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TV's Best of the Decade: No. 19 -- 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
Good episodes abound, but 'The Body' and 'Once More, With Feeling' put 'Buffy' over the top
Between The WB and UPN, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" aired 77 episodes in the Aughts, compared to 67 episodes in the '90s and yet I'm sitting here at my computer lamenting over one episode.
On December 15, 1999, "Buffy" aired its final episode of that year and its final episode of that decade. That episode just happened to have been "Hush," the experimental hour that earned Joss Whedon his only Emmy nomination for the series and which most fans would probably place among the show's five or 10 best episodes.
So, with that, "Hush" can't be factored into my ranking of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for the decade. And with "Hush" taken out of the equation, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" went from a position just on the outskirts of the Top 10 to, at one point, in danger of missing out entirely.
After going through episodes individually (not rewatching, but refreshing my own memories of which episodes fell into the second half of the show's run), I had no trouble justifying placing "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" at No. 19 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Acknowledging that there will be some disagreements here, let's talk more after the break...
People will argue that within the show's seven season run, the best years for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" were in the previous decade. The second season had Angel going bad, the introduction of Spike and it saw Whedon and company figuring out how to use the Big Bad format, while also targeting miscellaneous demons-of-the-week. The third season had The Mayor and Bad Faith, plus some of the show's finest allegorical moments regarding the horrors of high school. It had warm fuzzies, genuine creepiness and classic horror-comedy episodes like "The Zeppo."
Seasons Four, Five, Six and Seven featured the end of of the Riley-Adam-Initiative seasonal arc, Dracula, the confusing arrival of Dawn, Buffy's Death ("She saved the world a lot"), Buffy's resurrection, Dark Willow, Darker Willow, Darkest Willow. vampire hate-sex with Spike, something resembling romance with Spike, the disintegration of Anya and Xander, plus the climactic impending apocalypse and a smooth segue into a comic book series. Many of those elements had passionate and devoted fans, but many of the twists and turns bathed these beloved characters in so much misery that lots of viewers tuned out.
More on that in a bit.
Some people will also argue that of Joss Whedon's TV output in the Aughts, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" wouldn't be the one to deserve to make a list like this at all. Because it was the original Whedon series, it's also been the one with the most time to experience backlash, as people professed to prefer "Angel" or "Firefly" or even "Dollhouse." And since I've already spoiled that only one TV auteur has multiple spots on this list and since I've already spoiled that it isn't Joss Whedon, there may be some questioning the one series I chose.
[If you're curious, "Firefly" was one of the very last shows left off this list. I think it would have come in at No. 35 or No. 36. Unfortunately, I didn't have my act sufficiently together to begin doing these Best of the Decade lists in Mid-November. Apologies. "Angel" would have probably made my Top 50, but we weren't getting anywhere close to that. I wish there were some place in my series to salute "Smile Time" (the puppet episode) or to praise just how satisfying the "Angel" finale was. Oh look! There's the place! Good stuff. Very good stuff. And as for "Dollhouse," for the purposes of a list this exclusive, I can't forget the "Snow Echo and the Seven Pilots" launch to last season. However, the show's late charge has probably guaranteed "Dollhouse" a place on my Best of 2009 list, assuming my Best of the Decades essays give me the time to tackle something as limited as end-of-the-year tabulations.]
When it came to "Buffy," after refreshing my memory of the 77 episodes in contention, I decided that I could justify the show's position based on only two episodes, if nothing else. And fans probably already can guess which two.
With "The Body," which aired in February of 2001, Whedon served as writer and director, delivering one of the most heartbreaking depictions of grief that I've ever sat through. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was always a show that handled death with a certain cavalier attitude, accumulating a vast body count of humans and creatures alike. But for one week, death became something unfathomable, as the Scooby Gang tried to find a way to help Buffy cope with the death of her mother. The entirely episode is gut-wrenching and Whedon got the best performances of the entire series out of nearly everybody in the cast. There are so many individual moments of the episode that stand out vividly even years later. Buffy's plaintive "Mommy?" at the beginning of the episode... Xander punching a hole in the wall... Willow failing to find a shirt to make her feel like a grown-up... But for me, the most powerful moment was Anya's utter confusion at how to approach the finality of mortality, her most truly human moment ever.
