I don't think I had ever seen a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I remember when it originally came to television I resisted watching. Younger people may not remember that the show was based on feature film of the same name which was, to be charitable, atrocious.
But Joss Whedon, who wrote the movie, decided he would take creative control of the character and execute his vision as purely as possible.
The result was a unique television experience.
The story, for those unfamiliar, revolves around Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar). She is pretty, blond, high school girl who is the typical victim in the typical horror movie. Instead, Whedon makes her the Chosen One, a Slayer who has super-strength and fighting acumen to take on the forces of evil.
While the plot of the show is unique, that is not what set it apart. Whedon was able to create a show that was equal parts scary, funny, thrilling, and tragic with nary a misstep. This is a tremendously difficult balancing act. If any one of the elements is out of order or proportion, it will fall apart. This is particularly true of the comedy aspect. The characters on the show were incredibly funny and had some of the wittiest lines on television. But as Whedon explained, if you made it too funny or silly, if you had the characters "wink at the camera" as they did in the movie or in shows like Hercules to Xena, then all of the tension, drama, and heartbreak becomes moot.
And Buffy employed not only some fantastic writers, but the actors were incredible. Allyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, and James Marsters all turned in some fantastic performances. Special note should be taken of Gellar's amazingly complex character, but also of Marsters work as Spike. His portrayal of the evil vampire that you cannot help but like is one of the best television performances I have ever seen (and as you have noted, dear reader, I watch a lot of TV). His monologue at the end of "Beneath You" is still stirring.
This was also one of the first shows where I really noticed the directing. While budgets were limited, I noted how much work was put into how the scenes were filmed to get the maximum emotional effect. This was the place where I began to see the revolution in television to a much more cinematic scope. It was never quite fully realized in this series, but you can see how it changed things.
Another thing that makes this show so relatable is that it is thematically rich. The ultimate metaphor is that high school is a hellish place of monsters. Anyone who has ever been to high school can relate. The outward scariness is there to reflect the universal inward terror of adolescence. I have never seen a better interpretation of a relationship going sour after pre-marital sex than in the second season.
Of course since this is a Joss Whedon show, his philosophical nihilism slowly begins to creep in as the seasons progress. You can begin to see this more and more in season 4 when the characters go off to college and start making some incredibly poor life decisions. As a Catholic, watching this slow descent into darkness is heartbreaking, because you want the characters you have come to love to reach out into the light and find happiness. Instead, they are caught up in addiction, apathy, and empty sex. Whedon tries his best to pull out of this tailspin and there are some real moments of light in the darkness. But his mind overwhelms his heart a bit too often and the show slowly covered itself in shadow.
But despite this, that heart of Whedon still believes in goodness and heroes. And though it is overwhelmed, it tries to fight through and present some hope in goodness.
This was the episode that set the tone for the rest of the series. So often a show will introduce a character and reveal everything about them way too soon. Angel (Boreanaz) was introduced in the pilot as a mysterious friend. It isn't until this episode that the truth (or part of it was revealed). Not only that, but a recurring character that you thought would be around for a long time was killed. This set off the tone of danger and surprise. The last shot of the episode is also rather haunting.
JUMP THE SHARK
Xander (Brendon) is finally marrying his former-demon fiancee Anya (Emma Caufield). But as always, complications arise. That in and of itself is not the problem. Instead it revealed the real weakness of Whedon's art. He is so mired in pessimism that it eventually infects things that normally would not be affected. The breakup at the end of this episode is so artificial and out of left field that it rings false to the characters. It was as if Whedon could not let this couple find happiness because he believes that life is ultimately tragic and painful. The problem wasn't that it was sad, which is a common mood on the show. It was that the tragedy was imposed from without and not organic from within.
The show was still finding its way, but if this was the first episode of the series you watched, I could understand giving it up. The episode was cheesy, badly written, badly acted, and badly directed. It was so silly that any peril was ignored and the jokes fell flat because of the "After School Special" vibe. Terrible episode.
There have been many great episodes of Buffy. I am particularly fond of the musical episode "Once More with Feeling." But the best episode is the 2-part season final "Becoming." The greatest villain on the show was Angelus, Buffy's boyfriend Angel who has lost his soul. Throughout the season, Whedon pushed the audience to move from affection for Angel to utter and irredeemable hatred for Angelus. Thus we followed Buffy's reluctant journey to the resolution that the man she loved had died and that she had to kill this monster who wants to end the world. The ending to this episode is one of the most exquisitely tragic things I have ever seen on television. I know I speak with a lot of seeming hyperbole about this show, but I truly believe it is justified. The convergence of acting, directing, writing, music, and special effects to create the final climactic moment is so unbelievably heartbreaking that I can still see it vividly in my mind's eye years and years after it has passed. Here all the threads came together to break all hearts. And it was glorious.
As I wrote early, Buffy eventually descended into a confused nihilism. The later episodes were tainted by this darkness. But that does not take away from the real artistry and skill that came across in the early episodes and which was still present (though obscured) in the later ones. When I remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I prefer to honor what it was rather than what it eventually became.