is to be expected – they're never bad games, just perhaps disappointing after you hear the concept behind them.

Populous' concept is one of the purest in game history. You play a god with worshipers, and you have an opponent with worshipers, and your goal is to make sure that your worshipers overwhelm your opposition. You do this via two mechanisms – spells (or perhaps miracles?) and influence. You can influence your people to get stronger, to try and go to a specific point on the map, to try and expand peacefully, or to attack the enemy when they can. Your spells are more direct – you can set things on fire, create volcanoes which ruin opposing terrain, or turn your leader into a more powerful Knight.

Oddly, the single more important thing that you do in Populous is to flatten the terrain. In fact, this is what you'll spend the most amount of time doing. The more flat terrain that surrounds a building, the stronger the people who live in the building. So, click-by-click, you smooth our your land and encourage your people to expand into your opposition's land. It's a strangely mundane way of playing a god, but it's not without its charms. It allows you to constantly have something to do, instead of just waiting for the big decisions. There is an odd dichotomy between the lack of control you have over your minions and the complete, precise control you exercise over the terrain.

Populous II, released in 1991, is almost identical, but it adds a Greek mythology presentation instead of the generic setting of the original game. It also cleans up the interface slightly, as well as adding a spell that significantly sped up the endgame of a scenario.

Between the two Populous games, Bullfrog released another real-time strategy game, Powermonger. Powermonger was inspired by Populous, and looks a lot like its sibling at first glance. However, Powermonger is a more military-oriented game, and offers direct control of small armies. The game world also seems much more detailed, with various villages and behaviors for those villagers. In practice, however, Powermonger consists primarily of attacking villages, regrouping, then attacking the next one. Although it was an award-winning game in its time, its clunky interface and repetitive gameplay make it difficult to grasp today.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Video Game History - Ultima VIII: Pagan

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990s on this blog. In honor of Turkey Day, here's one of the biggest turkeys in gaming history - Ultima VIII: Pagan.

The golden age of computer RPGs from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s had gone hand-in-hand with Origin's Ultima series. Starting from Ultima III in 1983, each successive Ultima raised the bar for the series, the genre, and video games overall. Ultima VIII: Pagan was no exception – unfortunately, it represented the sudden and disastrous end to the PC RPG golden age.
The RPG collapse of the mid-1990s was certainly not Pagan's fault, but many aspects of the game parallel the problems of the genre overall. The first and most important problem was time. Pagan was rushed out the door in an incomplete state. This was a more and more common occurrence as the industry grew bigger in the CD-ROM era. Origin Systems had been purchased by Electronic Arts, a company famous for applying pressure on their developers to reach release dates. Pagan was buggy and unpolished from the start, and everything about it felt smaller and less interesting than previous Ultima games.

It went against previous games in the series by changing worlds and focus. Although Ultima VII: Serpent Isle took place outside of the normal setting of Britannia, it still had strong connections to the homeland, with several characters traveling to and from the different lands. Pagan had virtually no connection, other than the Guardian as a villain and the ever-silent Avatar. This included the loss of the Avatar's companions, most of whom had worked with you for several different games. The move towards a single character instead of a party of characters wasn't obvious at the time, but as the decade progressed, it became a clear trend, with many of the most famous and best games of the late 1990s being based primarily around a single player character (Daggerfall, Diablo, and Fallout, to name a few).

Pagan also totally upended the Ultima series' commitment to an ethical system. The Avatar of Pagan is trapped in a dying world, and desperate to return to Britannia in order to prevent the Guardian from conquering it. So the game forces you to try to return home by any means necessary. This turns the Avatar from a righteous hero into a murderous psychopath, who essentially destroys one world in order to try to save another. 

Yet Ultima VIII: Pagan could have survived all these flaws if it had been a good game. It had good ideas, like a magic system which had different kinds of spells and rituals, which gave spellcasting a more procedural, satisfying feel. Its game engine was one of the very first fully three-dimensional games, using polygonal constructs instead of sprites.

But it wasn't a good game. Somewhere along the line, the designers decided to introduce platformer-style jumping puzzles, with floating and moving platforms. This was a huge mistake. First of all, RPG fans of that era were used to their genre expanding into other genres, not the other way around. Moreover, the divide between PC gamers and console gamers was arguably at its peak at this point. Console games were still a few years away from respectability, and some genres, like platform action games, were almost exclusively reserved for consoles. 

It must be said that it wasn't very good platforming. The mouse control combined with an otherwise fairly slow-paced RPG made it an exercise in frustration. A later patch eliminated the moving platforms and simplified the interface, but the damage had been done. Now the incredibly frustrating jumping puzzles were replaced by incredibly pointless hanging platforms which provide you with no challenge, but must be navigated nonetheless. 

There were more problems. Combat was equally frustrating, as you spent most of your fights hoping that you wouldn't be knocked down, which triggered a too-long getting up animation, during which the Avatar was defenseless and could easily be knocked down again. The graphics lacked the personality and charm of Ultima VI & VII. Likewise, the music, so excellent in previous Ultimas, was almost a non-entity here. It seemed like nothing went right with Ultima VIII, and for the next few years, like nothing went right for the PC RPG genre.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Video Game History - Suikoden

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. First up: Suikoden.

With Square in general and Final Fantasy in particular on top of the JRPG world, expectation for the next game in the series drove interest in JRPGs on the PlayStation. However, as they took their time releasing the next Final Fantasy, Konami snuck a little game called Suikoden under the radar.

Suikoden is “little” in many ways. As JRPGs transitioned from the 16-bit era to the PlayStation, they tended to get bigger, more complex, more graphics-intensive and longer. Suikoden was proudly 2D, fast-paced and simple: combat was turn-based, like the original Final Fantasy, and built around the player choosing commands for their party between turns, and then pressing “Fight” to send them on their way. Suikoden made it even easier with a “Free Will” mode where every character in the party simply attacks, the player doesn't even select opponents to attack. A decent player can finish most of the game using Free Will, even including the final enemy! And yet, oddly, the game is still fun to play in spite of its simplicity. The designers may have realized that the player played the entire RPG world, not just the combat system.

