After twenty years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer still holds up as one of the best supernatural dramas ever produced. There are seven seasons of Sarah Michelle Gellar kicking ass, killing vampires and other demons, and saving Sunnydale from the Hellmouth that growls beneath its Californian surface. There’s nothing I love more than flipping on a random episode and letting Joss Whedon’s best work (Yes I did just say that, Firefly fans. One season does not a “best show” make!) remind me of better television times. However, there’s one supremely uplifting episode I use to introduce newcomers to the series that stands head and shoulders above the rest. That episode is Once More, With Feeling (S6E7) and it’s the best and most iconic episode of Buffy ever made. In fact, every musical Joss has done has been better than all of his other writing.
Once More, With Feeling, features our second favourite Scooby Gang bursting into song and dance numbers because of the summoning of a “dancing demon”, whose influence causes people to dance so fast they burst into flames. The opening number is one of my favourites, as Buffy laments how, after dying at the end of season five, slaying is simply “going through the motions”. Songs can be even more expository than dialogue because they offer the opportunity for the character to divulge deeper into their thoughts and feelings; a tool for the inner monologue. As the episode continues, we find out it’s happening to everyone in Sunnydale, not just the gang.
While the episode, in part, is a “resolutionary” one, tying together loose ends to avoid plot holes, it contains an entire season’s worth of plot development and could have been an entire season in and of itself. This is why I believe it’s the best episode of BTVS, because it feels purposeful, complete, and incredibly well written. Each of the characters develops in this episode, giving the audience a sense that, after this, things are going to change; for better or worse. The episode does its civic duty in answering the right questions at the right time and in a way that doesn’t seem forced or contrived. The strength of this episode lies in these aspects and truly does the entire show justice.
Every section of this episode feels, looks, and sounds finely tuned. And that is why it’s the best episode of Buffy. When the end of the episode arrives, there is a feeling of completeness as the credits roll. Whereas other episodes in the series, like I Robot, You Jane, leave you wondering why they were necessary to include in the seasons which they belong.
All of the numbers within the episode are the right blend of upbeat, emotional, and uplifiting music. From my experience, most people who enjoy the episode mention the song “I’ll Never Tell” as their favourite because it’s comedic, upbeat, and features Joss Whedon’s signature awkward sexual humour. Yet, my song of choice is most definitely “What You Feel”, which is sung by the baddie of the episode, Sweet, the dancing demon. This song features smooth, silky piano and a wonderful tap number. It doesn’t hurt that Hinton Battle, the man behind the prosthetic make-up, has a wonderful jazzy voice to accompany it.
So let’s get to the little brain-worm I fed at the beginning in proclaiming Joss Whedon’s musical writing to be superior to all of his other projects. This isn’t a popular opinion. The fan base frequently reference Firefly, Cabin in the Woods, and Avengers as Whedon’s apex pieces of work. Often in nerd-purity, they see his musical work as kitschy and brush it off. However, the proof is in the cliché and show tune filled pudding. Especially if we include the brilliance of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog as an example.
This three-part musical features Neil Patrick Harris as the title character Dr. Horrible in his attempt to join the “Evil League of Evil” and further his plot to rule the world. However, with his nemesis Captain Hammer, played by Nathan Fillion, constantly thwarting him and his love-interest in a polar opposite young woman named Penny, Felicia Day, distracting him, the good doctor has a difficult time reaching his goal. In shorter running time than a full episode of Buffy, Whedon crafts this exquisite, interesting, and endearing tale of a low-level supervillain in a standalone universe of good and evil. He does this by taking mundane, yet relative, situations and making them interesting – blending them with the fantastical flair of comic books and the magic of musical numbers. And guess what? He even takes the time to weave compelling and intriguing characters into these magical musical numbers with what seems like effortlessness.
Let’s take a look at “Under Your Spell/Standing Reprise” from Buffy and “My Eyes” from Dr. Horrible’s. These songs display, in my opinion, Joss Whedon’s best writing, bar-none.
In both songs Whedon features two characters who are feeling similar, but ultimately different emotions and singing their own personal soliloquies. They also are unique in their use of lyrical timing, as one half of each of the songs croons in one time while the other does so in another. Both resolve with the singers harmonizing in the same timing, leaving our eardrums blessed with musical magic. It shows how both characters are ultimately on the same page, telling us a story through the construction of the song itself. However, it’s not just the music and composition that makes these two songs stand out as they do, but the amount of character and story development in each only serve to empower the shows on the whole. Laced to the brim with incredible exposition, both songs give us crucial insights to Tara, Giles, Dr. Horrible, and Penny, respectively.
Now, with this in mind, I ask you to hold all of this up against any of Joss’ work. Angel. Avengers. Dollhouse. Cabin in the Woods. Hell… Firefly for you diehards. The exposition, for most, seems forced, as if made by machines – thin, two-dimensional dialogue that’s been simplified to make the characters appear more relatable while actually being tropes. In Joss’ musical work, it’s as though tropes are flipped on their heads. They are either inverted or purposely used oxymoronically (like when a puppet-headed minion is told to sing by Spike, but just talks normally) in order to acknowledge the trope, but not fall into it. And, much like Once More, With Feeling, his musical works always feel complete when they end.
If you can argue that any of these are in any way superior to how Joss Whedon writes musicals, then I really feel you haven’t heard me.
Still, Once More, With Feeling is the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and not a single one of you dweebs can tell me different.