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10th Anniversary Top Ten: "Once More With Feeling"

One of the all time best episodes of anything ever turned ten just a week(ish) ago... but I wanted to celebrate on a Tuesday.

Dawn's in trouble? Must be Tuesday."

That means for the past week and for many weeks after circa 2001 I had the songs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Once More With Feeling" in heavy rotation in my head and or ipod. 

One of my favorite moments of any awards season, obscure though it be, is the moment during the AFI's one and only televised award ceremony in January 2002 (anyone remember that? They combined TV and film like the Globes do) when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was nominated for best drama series. When they announced the category a clip from this very episode played proudly alongside clips from its three fellow nominees, all traditional awards heavyweights: The West Wing, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. This is the sort of company Buffy should have been keeping during its run though Emmy voters just couldn't see it*.

For today's top ten, because I can never find a good excuse to talk about my #1 favorite TV series of all time, here's a top ten of that historic episode, in chronological order because the episode is so beautifully constructed.


Intro Once More With Feeling proclaims itself 'a very special episode' immediately, dispatching the usual credits for an overture style opening credits with each cast member smiling inside the (spot)light of the moon. It then surprises by 'going through the motions' of a typical day without dialogue before getting to its first number "Going Through the Motions", instantly recalling the gold standardepisode Hush. It's a ballsy confident move and, as it turns out, telling: Aren't those two episodes essentially fraternal twin classics, each riffing imaginatively on the difficulty of truly communicating with the people we love most?

• "Going Through The Motions" manages to answer all the complaints about Season 6's Sad Sloggy Buffy Summers and respond with a knowing and compelling cry for help. And it performs this dramatic spell with hilarious little sung asides (Demon Just Realizing He's Been Killed: "She's not even half the girl she --owwww!" | Hot Guy Rescued: "How can I repay... " Buffy: "Whatever...")

♫ I don't want to be... going through the motions
Losing all my drive
I can't even see, if this is really me
And I just want to be
Aliiiiiiiiivvve ♪" 

The best part is the ending which reworks a now excessively familiar sight, a vampire being dusted, into something newly magical; Buffy emerges from the cloud singing beautifully, like it's fairy dust not ashes. 

8 other 'best' moments & grudge-holding Emmy bitching

•  "I've Got A Theory" Even within an ambitious gimmicky novelty episode, the characterizations are still 100% in place across the board as they try to figure out why they're singing: Willow is intellectually curious, Xander is impulsive and puts his foot in his mouth, Giles & Buffy are strategists / worriers / pep talkers, and Anya is well... Anya. 

Bunnies aren't just cute like everybody supposes...
They got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noises.
And what's with all the carrots.
What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?
Bunnies. Bunnies. It must be bunnies ♬."

Seriously, so many television shows and movies could study Buffy and improve. Stop forcing personality changes to serve plot! It's supposed to organically happen the other way around.

"They Got the Mustard Out" True story: In Fall 2001 I could often be heard whisper-singing "they got the mustard oooo-oooout ♫" while picking up my dry cleaning before work. 

"The hotness of you doofus" Amber Benson was such a slowburn fine addition to the show as Willow's lover Tara. She never got a better showcase than this episode if you ask me. This episode gives her comic moments like those "wacky Broadway nightmare" hand gestures and that fun reaction to random boys checking her out. But it also understands her as a romantic drama foil through "Under Your Spell" but more on that later. (Joss Whedon was smart enough to build the most dramatic numbers around his best singers: Buffy, Spike, Giles, and Amber)

She's the cutest of the Scoobies with her lips as red as rubies"I'll Never Tell" is the pastiche that Anya whines about for the rest of the episode. 'It'll never be a breakout hit'. It's delightful through and through, partially because it fully embraces this episode's unusually horny humor. I didn't remember how dirty "Once More With Feeling" was but there are at least five sex jokes. Mostly it works because Anya and Xander are always delightful and this silly number is organically formed around their already well-defined comic personas.

[Tangent: To this day it's just embarrassing that Emma Caulfield wasn't showered with offers post Buffy. She's so so funny and moving when she needs to be.]

But the best single moment might be this newspaper sight gag.

That headline! LOLZ. They could've used this sight gag in virtually any episode but it's great that they saved it for such a perfect one.

Continuous Shot Alert. Ya'll know how much we love unedited shots here at The Film Experience and "Once More With Feeling" has a doozy, in which Giles, Anya and Xander walk through Sunnydale discussing the strange musical occurrences as they continue in the foreground (muting their conversation) or background (as comic counterpoint). The scene ends with a hilarious awkward moment where Giles almost stumbles towards the disturbing truth about Buffy's catatonic behavior in Season 6 while Anya awkwardly pats him on the soldier and street cleaners dance behind him. It's a beautifully succinct visual summation of Joss Whedon's best attribute as a storyteller. Not only can the man handle 180º tonal shifts with prodigious aplomb but (even better) he can play several competing notes at once whether they're dramatic, comedic, character-revealing, or narrative-focused and make all of them sound harmonious.

