Buffy from Worst to Best: An Approach to Rating Each Season

Spoiler Alert, obviously

buffy spike hands flameRating seasons of your favorite TV shows is a wonderful, if indulgent, pastime. With some shows it’s easy: when it comes to The Wire, Season 3 is just clearly the best. But with a show like Buffy, it’s more difficult. Some seasons are just clearly great, like season 5, and some more than a little embarrassing, like season 1. But with a show as good and as beloved as Buffy, it’s hard to pick the best season, and to give coherent reasons why. I personally find Glory insufferable as a villain, and Warren Meers genuinely frightening. But many feel just the opposite. Further, a lot goes into making a season work well, more than whether the finale contains a surprising twist, or whether that couple you like finally gets together.

Actually, when it comes to Joss Whedon shows, the finale never involves a major twist, nor a final, romantic “get together.” Twists happen near the middle of season, like Angel’s turn to Angelus in Season 2, or Faith’s and Willow’s defections to the Dark Side in seasons 3 and 6 respectively. Further, sometimes seasons with a weaker villain or season arc (like season 4), contain some of the best episodes, and vice versa (season 2, one of Buffy’s undisputedly best season arcs, contains the famously bad episode “Ted,” after all).

All this is to say: it’s hard to rate seasons of Buffy, and discussions about the seasons dissolve quickly into which of Buffy’s boyfriends we like best (Scott Hope, anyone?). So, I decided to see if math and categorization could be our friend. I rated each season based on five major criteria: How scary/interesting/dangerous to Buffy is the Villain (?/10); How heart-warming/-wrenching is Buffy’s romantic life? (?/5); How heart-warming/-wrenching are Xander/Willow’s romantic lives? (?/10); How strong is the main season arc from premier through to finale? (?/10); and how many characters are indispensably awesome? This last criteria was especially fun, as some characters, like Angel, Cordelia, Joyce, and Tara really come into their own after having been in the show for a couple seasons; this newly added awesomeness boosts some seasons’ quality, even when the principle cast is roughly the same.

But that didn’t seem enough, especially given the good-season-arc-with-bad-episodes / bad-season-arc-with-good-episodes dilemma, I’ve also made a list of the ten “best of the best” episodes, the five funniest episodes, and the five worst episodes. For each best and funniest episode that a season has, I’ve added a point, for each worst episode, I’ve subtracted a point. This shook up the standings a little.

I could have left things there, but I realized I was leaving out one major element of a great Buffy season: the Halloween episode. If there was a tie to be broken (or created), I decided it would be up to the Halloween Episode Adjustment (HEA) to shake things up even further. I had some predictions going in: season four would rate higher than expected; season five would rate lower than expected; and season six would be a wild card. Without further ado, here are the results:

6. Season 1


Villains: 5/10

Buffy Romance: 3/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 4/10

Season Arc: 5/10

Cast Strength: 4

Worst Episodes: -1 (“Puppet Show”)

 Total: 20

First off, why is this rated #6 when there are seven seasons, you ask? Well, because it turned out there was a tie. We all knew season 1 was the least great Buffy season. The spectacle (Aristotle’s word) is underwhelming, we’re just getting to know the characters, and The Master is an average villain. Still, you can’t blame a show for working with the effects of its day, the characters are charming and interesting right off the bat, and the Master isn’t a less than average villain: he’s evil, dangerous (he’s one of the only two villains to actually kill Buffy, after all), and actually kinda funny. But overall, this season is like the throat clearing before the awesome that is season 2. Some people recommend skipping season 1 if you’re new to Buffy. But I don’t think that one needs to. Season 1 has a great premier episode, and some real treats along the way, including “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” and “Angel.” Then again, there’s “The Puppet Show”…


5. Season 6


Villains: 8.5/10

Buffy Romance: 4/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 7/10

Season Arc: 8/10

Cast Strength: 6

Best of Best Episodes: 1 (“Once More With Feeling”)

HEA: 0.5 (“All the Way”)

