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Where Do We Go from Here?

A farewell to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and a look back at the show's ten best episodes.

12:00 AM, May 20, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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"BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER" is the best show in the history of television.

This is an arguable proposition, of course. M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Seinfeld, Cheers, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy--they're all great shows. They're also all half-hour comedies. Besides Buffy, what other hour-long drama belongs on the short list? Probably Homicide: Life on the Street. That's about it.

What makes Buffy so good? For one thing, it's got layers. Unlike ER or Hill Street Blues or St. Elsewhere, Buffy isn't just a straight drama. It deals with larger themes--good and evil, honor and duty, faith and disbelief. And then there's the acting and the writing and the satire and . . . well, you get the point.

Tonight Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends its seven-year run. The final episode will probably be a disappointment because an honest appraisal of the last few months would admit that the show has been uneven and at times downright embarrassing. While this may be a sign that Buffy is leaving at the right time, it's more likely a consequence of economics. The first half of season seven was as good as Buffy has ever been. Then the show's star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, decided that she was leaving the series when her contract expired at the end of the season. While her move wasn't entirely unexpected, the show's staff seemed taken aback and the writers had to construct a concluding arc in the space of a few weeks.

Series mastermind Joss Whedon has said that he normally plans story arcs one or two years ahead of time, so it's not unreasonable to give the show the benefit of the doubt. And it would be unhinged to allow the lackluster last dozen episodes to affect a final reckoning of Buffy's place in the firmament.

I'll leave that job to the wise souls at Entertainment Weekly, but for now it's worth recalling the ten best episodes of Buffy.

1 Amends (3.10): Buffy's worst hairstyle, Angel's finest moment, the show's greatest triumph. In one of the most explicitly religious hours of television ever aired (second only to "The Crossing," the James Cromwell-centered episode 7.15 of ER), Angel, the vampire with a soul, is haunted on Christmas Eve by the First, a thinly-veiled version of Satan. In a suicide attempt, Angel climbs the hill overlooking Sunnydale and waits for the sun to rise. Overpowered by guilt, he tells Buffy, "It's not the demon in me that needs killing, it's the man." And then he asks her, "Am I a righteous man? Am I a thing worth saving?" In response he gets a Christmas miracle: Sunnydale's first-ever snowstorm, which blots out the sun for a day, saving Angel and allowing him to stroll through town on Christmas morning.

"Amends" deals more smartly with the ideas of evil, faith, and redemption than any Christian drama--which is all the more remarkable since Whedon, who wrote the episode, appears to be a studied agnostic.

2 Once More, with Feeling (6.7): As triumphant as it is audacious, "Buffy: The Musical" doesn't just have great song-and-dance numbers, it contains a pivotal revelation for the series as well. Buffy lets drop to her friends that, while they thought they were rescuing her from a demon dimension when they resurrected her at the beginning of the season, they had actually ripped her out of heaven.

And if that wasn't enough, Whedon--who not only directed the episode but wrote the script, score, and lyrics--gives us this line in a lovers' duet as Anya worries whether or not Xander will still love her "When I get so worn and wrinkly / that I look like David Brinkley."

3 Becoming I/II (2.21/2.22): Pure, old-fashioned superhero drama for the second season finale. Buffy fails her chemistry final, gets expelled from school, and has to kill her boyfriend in order to save the world. It's comic-book stuff, executed with verve and precision. There's adventure, tragedy, true love, and a sword fight.

4 Hush (4.10): Demons come to Sunnydale and steal everyone's voices. It's the scariest episode of "Buffy" and, remarkably, has almost no spoken dialogue. The characters communicate by scribbling on little dry-erase boards. With a score including Camille Saint-Saens's "Danse Macabre," "Hush" is a reinvention of the silent movie.

5 Something Blue (4.9): Willow casts a spell causing her wishes and spontaneous exclamations to come true: Giles goes blind and Xander becomes a demon magnet, while Buffy and her nemesis, the vampire Spike, fall in love and get engaged.