You’ve seen the best. You’ve seen the worst and now we’re taking a look at the episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that deserve more attention than they get in honor of the show’s 20th anniversary. Here are my top underrated episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
10. The Puppet Show (Season 1, Episode 9, Original Airdate: May 5, 1997) – This is an episode from season one that is often overlooked but it’s actually a fine example of the show’s humor and its ability to be suitably creepy. In the episode, written by Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali, demonic murders are happening in the lead-up to the Sunnydale High talent show and all signs point to the nerdy kid and his creepy ventriloquist dummy. The plot actually offers up a solid twist on the killer dummy story and gives the whole cast a chance to sign. The ending credits scene that has Buffy, Xander and Willow forced to perform in the school talent show is still good for a laugh and the episode serves an introduction the man that would become a true thorn in Buffy’s side until the end of season 3: Principal Snyder (Armin Shirmerman).
9. Family (Season 5, Episode 6, Original Airdate: November 7, 2000) – Tara was a welcomed addition to the show in season 4 and her romantic relationship with Willow was a pleasant surprise but her character didn’t quite feel like part of the group until this episode. In the episode, written and directed by Joss Whedon, Tara’s oppressive family (including guest star Amy Adams) comes to town on her birthday to take her away, alleging that all the women in the family become demons on their 20th birthdays. For an episode written and directed by the creator of the series, it’s a decidedly low key hour of television but its focus on personal stakes is what makes the episode work. At their core, almost every Whedon work is about lonely outcasts and oddballs finding sanctity in makeshift families that end up transcending blood relation, a mission statement that’s hammered home quite nicely here. When the gang stands with Tara in the end it’s a pivotal and very memorable moment from season 5.
8. Life Serial (Season 6, Episode 5, Original Airdate: October 23, 2001) – Season 6 is a pretty dark affair but “Life Serial” sets in motion some much needed levity with the introduction of The Trio. In the episode, written by David Fury and Jane Espenson, Buffy tries to get a job, while her newly evil nerd classmates from high school hold a contest to see who can mess up her life the best. The Trio (Adam Busch, Danny Strong, Tom Lenk) were designed to be a non-threatening source of levity from the bleak real-life theme of the season, and their first major introduction as a virginal crime syndicate works toward that goal in a big way here. It plays more like a cartoon and the fact that the episode finds the right balance is a testament of the writing and all the performers involved.
7. Something Blue (Season 4, Episode 9, Original Airdate: November 30, 1999) – This is probably one of the funnier episodes of season four and a big reason for that is the chemistry between Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters as Spike. In the episode, written by Tracey Forbes, a spell by Willow goes awry, blinding Giles, making Xander a literal demon magnet, and causing Buffy and Spike to fall in love and get engaged. This is basically a filler episode but it’s full of fun moments that make it very memorable. It allows Willow to deal with the despair of Oz’s departure without it lingering on for numerous episodes and it provides solid moments for Giles who is bumbling around blind and Xander, who always seems to be a literal demon magent. By far the best aspect of the episode is the fact that Buffy and Spike morph into hilariously sickening, PDA couple (remember this is a whole two seasons before their genuine, torrid love affair, one season before Spike even developed feelings for the slayer). Maybe this episode was a sign for the writers to make that union happen.
6. Bad Eggs (Season 2, Episode 12, Original Airdate: January 12, 1998) – This is an episode that typically lands on the worst list for most fans but despite the silly story and it being a filler episode in season 2, it showcases some of the best humor of the show. Just about every one of the characters gets a moment to shine and it’s always fun to have Buffy and Xander being the ones to team up to save the day. In the episode, written by Marti Noxon, Buffy must contend with vampire cowboys, the Gorch brothers, and the bezoar, a prehistoric parasite. Perhaps, I like this episode more now because it’s one of the last moments of levity for Buffy and Angel before things begin to go awry in “Surprise” and “Innocence.” It’s the beginning of the end of their relationship as we would know it and the laughs are appreciated because things certainly turn dark after this episode.
5. Band Candy (Season 3, Episode 6, Original Airdate: November 10, 1998) – This is easily one of the funniest episodes of season 3 (along with another that also makes this list) and it’s still memorable today. I appreciate it for allowing the more adult characters to showcase more of their comedic chops which results in some of the show’s best moments. In the episode, written by Jane Espenson, Hexed fundraiser candy makes every adult in Sunnydale—including Buffy’s mom, Principal Snyder, and atypically stuffy Brit Giles—revert to their teenage personae. The role reversal is key here and having the teens act as the adults for the out of control adults is worthy of some comedic gold but the best moments occur between Anthony Stewart Head as Giles and Kristine Sutherland as Joyce, Buffy’s mom. Their flirtation with each other Buffy’s disgust by it makes this worthy of multiple viewings.
4. Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (Season 2, Episode 16, Original Airdate: February 10, 1998) – This episode is a prime example of the show’s ability to blend drama with clever comedy. In the episode, written by Marti Noxon, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) breaks up with Xander (Nicholas Brendon) after her friends mock her. Xander retaliates by attempting a love spell to “put her through the same hell”, and he gets a little more than he had bargained for when the entire female population of Sunnydale falls deathly in love with him, with the exception of its intended target, Cordelia. This is one of the few episodes where Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) isn’t the main focus due to Gellar’s real life hosting duties on an episode of SNL at the time but it is a Xander centric episode which tend to be a highlight because Nicholas Brendon geeky brand of humor was always a breath of fresh air. Even more appealing was the offbeat chemistry between himself and Charisma Carptenter who felt she was too popular to be with Xander but was drawn to him nonetheless. The comedy is high (Even Buffy’s mother gets to hit on Xander) but what the episode has to say about relationships, particularly in high school, is pretty poignant. On the one hand, if you like someone you shouldn’t care what people think but on the other hand, you can’t make someone love you either. Both characters learn a lesson by the end of the episode and Cordelia goes against her friends to be with someone she wants to be with…”no matter how lame he is”.
3. Homecoming (Season 3, Episode 5, Original Airdate: November 3, 1998) – An episode that focuses on Cordelia and her brand of humor is always great but when she’s paired primarily with Buffy, it leads to some of the most golden moments of the show. In the episode, written by David Greenwalt, Buffy and Cordelia’s competition for homecoming queen coincides with bad guy Mr. Trick’s awesomely named “Slayerfest ’98” murder competition in which Cordelia is mistaken for the other Slayer, Faith. The high school aspects are some of the show’s funniest moments but what this episode proves, along with a few others in season 3, is that Charisma Carpenter more than deserved to follow Angel to spin-off land in her hilarious/badass/sexy turn here as she and Buffy are forced to turn competition into cooperation to survive the “Slayerfest” contestants.
2. Conversations with Dead People (Season 7, Episode 7, Original Airdate: November 12, 2002) – Other than the series finale, this is easily the best episode of Season 7. It has moments when its wickedly evil and also heartbreaking. In the episode, written by Jane Espenson and Drew Goddard, A vampire psychoanalyzes Buffy; Willow gets a warning from a dead friend; Dawn tries to communicate with her dead mother; Andrew and Jonathan return to Sunnydale on a mission; and Spike has a date at a bar. This is a very ambitious episode and everyone’s encounters with people on the other side proves to drive the narrative forward in a very creative way. The four vignette structure was born out of scheduling conflicts for both the actors and writers, and what started as a logistical quick-fix (each vignette was written by a different writer despite only two being credited) resulted in a special hour that intensely kickstarts the series’ final arc with stories both creepy and ultimately heart-wrenching, like the surprisingly reflective psychoanalysis of our not always likable heroine. Even perennial punchline Jonathan gets a moment of gravitas that is quite surprising. Lastly, Dawn’s vignette is one of the show’s most legitimately scary sequences across all seven seasons and the mood has never been quite as palpable as the episode’s end which unifies each story thread leaving all parties involved, and the audience at home, genuinely unsettled.
1. I Only Have Eyes for You (Season 2, Episode 19, Original Airdate: April 28, 1998) – This episode is just outside my top ten and nearly included it there but happy to give it a mention here. In the episode, written by Marti Noxon, Sunnydale High is plagued by two ghosts from the ’50s who possess unwitting hosts to reenact their last fateful encounter. The episode works on many levels. It’s a well-executed ghost story where the lovers’ are doomed to play out the same script with the same results, with innocents as their collateral damage. The genius of the episode comes when Buffy and Angel become possessed (this episode is after he reverts back to his evil ways) and the roles are reversed where Angel is in the female role and Buffy takes on the male side of the tragedy. They both handle the role reversal well and it’s solid acting from both Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz who give us a hint here of the emotion we would be getting from them in “Becoming: Part 2”.