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Buffy: An Appreciation and a Ranking!

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It is a point so banal it hardly bears repeating that we have been experiencing the golden age of television. It can be difficult to explain to those who are used to the bountiful riches of today's multiple streaming options and international offerings just how ... sparse ... and often bad television used to be. Sure, there were some good shows, here and there, but for the most part, the 30th best show of any given year now would have easily been the best show on television for most years from the 50s through the early 90s.

Small things, such as "actions from one episode having consequences in an episode later on" or "season-long arcs" just didn't exist, for the most part. And this transition began to occur ... in the 90s. I can first remember it with two shows in particular in terms of Geek Cred- the X-Files, which mingled "monster of the week" and "mythology" episodes, and Babylon 5, which, with Babylon Squared in the first season, had the audacity to show the future of the show (which, due to a cast change, had a fascinating payoff later).

But one show that seems both omnipresent, yet also doesn't seem to fully get the accolades that it probably deserves, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I jogged around the web and found that it didn't even make most contemporary top 100 lists. And this bothers me, a little.

I never re-watch TV shows, even the best ones. And yet, I have now seen Buffy all the way through five times, including during the original run. Each time, I catch new things, and while it isn't perfect, and it does sprawl, and parts of it are oh-so-90s, I continue to be amazed at how fresh and modern it is. It might not be the Wire, or the Leftovers, or Breaking Bad, but Buffy introduced the wider world to a number of concepts that are overdone now because they are such as a part of our TV vocabulary- the witty banter, the "scooby gang," the Big Bad, the season-long arc, and the sometimes too-obvious metaphor.

I have to admit that I often fall into this trap myself. It's easy to talk about how Firefly was cut short, or BSG was a good reboot, or the roughly 5000 new Star Treks on CBS All-Access, but I often forget about one of the greatest of all of the TV shows, and the one that really bridged the era from bad TV to what we have today. So, in order to foster that conversation, I thought I would use the internet for its second-best use: posting a ranking that people will disagree with!

The Infallible Buffy Season Power Rankings as Determined by Overall Awesomeness and Cool Criteria

1. Season 3.

This is peak Buffy. It has all the classic components (High School setting, Giles, Oz, Some Angel, Principal Snyder). It has Faith.

And it has .... Mayor Wilkins. So perfect.

I really wanted to be contrary, but this is the absolute, positive, ur-Buffy. Others might say it declined after this (I would say that it evolved), or that Whedon became distracted with his numerous projects and "Whedon-verse" such that the quality of the mothership declined, but the only thing that is for sure is that this is the inarguable height of Buffy.


2. Season 6.

...and there it is. Some people say that this season is a depressing slog. To which I reply, "Really? Have you watched the Leftovers recently? How about Rectify?"

This is certainly the most polarizing season. So I'm going to make a quick case for making it the second-best season. The roughness is the point. Before this, the characters were in high school or kinda-sorta college. This is the post-college season. This is the characters flailing around in life. This is bad and abusive relationships, and good relationships that end badly, and characters that mean well but it doesn't work out, and all the mess and the complications that can't be solved by just stakin' it. People often point to the high point of Once More with Feeling from this season; the reason that this musical works so well is because it exposes the artifice, the lies, and feelings come out. The introduction of both terrible misogyny (the Trio) and gun violence both feels out of place and necessary.

But so many details in this season ring true for people that have struggled to find themselves, or wondered how their close friends have drifted apart. It's a difficult bunch of episodes, but one of the most rewarding.

3. Season 2.

At some point during this season, you realize that David Boreanaz graduated from "not being able to act, like, at all" to "only a little terrible." But while future episodes do, of course, un-do the impact of it, the "switch" in the middle for Angel, and the ending of Season 2 are some of true "TV" moments that I still remember decades later.


4. Season 4.

Maybe the worst Big Bad (although ... Season 7). But Hush might be one of the finest episodes, and overall, this was a solid season.


5. Season 1.

Most people say that the first season wasn't that great. THEY ARE WRONG. It was a short season. But when you watch it again, you realize it really had everything already in place. The wit. The acting. The plot lines. The Master was a good Big Bad!

So why is it below Season 4? I absolutely cannot watch it without cracking up whenever I see Angel. Seriously- David Boreanaz's acting is ... well, terrible. It's a good thing they try to keep him in shadows.