 Total: 35

I had predicted that Season 6 would be the wild card, and it was. I expected it to rate a whole lot higher, but alas. One of the criteria that kills this season, despite a decent season arc and, in Warren and Dark Willow, more than decent villains, is the Cast Strength. Two of the strongest cast members from previous seasons, Giles and Joyce, are mostly absent this season, and except for Tara’s growth, there’s no new cast strength to replace them. A word about Tara; it’s been said that Tara really comes into her own when she’s finally not dating Willow, and I think that’s true; the Tara and Spike dynamic in “Older and Far Away” is one of the little treats of season 6. This season gets a little bump from its Halloween episode, but given that “All the Way” is the weakest of the Halloween episodes, the bump isn’t enough to move it higher than fifth place.


4. Season 7


Villains: 8/10

Buffy Romance: 2/5

Xander / Willow Romance:  6/10

Season Arc: 8.5/10

Cast Strength: 9

Best of Best Episodes: 1 (“Conversations With Dead People”)

Funniest Episodes: 1 (“Storyteller”)

Total: 35.5

Okay, so season 6 barely lost out to season 7. And that’s largely because of Cast Strength. In S7 Giles is back, Faith is back, Andrew is great (I know, I know, this is probably a matter of taste), and Principal Wood even carves out a niche for himself as an interesting (read “troubled”) character. Still, S7 has its drawbacks. Buffy’s arc holds only a little romantic interest, especially compared to S6, and the Willow/Kennedy relationship is at best ho hum and at worst annoying. Xander and Anya are actually the most interesting couple for most of the season, and they’re not even a couple. The exceptions to the dull/non-existent romance in S7 is, of course, the dazzling, brief Buffy/Spike moments that remain among the best in the series: Spike embracing the cross, Spike’s “Hell of a Woman” speech, and the flaming interlocked fingers of the Slayer and the Vampire—these are the reasons we watch and love Buffy.

A word about season arc and villains: I rated both rather high, but it wasn’t enough to boost S7 any higher. While in the second half of the season the episode divisions almost fade away, into one continuous super-season, the villains, while scary and dangerous, remain scattered and unclear: is it the bringers, the Ubervamps, the First, or Caleb that is the main villain? The answer is sort of all four, though once Caleb and the Ubervamps are gone, the First is… what, gone? Ineffective? While S7 holds the most danger and death for our heroes, the center of the threat remains scattered and unclear. Also, the fact that the First manifests as so many different people is by turns effective and confusing.

Oh, and some people think the potentials are annoying…


4. Season 4


Villains: 6/10

Buffy Romance: 3/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 8/10

Season Arc: 7.5/10

Cast Strength: 7

Best of Best Episodes: 2 (“Hush,” “Restless”)

Funniest Episodes: 1 (“Superstar”)

Worst Episodes: -1 (“Where the Wild Things Are”)

HEA: 2 (“Fear Itself”)

 Total: 35.5

What? Season 4 is better than both S6 and S7? No, look at the numbering again. Season 4 is tied with Season 7. Season four gets the biggest boost from Best episodes and HEA. “Hush” and “Restless” are undisputed Whedon classics, and “Fear Itself” is, to me at least, the epitome of the Buffy Halloween episode: funny, ridiculous, and actually a little scary. Also, the episode “Superstar” is not only quite clever and chuckle-inducing, but also sets up major plot points of seasons 5 (Dawn and the altering of memory and reality), and 6 (Jonathan’s rise to some sort of power).

Buffy’s romance in this season gets an average 3/5 (while Riley is, in Buffy’s words, “a dope,” his pursuit of Buffy is the quintessence of TV romantic comedy). But Willow’s tumultuous and heart-wrenching dual Oz-Veruka / Oz-Tara love triangles, which contain some of Allison Hannigan’s best acting to date, gives a boost to the romance scores. But alas for “Where the Wild Things Are.” A haunted house activated by too much sex? Really, Joss? Luckily, my DVD copy of this episode is scratched and refuses to play.