• Dawn trying to force rational thinking on a demon from the underworld who aims to marry her. "But you see I'm 15, so this queen things illegal ♬" Hee!

• It's obvious that Joss Whedon is a big time fan of musicals because of how well he understands their construction. (Oh how we wish Hollywood would only give musicals to directors who "get" the form.)  He intertwines songs and uses reprises to form medleys and the lyrical witticism are very Sondheim Jr. Best of all Whedon gets what should be obvious but seldom seems to be which is that musical numbers in musicals are not meant to repeat things we already know in song form, like entertaiment breaks. THEY ARE THE NARRATIVE. Giles' "WISH I COULD STAY" and Tara's "UNDER YOUR SPELL (Reprise)"... are beautifully braided together gathering more force combined. Giles and Tara both need to leave the person they love the most. Their duet line "It'll grieve me cause I love you so" sung over a point-of-view shot of Buffy and Willow talking quietly together? Heartbreaking and perfect. 

"Show time" Even in this episode's few non musical beats, it's still a pure pop pleasure; every moment sings. Buffy kicks down the door to save her sister. The demon chuckles.

Can we all agree that Buffy Summers is the the most badass superhero of all time? Spider-Man could take notes from her quippy banter, Batman would have to admire her internal darkness, and Super-Man is no match in the courage department since she's got multiple Kryptonites and is far from indestructable.

Giles: It's do or die ♪.
Buffy: Hey, I've died twice! ♫

• Can I cheat and say "the final five minutes" for one last "best moment", from Buffy's "something to sing about" confession when Willow and the Scoobies finally realize what a terrible thing they did to her by raising her from the dead in the beginning of the season, to the sneaky hilarious "Buffy needs backup" line to the astounding "WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE." That finale, which is brilliantly sung after the musical spell is broken (the spoken word is just not big enough for certain emotions), is the perfect confluence of series and season-specific narrative throughlines and open ended "to be continued" elipses that television thrives on. It's just so beautiful. What's more, the whole scene and song could easily be the official theme for all show-runners gifted with the possession of a long running ambitious television show. Anyone who can do it as well as Joss Whedon and team deserve their praises sung from every rooftop.

We're not supposed to feel validated by golden statues for the things we love -- that way lies madness! But it's human nature to want recognition for the things we know to be great. 

"Once More With Feeling" received plentiful media attention and that deserved AFI nomination but only one Emmy nod (for "Music Direction") All told, Buffy was nominated for only 14 Emmys during its seven year run (usually in the makeup, hair, f/x and sound categories, winning only two statues: makeup and music, both from Season 2) or far less than say The Sopranos or Mad Men net in any one season.  Only one of those 14 was in a major category; Buffy's peak Emmy moment was a nomination for Best Writing for the Season 4 silent classic "Hush").

Buffy's shameful awards history -- reflected again though less dramatically in TV's next genre masterpiece Battlestar Galactica -- is reason #1 of thousands why you must never let awards and statues define "best" for you. Great art (in any medium) is its own reward. It's a mantra that bears repeating each year as we enter awards season. Great work will be ignored. Gird your loins.


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Reader Comments (30)

This and "HUSH" were the 2 best episodes of the series!!! :-)

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Love Buffy in general and love "Once More With Feeling" on every level. I remember the impossible hype surrounding the episode before it aired and worrying that it could never live up to it. That worrying was completely for nought. It's a great little mini-musical. That continuous shot you mention is genius and would have made any number of musical directors from Old Hollywood proud. As I've gotten older, I've realized what a perfect episode of television it is, how Whedon managed to bring every major storyline and character arc organically into play and how complex the episode is from a season-long narrative standpoint.

And I know that bitching about the lack of Awards respect for Buffy is a tired, tired thing and awards don't mean anything anyway, but seriously. That the only awards the show ever won were both for the second season, when the show only got better and better is ridiculous, and the lack of Emmys for anything and everything concerning season 5's "The Body" is absurd. "Once More, With Feeling" and "Hush" may be great, but "The Body" is without question one of the ten best episodes of television of all time, if not the absolute best.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Well now I know what I'm watching the second I get home tonight.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJA

Oh, and "Going Through The Motions" is the best Disney princess "I Want" song not actually from a Disney movie.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

"I gave birth to a pterodactyl."
"Oh my god, did it sing?"
Anya for ever!

Definitely one of the best episodes of Buffy, through and through.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergrburbank

so right about Emma Caulfield - MVP of the latter seasons of the show. also, it always pissed me off that of all the major characters, Anya was the only one who didn't make it out of the series finale alive.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I'm going to watch this now instead of grading papers. Also, I put on the soundtrack to read your article. I'm so happy.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWhitney

For me, "I'll Never Tell" is the micro version of what is most brilliant about the episode--that it is in fact a true musical.

In a musical, often the characters are singing their subtext--the songs in a musical can be a musical version of the dialogue, but they are just as often a musical version of the unsaid. "Once More With Feeling" leaves them all stuck with the near apocalyptic aftermath of having been forced to sing, ergo to hear, what has until that point gone unsaid. Xander and Anya's little song and dance is way overexposing, and is placed early on in the episode for just that purpose--do set up through demonstration the bad nature of this until-then-seemingly-unbad big bad.

