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Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season by Season: Season 6

A continuing series, now up to Season Six

Overview: By Season 6, Buffy the Vampire Slayer knew what it was doing pretty well -- interweaving a continuing storyline through a series of self-contained episodes, developing individual characters by exploring group dynamics, setting up parallels between supernatural and real-life struggles, a writing style that effortlessly blends humor and pathos, etc. Joss Whedon and -- to a much larger extent, apparently -- his stable of writers do all of this really well in Season 6, despite the challenge of moving to a new network (and it was a weird move; Buffy seems really out of place on UPN) and having to do some pretty hardcore story work at the beginning of the season: bringing Buffy back from the dead. They handle this with a beautiful sort of symmetry during the two-hour season premiere of season 6, Buffy has to claw her way out of her own grave. At the end of the season finale, she crawls out of another grave, but this time she's not alone and she's headed into a hopeful new day.
Buffy's resurrection is the main theme throughout the season, one that takes particular resonance when it's revealed that Buffy was actually not in some sort of hell, as her friends believed, but in some sort of heaven -- and now that she's back in life, it's hell for her. This is dark stuff, and this is probably the darkest, most adult season of Buffy's entire run. Buffy has to grow up fast and hard in season 6. She's the grown-up in the Summers family now, the sole provider for Dawn. Increasing financial problems that eventually force her to take a job at a fast-food restaurant. While all this is going on, her friends are falling apart -- cracks begin to appear in the seemingly perfect relationships between Anya and Xander -- who is increasingly uncertain about his ability to commit to his ex-demon fiance -- and between Tara and Willow -- whose reliance on magic is beginning to look like an addiction. Giles starts off the season by leaving, only to return when he learns of Buffy's resurrection. However, he doesn't stay for long, fearing that his presence only weakens Buffy. Unable and unwilling to turn to her friends for help, Buffy ends up turning to Spike, finally consummating the attraction that was apparent from the beginning of their hate-hate relationship.
I think some people find this season too dark and depressing; I know some people are put off by Willow's magic-is-drugs storyline, finding it too preachy. I can see some validity in that criticism, but I find it to be a compelling and believable depiction of an addictive personality run wild. At times, particularly in the middle of the season, the darkness gets a little tiresome, but the season as a whole is well executed. Some of the season's best episodes come at the beginning and at the end. The first and last 3 hours of the season each work as a cohesive 3-hour episode. As I recall, this was a challenge for me back in the pre-TIVO, pre-Hulu days of 2001. In fact, I didn't actually watch the finale until the end of the summer, right before season 7 started.

Main Villain: Ostensibly it's the trio, a gang of losers from Sunnydale High, including Jonathan (a background character who started showing up in season 1 and figured prominently in the episode "Earshot"), Warren (the sleazeball who built a sexbot in "I Was Made to Love You"), and Andrew (the brother of the demon-dog summoning Tucker from "The Prom", who apparently wasn't available). They're an interesting bunch -- their incredible lameness is in sharp contrast to the superpowered foes she had fought in the past. Ultimately, though, she has to face down her best friend Willow, whose grief over the death of Tara (probably the 3rd cruelest character death in the Whedonverse, behind Joyce Summers and Wash) drives her into Dark Phoenix territory.

Main Message: Life is hard. Really hard.

Best Episode: "Once More with Feeling," the musical, which I am ready to declare the best episode ever. The actual singing is probably the weakest part of the show -- with the exception of Anthony Stewart head, who has an actual musical theatre background, most of the cast sounds like they either had a lot of pitch correction or that they needed it. But the music is charming and fun. Still, if it was just a funny all-singing, all-dancing episode, it would only be good, perhaps very good. This episode is great because the singing and dancing manage to do some heavy lifting storywise, putting important storylines into play for all of the major characters. Whedon had used this device before, in the episode "Restless." It was a pretty big risk trying it for a whole episode, but it works. Not only does it work, one could argue that it's probably the most influential episode of the series, leading to Whedon's later project, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog," musical episodes in other shows like How I met your Mother, and the entire series Glee.

Worst Episode: Season Six doesn't have any really bad episodes, but it has several that would be great, but fail in some respect or another. "All The Way," the Dawn-gone-wild episode which is a nice story, but overwrought; "Tabula Rasa," a great episode that ruined almost completely by an awful visual-pun rubber suit monster; "Smashed," the first part of Willow's downward spiral, comes off as too goofy. Perhaps the worst offender is "Older and Far Away." In many ways, it's a retread of things done on the show before -- make a hasty wish to a vengeance demon and bad things happen, crazy things always happen on Buffy's birthday. Buffy and the gang trapped in a house is a pretty clever concept, and gives the opportunity to creatively convey an increasingly tense and claustrophobic atmosphere. Instead, it comes across as alternately dull and over the top, particularly when Dawn shrieks "Get out, get out, get out!" for what feels like the hundredth time.

Why you might argue it's the best season: Based on "Once More with Feeling" alone, you could say it's the best. More than that, I would say the season is great in its development of complex stories.

Why you might not make that argument: Too much dark can be overwhelming, and this season is a lot of dark.

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