3. Season 5


Villains: 7/10

Buffy Romance: 3/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 6/10

Season Arc: 10/10

Cast Strength: 8

Best of Best Episodes: 3 (“Fool for Love,” “The Body,” “The Gift”)

Total: 37

Even with the Halloween and Best Episode boosts, S4, S7, and S6 just couldn’t touch the brilliance of S5. It’s the tightest and most consistent season of Buffy. The tone, while it dips and peaks, is unified, and it contains the highest concentration of classic Buffy Episodes. The cast is better than ever, especially because Joyce rises from charming minor character status to a vital and beloved main character.

But there are drawbacks. Buffy’s still-not-as-interesting-as-Angel romantic drama with Riley doesn’t help the score any, and Willow and Xander remain mostly in holding patterns with their significant others. And while Glory is a deadly villain, she’s an incredibly annoying one, in part, I think, because Clare Kramer overplays her. Charisma Carpenter should have worked with Kramer to help her hit the “believably petty and self absorbed” note that Carpenter has down by S3.


2. Season 2


Villains: 9.5/10

Buffy Romance: 5/5


Romance: 7/10

Season Arc: 9/10

Cast Strength: 8

Best of Best Episodes: 2 (“Innocence,” “Becoming, 2”)

Funniest: 1 (“Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered”)

Worst Episodes: – 2 (“Ted,” “Bad Eggs”)

HEA: 1 (“Halloween”)

Total: 40.5

Oh the glories of season 2: Angelus and Spike are the main villains. Angel and Buffy have the main romantic plotline. Love blossoms between Willow and Oz. Even Giles gets a honey, followed by a truly devastating heartbreak. And Xander and Cordelia make out a lot in closets. Okay, maybe that last one’s not a plus. Neither are “Ted” and “Bad Eggs,” two very dumb episodes.

But, to put it bluntly, if it wasn’t for the Buffy/Angel plot of S2, Buffy as we know it wouldn’t exist. The love between Buffy and Angel and the enmity between Buffy and Angelus is the beating heart of the whole series, where the deepest emotional resonances are to be found. It could be argued that Spike loves Buffy because Angel first loved her, and that Buffy is enabled, in the end, to love Spike, because she learned to so love through knowing Angel. I sound like the hugest nerd right now.


1. Season 3


Villains: 9/10

Buffy Romance: 4/5

Xander / Willow Romance: 8/10

Season Arc: 9/10

Cast Strength: 9

Best of Best Episodes: 1 (“Amends”)

Funniest: 2 (“Dopplegangland,” “The Zeppo”)

Worst: -1 (“Gingerbread”)

HEA: 1.5 (“Band Candy”)

 Total: 42.5

….aaand Season 3 is the best season of Buffy. I had a suspicion that this would happen. Season 3 includes everything that’s good about the show, and little of what isn’t (except for “Gingerbread.” Does anyone else loathe this episode as much as I do?). It’s got Buffy and Angel, Oz and Willow, Xander and Willow, Good Faith, Bad Faith, the advent of Wesley, and even a little Spike thrown in for good measure. It has a best episode of the series in “Amends” (which also counts as the only real Christmas episode in Buffy), and what are perhaps the two funniest episodes of the series in “Dopplegangland” and “The Zeppo.” All this plus Cordelia finally becomes an interesting character.

Some might squabble that “Band Candy” isn’t actually a Halloween episode, but I think it counts. It aired only 10 days after Halloween, and it’s about candy, and Giles and Buffy’s Mom… well, you know. (On the hood of a police car. Twice.) Plus, even without the points that it gets from “Band Candy,” this season still comes out on top.

Simply put, Buffy season 3 is a sweet spot of recent television history, where writing, acting, and story arcs came together wonderfully. There was enough darkness to keep it interesting, but enough self-parody and fun to keep it bearable. The Mayor is a serviceable villain made nearly the best in the series by the addition of Faith as his protégé/daughter figure. And if David Boreanaz hadn’t shown he deserved his own show at by the end of season 2, he certainly does in season 3. But in the end, it is Buffy that makes this season as good as it is. It sees her step beyond the relatable heartbreak of season 2 to the supererogatory heroism that dominates the rest of the series, and renders Buffy, beyond all her foibles, a model of true womanhood, and true human-hood, for us all.

