The topic of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” been coming up a lot lately (more than usual, anyway). Earlier this month, I attended a “Geek vs. Nerds” show where Buffy took on Blade (and through some unforeseen happenstance, there were somehow more shirtless Ryan Reynolds fans in the audience.) And the month before, a Joss Whedon night was held at a local club where I cosplayed as Seth Green’s Oz character from the season 3 Halloween episode (because this was the quickest costume I could put together on short notice.) And before that, we had “Avengers” and “Cabin in the Woods” – it’s been a good year for Buffy fans.
Personally, I’ve seen the whole series a half dozen times over already. It really is one of my favorite shows because of how often it tries something out-of-left-field or break its own rules (i.e. Buffy switches from stakes to rocket launchers in one episode.) But in recent years, whenever I re-watch it, I tend to get more selective with the episodes, and I find a lot of my favorites are always the stand-alone shows. Stand-alone episodes are usually the short stories that have little to do with the season’s story arc. They’re entertaining enough without requiring a “Previously on Buffy” refresher course. So for the purposes of this list, I won’t be mentioning any season finales, two-parters, or any episode where a key character dies. I’m just going to highlight the fun episodes.
And why twelve? Because it came up to twelve when I was finished.
1. The Pack (Season 1)
When the show first started, it was straight-up high school horror corniness. This episode was no exception, but to a different extreme. Before, the key villains were vampires and witches. This one decided to go off on a tangent by having a group of students get possessed by wild hyena gods, which the writers had too much fun with. They were cruel, sadistic, creepy, and otherwise completely indistinguishable from any other gang of hooligan teenagers.
2. The Puppet Show (Season 1)
Hey, creepy ventriloquist dummy episode! We can all guess where this is going! Or can we? I think this was the first episode to introduce a mind-blowing twist which forced the audience to start second-guessing every episode from there on in. It also features a very awkward post-credit scene where Buffy and her friends massacre a scene from “Oedipus Rex”.
3. School Hard (Season 2)
Prophecies and rituals come to an end in this episode where the character of Spike is introduced. Back in this season, Spike was pretty much The Joker – chaotic and reckless. So the premise here is that he wages a vampire siege against the school on Parent/Teacher night, resulting in Buffy needing to go all “Die Hard” on their asses and doing very little to hide her secret identity. It’s a pretty sweet episode.
4. Ted (Season 2)
Personally, this is one of my top favorites. It’s the Buffy version of “One Froggy Evening”. John Ritter guest stars as Buffy’s new potential step-dad. He bakes cookies, takes everyone out for mini-golf, dispenses fatherly advice, and is overall the nicest guy you’d ever meet. But when he’s alone with Buffy? COMPLETE PSYCHOPATH. None of Buffy’s friends believe her, so the stakes are raised as she gets pushed to the point of murder trying to prove that this guy is evil. It gets quite serious and over-the-top at times, but I love it. A later episode in season four “Living Conditions” mimics the same situation where Buffy is convinced her new roommate is evil and everybody is trying to stop her from killing her roommate.
5. The Zeppo (Season 3)
How about an episode where Buffy and her friends battle the greatest, most horrible evil they will EVER meet on this show? And then how about make it so they exclude one friend (Xander) from joining in the battle because he’s the most likely to get killed? And how about the whole episode follows all the madness that befalls Xander on that fateful night? It’s a wonderfully crazy episode with many jabs at the show’s own formula. I’d almost compare this episode to “South Park” where you can tell the writers are being given free reign to vent their frustrations over the usual cliches.
6. Earshot (Season 3)
I might be biased here, because I love any episode of anything where the main character can suddenly read minds. It’s a great tool for comedy as you suddenly get an insight in everybody’s thought processes (and discover that some characters have no thought processes at all). This one quickly takes some dark turns, though, as Buffy finds herself trying to track down a student whom she “overheard” planning a mass murder. From there, it actually touches down on some real life issues on events that hadn’t yet become a reality on the news, but it’s all handled very well. And the ultimate pay-off for solving the mystery is one of the most fantastically stupid moments in the show.
7. Pangs (Season 4)
Buffy and the gang battling Indian vengeance spirits on Thanksgiving while trying to be politically correct about it. Political correctness fails many times in this episode.
Special Video Highlight:
8. Hush (Season 4)
A spell falls over the town depriving everyone of their voices. What follows is a scary-as-hell episode where freaky monsters attack the town and no one can scream or call for help. This is one of those “top of every list” episodes because of how damn good it is. Even better is watching all the truths and misunderstandings that come out when people can no longer use their words to lie or defend themselves. A perfect horror-comedy.
9. Restless (Season 4)
Here’s an episode that’s confusing no matter whether you’re a fan or new to the show. Four of the characters experience four separate dreams and what follows is a very nonsensical, “Twins Peaks” style episode with no coherent narrative. They just wander from one pointless scenario to another, acting very out-of-character and doing random stuff. There is a story hidden in the subtext, but it’s otherwise a very accurate depiction of a dream-like state. Plus it has the cheese man. Who doesn’t love the cheese man?
10. Once More, With Feeling (Season 6)
I’m reaching by calling this a stand-alone episode since it relies on past episodes for its main story to work. But the real charm is the whole musical angle where the town becomes cursed and people randomly break out into song. Fans of “Dr. Horrible” can see Joss Whedon’s songwriting roots here as nearly every song is both catchy and clever as hell. Even the lyrics drift from beautifully poetic to absurd non-sequiters (most notably one lyric: “I think this line’s mostly filler” when a random character has nothing to add to the song.) After seeing this one for the first time, I found myself humming a lot of the tunes throughout the next several weeks.
11. Normal Again (Season 6)
This is one of those episodes that asks a very simple question: what if Buffy is a nutcase in an asylum, and this whole show is her delusional fantasy? As the episode cuts between worlds, Buffy is pushed into almost doing unspeakable things as she chooses between realities. Also, without giving too much away, it’s pretty rare to see Buffy as the villain.
12. Conversations with Dead People (Season 7)
I’m also stretching with this as a stand-alone episode because it relies VERY heavily on past episodes for the story to work. But the reason I put it on this list is because it’s the first episode I ever saw – and it hooked me instantly. So it must be doing something right if I can enjoy it without understanding it. Four characters all have different supernatural encounters on one night. In one situation, Buffy’s making small talk with an old friend-turned-vampire whom she has to kill later, meanwhile, her sister is battling a genuinely dangerous poltergeist in the house. And meanwhile from there, two other characters are having very serious conversations with long-dead friends. None of these stories ever intersect. There’s a lot of strong comedy and drama in here, but the overall flow of the episode is tied together very well, along with the accompanying music. I’d almost call this Tarantino-esque if it were a little more off-kilter. While I can’t recommend it to all new-comers, it’s a very experimental episode and a very personal favorite of mine.