Suikoden does two especially interesting things. Its only concession to the hardcore, completist gamers is the wide range of characters to recruit – 108 in all. A third or so are automatically added in the course of the storyline, another third or so are optional and can fight in your party, and the last batch of characters aren't usable in combat – but they are usable in your castle. Suikoden has a castle in the middle of a lake used by the hero as headquarters, which provides a sense of place to the game. The more characters the player recruits, the larger the castle grows. Some characters add fun and functionality to the castle, such as one who lets the player gamble on a shell game, or others who open up shops in the castle.

By letting the player build the castle, recruit its occupants, and explore it during downtime, Suikoden provides the player with a sense of place that most games don't. The plot, as in all games, gives the player an answer to the question “What are we fighting for?” but the castle and the range of characters inside it allow the player to create their own emotional connection and investment to answer that question.

The sense of place is increased by Suikoden's other point of interest, its plot. Although it still involves a spiky-haired young man leading a rebellion against an evil empire and an ancient evil, Suikoden tweaks the formula slightly in that the player is a high-ranking member of the evil empire, and its corruption is far more relevant to the plot than the evil magic. The empire also does not control the entirety of the world – it's contained, and other political entities are mentioned but not actually part of the game.

This may sound quite minor – and in many ways it is – but it opened a door that JRPGs hadn't yet opened in terms of storytelling. In virtually every JRPG, the goal of the game was to prevent a big bad guy from enslaving or destroying the world. The player knows, that should they succeed in the game, the bad guy's plot will be totally foiled, and the world will return to normal. In a sense, this paralyzes the emotional impact of the story, as the stakes are so high that minor setbacks and tragedies are irrelevant. By making the scope of the story smaller, Suikoden allowed for human conflicts and human tragedies. It was not a trend followed by most JRPGs in the future, but it did yield marvelous results with the sequel, Suikoden II.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Great Migrations

I got to review the new National Geographic show Great Migrations for The A.V. Club this week. Check it out here:,47294/

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Worst Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Rest of the Buffy Episodes

What makes for a great Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode? I think there are four important indicators, listed here in decreasing order of glibness:

  • The best episodes are written by Joss Whedon. 11 of my top 13 are Joss-penned episodes. Those two, interestingly, are Spike-centered episodes. Whedon seems to have a better grasp of every character on the show (especially Dawn and Tara) than the other writers, except for Spike.
  • The best episodes are often the most important episodes. Season finales, major character deaths or changes, and two-parters are overrepresented in my top 25. One would think that this would be obvious, but it's not always true – Battlestar Galactica, for example, was at its weakest in the big episodes.
  • Buffy was often at its most successful when applying gimmicks. One of the gimmicks was to have something which caused the characters to behave much differently than normal, usually using magic. These “alternate reality” episodes include “The Wish” and “Superstar” for changing every character, or “Dopplegangland” and “The Replacement” for single characters.
  • The show was even better when experimenting with television episode forms. Its very best episodes were formal experiments like “Hush” and “Once More With Feeling” using different mechanisms of communication, or “The Zeppo” with its focus outside of the main characters and apocalyptic plot. And the very best episode, “The Body,” utilized several formal mechanisms to disorient the viewer to approximate Buffy's grief.

The Excellent-if-Flawed Episodes

25) #716 "Storyteller" – Sometimes I wonder just how terrible Season Seven would have been without Andrew. Then I realize that I really don't want to think about it - the concept is just that frightening.

24) #511 "Triangle" – In the midst of the increasing doom-and-gloom of the fifth season, and after the unfortunate self-destructive Riley subplot, comes this gem of an episode, when Anya's Troll-God ex-boyfriend comes to town. “That's insane troll logic!” is the high point, but it's got competition.

23) #617 "Normal Again" – I was surprised to see that this episode is hated in some circles. I can see why from a characterization point of view: if you hated that depressed Buffy was a major plot point, then depressed Buffy as a schizophrenic in the “real world” isn't going to win you over. I like it for three reasons: it takes Buffy's depression and flips it into a good old-fashioned metaphor/monster-of-the-week episode, it starts to resolve the larger plotline of the depression, and the meta-commentary is clever without being too overdone. Wait, make that four reasons – doesn't Dawn get beat up in it?

22) #314 "Bad Girls" – It's kinda like “Inca Mummy Girl” in that you can figure out the plot from the title with a decent accuracy rate. It's very much unlike “Inca Mummy Girl” in that it's a really good episode. Leather pants seem to do that for Buffy and Angel.

21) #219 "I Only Have Eyes for You" – What initially appears to be a pretty standard, even weak, monster-of-the-week episode turns into something incredible when the ghosts haunting Sunnydale High bring Buffy and Angel into their world. It's excessive, but it works.

20) #306 "Band Candy" – Jane Espenson's first episode is also one of the first great comic Buffy episodes. And Giles and Joyce hooking up is the gift that keeps on giving.

19) #621 "Two to Go" (Part 1) - “Back off, superbitch!” is a pretty major misstep for an otherwise riveting hour. Giles' welcome entry at the end starts the process of redeeming the entire season.

18) #408 "Pangs" – Quite possibly the funniest single episode of the show's run. Spike's indignant “You made a bear!” is the line that made me laugh the hardest of any. Willow's foray into white liberal guilt rang true as well. And everyone loves syphilis!

17) #320 "The Prom– In order to make an episode this schlocky work, a show has to earn an incredible amount of emotional goodwill. By the end of the third season, Buffy had indeed earned it, and against all odds, it works.

The Exceptional Episodes

16) #707 "Conversations with Dead People" – The First Evil is a great idea for a villain, but the things that give it such potential also make it dangerous to use. “Conversations with Dead People” utilizes its potential in superb fashion, but it's the high point for The First as a villain.

15) #313 "The Zeppo" – While “Innocence” is the episode that made it clear that Buffy could be excellent, “The Zeppo” is the episode that demonstrated that Buffy could be genius. This Xander-centered episode is the first of the formal experiments that would give us “The Body,” “Hush”, and more. It plays a little bit better in concept than on-screen, but only a little – it's still great.

14) #622 "Grave" (Part 2) – After all the melodrama of the sixth season – most of which has occurred without Giles present – it seems to come to a culmination when Buffy confesses all the seemingly terrible issues to Giles. Who promptly breaks out laughing. For moment alone, “Grave” deserves a high rating that it mostly earns. Xander being the world-saving hero is a wonderful touch, as are Buffy's interactions with Dawn. The only really unfortunate aspect of it is the cheap threat of the world ending – it looks even less ominous than the second season's basement apocalypse.

