My goal, if we're generous enough to ascribe goals to a bunch of college pals posting screeds about TV on the new medium of the Web in the heady days of 1997, was probably to compare the awfulness of Fox's Pauly to the awfulness of The WB's Buffy. Who knows? Instead, it became a study of contrasts: the established network creating awful programming while the fledgling crap-fest known as The WB actually created something interesting.
More, importantly, it allows me to quote myself six years later:
It's hard to count just how many ways Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be horrendous. And so it's only fair to single its creators and producers out and tell them they've sneaked on one of the most fun shows I've seen this year.
See? Told you so.
So without any more ado -- and without any mention of the many times we've bestowed our fictitious TeeVee Awards on Buffy while the industry's major fictitious awards, the Emmys, have ignored the show -- we present a small salute to Buffy, as the three Vidiots who hold Buffy dearest (myself, Monty Ashley, and Gregg Wrenn) present our favorite episodes.
So long, Buffy. Job well done. Time to ride off into the sunset.
1. "Once More, With Feeling." Simply the most amazing hour of television I've ever seen. The cliché of a TV show affecting one's real life always rang hollow until this episode. A couple of years ago, I left the opening stages of a television career for something unrelated, in large part because prime time seemed nothing but a vast desert of Temptation Island, Dateline NBC and Shasta McNasty. "Once More With Feeling" proved that TV wasn't dead. Joss Whedon's musical was so creative, so original, so inventive I spent the next week wondering if I had made the right choice. It didn't change anything in the long run, but that's the only time a piece of TV has ever left such a mark on me.
2. "Becoming, Part 2." The second-season finale proved just how powerful Buffy could be. Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance is her best of the series, with the exception of "The Body." We get to see evil Angel, a superb fight and an excruciating death when Buffy kills the man she loves. Every other series on TV at that time would have weaseled its way out of killing Angel, but the Buffy producers refused to pull any punches (and then brought Angel back from hell the next year).
3. "Innocence." A hot chick. A rocket launcher. What else could you possibly want?
4. "Fool For Love." Spike's story in his own words. The battle between him and a Chinese slayer is one of Buffy's best and James Marsters' performance proves just how deep the Buffy acting bench is. There's a stunning scene in which Spike talks about the secret death wish all Slayers harbor. Marsters' perfectly cold-blooded recital of a Ginsu-sharp speech during a couple of intercut fight scenes is three of the series' finest minutes.
5. "Passion." Angel at his evilest and Giles finally breaks out of stuffy librarian mode. Leave it to Whedon and crew to make a voice-over narration work.
6. "Conversations with Dead People." Who says Buffy's lost steam the last couple seasons? Well, I did. But you wouldn't know it from this show. As smartly written as any episode, the centerpiece is Buffy's encounter with a former classmate turned vampire-slash-psychologist. Once again the Buffy writers continue their remarkable streak of being genuinely moving without falling into sappy melodrama while Dawn's encounter with her mother's ghost is scarier than any X-Files episode.
7. "Hush." Like "The Body" and "Once More, With Feeling," this one seems to be a requirement for any "Buffy" Top 10. Forty minutes without a word and it was still the most interesting thing on TV that month. OK, Joss, you're a genius. We get it. Show-off.
8. "Selfless." With the exception of Spike, Anya is my favorite character not from the original cast. Emma Caulfield may spend most of her time as comic relief but she can act serious better than any other cast member outside of Gellar. This episode gives Caulfield a chance to shine in both comedy and drama as it explores Anya's past. In a series that has given us dozens of remarkably striking images, the brilliant cut from a musical "Once More, With Feeling" flashback to Anya impaled on a wall is one of the most incredible.
9. "The Body." The first half-hour hits like Ronnie Lott. Gellar's agonizing performance as she discovers her dead mother will take your breath away. The scene in Willow's dorm room where Xander, Willow, Tara and Anya talk about the death is just as wrenching, especially Anya's questions about human mortality. My favorite moment is just a little thing, though: A distraught Buffy is talking to a paramedic who arrived too late to save her mother and the camera never shows anything above the man's shoulders. His head is cut out of the entire scene, even while he's talking. It's that kind of small detail that showed Whedon is as accomplished a director as he is a writer.
The second half hour is a lot of Dawn, who I just don't like. Go ahead, Buffy zealots, take your best shot.
10. "The Zeppo." I was never a big fan o' Xander, but this is an exception. "The Zeppo" is one of the series' funniest episodes with a beautiful parallel structure that features Xander trying to be cool while Buffy and the rest of the gang avert yet another apocalypse, only this time they're saving the world offscreen.
10. "Faith, Hope, and Trick." I'm a big fan of supporting characters who entertain me. And I'm not just talking about Faith; I always liked Mr. Trick. He had it goin' on! Plus, he was willing to let his master get killed, because it seemed easier than stopping two vampire slayers. And then, just as Buffy explains all about how she had to kill Angel after he got his soul and everyone has a good emotional scene, Angel's back! And to make it extra-disturbing, he's naked and glistening!
9. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Hey, quit mocking the movie. It's a lot of fun. Plus it's got Luke Perry and Paul Reubens. The reason I didn't watch the show when it first started was that everyone kept saying "Don't worry, it's nothing like the movie." And I happen to like the movie, so there.
8. "Selfless." My favorite character is Anya. She's been in first place for several seasons now. She's "forthright," by which I mean that she says everything she thinks. And she's always right. Always! She's just much funnier and more perceptive than everyone else. So I enjoyed the look into her backstory.
7. "Bad Eggs." I'm also a big fan of any character who occasionally shows an ounce of common sense. And in this episode, there were a couple of cowboy vampires called "The Gorge Brothers". And do you know what they did the first time they met Buffy? They ran away! And at the end, even though Buffy's killed one of them, the surviving one quite sensibly runs away again. And his reward is to still be alive at the end of the episode!