6. Season 5.

Good: I don't hate Dawn. I genuinely enjoy the scene-eating of GLORIFICUS! The Body might be one of the saddest, best episodes of TV done. Also, it's Buffy, so, even when it misfires, it is still pretty good.

Bad: Everything else.


7. Season 7.

Meh. At least they got to have a finale? This season is so forgettable that I have trouble remembering what happened, and I never remember the Big Bad from it until I start watching it.



Tips for People Who Want to Watch It:

Buffy is a great show. It's currently streaming in the US on Amazon Prime (all seasons).

Beginner: Watch the first three seasons. Remember that it keeps getting better!
Intermediate Studies: Watch seasons 4 & 5. More uneven in quality.
Advanced Studies: Season 6.
Completist: Season 7.
 

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MarkB

Legend
I still remember when I first started watching Buffy on UK TV. It had taken a couple of weeks for it to filter through that this was actually a quality show, and of course there were no repeats and no iPlayer back then, so the first episode I saw was the Hyenas one where Xander becomes temporarily one of the cool kids.

Between that and not being used to "Hollywood Homely" standards of character casting, I think it took me a solid two or three more episodes to tune into the concept that Xander and Willow were somehow supposed to be the uncool, geeky outcasts of the cast.

Season two is still my favourite, followed by season three. I didn't much care for the Initiative arc (is that season 4?), and really wasn't keen on the whole "Buffy versus real life" arc where She Who Stands Against the Vampires And Forces of Darkness is forced to work in fast food joints as a day job because the Council of Watchers don't think it's worth springing for a stipend to keep her well set up for monster hunting.
 

It is a point so banal it hardly bears repeating that we have been experiencing the golden age of television.

This is not the golden age of television, this is the death of television. This is the golden age of streaming, but convenctional broadcast media is at one of it's lowest points in history.

That being said, my season order:

Season 3.
I love this show.

Season 2.
We mostly agree.

Season 1.
This was the show's codifying season. It sets the tone, the premise, the monster-of-the-week-with-benefits format. It may not be as finely tuned, but it is Buffy in it's truest raw form.

Season 5.
This season could have been the end, and we would have loved it. The story arcs of Buffy and Joyce are handled beautifully. The Body is one of the best episodes of any show on TV, ever. Dawn doesn't bother me.

Season 6.
I agree with almost everything you say, I just like season 1 and 5 more than you. I would describe this season as "inconsistent". Once More With Feeling is definitely a high point. The loan shark in Tabula Rasa is probably the cheesiest latex demon in the entire show. Considering where the show was (dealing with a finished story arc, changing networks) they did an amazing job with what they had.

Season 4.
We agree more than you would expect based on placement. Adam and the Initiative are weaksauce. Beer Bad is definitely a low point for the series. The best episode of this season was "I Will Remember You", and it was from a different series. Lots of fun individual bits, but bad connecting pieces.

Season 7.
Good, still watchable, but clearly hanging on (not thriving). Not a good mesh with Angel.
 
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Larrin

Entropic Good
I agree with season three being the best and seven being the worst, with the OP descriptions being a decent summary of what I would say. I would place season 6 second to last (just because it's intentionally well crafted misery doesn't make it enjoyable misery, for me) , if I rewatch Buffy, it's 50/50 whether I watch past season 5.
I honestly don't know where 1, 2, 4, 5 really land. They each have their ups and downs, nostalgia clouds my judgement, and in the end, I don't see any way to choose a hierarchy, anything I said would be arbitrary and subject to change the next time I thought about it. They each have something I really quite like, and few enough things I didn't.

so..
Best: 3, [1, 2, 4, 5 in no particular order], 6, 7: worst
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
Personal ranking would be 3, 2, 5, 6, 4, 1, 7. 6 is better than most people remember, but it is a bit gloomy, but containing "Once More with Feeling" gives it a bump. I pick 4 over 1 purely because of "Hush".
 

Oddly enough, season 5 is my favourite. Season 4 and 1 are the worst, although admittedly season 4 has a few gems that stand out, such as Hush. Season 1 is only bad because the show was still trying to find its footing. The bad effects and monster of the week format also didn't do it any favors. All that changed early on in season 2. But despite its flaws, season 1 has a fun villain and very few bad episodes.