13) #701 "Lessons" – The seventh and final season of Buffy starts with easily its best premiere (although that's not a category with much competition). The introduction of Principal Wood and reintroduction of Sunnydale High are both promising beginnings, and Joss Whedon demonstrates once against that he's the only writer who can really make Dawn likable. The throwback high school vibe is referenced by Principal Wood when he tells Buffy that clearly she shouldn't have left, and the ending with all the previous villains as The First shows that the seventh season had a great deal of, ah, potential. Oh well.

12) #214 "Innocence" (Part 2) – Many genre shows struggle to get started, and it's usually about halfway through the second season when everything starts to click. That's “Innocence,” as Buffy discovers the consequences of premarital sex. With a cursed vampire. The latter part may be more relevant than the former.

11) #308 "Lovers Walk" – After Spike joined the main cast, it became harder and harder to remember how excellent he was before being neutered. In this episode, he shows up and demolishes the Buffy-Angel relationship with wisdom, bitterness, and malice. He's also really funny, especially when fake-threatening Joyce.

10) #522 "The Gift" – Although the end of “The Gift” may be the most memorable aspect of the episode for most, I find myself more drawn to the opening. Its a scene which is designed to be iconic, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer acting out her role, while indicating just how much has changed. It's beautiful, and combined with the end of the episode, makes for one of the series' best. Unfortunately, far too much of “The Gift” hinges on the awkward Glory/Ben “argument” for me to say that it's the absolute apex of the show. Still, it's not far away.

9) #507 "Fool for Love" – As with “Lover's Walk,” this episode shows a side of Spike that becomes rarer and rarer as the series progresses. This is among the last batch of episodes before his crush on Buffy nearly ruins him as a character, and it's simply superb. Buffy wants to know how he killed previous Slayers, so Spike describes the process. They're excellent stories, along with flashbacks that show the vampire foursome together for the first time. But more than that, it describes the themes of the fifth season, with Spike telling Buffy all the reasons she has to live – reasons which are taken away over the course of the season.

The Classic Episodes

8) #607 "Once More, With Feeling" – I'll admit that I was a little disappointed the first time I saw the musical episode. I'd just finished Season Three and was checking out the special episodes. Out of context, it's entertaining, but not the classic, best-ever that many claim. However, watching it in context makes it far more emotionally affecting, in addition to surprisingly catchy.

7) #222 "Becoming (Part 2)" – The only real weakness with “Becoming” is its low-budget apocalypse-in-a-basement. Other than that, this is the most emotionally affecting of any finale, thanks to Buffy taking on Angel. The swordfight is especially wonderful, with the action and stunts matching the drama.

6) #321 "Graduation Day (Part 1)"
5) #322 "Graduation Day (Part 2)" – The graduation episodes were among the first Buffy episodes that I watched, and as such, I felt disappointed. After several hours of good build-up, I felt like the climax was tacky and cheap. I was wrong. They're marvelous culminations of the entire high school experience, in addition to tying up the storylines from the third season. I couldn't pick which one I liked better – the first has the epic martial arts fight between the two Slayers, and the second has the magnificent scene when the students of Sunnydale High stop being victims and actually fight back. It's no surprise that the show's best season ends with the show's best climax.

4) #316 "Doppelgangland" – I will admit to some bias here - “Doppelgangland” was the second Buffy episode I ever saw, and the first that wasn't in my bottom 10 (“Empty Places,” I believe, though it could have been “Touched”). It's an excellent introduction to the show, but even better in context. Buffy helped to define that fine line between comedy and horror, and although “Dopplegangland” is firmly on the side of comedy, there's enough horror to allow the comedy to build up to great heights.

3) #422 "Restless" – I would argue that “Restless” is the only episode that combines both the alternate reality and formal experimentation of Buffy's best episodes, which unsurprisingly, makes it one of Buffy's absolute best episodes. Putting characters into a dreamscape is always risky, doing it for an entire episode even more so. “Restless” succeeds beyond expectations – it's filled with humor and excellent odd character moments (“I'm cowboy guy!”) with a successful expansion of the show's mythology.

The Hall of Fame Episodes

2) #410 “Hush" – Combines some of the creepiest Monsters of the Week with some of the show's funniest moments and a fantastic gimmick. Giles' overhead presentation is a tour de force – possibly the best scene in the show's run.

1) #516 "The Body" – Taken on its own, “The Body” is a superb depiction of the grief of losing a loved one. Joss Whedon's intentionally disorienting direction works perfectly with the characters' sadness. What makes it even better is that he manages to tie together most of the frayed strands of the fifth season that hadn't been working. “The Body” covers Anya's inability to relate to humans, Tara's apparent uselessness, and Dawn's annoyingness, and it makes every one of those aspects better. It is transcendent television.

The Rest of the Buffy Episodes

The Worst Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

If there's one thing that Buffy fans on online forums like to do, it's ranking seasons. According to averages of my episode rankings, I'd rank the seasons as such:

  • Season One: 112.66 – No surprise here.
  • Season Two: 78.863 – The emotional impact of the main plot of Season Two masks the fact that it's still pretty weak in the first half of the season.
  • Season Seven: 74.36 – Too many bad episodes drag S7's average way down.
  • Season Six: 69.18 – This season's episodes are all over the place, but it adds up to be much better than its worst episodes would indicate. That's both the math and my gut feeling.
  • Season Five: 68.681 – It's got no really bad episodes, a few excellent episodes, but very few really good episodes. So its average is also probably fairly close to its median and mode.
  • Season Four: 66.81 – I'm not surprised that it's my second favorite mathematically, because it's also my second-favorite when I list the seasons directly.
  • Season Three: 46.863 – I'm certainly not surprised that Season Three is mathematically my favorite, but the math is pretty astounding to me, and I'm the one who rated the episodes! Its episodes are an average of 20 points higher than every other season's average, and the other five seasons are grouped closely together. It only has one episode in the bottom 30. Eight of my top 25 are from the third season – no other season has more than four.

Early-Season Placeholder Episodes

129) #201 "When She Was Bad" – Angsty Buffy is a key component of the show, but it only works when it's well-balanced. Here, it's not.

128) #205 "Reptile Boy" - This is the anti-drinking PSA-style episode that “Beer Bad” usually gets mistaken for.

127) #202 "Some Assembly Required" – Do you remember this episode? Because if so, you're one up on me.

126) #103 "Witch" – I'm glad they got the Buffy-as-a-cheerleader plot out of the way early.

