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.

9 comments:

Renaissance Poet said...

I just love that overhead presentation.

Anonymous said...

I really like your list. The only missing episodes i can think of are Selfless (7x05), Prophecy Girl (1x12), Tabula Rasa (6x08), New Moon Rising (4x19) and Dirty Girls (7x18).

Rowan said...

Thanks! If you check the "Rest of..." link you'll find all those episodes. I liked Selfless, Dirty Girls, and Tabula Rasa a lot, just not quite at the top. Prophecy Girl I have a hard time remembering. I wasn't a fan of New Moon Rising, though.

Harbour Master said...

I'll be honest here. I've not read your list. There's a great and powerful reason for this.

I'm currently watching Buffy for the first time. I've only got through the first two seasons thus far. The first season was O.K. The second season was a lot of fun and I was surprised at how nasty Angel's alter-ego was (he didn't seem so vicious in Angel Season 4). Season three has been on the shelf for a few months...

I am heartened that your list says all the good episodes are ahead of me: I haven't seen anything yet. Thanks!

Rowan said...

That's a good reason. Have fun with Season Three!

Anonymous said...

Now that I have read your list, you are officially my favorite AV Club staff member. Congratulations. I'll bet this is a big day for you. However, I feel like you might have given S2 a bit of a short shrift here. While Buffy gets better later on, I really liked "When She was Bad" (2x01). It's another Whedon episode, and what I was blown away by is that the show was willing to trust the audience. We're supposed to understand that the heroine of the show is upset about dying, which happened over 3 months ago. I feel like that level of audience trust was rare in the late 90s, especially on the WB.

Rowan said...

Thanks!

Regarding S2, the context in which I watched is important. I'd seen some S3 and S7 before, but I really only started Buffy in 2008, after having seen shows like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica and such. I remember S1 and the first half of S2 as kind of a slog. Maybe they were riveting in first-run context, but that wasn't where I was, and these lists are necessarily subjective.

nattyish said...

Huh. Good choices for the most part, although I thought "Pangs" was pretty awful, and "Lessons" relatively unmemorable.
For the latter, I guess I get what you're saying, about it being a start to a potentially good season. Still, it seems better to highlight episodes that executed good ideas, instead of just ones that suggested an ultimately unrealized potential.

Rowan said...

I also thought Lessons was really good. I like insane Spike, the Buffy-Dawn dynamic was refreshingly unbad, the principal entertaining and ambiguous, and the Whedon dialogue superb. And, as a premiere, it needs to promise something good about the coming season, and it did that as well.

Pangs, well, some people hate it. And those people are wrong.