Fav episodes: Hush, Conversations with Dead People, Lovers Walk, The Body, Forever, Once more with feeling, Passion, Revelations, Innocence, The Wish, Dopplegangerland.

Worst episodes: Beer Bad, Beauty and the Beasts, Where the wild things are, Gingerbread, The Puppetshow. *

(* Note however that even the worst episodes of Buffy have plenty of good stuff in them.)

I recently rewatched the whole show, and the dialogue is still so witty.

Word to the wise: Watch the original DVD version of the show. The HD widescreen release ruins the show, by awkwardly stretching the show to widescreen, and thereby cutting important information from view, or showing things that were meant to be offscreen. They also bodged the color correction, and redid various special effects badly.

If you are considering streaming the show, check which version it is before you do.
 
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Talltomwright

Explorer
I rewatched for the third time this year but stalled mid-season 6. Overall my impressions are similar to yours: mostly it’s ages well and there is some amazing writing in it. I’m unlikely to get to the end of 6 this pass though because the formula starts to feel sadistic - ‘what else can we heap on Buffy?’ I’m not sure where I draw the line between raising the stakes and creating conflict and peril (which are essential to good story telling, especially in long running shows) and things just getting bleak and nasty. But this may also say more about my mood this year than the work itself: I need more high-jinx with my angst these days!

But I loved rewatching the earlier stuff: it is so good! And yes, was pioneering in its time.
 


chuckdee

Explorer
Seasons 2, 3 and 6 were my favorite. Yes, 6 was gloomy, but I liked it. 5 was good. I dislike 1 just because I have a hard time getting anyone to watch past this one because it was so formulaic and campy. My only argument is "It gets better...". 4 and 7 sort of stalled- 4 was running in place, and 7 was trying to get to the finish line.
 


I DIDN'T KNOW SHE WAS A GIANT PRAYING MANTIS!

C'mon, are you ever going to let Xander live that down?

If it was just that one time, sure. But if you factor in Ampata, Anya, and Lissa, the dude's got a demon love problem. Heck, even his human love interests are all supernaturally complicated in one way or another.

On a serious note, Buffy was one of the shows that bridged the gap between episodic TV shows designed for syndication, and the wave of serialized prime-time TV that would reign supreme after the turn of the century. Season 1 is where the formula of episodic A-plot with serialized background was honed. A big part of why a rate Season 1 higher than others in this thread is that I believe the greatness of Season 3 is improved by watching Season 1 for background and character/setting establishment. As opposed to, say, ST:TNG, where you can straight up ignore Season 1 to get to the good stuff, and never miss it.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
On a serious note, Buffy was one of the shows that bridged the gap between episodic TV shows designed for syndication, and the wave of serialized prime-time TV that would reign supreme after the turn of the century. Season 1 is where the formula of episodic A-plot with serialized background was honed. A big part of why a rate Season 1 higher than others in this thread is that I believe the greatness of Season 3 is improved by watching Season 1 for background and character/setting establishment. As opposed to, say, ST:TNG, where you can straight up ignore Season 1 to get to the good stuff, and never miss it.

That is what I was alluding to at the beginning of the OP. Unless you lived through it and experienced, it is genuinely hard to describe.

For the most part, the only shows that had continuing plot lines were "soaps," either of the daytime variety (General Hospital, etc.) or the nighttime variety (Dallas and its ilk). Occasionally, you would have shows that had continuing plotlines that weren't true nighttime soaps, but were "soap-y" lawyer/police/hospital dramas, such as your St. Elsewheres, Hill Street Blues, or L.A. Laws.

But the idea that you would have characters change and evolve from episode to episode, season to season, that actions would necessarily have impacts later on (even several seasons on), that people would study shows for hints of what would come ... none of that was occurring, especially with "genre" TV.

The 90s was exactly that bridge point. At one end, you had the pervasive three-camera sitcoms with laughtracks and the "case of the week" shows (the case could be a legal case, a mystery, a crime, or a medical case, but ... it was a case, and it would be resolved). At the other end of the decade, you had the Sopranos and the Wire and the dawn of Prestige TV (the Sopranos debuted in 1999, the Wire in 2002, and Deadwood in 2004 ... so this period is usually considered the dawn of prestige television).