Could Have Been Good Episodes, but Weren't

125) #606 "All the Way" – It's a Dawn-centered episode. A romantic Dawn-centered episode. 'Nuff said.

124) #110 "Nightmares" – One of the first season's most ambitious episodes. But Buffy didn't have the budget – or the characterization, honestly – to really do it well.

123) #710 "Bring on the Night" – Potentials arrive, Buffy starts speechifying. An inauspicious beginning to the main storyline of the seventh season.

122) #508 "Shadow" – The escalation of the Joyce illness isn't bad, but a terrible Season One-quality special effect with a snake monster makes this hard to take seriously. And to make it worse, it starts off the rather silly “Dark Riley” storyline.

121) #502 "Real Me" – Let's all welcome Dawn to the show with a thoroughly mediocre episode. The best thing that can be said about “Real Me” is that Dawn gets so much worse.

120) #406 "Wild at Heart" – Oz's time on the show comes to a quick and forced ending. It all feels a little perfunctory, which is too bad.
Mediocre Monsters-of-the-Week

119) #220 "Go Fish" – Remember when all the baseball bigwigs complained that “nobody could have known how prevalent steroid use was?” Well, Buffy knew, and it showed it in a horribly awkward metaphor. I've still rated this episode as better than the main plot, because the subplot with Willow as an interrogator finding out Jonathan peed in the pool is both entertaining and ironic in light of later events.

118) #111 "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" – Possibly the most straightforward of the metaphor episodes, and fairly memorable for that, at least. An odd ending could be viewed as foreshadowing the Initiative...or it could be X-Files wanna-be conspiracy stuff.

117) #212 "Bad Eggs" – Has any real school class ever done the taking-care-of-eggs thing? Or is that just a trope that TV shows use in order to show that its characters are whatever needs to be shown at that point?

Nice Try Episodes

116) #715 "Get It Done" - Chloe's suicide is a decent raising of the stakes with the mostly-inert Potential Slayer storyline. Buffy chasing down the shamans who started the Slayer line is a nice touch as well. On the other hand, Buffy's speech problem is getting worse and worse.

115) #708 "Sleeper" – Spike as The First's sleeper agent isn't a terrible premise, but the show doesn't do much more than go through the motions with it. On the bright side, Aimee Mann is probably the Bronze's best musical guest.

114) #611 "Gone" – Making Buffy invisible probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But it's hard to do invisibility in a visual medium. Having Buffy narrate everything she does in a sing-song voice? Not the best way to handle it.

113) #709 "Never Leave Me" – Andrew returns – good! The Turok-Han is raised – very bad.

112) #208 "The Dark Age" – Ethan Rayne's return isn't as strong as some of his other appearances, but this is a good episode for adding some depth to Giles - the first time his "Ripper" past is referred to.

111) #210 "What's My Line (Part 2)" – I really don't like Kendra. She's just a terribly awkward character. That's most of what I remember out of this one, which is probably the most likely to change spots if I ever rewatch the series (and redo this list).

Guilty Pleasure Episodes

110) #613 "Dead Things" – The Trio storyline escalates dramatically in this episode, when their attempts to get girls ends in the death of Warren's ex, Katrina. Conceptually, I like the depiction of Warren's increasing corruption, but this episode doesn't do the best job at portraying it - and it's the most important in that process.

109) #403 "The Harsh Light of Day" – Spike's return is usually cause for celebration, but this episode is far too concerned with being a crossover for Angel's new series. Still, he and Harmony make for some excellent comedy.

108) #509 "Listening to Fear" – A perfectly serviceable monster-of-the-week episode, featuring a Queller demon that preys on the mentally ill. The major point of interest with “Listening to Fear” is that it starts to connect Ben with Glory. Ben's uneven characterization is one of the weakest aspects of the Glory storyline. In this episode, he's a flunky villain. In the rest of the season, he's a good guy, then in the finale, a villain again. Bleh.

107) #405 "Beer Bad" – I like “Beer Bad.” I really do. It takes the overserious metaphor of the worst episodes and almost parodies it. How does the villain get his comeuppance? Xander calls him a “bad, bad man.” And CaveBuffy is all kinds of adorable. “Foamy!”

Really Good Episodes with Really, Really Big Problems

106) #310 "Amends" – How to rate this episode? The good: the First Evil is a good villain; it's great to see Jenny Calendar back; and it marks a turning point in the Buffy/Angel relationship. The bad? An absolutely ghastly deus ex machina with a Christmas theme.

105) #514 "Crush" – How to rate this episode? The good: It's well-written and consistently funny; Drusilla is creepier than she ever was in Season Two; and it ties up several loose ends with the Spike crush storyline. The bad? It's focused on the Spike crush storyline. I liked what it did, but I really didn't like that it had to do it.

These Episodes Have Problems

104) #215 "Phases"
103) #419 "New Moon Rising" – Hooray for Oz as a character! But you know, in retrospect, I'm not sure much good ever came from Oz as a werewolf.

102) #302 "Dead Man's Party" – The main episode isn't that good, but the Scoobie fight about Buffy's return from LA is gold.

101) #510 "Into the Woods" – Riley and Buffy break up, finally. Buffy's single most badass moment occurs in this episode, when she tears through a group of vampires in record time using a pool cue. Xander's transition to the party member who sees and understands things begins in this episode, although his advice to Buffy to run back to Riley is somewhat problematic.

100) #303 "Faith, Hope & Trick" – I'm a big Faith fan, but this episode is pretty perfunctory.

99) #504 "Out of My Mind" – The introduction of Spike's crush on Buffy, which is not a plot I'm a fan of, as you may have noticed.

Important for the Plot, but Not Much Else Episodes

98) #112 "Prophecy Girl" – The Season One finale is a fitting coda to the weakest season of the series. It hits all the important bits, but there's not enough of an emotional core – yet – to make it anywhere near as meaningful as the future finales.

97) #413 "The I in Team"
96) #414 "Goodbye Iowa" – The main storyline of the fourth season starts going off the rails with the introduction of its villain, Adam.

95) #717 "Lies My Parents Told Me" – This episode is one of the few that feels like it's driven more by plot requirements than character development. Buffy has to break with her mentor, so a conspiracy is devised. The follow-through isn't well thought-out, though. The Freudian flashbacks with Spike's mother are also a bit over-the-top.

