Because it's the kind of day where I need a little "Buffy" to cheer me up, here are my ten favorite episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," listed in chronological order. As usual, I'll be cheating and counting two-parters as single entries. And spoilers! Spoilers everywhere!
Halloween - One of my favorite comedic installments, where the gang falls victim to a spell that turns them into whatever Halloween costume they happen to be wearing. Willow ends up a ghost, Buffy is stuck as a ditzy Southern belle, and Xander goes one-man-army on us. It's a shame that he villain of the week, Ethan Rayne, never developed into anything more interesting despite his connections with Giles, because he shows a lot of potential here.
Surprise and Innocence - The second season two-parter where Buffy finally gets intimate with Angel, and Angel loses his soul, turning into the monstrous Angelus. This was the big turning point in the Buffy and Angel romance that kept it from being the kind of maudlin high school girl's fantasy that we got in the "Twilight" franchise. Angelus also makes for an awfully fun villain, and I count him as one of the series' most satisfying Big Bads.
Becoming - Another big two-parter that ended the second season with Buffy and Angelus's big showdown. The MVP here was Spike, though, the sarcastic vampire baddie whose resentments toward Angelus and distaste for apocalypses make him an ally of convenience to the Scooby Gang. With loads of payoff for all the arcs in a very eventful season, these weren't the show's best episodes, but they're the ones I think of first when someone mentions "Buffy."
The Wish - Of all the worst-cast-scenario episodes I've ever seen, this is probably my favorite. You have a truly nightmarish version of Sunnyvale, twisted versions of all the main characters, including a jaw-droppingly sexualized Willow, and the show even goes so far as to kill our regular universe POV character, Cordelia, halfway through the episode. And yet the good guys still prove to be the good guys at heart, and prevail in the end.
The Zeppo - Xander saves the day while the rest of the gang are distracted by yet another impending apocalypse. The episode and Nicolas Brendan's performance in it are so good, it actually sparked a small fan campaign to get Brendan cast as Spider-man in the Sam Raimi films. Loaded with humor, culminating in a great one-night-stand sequence with then-newbie character Faith, "The Zeppo" is the ultimate Xander episode.
Graduation Day - Another season finale two-parter, and one of the most significant in the show's run. These were two of the three episodes delayed due to the Columbine shootings, and the fans did not react well, resorting to bootlegging the broadcast from the Canadians, with Joss Whedon's blessing. After all, we'd waited three years to see the Scooby Gang say goodbye to their high school days, and Sunnydale High blown to smithereens.
Hush - The Gentlemen were probably the scariest villains that the show ever came up with. The floating, the grimaces, and those minions flopping about in their straitjackets - all of it was such wonderful nightmare fuel. A good chunk of the normally dialogue-heavy show is completely without dialogue, resulting in Giles having to use a projector and transparencies to deliver his usual exposition, and Buffy left to fight without her quips.
Fool for Love - The Spike episode that finally shows us his history with Slayers and brings about a definitive end to the drawn-out arc where he couldn't harm humans due to that inhibitor chip implanted by the Initiative. There's loads of good character development here, and the flashback scenes are a lot of fun, particularly Spike's origin story and his falling out with Drusilla. I'm not sure I buy his relationship with Buffy, but at least the lead-in to it is great.
The Body - The later seasons of "Buffy" were much less consistent than the early ones, but it could occasionally still come up with moments of brilliance. One of these was the death of Joyce Summers, which was not totally unexpected but still arrived with uncomfortable suddenness. "Buffy" had killed off many characters before, but this was the death with the biggest impact, and handled in the most realistic and heartbreaking fashion.
Normal Again - I know, I know. The sixth season episode everyone loves is "Once More With Feeling," the musical episode. However, my favorite was the one that took the opposite approach, questioning every unrealistic element of the series by introducing us to an alternate universe where Sunnydale is only the figment of a mentally disturbed Buffy's imagination. Though the concept came up a little short, this is still one of the show's bravest hours.
Honorable mentions go to "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," "School Hard," "What's My Line," "Lover's Walk," "Doppelgangland," (best Willow episode), "Restless," "Hell's Bells," and "Chosen."