But the sea change was occurring with shows like Buffy (debuted with a season-long arc in 1997, season 2 also was in 1997), Babylon 5 (first season of 1994), DS9 (begins more heavy arc-dependent plot with Dominion war in 1997), and, of course, X-Files (hate them or..., um.... hate them, the mythology episodes that eventually folded in on themselves in a confusing black hole of nonsense provided a continuing plot line).

It was a wild transitional time for TV, and Buffy is, arguably, the transitional-est. :)
 

The 90s was exactly that bridge point. At one end, you had the pervasive three-camera sitcoms with laughtracks and the "case of the week" shows (the case could be a legal case, a mystery, a crime, or a medical case, but ... it was a case, and it would be resolved). At the other end of the decade, you had the Sopranos and the Wire and the dawn of Prestige TV (the Sopranos debuted in 1999, the Wire in 2002, and Deadwood in 2004 ... so this period is usually considered the dawn of prestige television).

But the sea change was occurring with shows like Buffy (debuted with a season-long arc in 1997, season 2 also was in 1997), Babylon 5 (first season of 1994), DS9 (begins more heavy arc-dependent plot with Dominion war in 1997), and, of course, X-Files (hate them or..., um.... hate them, the mythology episodes that eventually folded in on themselves in a confusing black hole of nonsense provided a continuing plot line).

I feel we should also acknowledge Twin Peaks in this list. While Buffy and X-Files took episodic shows and transitioned them into an arc, Twin Peaks started more on the soapy side but merged into a murder show. Also, it was from earlier: 1990. Note: I have only seen an episode or two of Twink Peaks, but one of these days I'll get around to watching the whole thing.

Unless you lived through it and experienced, it is genuinely hard to describe.

The "lived through it" part is also why I think Season 6 often doesn't get the credit it's due. Despite being low on my list, I still love it.

Season 6 doesn't binge well, I think people might like it better when watched one episode a week. As you said, it's dark and depressing, and it's a shift in tone and style. But it's really important to remember the context that it was released in. First, the show was almost cancelled and changed networks, which is a shock few shows can recover from. It was unsettling to the fandom at the time, and everyone new that there would be changes in writers, sets, etc.

Second, it was being made and released in the immediate wake of 9/11. A lot of TV was screwed up then. On the one hand, you had shows like Third Watch that re-wrote themselves around it. On the other hand you had shows like Friends that completely ignored it. For Buffy there was no great way to address it directly; there's no way that linking in the supernatural to it would have been well accepted. But IMNSHO, a lot of the tone of the show really reflects the emotions of the day. Among other things, the idea that the big bad was "among us" really fit with the fears of terrorism instead of a monolithic nuclear foe.

And finally, Season 6 is also the season that most directly addresses the real world changes in technology. Does anyone remember Buffy's iconic "If the apocalypse comes, beep me" line from Season 1? Season 6 is where they give Dawn a cell phone as a present, and Willow magics into the internet. How many of the season 1-3 plots wouldn't work if all the high schoolers had cell phones (and cameras) all the time? It's a noticeable change and a transition for the characters - just as it was a noticeable change and transition for all of us living through it at the time. For a show it can feel rough at times, but it's also realistic.
 

MarkB

Legend
And finally, Season 6 is also the season that most directly addresses the real world changes in technology. Does anyone remember Buffy's iconic "If the apocalypse comes, beep me" line from Season 1? Season 6 is where they give Dawn a cell phone as a present, and Willow magics into the internet. How many of the season 1-3 plots wouldn't work if all the high schoolers had cell phones (and cameras) all the time? It's a noticeable change and a transition for the characters - just as it was a noticeable change and transition for all of us living through it at the time. For a show it can feel rough at times, but it's also realistic.
I still remember how much trouble writers had back then, adapting to the fact that people routinely had instantaneous communication. You saw it especially in the first couple of seasons of Angel, where he does get a mobile phone, but the writers take every excuse to have it be out of charge, or oh dear he's in a tunnel so there's no signal.

24 was really the show that broke the back of that collective writers' block, by making mobile phones not merely something to tolerate, but absolutely central to the plot.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I feel we should also acknowledge Twin Peaks in this list. While Buffy and X-Files took episodic shows and transitioned them into an arc, Twin Peaks started more on the soapy side but merged into a murder show. Also, it was from earlier: 1990. Note: I have only seen an episode or two of Twink Peaks, but one of these days I'll get around to watching the whole thing.

