Late to the Party: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Peter McLaughlin 9 November 2020

Late to the Party is an ongoing feature that takes on the wildly praised, the underground acclaimed, and the cult classics that you just missed the boat for – and now can’t understand why on earth everyone finds the name ‘Inigo Montoya’ worthy of an on-the-spot monologue.

To me, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like listening to the Smiths, or crying: a brilliant way to relive the teenage experience. The concept of the show – that the demons of adolescence are represented by literal demons, that can then be slayed – sounds cheesy and heavy-handed. But the magic of Buffy was that it always managed to tell its stories in ways that genuinely said something worthwhile about teenage life (well, nearly always). Even as it offered up messages for its teenage audience, Buffy never felt like its adult writers were pushing them on you: it feels like you’re with the characters, figuring out their lives and dealing with conflict themselves.

Of course, when I first watched the show aged 15 or so, I didn’t have the distance from adolescence to pick up on what it was trying to do. But still, I loved it, because of its brilliant and endlessly quotable writing and because of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her cast of friends. And even now that I’m (slightly) older, I still love the show for these things. Buffy succeeds at soapy escapism just as much as at character study, exploration of teenage life, and serialised storytelling; it’s just a really great TV show, and one you should get into immediately.

Watch first:

‘Hush’ (S4 E10)

‘Hush’ is definitely the best episode to introduce yourself to Buffy. A great example of the power of constrained writing, most of this episode plays out without any dialogue at all, as the town have their voices stolen by the ‘Gentlemen’. Coming at a point in season 4 where the characters are struggling with communicating who they are, ‘Hush’ literalises this problem to produce some of the tensest – and funniest – scenes in the whole show.

‘The Wish’ (S3 E9)

Recommending an alternate reality episode to first-time watchers of a show might seem like a strange decision, but the stand-out performances from the whole cast in ‘The Wish’ make it a great introduction. The setup gives the actors space to experiment within their characters while still keeping the basic chemistry that makes the show so great; you can tell that they’re all having fun with it, and it translates into an episode in which everything comes together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.

‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ (S1 E1)

But despite some stellar standalone episodes, Buffy is a show that you really do have to watch in order. The first season, however, is a bit dodgy: some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, a lot of it’s just dumb. I absolutely would not discourage anyone who decides to sit down from the first episode and watch it all the way through, but if you want to skip some of the rockier episodes, I’d suggest just watching ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ (E1), ‘The Harvest’ (E2), ‘Angel’ (E7), and ‘Prophecy Girl’ (E12) from season 1 before moving on to season 2.

The Best:

‘Surprise / Innocence’ (S2 E13 / 14)

As mentioned above, Buffy excels at portraying the lessons of adolescence as something that teenagers have to struggle with themselves, rather than that adults have to lecture them about. Nowhere is this better done than this two-parter, focussing on the relationship between Buffy and her boyfriend Angel. If these two episodes are ‘about’ anything, they’re ‘about’ the fact that sex has consequences; but rather than a lecture from your parents (or Coach Carr from Mean Girls), ‘Surprise / Innocence’ feels like you’re there with Buffy, trying to make sense of her world. This effect is made possible by fantastic performances from Sarah Michelle Gellar, who feels so real here, and the rest of the cast.

‘Once More, with Feeling’ (S6 E7)

On the polar opposite end of the spectrum from ‘Hush’ (where characters struggle to communicate with each other), ‘Once More, with Feeling’ sees the main cast unable to keep anything to themselves, as they begin to involuntarily burst into song about their deepest feelings. Thanks to the well-honed skills of the Buffy writers the plot device behind this never feels like a contrivance within the episode, which functions as an exploration of secrecy and privacy, a dramatic study of the characters and their relationships, and a great musical episode in its own right.