94) #614 "Older and Far Away" – Trapping everyone in the house is a good idea for an episode, and it generally works. But this may be Dawn at her absolute worst: “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!”

93) #505 "No Place Like Home" – The big reveal episode of the fifth season, with Dawn finally explained and Glory introduced. It gets the job done without being especially notable other than its story – a problem for much of the fifth season, unfortunately.

92) #101 "Welcome to the Hellmouth"
91) #102 "The Harvest" – Buffy is introduced in a fairly straightforward fashion. It's very artificial in a basic television form kind of way, but you can see the potential here.

90) #209 "What's My Line (Part 1)" – A fairly effective early look at Buffy's angst over her future as a Slayer. Side note – it was never clear to me whether the assassin Buffy kills at the ice rink is a scarred human or a demon. If it's the former, well, more ammo against Buffy's argument at the end of Season Six.

89) #513 "Blood Ties" – It's an odd thing about the fifth season. The two most annoying characters, Dawn and Spike, manage to come together and form an oddly affecting friendship.

88) #305 "Homecoming" – Some good things going on in this episode. It's the introduction of everyone's favorite villain, the Mayor, and Slayerfest '99 is good fun. The Buffy/Cordelia rivalry is a little bit too forced.

87) #107 "Angel" – The Buffy-Angel roller coaster begins here! Also, Darla is killed, which in retrospect is a pretty bad move from a storytelling point of view, her being Angel's sire and companion and all. Pity that's not something that could ever be reversed.

Fun One-Shots

86) #603 "After Life" – A demon attaches itself to resurrected Buffy. It's a good monster-of-the-week episode, with some even better character-building for Buffy.

85) #411 "Doomed" – Riley's first episode as one of the gang, kind of. Also includes Spike at his funniest, and the traditional Apocalypse-in-a-basement is spoofed.

84) #501 "Buffy vs. Dracula" – A pretty weak premise is salvaged and even turned to good by consistently funny writing. “Dark Master” indeed.

83) #218 "Killed by Death" – Although I don't really like this episode's retcon of Buffy's childhood, the hospital-based monster of the week is one of the creepiest the show has ever done.

82) #703 "Same Time, Same Place" – A fairly straightforward monster-of-the-week episode made fair more interesting by Gnarl, another one of the creepiest monsters in the show's run.

Trying Hard, Not Quite Succeeding

81) #517 "Forever" – Some poignant stuff here, as the mourning for Joyce continues. It's a Dawn-centered episode, though it's largely redeemed by the increasingly interesting Dawn/Spike relationship.

80) #616 "Hell's Bells" – I was pleasantly surprised by this episode after several warnings about its crappiness. There's a lot of good comedy here, and it's not like Xander's cold feet weren't foreshadowed.

79) #213 "Surprise" (Part 1) – The ending is the most memorable aspect of this episode, but the rest of it doesn't hold up to the Buffy-Angel changes. The Judge just isn't effective enough of a threat to hold the rest together. It's not bad, but it could – and will – be so much better.

78) #519 "Tough Love" – Willow attacks Glory, in the first indication that she's become far more powerful than anyone else realizes.

77) #307 "Revelations" – The fake Watcher Gwendolyn Post shows up and ruins Faith's, ah, faith. There's also another good Scoobie fight about Angel's resurrection – with the pretty massive caveat that nobody ever mentions the fact that he didn't have a soul when he was evil and now he does. That tidbit seems like it should be relevant.

76) #421 "Primeval" (Part 2) – The conclusion of the Initiative storyline has its marks to hit, and it does so. Nothing less, but sadly, nothing more either.

75) #604 "Flooded" – The two most distinctive aspects of the sixth season are introduced here: the horror of mundane life, and the Trio as the apparent Big Bad of the season. Neither of them seem like very big deals at first, but it all adds up. I like the concept of Buffy having money problems, but the way the show glides over people who could help her - like Giles, Willow, and Tara - is pretty stupid.

74) #712 "Potential" – This is by far the best Dawn-themed episode in the three years of her time on Buffy. Plus seeing Millie from Freaks & Geeks as a badass? Good stuff – if only there were more like this in the seventh season, then the Potential Slayer storyline wouldn't have seemed like such a waste.

73) #515 "I Was Made to Love You" – I like Warren. I mean, I don't like him, but I think he's a character that the show handled quite well (though it could have been even better). His introduction here is comic with a good tragic core, which fits.

72) #520 "Spiral" – Buffy's speeches about how it's wrong to kill humans in Season Six kind of ring hollow after she spends the best part of this episode throwing axes at the human Knights of Byzantium, huh? It's an effective tension builder, and I think that Ben and Glory may have some kind of connection.

71) #106 "The Pack" - “The Pack” introduces a level of creepiness that the show hadn't had, and with the death of the principal, also said that it was willing to raise the stakes. I may be overrating it, but it's really the only first season episode I have a clear memory of.

70) #720 "Touched"
69) #721 "End of Days" – Season Seven begins to recover from the terribly vote, but it's not enough. There are some good emotions beats to hit, and the most blatant orgasm face of the series, but it's not spectacular enough to place the season among the series' best.

68) #506 "Family" – Almost a year after her introduction, Tara finally gets her own episode. Despite being Whedon-penned, it's straightforward and doesn't do a huge amount to develop her character. He'd do better in “The Body.”

67) #713 "The Killer in Me" – Since most of Willow's recovery from the end of Season Six occurred off-screen, between seasons, it was good to have this episode to show her working through it. Warren remains a dynamic character as well. But something about it seems just a little off.

66) #301 "Anne" - “Anne” is an odd little episode, taking place primarily in L.A. as Buffy recovers from the events of Season Two. It has some iconic moments, but it's still too disjointed to be really great.

Eminently Watchable Episodes

65) #605 "Life Serial" – The Trio's tests for the Slayer show their potential for entertainment.

64) #512 "Checkpoint" - The arrival of the Watchers in Sunnydale leads to some funny moments, and some great Buffy ass-kicking as she redefines the power dynamic between Watcher and Slayer.

63) #412 "A New Man" – Ethan Rayne's last appearance leads to some good comedy when Giles is turned into a demon, but not a great deal of depth.

62) #409 "Something Blue" – Willow's having trouble controlling her magic. Spike and Buffy are an item. Which season is this? It's played for temporary laughs here, and it works well, but it's an eerie premonition of the dark sections of Season Six.