7 thoughts on “Buffy from Worst to Best: An Approach to Rating Each Season

  1. cool list. I’ve only watched a handful of Buffy episodes, (mostly in class) and I want to get into it but I don’t want to be bogged down by a 7 season show that will take up all my free time.

    I like Spike and Buffy, I like the heaven thing in “Once more with Feeling”, I like epic plots and twists. I heard Willow was a Big Bad in a season? That sounds cool. Good people making bad choices type of thing.
    based on what I “like” what season would you suggest if I could only watch 1?
    (also the Angel/Buffy thing annoys me for some reason… )

    Sorry that this post is so self-indulgent but hey… whatevz i guess…

  2. dude, this is a fabulous article i really enjoyed reading it and you’re so convincing, i agree with you on everything! season 3 was an absolutely awesome series because, like you said, it had a little bit of everything! i miss this show a lot man :(

  3. This is a decent way to rank the seasons although I disagree on the quality of certain arcs. I love the whole show, but honestly, Season 7 falls apart worse than any other due to convenient plot twists that border on blatant Deus Ex Machina. The cast is hurt a lot by ‘the potentials’ who frankly don’t figure in the story in a meaningful way until the very last episode. Not to mention that the humour isn’t quite there anymore and the ultimate enemy often seems more confusing than threatening.

    Otherwise I think the show peaked around season 5 (although I do agree that Kramer’s more is more approach to being a villain doesn’t quite work). I find it hard to choose between the seasons 2-4, which are all solid. Sixth is also better than it gets credit for, but I suppose ranking it just below 4 is fair.

    The last 5 episodes of Season 7 was really the only larger portion of the whole show I was disappointed by. Especially considering that this was the very last major story arc conclusion. Therefore I’d go 5 > 2, 3, 4 > 6 > 7 > 1.

  4. Personally, I think Season 5 was the best season, purely on the fact that I shed the most tears overall throughout. I agree that it would have been better without Riley but “The Body” was perhaps the most heart wrenching episode every created (with perhaps the exception of Grave. The Willow and Xander scene gets me every time), the acting was fantastic and so believable. By now, the general viewer has a strong connection with each character (except Dawn) and so the loss of Joyce is strongly felt. The climax to the season was my personal favourite season ending, and again, heart wrenching. I found Clare Kramer to be excellent as Glory (I never had much love for Charisma Carpenter aka Cordelia). Plus, I can’t stand Angel, nor his relationship with Buffy, so a season with hardly any Angel crap gets a big thumbs up. I’m much more of a Spike fan.

  5. I appreciate the thought that went into this, and like all good number crunching the results you get depend upon the data one uses. I have no qualms about your ranking of Buffy’s various love stories (even Marc Blucas’ marshmallow Riley held some interest at times), though the one factor you left out that I would include would be the ridiculousness of how many D.A.R.E./ anti-alcohol messages each season worked in. Watching Sarah Michelle Gellar go all Neanderthal-d’uh in “Beer Bad” was embarrassing, but it killed Season 6 for me with the whole “Magic as a Cheap Metaphor for Heroin” gimmick. Maybe it seemed edgy if you were in 3rd grade and had never thought of the implications of substance abuse, but not only did the nation have to deal with the horrors of 9/11 in 2001 but we were also subjected to watching what Joss’ writers made poor Alyson Hannigan do. It was mortifying; starting with her choice to resurrect Buffy in episode 1 all the way to her Dark Willow smack-down, because apparently magic makes lovable characters go stupid (though for a show as deeply rooted in magic as Buffy you’d think this would have been a running theme instead a last minute addiction). Indeed, the only thing enjoyable in 6 was “Once More, with Feeling,” where, ironically, Hannigan had the least number of scenes and didn’t even sing. I will always love Willow, but I’ll take a dozen Season 1 “Puppet Shows” over almost everything in Season 6. At least Season 1 had the excuse of just starting out.

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