To quote Vincent Baker: "Fiction is affecting, that's all."
As far as i can tell, Buffy set the stage for the modern TV drama, moving the continuing stories and intense character development front and center. The show also is all at once real heavy and clever and subtle about foreshadowing things to come, and reincorporating characters, events, and things from past episodes and seasons.
BtVS also used and abused the tropes of the genre(s) to great and continual effect - whether averting, subverting, lampshading, or just playing them straight-on and full bore. I'll be using the TVtropes names wherever they seem appropriate; after all, this is the show that named (and perhaps created) the idea of "Lampshade Hanging" to begin with.
Still, my favourite TV serial by quite the margin - it was even better than I expected.
Now, down to the nitty-gritty. Spoilers abound, naturally!
Most Disturbing (in the Good Way) Episodes:
- 2:7 "Lie to Me" - The ending for this episode lays it all out: the whole dynamic of the narrative. It's not black and white.
- 5:16 "The Body" - Joyce dies of natural causes, and the world goes on. The muted horror is powerful. Wow, yeah.
- 6:17 "Normal Again" - This episode is infamous, for making both of Buffy's lives be equally affecting, and ambiguous.
- 7:7 "Conversations with Dead People" - Exactly what it says on the tin. Perhaps the creepiest single episode! The First is an incredible big bad, using truth as a weapon. I love how even though Willow sees through the First's charade, it's ambiguous truth/lie still cuts her down.
Most Awesome Episodes:
- 4:10 "Hush" - Spooky fairytale monsters make for an episode without speech - fantastic and creepy!
- 4:22 "Restless" - After the season's big bad is defeated things get interesting in the Dreamtime. I love that this episode comes after the world is saved and the day is done. I think this is also the first hints at the true nature of the Slayer.
- 6:7 "Once More With Feeling" - The oh so awesome musical episode. Willow doesn't get a song!
BtVS and Joss Whedon have earned a reputation for the ruthless "Anyone Can Die" attitude toward characters, but i'm not sure how that pans out. After this, I sort of feel that is not exactly true, or not entirely accurate; I think it might be more important that the crew primes and allows you to care about the characters so much, and that their deaths are always handled extremely well.
Let's make a list:
- Buffy Summers: seasons 1-7, dies twice: once fulfilling prophecy creatively, the other as a willing sacrifice. Buffy's dead and buried death is handled really well, as is her reaction to her unwanted resurrection. She never really gets over it, I think; maybe after the Hellmouth is destroyed.
- Xander Harris: 1-7, the luckiest man alive, for a demon magnet. Perhaps the only one of the core Scoobies not to kill an innocent.
- Willow Rosenberg: 1-7, perhaps my favourite character, if you can ever make a choice. I love how she became the season 6 apocalypse (but poor lovely Tara), and her recovery.
- Rupert Giles: 1-7, renegade Watcher, reformed warlock, and a not-so reluctant killer. One of the best moments on the show is when he kills (murders) Ben (and thus Glory) - it is a Crowing Moment of Awesome, and horrible all at the same time. I think he manages to blow the Sorting Algorithm of Mortality out of the water to live through it all.
- Joyce Summers: 1-5, Buffy's mom was always there, until she wasn't. Truly heartrending. It is sort of perfectly horrible that the manner of her death was a reincorporation of a number of off-hand jokes Buffy'd made earlier on in the show.
- Jenny Calender: 1-2, the gypsy teacher, killed rather horrifically by Angel.
- Angel/Angelus: 1-3, spots in 4,5, & 7; the good monster, and the villain of season 2, along with Spike & Drusilla; Buffy kills him and sends him to hell at the conclusion of that season, but he gets better. It is strongly implied that he does die the martyr in the "Bolivian Army Ending" of Angel, along with most of his remaining crew.
- Cordelia Chase: 1-3, the school rival for the Scoobies, and then one of them; She goes on to bigger, better, and more tragic things on Angel. She dies pretty horribly.
- Anya/Anyanka/Aud: 2-7, first a Monster of the Week, then a regular/main character (and love interest) as an ex-Vengeance Demon, then a demon once more, reluctantly, and then finally redeemed. And then she dies at the end, naturally. It feels right for the trope to play out for odd Anya.
- Spike/William the Bloody: 2, spots in 3, 4-7, introduced as the arc's villain, but ends up helping save the world from Angel for his own selfish reasons. Undergoes "Spikeification", then truly redeems himself to go out a martyr in the Hellmouth. Of course, then he comes back to do it all over again with Angel!
- Wesley Wyndham-Pryce: 3, the replacement Watcher, a allied antagonist to Buffy and crew, who dies something of a real hero at the end of Angel.
- Riley Finn: 4-5, the normal guy love interest, who turns out to be a professional demon hunter. Not only doesn't he die on camera, he seems to get a real chance at happiness off camera. (Though he's in the wrong line of work for an "ever after".)
- Tara Maclay: 4-6, poor Tara has a whole string of horrible things done to her, although you might be able to say that about any of the protagonists, and then she was murdered accidentally, as a bystander. Jossed in that shes on the show for two years, but only gets on the "team credits" in the episode she dies...
- Dawn Summers: 5-7, the magical normal girl, the MacGuffin who becomes a heroine. Dawnie is awesome. She doesn't die rather spectacularly, as you would expect.
Of course, then there are all the minor recurring characters - the classmates mostly - who die all the time in the background, without much or any hurrah and show. So I guess it really is "Anyone Can Die", to a certain point anyway.
One of the most interesting things about Buffy is that the villains, the "Big Bads" are always people - except for the First, who is (or appears as) a lot of people (and spends most of its screen-time looking and acting like Buffy). The Master; Spike, Dru, & Angel; The Mayor; Adam; Glory; The Trio of Warren, Andrew, & Jonathan; Dark Willow - they're all interesting characters. Out of those 11 characters, two - Willow & Angel - were heroes before and after their villainy, one, Spike, was redeemed into a hero, and three, Warren, Andrew, & Jonathan, were each previously responsible for a Crisis of the Week, with Jonathan a recurring side character throughout the show, and Andrew seeking to redeem himself at the end of season 7. That makes nearly half of the show's Big Bad's something more complicated than your usual Arc Villain. And the ones who were regular Arc Villains were a cut above - especially Glory and The Mayor. "He just wanted to be a giant snake."
A surprising number of minor recurring villains actually survive the show, too: Amy the Witch, Ethan Rayne, etc, etc.
All in all, simply brilliant, and amazingly moving.