61) #518 "Intervention" – Everyone loves the Buffybot. Vision quest? Not so interesting.

Effective, if not quite Excellent Episodes

60) #521 "The Weight of the World" – With Dawn captured, Buffy retreats into her own mind. It's a good examination of Buffy's growing helplessness, but perhaps a not enough happening for a single episode.

59) #618 "Entropy" – The melodrama of the sixth season peaks here, with sex used as a weapon against others, or as a way to heal what was broken, or both. The comedy and pathos of Spike and Anya doing it is almost equally matched by the tenderness of Willow and Tara reconnecting.

58) #311 "Gingerbread" – For a while, I thought that this episode was Buffy's response to Columbine, due to its damnation of mob mentality and jumping to conclusions. It's a somewhat muddled episode, though it has some interesting application of folklore to the Buffy mythology, with Hansel and Gretel as evil and the witches as good.

57) #315 "Consequences" – Alyson Hannigan may be the best crying actress in the universe. She breaks it out for the first (and best) time this episode.

56) #615 "As You Were" – How surprising is it that Riley's return marks the point of improvement in the sixth season? Crazy.

55) #312 "Helpless" – The Watchers' test for Buffy leads to a painful realization that even her teacher can betray her.

54) #319 "Choices" – The stakes are raised as Willow is captured, and her magical escape shows her growing power as a sidekick for Buffy.

Good For (Several) Laughs Episodes

53) #401 "The Freshman" – A decent introduction to Buffy: The College Years made better by the vampire Sunday. A pity she's killed in this episode, but it would be tough to have a show named after a vampire slayer who never slays.

52) #503 "The Replacement" – I really wish I liked this episode more. It has all the trappings of a classic Buffy episode, but somehow it lands a little bit flatter than it should.

51) #407 "The Initiative" – Spike's return is magnificent, and the Initiative arc hasn't yet gone awry.

50) #216 "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" – Although not quite the first “alternate reality” episode, it really demonstrated the potential excitement and comedy of putting the characters into different situations. Along with "Halloween" it started a trend. “Band Candy,” “Superstar,” “Tabula Rasa,” and more all descend from Xander's little love spell.

Serious/Seriously Good Episodes

49) #702 "Beneath You" – Insane Spike has one of the most riveting acting moments in the entire series. This episode is by-the-numbers until James Marsters turns it on for a bizarre, dark, excellent ending.

48) #718 "Dirty Girls" – The introduction of Caleb and reintroduction of Faith are well-handled in “Dirty Girls,” which promises a fantastic conclusion to the series.

47) #217 "Passion" – Shit just got real. The death of a major character says that this show isn't quite what you had expected.

46) #704 "Help" – Cassie is a fascinating character, and watching Buffy abuse her power as a counselor is pretty entertaining.

45) #221 "Becoming (Part 1)" – Effective as preparation for its stunning second part, but spends a little bit too much time getting ready without enough release. Also, Kendra.

44) #601 "Bargaining (Part 1)"
43) #602 "Bargaining (Part 2)" – A string of poor-to-competent season premieres comes to a halt with this intense, dramatic two-parter.

42) #203 "School Hard" – Spike arrives, and Joyce shows she's more than just a wet blanket as a mother.

41) #317 "Enemies" – Angel faking his soul's removal is excellently done. Faith's resentment and antagonism is just a little bit too over-the-top for me to really call this episode a classic, though.

40) #207 "Lie to Me" - “Lie to Me” is the first episode that really gets at the increasing emotional complexity of the series, when Buffy has an old friend arrive from LA who wants to become a vampire. Prior to this, the central metaphor of the show dominated. After this, the metaphor and characters worked together for more intense and more personal storylines.

39) #619 "Seeing Red" – Joss Whedon is an asshole. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from putting Tara in the opening credits at the start of the episode, then killing her off in the end. The main storyline of this episode is a little weak, with the Trio getting some magic orbs that make Warren invincible. But the ending is a shocker, and Andrew really starts coming into his own as a character in this episode. His drink at the bar is magnificent.
The Thoroughly Entertaining Episodes

38) #206 "Halloween" – An early alternate reality Buffy, and probably the first really successful one. Xander as Army Guy is great, and Ethan Rayne is an excellent guest star.

37) #420 "The Yoko Factor" (Part 1) – While technically a tension-building episode, in keeping the fourth season's general comedy, it's also one of the funniest episodes of any two-parter. Angel and Riley finally meeting is excellent, especially with everyone's insistence that Angel had turned evil. The Scoobie fight at the end is also amazing. And Giles sings “Free Bird.”

36) #318 "Earshot" – It doesn't always make sense (why would you need a sniper scope to commit suicide?) but there are good laughs and drama to be found when Buffy becomes telepathic. Cordelia stating whatever pops into her mind is classic.

35) #705 "Selfless" – Two things make this episode stand out: the opening scene of Anya's origin, with the superb subtitles, and second, the first and only mention of Xander's lie to Buffy in the second season finale. Other than that, it's an effective end to the vengeance storyline – although Anya is ill-used for the rest of the season.

34) #608 "Tabula Rasa" – A spell of forgetfulness causes expected laughs and drama. It's a good, solid alternate reality episode.

33) #714 "First Date" – By the time “First Date” rolled around, I was able to tell Jane Espenson-written episodes apart from anyone else's. First question: are you laughing much more often than normal? Second question: are there references to little things from previous episodes? Coming after a string of disappointing-to-mediocre episodes, “First Date” was a breath of fresh air.

32) #404 "Fear, Itself" – Giles' “opening spell” is one of the funniest moments in the series. It's the best moment of an episode filled with good character development and better humor.

The Overambitious Episodes

31) #415 "This Year's Girl" (Part 1)
30) #416 "Who Are You" (Part 2) – For those who question Eliza Dushku's acting abilities, this two-parter should be exhibit A that she can do well in the right circumstances. Sarah Michelle Gellar's limitations are a bit more apparent, but she doesn't blow it. Bringing Faith back seemed like it could be a gimmick, but these two episodes more than justify it – and the continuation of the story on Angel is the icing on the cake.

29) #309 - "The Wish" – Buffy goes “Yesterday's Enterprise” or Age of Apocalypse in its most alternate of all the alternate reality episodes. It's fun to see all-business Buffy, evil Xander and Willow, and the return of the underutilized Master, in addition to Anya's introduction.

