10 episodes that show how Buffy The Vampire Slayer blew up genre TV

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

When it debuted in the spring, on an out-of-the-way and tiny network still struggling to forge its identity, the idea that Buffy The Vampire Slayer would become one of the most influential TV dramas of all time would have seemed laughable. Based on a little-seen movie that garnered bad reviews from most critics, the series arrived with no-name stars as a curiosity on The WB, a network best known at the time for a Southern-fried soap named Savannah. Stranger still, the network decided to hand over control of the show to Joss Whedon, the man who wrote the screenplay for the original feature. Whedon’s career as a script doctor—he did an uncredited rewrite on Speed that screenwriter Graham Yost credits with putting most of the quotable lines into the feature—had been wildly successful, and he’d written for TV shows as diverse as Roseanne and the original Parenthood. But he’d never been a showrunner, and he was still very young—in his early 30s—an age when few executives were willing to hand over control of a potentially multimillion-dollar franchise.

Yet by the end of its seven seasons, Whedon and Buffy had reinvented the face of television. Buffy wasn’t a wildly innovative show that was a bolt of creativity out of the blue, like Twin Peaks. Like Hill Street Blues and The X-Files before it, Buffy was really good at synthesis, at pulling together lots and lots of different ideas and strands from the cultural ether and twining them together into something more powerful than its individual elements. Whedon drew on the still-popular X-Files for the series’ genre storytelling, particularly in its early days, and he borrowed a structure that had been primarily popular on the cop show Wiseguy, in which the heroes face off against one primary villain per season, though it was Buffy that gave this idea its most popular name—the Big Bad. Then Marvel comics, cheesy horror movies, and feminist-studies courses were tossed into the mix, and what emerged was indebted to all of those sources but beholden to none of them.

Buffy is perhaps most famous for its adventurousness, on both a plot and stylistic level. The series began as an ultra-low-budget story of a teenage girl who’s a typical high-school student by day and a killer of monsters by night. Played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy goes on a harrowing hero’s journey over the course of the series, starting out as a cockily confident young woman and coming to realize just how hard it can be to have such great weight placed on her shoulders. Most episodes of the show have a random monster or two pop up in Buffy’s city of Sunnydale, California, having been drawn there by the town’s “Hellmouth,” a magnet for beasts and demons of all sorts. Usually, these monsters stand in as metaphors for typical teenage problems. Then, Buffy and her friends—sweetly dorky nerd Willow (Alyson Hannigan), dependably doofy guy-pal Xander (Nicholas Brendon), and school librarian/exposition deliverer Giles (Anthony Stewart Head)—do their level best to destroy said monster. Meanwhile, in the background, the season’s Big Bad would be plotting, sending out minions, and building toward whatever scheme he or she would unleash in the season finale.

Once the template was established in season one, Whedon and his writers—including many names who have gone on to acclaim elsewhere, including Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, and David Fury—almost immediately began picking at it, figuring out how to flip things around to keep the audience on its toes. The show was fond of plot twists, but it almost never used them for their own sake. Instead, the twists were almost always grounded in character, allowing the show to take all of its characters on long, evolution-filled journeys. Characters began a season in one place and ended it in another, and while the growth was over the top, it was nearly always organic. If someone turned evil, it wasn’t because they stumbled upon a magic spell or something similar. It was because they had suffered or been hurt, because they saw no other way through their pain but to force it on the world around them. That applied to the characters’ romantic relationships as well, which often shifted and twisted and turned. Characters explored their sexualities, made ill-advised hook-ups, and destroyed each other via breakups.

As the characters grew older, the series’ concerns matured with them. Plenty of fans found Buffy’s growing darkness—particularly in its final three seasons—off-putting, but Whedon and his writers used the darkening themes to closely parallel the way Buffy and her friends found a world of uncertain responsibility once they left high school at the end of season three. Yet even as this was happening, the series’ stylistic ambitions were expanding. Whedon stepped more and more behind the camera, directing episodes that included one without dialogue, a musical, and a music-free art film. The series remained cuttingly funny throughout its run, but the teen soap crammed with gags from the early seasons gave way to something more brooding and operatic, until the final (and weakest) season posited a battle that was as much for Buffy’s soul as anything else.

