Buffy the Vampire Slayer Seasons 1-3

Season 1 (1997)

Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a different beast than Seasons Two and beyond, and not just for its truncated 13-episode length. The film stock, theme song, and general look/attitude felt more amateurish — but not unwatchable, by any means. As with most first season shows, Buffy struggled to find its footing and tone, wavering between darker moments and the humorous moments and quips that the series would become famous for.

Buffy Summers moves to Sunnydale, CA with her single mother, due to an “unpleasant” episode at her former high school (a more-or-less similar scenario based on the Buffy movie’s events). There, she tries to reintegrate into normal high school life and abandon her past duty as “The Slayer” — the chosen girl designated to battle the forces of darkness. This goes great for about five minutes, before she discovers that Sunnydale itself is Ground Zero for demonic activity, built on a phenomenon known as “The Hellmouth”. With vampires popping up every which way, Buffy slowly accepts her destiny. To help her out is her new British Watcher (think mentor/research geek) named Giles, who poses as the school librarian; new best buddies Willow and Xander; mysterious vampire-turned-goody-two-shoes Angel; and, on occasion, cheerleading rival Cordelia.

Despite its rough edges, Buffy quickly settled in to its comedy-horror structure, using monsters of the week and other terrors as metaphors for high school life. There’s issues of blending in with the cool crowd (“The Pack”), dating (“Never Kill A Boy On A First Date”) and being ignored (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”). The special effects, particularly the vampire “dusting” (when a vampire is staked or otherwise killed, it instantly explodes in a puff of human-shaped dust), weren’t too shabby, and a few episodes actually stand among the best that the entire run of Buffy had to offer.

Whedon obviously had a blast playing with audience expectations, and twisting them around as much as possible. The “bad guy” might actually be a good guy vastly misunderstood; clichés might be avoided by characters smart enough to know what they are; standard hour-long adventure drama rules are broken left and right. The whole concept is border-line silly, but the gravitas given by the characters and the show’s “we don’t care what you think” attitude keep it from going too far.

What instantly makes Buffy work is not its lead star — at least, not alone. I have to admit that I’m not the biggest Buffy/Gellar fan, and although she has her moments, she grates on me in a subconscious way. However, the show isn’t about one lone girl beating back evil single-handed. Buffy consciously makes a choice to allow others into her life to help, and therefore transforms into an ensemble show where everyone is equally capable, in their own way, of fighting the nasty vamps and critters. The friendship, particularly between Buffy-Xander-Willow, becomes the heart and soul of the show… but it’s not always roses in this little family garden.

Season 2 (1997-98)

Renewed for a hefty 22-episode second season, Buffy got darker and edgier — and it was good. With the lackluster “Master” out of the way early on, room was made for a triad of villains. Vampires Spike and Drusilla waltz into a town still mostly defenseless against a serious foe. Later becoming a show and fan favorite, bleached Spike brought both a bad boy nature and a sharp brain to the table, battling the Scooby gang from a distance (at least, for a while). His partner in blood is the lunatic Drusilla, a remorseless insane vamp who finds herself in a tug of war between Spike and a new Big Bad on the block.

It’s very difficult to talk about this season without mentioning the big mid-season twist, so I’ll claim SPOILERS and move on. As sex often changes relationships, Buffy loses her virginity to Angel and discovers that that one act can have devastating consequences. Freed from the “curse” that made him compassionate and caring, Angel reverts back into the beastly vampire he once was. Whedon doesn’t pull any punches from this point onward, as Angel shows us just how bad he can be by killing off a fairly popular secondary character in a gruesome fashion. Thus, Buffy finds herself having to face the fact that she has to hunt down her former lover — but, in the end, can she?

This season-wide arc is just one of many areas that Buffy expands into. The show got bigger and better, adding more mythology to the Buffyverse and diving deeper into the lives of the Scooby gang. Xander gets over his crush on Buffy to possibly make the moves on life-long friend Willow – but also struggles with his feelings for Cordelia. The first Halloween episode — a Buffy tradition — airs, a second vampire slayer (Kendra) appears, and my favorite Buffy character is introduced: Oz. Oz, played by Seth Green, is the laconic on-again, off-again love interest for Willow, and a gradual inductee into the Scooby Gang. Anything with Seth Green is a must-watch for me, and it’s just a bonus that he happens to be a werewolf.

Season Two isn’t perfect, but it is awesome as the cast and crew find their confidence in the roles and the show. While The Master was a stereotypical big bad vampire, the Spike and Drusilla show liven things up with another take on vampire culture and how people can be just as weird or nuts after death as they were before it. And while Season One tried its best to end with a nail-biting finale, it couldn’t stand up to the spectacular conclusion of Season Two. With the betrayals and deaths, Season Two shows us that nothing can be taken for granted in the Buffyverse – safety, stability, relationships, roles – and we best be on our guard.

Season 3 (1998-99)

The start of (in my opinion, so who else’s did you think you were reading?) the best Buffy season displays Buffy’s world in chaos. With her former love dispatched to hell, Buffy is expelled from school and flees to L.A., leaving her friends behind to manage the vampire population. However, it’s never the end in the Buffyverse, and she eventually returns and finds her way in life once more.

It seems like more of the same, but it’s not. The Scooby Gang’s last year of high school will be a trial for them all – as Buffy deals with the fallout of Angel, the Gang faces the undercurrent of Sunnydale’s threat. After all, it’s not a coincidence that Sunnydale has such a high murder rate, and yet everyone seems oblivious to it – there’s a cover-up, and his name is the Mayor. One of the cheeriest, most wholesome bad guys you’ll ever meet, the Mayor goes on a season-long quest for immortality and world-wide domination. Not good.

On the homefront, a third slayer is introduced: Faith. The polar opposite of Buffy, Faith plays loose with the Slayer rules, eschews a Watcher, and eventually causes more harm than good. Eliza Dishku plays Faith with depth – you can see that this is a hurting girl enabled with tremendous power, and you don’t quite blame her for her actions. At first, a Faith/Buffy teamup seems ideal, but this breaks down. Shakeups are all around, as Giles is replaced by stuffy Wesley, Angel returns from hell, and Xander makes a huge mistake. Happily, by popular demand Spike returns as well, taking the role of a hybrid good guy/bad guy (depending on the week and his mood).

Among this strong season are a few classic episodes. In “The Wish”, the demon Anyanka (becomes Anya, a cast addition) creates an alternate reality of Sunnydale without Buffy (two words: Vampire Willow!). It’s a cool “Mirror Universe” look at Sunnydale, interesting enough to warrant a follow-up later that season. “Earshot” got a lot of press at the time, due to the plotline of a teen at school with a rifle in a tower. Although the story wasn’t about a massacre, it’s projected airing date following the Columbine tragedy caused WB to yank it until the fall. “The Prom” has a genuine moment of sublime emotion, as the embattled Buffy is finally given a modicrum of recognition by the school that she saved so very many times.

None of this compares to the finale, which parallels high school graduation in various ways. The Mayor, having achieved near-immortality, begins his attack on the school. The Scooby Gang, about to break up for good and go on to various schools and careers, muster up one final defense – with the help of their hundred or so classmates. It ends with a bittersweet victory, as the glory days of high school end, and several characters depart for greener pastures. There’s even a prophetic dream that predicts the ominous events that will happen in season five. In many ways, this marks the dividing line between two different Buffys: High School Buffy, and Grumpy Buffy. I hope you’re ready.

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