28) #417 "Superstar" – Conceptually, “Superstar” should be a transcendent Buffy episode, and adjusting the credits to be Jonathan-centered is a great touch. In practice, it's a very good episode that never quite manages to be great.

27) #722 "Chosen" – Although “Chosen” isn't the transcendent experience that a series finale can be at its best, that's mostly the fault of a wobbly seventh season. The little moments that Whedon and only Whedon brings as a writer are what stands out here. Dawn is as likeable as she ever gets in the series. So is Anya, who had been largely wasted after the first few episodes of the season. The game that Andrew runs is kind of the best thing ever. Angel's face when Buffy mentions the word “grandkids.” And, to be honest, Buffy's final plan is genius in the way that it flips both the show's premise and the Buffyverse's balance of power.

26) #620 "Villains" – With Tara dead, Willow seeks vengeance against Warren. Too much of the episode hinges on Buffy's argument that law enforcement should deal with Warren, and that the good guys can't kill humans. This is not advice that Buffy has followed (and it's certainly not true for Angel) but that's never mentioned. Still, Willow's conversion into Darth Rosenberg is riveting stuff.

The Worst Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Rest of the Buffy Episodes

Notes on Methodology: I have only watched the vast majority of these episodes once, over the past two years. This means two things: my memory of the later episodes is much stronger, and if or when I go back and rewatch the series, the list could change dramatically.

The Bottom 15

144) #211 "Ted" – Is it really the worst Buffy episode of all time? It's more competently produced than most of the first season, yes. The guest star is certainly capable. But the tonal shifts, from annoyed Buffy to murderous Buffy and back again are whiplash-inducing. The central metaphor, with something horrific threatening Buffy's life with her mom, is especially frustrating since it handles something real so ham-handedly. It's the most frustrating episode I can think of in the entire series, and that's enough to put it at the bottom of the list.

143) #108 "I, Robot... You, Jane" – We'll start with the good stuff: Miss Calendar is introduced. That's it! It's rare for the show to feel dated, but its use of computers in early episodes certainly puts it in a time and place. About the only other close-to-nice thing I can say is that it's a little friendlier to online relationships than The X-Files' “2shy.”

142) #711 "Showtime" – To this episode's credit, it manages to do the nearly impossible and have characters who are even more annoying than Dawn: the whining gaggle of Potential Slayers, panicking about the Turok-Han. In addition to annoying, it's also dour and humorless. Not even Andrew can make it entertaining.

141) #610 "Wrecked" – The nadir of the infamous addiction storyline. Amy the witch is a good character, who is totally wasted by the most excruciatingly forced (and extended) metaphor of magic-as-heroin.

140) #719 "Empty Places" – An otherwise perfectly competent stakes-raising episode leading up to the series finale, “Empty Places” totally falls apart in its final scene, when everyone turns on Buffy. Arguing with her leadership, sure, but kicking her out is mind-bogglingly stupid and out of character for all involved. Anya's speech is particularly annoying, making no sense and ignoring the entire history of the show – quite the opposite of her famous monologue in “The Body.”

139) #304 "Beauty and the Beasts" – There's a theme here with these worst-ever episodes. The central metaphor is taken too far, to the point where it's obvious and not interesting. Such is the case with this episode, which is basically an hour-long public service announcement that abusive relationships are bad.

138) #706 "Him" - “Him” seems like an old idea from Season Two that never got implemented, and the return to high school of the seventh season gave the show the opportunity to do it. It has two major problems though. First, it's Dawn-centered. Second, it's too late. It really does feel like a second-season episode, ignoring the character growth from the previous five years. It's too bad, really, as there's some funny stuff, especially once Anya and Willow get involved. But still much more frustrating than not.

137) #402 "Living Conditions" – Buffy goes to college. College is weird for her. Something bad is happening that she attributes to the supernatural. Her friends try to convince her that's it's normal adjustment, but hey! Buffy's actually right and it is supernatural! This would have been a completely serviceable storyline...had the exact same thing not been done the previous week with “The Freshman.” There are a couple good ideas here, but they're almost totally wasted.

136) #612 "Doublemeat Palace" - Tries to be a comedy about the drudgery of work, which isn't a bad idea. Unfortunately, it fails. There's some humor here, but you have a little bit too hard to get to it.

135) #104 "Teacher's Pet"
134) #105 "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date"
133) #109 "The Puppet Show" – The first season of Buffy just isn't very good. These episodes aren't bad, they just all follow the central “High School as horror” metaphor too closely to be considered as effective as those which come later in the series, when it's more comfortable with its world and its characters.

132) #204 "Inca Mummy Girl" – An episode so generic you can pretty much figure out the storyline from the title.

131) #609 "Smashed" - The Great Addiction Debacle begins here. It's bad, but boy does it ever get worse.

130) #418 "Where the Wild Things Are" – No, really, thinking about Buffy and Riley having constant wild monkey love orgasms isn't really that appealing, thanks. I do understand that the show needed to demonstrate a little more sex positivity after some previous storylines, but this is just a bad premise. There's some funny stuff in it, but not enough to salvage it all.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Science Fiction Television as a Mirror, pt. 1

The Renaissance Poet and I are currently watching the full catalog of two old shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the seventh season of Buffy I was surprised by a conversation in which a teenager was talking about being scared that his brother was joining the Marines, because he might not come back. It was a somewhat jarring reminder that the show was no longer set in the 1990's, but was now post-2001 and now in the world of the never-ending War on Terror.

Such reminders are never necessary during Star Trek. One episode we recently watched, "The High Ground," served as little more than a debate about the merits of terrorism as a political tool, specifically referencing the Troubles in Ireland as well as obliquely inspiring comparisons to the Intifada in Palestine, both very much in the news during the late-1980's/early 1990's. Even though ostensibly set in the far future, The Next Generation's concerns are very much of their time.

I had a brief conversation on Twitter with The A.V. Club's (and anyone else who lets him talk about TV) Todd VanderWerff about this, since it's been on my mind and he starting talking about it regarding Millenium and The X-Files. His claim was that Millenium was very much a product of its times in ways that The X-Files was not, which I can't really dispute since I've never seen Millenium. However, I do agree that The X-Files is not as reflective of the 1990's as its premise would suggest. I think that in general on television, most science fiction (such as Star Trek) shows are very intentionally reflective of their societies, while speculative fiction (primarily horror, like Buffy or The X-Files) tends to be more timeless.