Watching just a handful of Buffy episodes isn’t the best way to understand what made the show so influential and so special, simply because so much of its influence stems from the way it used serialization so effectively. Yet the show’s humor, its blend of dozens of genres, and its episode-by-episode plotting are possible to grasp in just one hour of the show, and even a lackluster episode displays the way Whedon and company had fun blowing up what their audience thought it knew about genre TV. And the further along a prospective viewer goes, the more likely it becomes that he or she will land on an episode that reveals just how bold the series could be on a visual level, or how thrilling its stylization could be.

Here, then, are 10 episodes that should entertain the Buffy-curious, though it seems likely sampling a couple of them will turn those intrigued by the series into devotees, devouring every episode over a few weeks.

“Prophecy Girl” (season one, episode 12): The first episode both written and directed by Whedon, the first season finale brings Buffy’s conflict with ancient vampire The Master to a head, complete with numerous terrific quips, a storyline in which the school dance dovetails nicely with the end of the world, and great moments for all of the series regulars, even stuck-up fashion plate Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter). The conflict with The Master is simple enough that newbie viewers should be able to grasp it from this episode alone, and the thrilling fun contained within will likely be enough to give a sense of the series at its early best, when it was still relatively “pure” and before it started unleashing legions of plot twists.

“Surprise” (season two, episode 13): The series’ first great romance was between Buffy and Angel (David Boreanaz), a centuries-old vampire who’d been given back his soul by a gypsy curse that made him lament all of the evil he’d done in his vampire days. In a famous two-parter in the middle of season two, the series took that relationship to the hilt as it pushed the two into conflict with a bad guy named The Judge, who had world-ending aspirations. The script for this episode is by Noxon, who excelled at the kind of soapy relationship twists that kept the series grounded in broken hearts and human pain, and the closer of this episode is a killer, setting up…

“Innocence” (season two, episode 14): The format of TV Club 10 usually precludes selecting two-parters, which take up two spots on the list. Yet “Surprise” and “Innocence” are so important to the show’s development, and the cliffhanger at the end of “Surprise” makes it essential to watch both, in order to understand the show and just for the enjoyment of any prospective viewer. Without spoiling anything, these are the episodes when Buffy “arrived,” both in terms of the public consciousness and when it hit the next level of storytelling, one it would stay at for an impressive amount of time.

“The Zeppo” (season three, episode 13): The series is about Buffy, and the three episodes above are heavily Buffy-centric. Yet the show also had one of the best supporting casts around, and in this episode, regular guy Xander gets a chance to shine, as he gets roped into an adventure that runs parallel to Buffy and the others stopping the usual “end of the world” darkness. This is one of the series’ first tentative stabs at playing around with how it told stories and coming up with ways to make the audience reconsider what it thought an episode of Buffy was. That it’s a top-notch showcase for Brendon—an effortlessly funny actor with the right material—is a bonus.

“Earshot” (season three, episode 18): The third season of Buffy (the final one with the characters in high school) is probably its most wholly satisfying, blending great episodic storylines about the usual concerns of high-school seniors with a terrific Big Bad, a compelling “shadow Buffy” character named Faith, romantic twists aplenty, and a season-long storyline that builds almost perfectly. In the midst of this, though, the season also offers terrific standalone episodes, like this one, penned by Espenson and featuring a briefly telepathic Buffy who can now hear her fellow students’ thoughts. It might be the series’ ultimate affirmation that high school is hell for everyone who has to go through it.

