Due to a cold, I spent most of yesterday and today rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer from episode one on. The more I watch, the more I realize that it’s been way too long since I did that.
BTVS is a great show. That is not to say that it is consistently great, or even consistently good. It has its fair share of episodes that don’t work at all. “Ted” in season 2, for example, is a great example of something that I see all the time but that doesn’t have an entry on TVTropes yet (as far as I know): The moral dilemma fake-out. This goes like this: Someone has a difficult moral problem (say, the Doctor must decide how to weigh the actions of an atoning criminal against their crimes). It gets pondered for a while with no solution in sight. Finally something happens that makes the whole point moot. E.g. The criminal is actually still evil (way to ruin what could have been the best episode of the ninth Doctor) or commits noble suicide or something. In “Ted”, Buffy kills a human being, mopes a bit about that, but then it turns out it was a robot all along. Way to go on the character development.
Along the way, there are also plenty of episodes that clearly think they’re saying something profound, but actually just go “metaphor!!!” A good example is “The Pack”, whose basic premise is “mean school children are a lot like predatory animals that hunt in packs”, and whose big question “what happens if these kids get turned into an actual pack of hyenas?” is answered with “pretty much the same, except for more killing”. Err… thanks, I guess?
But when the show does work, and it works most of the time, it can be great entertainment. And with a certain regularity, it manages to excel. It may be experimental storytelling (no top ten list can ignore “Hush”, “Restless”, “The Body” or “Once More With Feeling”), but there’s also a lot of classic fantasy storytelling simply done really, really well. “Prophecy Girl”, last and best episode of season one, is really just going down the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey checklist in compressed form, but turns it around and makes it all about defying destiny, with some nods about heroic behavior does not require being the chosen one, even if a chosen one actually exists in your world. An important part is that it takes the time to make each character’s choice feel real and personal, instead of “what they have to do to make the plot continue” (although make no mistake, Buffy does plenty of that, too).
I sometimes think that maybe the bad episodes are key to the show. Buffy was willing to experiment, and to sometimes fail. Compare it to, say, Castle, Bones, Big Bang Theory, whatever you want: These things do not have truly bad episodes. They don’t have truly amazing ones either. Buffy is more in line with Star Trek in its various forms - never afraid to try, even if that sometimes meant failing. Buffy separates itself from Trek not just by being about teenagers, but also by being more about people and somewhat less about ideas. In that sense, I think modern Doctor Who and How I Met Your Mother both owe a lot to Buffy (and in the latter case, not just Willow).
Buffy was a great show. We need more shows like that.