Examining the most important shows of the last three decades - Battlestar Galactica for the 2000s, Babylon 5 for the 1990's, and Star Trek: The Next Generation of the 1980's - each seems to deliberately hold up a mirror to the current events of their age.

In Star Trek it's fairly obvious. Every other episode, or more, is built around a moral or ethical statement. Those statements add up to an homage to the concepts of classical liberalism every bit as loving as the American Constitution or the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man." In one episode, a mind-reader uses his powers for personal and political gain, and he is starkly contrasted with Troi, who uses her mind-reading abilities for the good of society. In another, a planet applies to join the Federation and is rejected by Captain Picard on the grounds that they do not give their traumatized soldiers the right to be members of society nor the counseling they need to function within that society, in a scarcely concealed reference to American treatment of Vietnam vets. In one we watched just this week, Picard objects to aliens who seize him and others for experiments not merely on the grounds that kidnapping is wrong, but he specifically declares that it infringes upon the rights of the kidnapped.

Star Trek models late-20th liberal American beliefs. During the Cold War, the West explicitly advertised the rights of its citizens as a major benefit compared to the oppressive Communist regimes it was competing with. Yet it also committed its own crimes against its people and others in the Third World, and The Next Generation tries to make it clear that humanity has moved beyond oppression and hypocrisy, and uses others to show audiences the benefits of such ethical advances.

The end of the Cold War and the fall of Communist states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia changed led many Americans and Westerners to believe that capitalism and classical liberalism were inherently superior as well as the natural state of modern society. Babylon 5, set in 2258, shows a society instantly recognizable as very similar to modern American society, with the same kinds of ideals as well as flaws. Its the politics which are very reflective of the 1990's. The fall of Communism led to chaos in the geopolitics at the time, but also increased hope that international institutions like the United Nations and the European Union would lead to a better and more harmonious future.

Babylon 5 mirrors this state of international chaos and adds an epic space opera plot. Chaos arrives prior to the start of the series with the sudden rise of Humans as major players on the gala-political stage, followed by a foolish war against a more powerful group of aliens, the Minbari. During the course of the show's run, another extremely powerful ancient race of aliens starts meddling in the younger races' affairs, disrupting the balance of power.

B5's implied solution to all of this chaos is to institutionalize it. Put all the different factions in the same organization and ensure that that organization has the power to successfully resolve disputes. In case you miss the metaphor for the U.N., the commander of the station explicitly declares its Babylon 5 Advisory Council to be the galactic equivalent of "Earth's old United Nations" in the pilot.

Over the course of the show's run, the balance of power is dramatically altered, and the Babylon 5 Advisory Council is shattered, much like the toothless League of Nations. The greatest successes of the characters come when they bring the various alien races together in new, stronger alliances. An episode that shows events that occur far in the future seems to indicate that the Interstellar Alliance created late in the show's run becomes an important force for peace throughout the galaxy. Its military arm, the "Rangers," is fetishized throughout the show's run. The Rangers are given more and more power to resolve disputes and interfere with the international affairs of the various governments, and this is generally treated as a good thing. An unnecessary war breaks out when the Rangers aren't allowed to intervene in a situation. It's an homage to liberal interventionism.

Liberal interventionism, or the idea that it is good and right for more powerful groups and nations to try to fix problems in other countries to make those countries better, was at a peak during the 1990's. The Democratic President of the era certainly made the case for it at certain times (with disastrous results in Somalia), but it was the interventions that weren't made which came to dominate discussion. The Shiite rebellion in Iraq after the First Gulf War and its brutal repression by Saddam Hussein fed American guilt for the next decade. The shocking Rwandan genocide of 1994 also seemed to make a strong argument about the need for both a robust international system of resolving disputes and strong United Nations peacekeeping forces. On Babylon 5, this manifested as the Interstellar Alliance and the Rangers.

I don't think the liberal interventionism apparently espoused in B5 is accidental. After the show's conclusion, its creator and driving force, J. Michael Straczynski, worked on a comic called Rising Stars which also seemed to make a case for intervening when the cause is just - one superhero devotes his life to stealing nuclear weapons from every nation on Earth. However, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, a move favored by liberal interventionists but one which turned out to be a disaster, JMS seems to have changed his mind on the subject. In his next comic series, Supreme Power, a group of superheroes start to act as an American intervention force, but are told, essentially, "Yankee go home!" when they encounter a group of African superheroes. They also question their role as personalized instrument of American foreign policy.

The "War on Terror" and its Iraqi theater weigh even more heavily on the dominant SF series of the 2000's, Battlestar Galactica. Making the claim that BSG is a mirror to the politics of the decade is hardly controversial. In the first season, humanity, whose "Twelve Colonies" were structured almost exactly in the form of the American government and military, were attacked by implacable, totally inhuman enemies called Cylons who could take the form of humans. The focus of the early episodes was almost entirely on the difficult decisions that leadership had to make in the face of an existential threat. As if the parallels to the right-wing narrative about the War on Terror weren't obvious enough, then the episodes which specifically focused on hot-button issues like waterboarding, abortion, and the loyalty of critical media hammered it home.

Conservatives, believing that BSG was passing their ideological tests, loved it. Everyone else could admire the storytelling. But things changed in the third season, when humanity, oppressed by Cylon occupation forces, started using suicide bombers as a weapon in their war. Suddenly the politics didn't entirely match, and right-wingers howled betrayal at this plot twist. The certainty with which Americans believed that they were doing the right thing during initial stages of the War on Terror is reflected in Battlestar Galactica, but so too is the muddled mess of the actuality of the Iraq War and popular opinion of that conflict.

The most obvious counter-argument too all of this is that all science fiction is intentionally reflective of its society. I don't think this is the case, however. One of my favorite subgenres of literary SF are the epics from the 1980's and early 1990's, like Dan Simmons' Hyperion, C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station, David Brin's Startide Rising, Sheri S. Tepper's Grass, and Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. All of these novels have striking similarities that put them in a similar subgenre. They generally take place in huge, dangerous universes filled with multiple competing factions, and they focus on a small, specific part of that universe where those various tensions reach a flashpoint. In premise, they are similar to later TV shows like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but they don't demonstrate the focus on current events that TV shows do.

So why is this the case, and what makes speculative fiction shows so different? I'll discuss what I think the answers to those questions are in the second part of this post, hopefully later this week.