Twink Peaks? Oh, Agent Cooper!

I think that Twin Peaks was sui generis in so many ways. Even now, just thinking about it ... while the idea of David Lynch having a tv show today is no big deal, in 1990 .... well, the biggest shows in 1990-91 were almost all sitcoms (Cheers, Cosby, Roseanna, The Golden Girls), and the top two rated dramas were Murder, She Wrote and Matlock.

So Twin Peaks was just out there in a lot of ways. It was almost more of an event, a weird miniseries (the first season was eight episodes) that captured the imagination and was expanded into a short-lived series.

Hmmm.... donuts.

The "lived through it" part is also why I think Season 6 often doesn't get the credit it's due. Despite being low on my list, I still love it.

Season 6 doesn't binge well, I think people might like it better when watched one episode a week. As you said, it's dark and depressing, and it's a shift in tone and style. But it's really important to remember the context that it was released in. First, the show was almost cancelled and changed networks, which is a shock few shows can recover from. It was unsettling to the fandom at the time, and everyone new that there would be changes in writers, sets, etc.

Second, it was being made and released in the immediate wake of 9/11. A lot of TV was screwed up then. On the one hand, you had shows like Third Watch that re-wrote themselves around it. On the other hand you had shows like Friends that completely ignored it. For Buffy there was no great way to address it directly; there's no way that linking in the supernatural to it would have been well accepted. But IMNSHO, a lot of the tone of the show really reflects the emotions of the day. Among other things, the idea that the big bad was "among us" really fit with the fears of terrorism instead of a monolithic nuclear foe.

And finally, Season 6 is also the season that most directly addresses the real world changes in technology. Does anyone remember Buffy's iconic "If the apocalypse comes, beep me" line from Season 1? Season 6 is where they give Dawn a cell phone as a present, and Willow magics into the internet. How many of the season 1-3 plots wouldn't work if all the high schoolers had cell phones (and cameras) all the time? It's a noticeable change and a transition for the characters - just as it was a noticeable change and transition for all of us living through it at the time. For a show it can feel rough at times, but it's also realistic.

I agree with all of this. Especially the binge-y parts.

I truly enjoy shows like Rectify and the Leftovers (both of them are on my top 20 shows), but both of them are also shows that I deliberately paced myself on. You just can't settle in for a long weekend and gorge yourself.

Season 6 needs to be enjoyed (enjoyed being a ... interesting term) at a slowed pace. You just can't mainline it into your veins over a week, or it's too much.


Re: technology ... what, you don't remember Moloch the Corrupter from Season 1? THAT IS HOW COMPUTERS WORK!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
24 was really the show that broke the back of that collective writers' block, by making mobile phones not merely something to tolerate, but absolutely central to the plot.

What about X-Files? The giant cell phones of Mulder and Scully, that would work unless the plot dictated that they didn't?
 

DrunkonDuty

Adventurer
My rating list for Buffy:

Season 3. For all the reasons everyone has said. (Has anyone not placed it at the top of their list?)

Season 2. For Spike and Dru. Yeah, yeah Angel has something to do with the plot or whatever. Not that I don't like Angel but it's not like he and Buffy ever had more than a tiny fraction of Spike and Dru's chemistry.

Season 5. I like Dawn. I think she was a good addition to the show. A bratty younger sibling was something missing from the earlier seasons. And I liked Glory.

Season 1. It set the foundations of the show. I remember I was re-watching episode 1 with a (female) friend of mine. Opening scene, Darla and some jock are sneaking into school after hours. In a jaded tone of voice my friend says "Yeah, yeah, he's a vampire, he's going to kill her." Cue her surprise when Darla turns out to be the vampire.

Season 6. I liked the trio. My main issue with it is that Willow's turn to the dark side could have been done better.

Season 4. Yeah, Adam was boring. Riley was boring. Hush was amazing.

Season 7. Nothing good to be said for this season. Honestly, when I re-watch I don't even bother with this season.
 



Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I would also like to point out that Buffy is to be blamed for the creation of Tvtropes.

I don't think it is a coincidence that the rise of "smart" TV and the rise of the internet occurred at the same time.

I still remember watching Babylon 5, and then checking Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5; originally created on Usenet, it migrated to the web back when people were talking about Mosaic and Netscape.
 

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