It isn't a surprise that the other defining episode of this people, "Once More, With Feeling," was another Joss Whedon writing-directing joint. "Once More, With Feeling" is a gimmick episode, with a demon coming into town and making everybody sing and dance. It works for two reasons: The first and most obvious, is that Whedon's kinda a talented guy and the songs are catchy and melodic and even those most of the show's stars weren't really great singers, they were exactly good enough to sell the songs within the show's premise. But perhaps the more crucial reason for the episode's success is that it didn't just treat the musicality as a lark. If Whedon were determined to do an episode with songs, he could have saved that episode for a stand-alone respite or for one of those finales where the season ended the week before but the characters all relaxed by fighting some silly demon and singing about it. Instead, he made "Once More, With Feeling" the pivotal episode of the sixth season, capitalizing on the core idea that in musicals, people sing what they couldn't bring themselves to say otherwise. So Whedon used music to expose Willow's abuse of magic, Anya and Xander's romantic uncertainties and the truth about Buffy's post-death destination. My only regret about the episode is that Hinton Battle probably could have had more to do. Probably. But that's a quibble.
Had I been listing TV's Best Episodes of the Decade, a more titanic chore than I have any desire to undertake, both "The Body" and "Once More, With Feeling" would have been in the Top 20 and probably the Top 10. Even if the other 65 episodes in the Aughts had been "Where the Wild Things Are" (Buffy and Riley having sex for a full episode? Really? REALLY?!?), I'd have felt OK placing "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on Best of the Decade list for those two episodes alone.
Fortunately, there were other episode highlights, including (but not limited to):
*** "The Gift" -- No matter how certain you were that death wasn't going to be a permanent obstacle for Buffy, there was a powerful finality to the Season Five closer and not just because Buffy got a tombstone and an epitaph. Season Five was uneven, but it wrapped up in superior fashion. Oh and guess who wrote and directed the episode? Joss Whedon.
*** "Normal Again" -- This Season Six episode, in which demon poison makes Buffy believe she was in a mental institution, is one of those polarizing episodes. I initially hated it and grew to admire it, something that never happened with Season Four finale "Restless," an episode that has a dedicated following in the fandom, but which I personally hated and viewed as banal Psych 101 noodling. I use "Restless" as the exception that proves the rule regarding the greatness of Joss written-directed episodes, but I've heard on many occasions how wrong I am.
*** "Superstar" -- Danny Strong's Jonathan would go on to attain semi-Big Bad status, but in this episode, he got to be the savior, so we knew something was wrong. I mostly wanted to mention Strong in the context of "Who the heck would have guessed that by the end of the decade, he'd be an Emmy nominated writer?" Indeed.
*** "Villains" -- Dark Willow made some fans unhappy. Not only was she part of a season that was submerged in misery, but she got pushed over the edge by an act of violence that left many fans, especially in the gay and lesbian community, actively pissed off at Whedon and company. Also, we loved Willow, so seeing what happened to her hurt us. In this episode, Alyson Hannigan was terrifying and it was more than just the black contact lenses. "Bored now..."
*** "Who Are You" -- Buffy and Faith switch bodies and somebody probably got the idea that Eliza Dushku was this awesomely protean actress who should be allowed to star in a series where the entire premise was that she got to play a different role every week.
*** "Selfless" -- It's a bit odd to me that Emma Caulfield hasn't gotten any sort of post-"Buffy" bounce. Then again, it was a little odd to me that she got any work after "Beverly Hills 90210," so it was pretty great being proven wrong watching Anya grow and evolve on "Buffy," becoming both a worthy comic foil and then a freaky woman scorned.
I could have listed a dozen more great or very good episodes. But that's a little start, an eclectic assortment of episodes.
As I glance over the episodes, Season Five had great moments (if you weren't hung up on Dawn the whole time), Season Six was pretty powerful stuff if you like dark and tortured (or if you were a Buffy/Spike 'shipper) and Season Seven tied the series up in fairly satisfying fashion.
I'm comfortable with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" at No. 19 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade and I probably could have gone even higher.
Coming up tomorrow? Oh the things we do to afford education in this country.