“Something Blue” (season four, episode nine): Season four lacks the compelling macro-narrative that made season three so satisfying, as Buffy and her friends go off to college and the series founders briefly as it tries to figure out how to tell stories about the characters in that setting. (The season also has to work around some cast-change turmoil.) However, on a pure episode-by-episode basis, season four hits a terrific streak very early on, offering up some of the series’ funniest hours over the course of the season. And this is one of them. “Something Blue” probably makes few best-of lists (it has a very silly storyline involving Willow’s wishes coming true), but it shows off the series at the height of its comedic powers and is packed with laughs.

“Restless” (season four, episode 22): Previous Buffy season finales had been giant, action-packed climaxes, but for the fourth season, the series placed all of the action in the penultimate episode, turning this hour over to a ruminative journey through the main characters’ dreams, where they’re stalked by a mysterious, shadowy figure. Written and directed by Whedon, this episode shows off how confident he was in his visual-storytelling abilities, while also offering foreshadowing that depicts much of what’s to come in the following two seasons of the show. As a bonus, it’s deeply insightful about the characters’ psychological make-ups, and it features one of the best one-shot gag characters the show ever came up with.

“Fool For Love” (season five, episode seven): Buffy had two great love interests over the course of the series, Angel (who left for his own show) and Spike. (Season four’s Riley has his good points, but his chemistry with Buffy was always lacking.) Fittingly, both of these men were demons, tortured souls made even more tortured by becoming monsters. The forbidden fruit of Angel made sense for teenage Buffy, but Spike was a love interest worthy of the adult Buffy, who was drawn to him even though she knew she shouldn’t be. In this hour, scripted by series stalwart Douglas Petrie, Buffy turns to Spike for knowledge on how he killed two prior slayers, and James Marsters cements his work as one of the series’ very best performers.

“The Gift” (season five, episode 22): It may not make sense to a viewer who hasn’t seen everything leading up to it—season five is one of the show’s most serialized—but the epic gut-punch of the 100th episode of the show’s run, its fifth season finale, should still maintain its emotional resonance for anyone who’s seen Buffy grow over the previous eight episodes on this list. Buffy and her friends have their final showdown with a god named Glory, Buffy tries to save a sister who only recently popped into existence, and everybody shows hidden depths. The final shot encompasses so much of what made the show great, and it marks a perfect capper to the series’ poppier WB era. (Buffy moved to another fledgling network, UPN, in the next season.) In addition, it plays around with the series’ growing suggestions that the weight of her job had made Buffy seriously depressed, and it gives Gellar a lovely monologue to close things out.

“Once More, With Feeling” (season six, episode seven): In the show’s fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons, Whedon took over the writing and direction for one episode, then veered the show into stylistically fresh territory. In season four, that episode was “Hush,” a silent horror tale that may be the series’ scariest episode. In season five, that episode was “The Body,” almost certainly the finest hour the series ever produced (though it’s better to watch once viewers know the characters better). And in season six, that episode was “Once More, With Feeling,” a surprisingly satisfying musical with music and lyrics by Whedon himself. The production numbers are fun, the storytelling is great, and Whedon uses the conventions of the musical—people will reveal more than they normally would in song—for some devastating emotional reveals. It’s the perfect capper to 10 hours of Buffy.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: Because the series worked in so many styles, many of the show’s best hours have been relegated to this section to better make the above 10 representative of the series’ breadth. Those merely interested after the above 10 are strongly advised to give these a shot. “Angel” (season one, episode seven); “Passion” (season two, episode 17); “Becoming (Part 1)” (season two, episode 21); “Becoming (Part 2)” (season two, episode 22); “The Wish” (season three, episode nine); “Hush” (season four, episode 10); “The Body” (season five, episode 16); “Older And Far Away” (season six, episode 14); “Conversations With Dead People” (season seven, episode seven); “Storyteller” (season seven, episode 16).

Availability (updated June 2020): All seasons are available on DVD and are streaming on Hulu.

Next week: Erik Adams gets festive by recommending the best of the best when it comes to the Rankin-Bass specials.

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