6. "Once More, With Feeling." I like musicals! And if you ask me, there's a distinct Sondheim influence in it.
5. "Homecoming." I don't know why I enjoyed this episode so much. Part of it, obviously, is that not only is Mr. Trick back, but he brought back the surviving cowboy vampire (who escapes again!). But really, I just got a kick out of Buffy and Cordelia both trying to be Homecoming Queen.
4. "Angel." This is where the series really started to be about something, as Angel turns out to be a vampire and the Anointed One turns out to be named Colin. (Colin? Really?) Also, considering that Darla got killed in this episode, she sure shows up a lot in later episodes and on Angel's own show.
3. "Doppelgangland." Because, well, Evil Willow is hot. Also, when Good Willow is pretending to be Evil Willow, it's pretty funny. And it's a tricky acting job, when you think about it.
2. "Prophecy Girl." I put this in solely for Buffy's speech about how she's sixteen years old and doesn't want to die. I nearly rejected it, though, because of the spot where Angel says that Xander has to do the CPR, because vampires have no breath. It would have been more convincing if Angel weren't panting and taking deep breaths while he said the line.
1. "The Prom." "We're not good friends. Most of us never took the time to get to know you. But that doesn't mean we haven't noticed you. We don't talk about it much, but it's no secret that Sunnydale High isn't really like other high schools. A lot of weird stuff happens here. But whenever there was a problem or something creepy happened, you seemed to show up and stop it. Most of the people here have been saved by you, or helped by you at one time or another. We're proud to say that the Class of '99 has the lowest mortality rate of any class in Sunnydale history. And we know at least part of that is because of you. So the senior class offers its thanks. And gives you this. It's from all of us. And it has written here, 'Buffy Summers, Class Protector.'"
10. "The Replacement." As this list will make clear, Xander is my favorite character on "Buffy." Joss Whedon has said that Xander is the logical extension of what Buffy is trying to say about female empowerment: he's a guy who is just fine with the idea of a woman as the leader of the pack. He's also a great, funny character -- and the perfect ending to the show would have been to have Buffy and Xander end up together. Damn that Spike for complicating things. In any event, this episode is all about Xander, since he's split into two (love the de rigueur "Star Trek" reference: "Kill us both, Spock!") and has to learn the hard way just what potential for strength lies within him.
9. "The Puppet Show." At several points in the first, truncated season of Buffy, I realized just what a special show I was seeing. But it was clinched with "Puppet Show," a combination of horror and fall-down-laughing humor that was perfectly aware about the hoary plot device (ventriloquist's dummy comes alive! aiee!) that lay at the center of the episode.
8. "The Wish." A chance to turn the entire premise on its head for an hour, as Cordelia makes a wish (to future series regular Anya) and discovers herself in an alternate Sunnydale ruled by Vampires. Willow and Xander are there -- in top form as evil vamps -- and best of all, Cordelia herself gets killed before the story can even get rolling. In the end, a scarred and battered Buffy who's been spending her time at the Hellmouth in Cleveland (finale reference alert!) arrives to save the day, or at least get killed and allow Giles and company to return reality to its rightful place.
7. "Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest." The series' two-hour premiere really is unlike most pilots, in that it's both representative of the series as a whole and actually good. Xander, Willow, Buffy, and Giles emerge fully formed here, and we even get a red herring character, Jesse, who looks like a regular until he's turned into a vampire and staked. Tough break, Jesse! You missed out on 142 great adventures.
6. "Becoming, Part 2." Buffy runs Angel through with a sword, sending him to hell just as his soul is restored. It doesn't get any more tragic and operatic than that. Plus, Spike gets pragmatic and lives to fight another day.
5. "The Zeppo." Xander again, this time in an episode that plays with the series format by showing what happens to our so-called extraneous character while the rest of the cast is saving the world. An apocalypse is averted entirely in the background, while Xander confronts his own issues -- and saves the world himself -- in the foreground. A great character-driven episode that also has something to say about how the show's plot devices and cast interactions function.
4. "Once More, With Feeling." It's got to be on just about everyone's list, and justifiably so. But this episode isn't a success because the songs are great, or because the cast sings them well -- most of them are not Broadway-bound, let's just say that. No, it works because the songs fit perfectly with the show's plot and characters, making a cohesive whole that's far more than the sum of its parts. I will admit that this episode also holds a place in my heart because while it aired, I was in the hospital with my wife, who was about to give birth to our daughter.
3. "Hush." Joss Whedon's best performance as a writer-director, a largely dialogue-free episode that shows off the pure acting talent of his cast. Sure, the bad guys are pinched from "Dark City." But they're still creepy. And isn't that Riley lad perfectly palatable when he's not speaking?
2. "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered." The ultimate Xander episode, and one of the funniest things I have ever seen on television. Xander is "cursed" with a love spell that makes every woman in Sunnydale (except his intended target, Cordelia) fall madly in love with him. Sounds great, until the jealousy mounts and the women get all "Fatal Attraction" on him.
1. "Passion." An incredibly brutal episode, unflinchingly dealing with what must be the logical outcome of previous episodes. Angel has turned evil, but keeps all his intimate knowledge of Buffy and the gang -- and uses it to intimately torture them. Angel's voice-over narration as he watches Buffy from outside her window is chilling, and the series' saddest moment is when Giles returns home, believing that Jenny Calendar is awaiting him in bed -- only to find that she's been murdered by Angel, who set the entire romantic scenario up simply for cruel effect. Few, if any, series have had the guts to be so cruel to its characters. The effect is breathtaking.
Additional contributions to this article by: Jason Snell, Monty Ashley, Gregg Wrenn.