And yes, Joss understands teh musical. With a real musical you should be able to listen to the soundtrack and get most of the plot. Hedwig = yes. Chicago = yes. Footloose = please don't get me started.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoberta Lipp

grburbank -- I ALMOST CHOSE THAT LINE as one of the top ten moments. so so funny and out of nowhere joke.

November 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was twelve when this way on. I was watching with my big sister when the two witches were prancing around about one of them making the other "feel complete". Then all of a sudden, Tara levitated from a bed... awkward.

You know the writers are intelligent when you expect all characters to sing, yet they are cut off. Cleverly, two of the less musically inclined actors (Ttrachtenberg and Hannigan) escape: "Does anyone even care (cue scream") and "I think this line's mostly filler". Hee.

This episode has always and forever will be my standard for any show that jumps ship features a musical episode. The most atrocious I've seen so far is that of Grey's Anatomy (and every episode after S1.13 of Glee). The honorable mentionables are the WB's Popular (Ryan Murphy has polarizing work) and That's So Raven (really).

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLalaland

Oh, this brings back happy memories! Buffy and it's offshoot show, Angel, were my favorite series back in the day.

Yes, Joss Whedon should definitely be one of the directors up for consideration for directing a movie musical.

BTW, Nathaniel, I disagree that SMG was one of the better singers in this ep. Gotta give her props though for giving it her all. If memory serves, when Whedon announced to the cast that he was planning on a musical ep, she went out and got private singing lessons to get herself up to listenable quality.

And yes, Buffy is totally badass!

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBlinking Cursor

Thank you for completely lifting my spirits after a depressing walk to Zucotti Park earlier today. I can't tell you how happy this post has made me. I think you've highlighted all of my personal highlights from the episode, my favorite number being "I'll Never Tell" (great analysis, Roberta Lipp) and my favorite joke being "she needs back up" among all the glory of the rest of the episode.


November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAR

A brilliant post for a brilliant episode! I briefly mentioned the anniversary last week on my blog but now I wished I had re-watched it and done a similar list to yours. Then again it'd probably look exactly the same as yours (lots of Anya love + Joss' knowledge of musicals + Giles/Tara duet awesomeness).

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Great points about the musical genre, Nathaniel. I wish everyone involved in Glee would read this post and use Once More With Feeling as a model of how musical TV should be done.

I probably don't need to add that OMWF and The Body are in my top10 TV episodes ever. (The Body is my number one.)

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Biggs - I was going to mention The Body too. The Body and Once More With Feeling are among my favorite Buffy episodes and definitely some of the best of the series, along with Hush obviously.

(Can we also talk about how amazing The Wish is?! Or how heartwarming the episode The Prom is, when Buffy receives the Class Protector Award? Made me tear up. I also love Restless. So cinematic and experimental.)

I agree that Emma Caulfield was so great as Anya. Her little monologue in "The Body" about not understanding the death and no one explaining anything to her breaks my heart in every way.

My favorite moment in Once More With Feeling is when Buffy reveals what she's been holding in, the fact that her friends brought her back from what she believes to be Heaven, not Hell (wherever she was was better than life on Earth for her because it's so painful for her here on Earth) and she had no choice but to reveal it because you sing whatever you're feeling/thinking. God, that reveal was so good. And Willow/everyone's reaction(s). It was one of my favorite moments ever, though I have many.

I LOVE THIS SHOW SO MUCH; IT'S MY FAVORITE. GR @ STUPID EMMY VOTERS. HOW DID SMG NEVER GET AN EMMY NOMINATION!? (The whole cast is brilliant, give or take Michelle Tratchenberg, but you couldn't even recognize the star of an amazing show?

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

P.S. Can we also talk about how complex Faith is? Or, an early episode I really liked, Becoming Part 1 (Kendra's death = SO SAD I LOVED HER).

Sorry hehe, kind of obsessed with this show. No other show makes me feel this way. So brilliant.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip


"I hope she fries, I'm free if that bitch dies...I better help her out"

is DEFINITELY a top 10 moments for sure!

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterburdterd

burdterd -- that's my favorite Spike-related moment in the episode. good call.

November 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

anya. one of the best tv characters ever. ever.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermick

One of the most amazing television episodes of any series! Character development, some story arcs are closed and new ones opened.

But the best part - the "grrrr, arggg" sung in closing :)

I think that my favorite part, as some others have mentioned, is seeing Willow's face when she hears Buffy singing that she was in Heaven. Amazing acting, amazing character development. Seeing a character's pain at realizing that they hurt someone else when they thought they were doing the right thing. Not many other shows go to this level.

The only other episode that comes close, IMO, regarding the depth of acting and character development is The Body. Anya saying that she doesn't understand death is amazing, both from Emma's acting ability and the fact that Anya becomes more than a character with dry comedy - she becomes fully human. It is at that point by experiencing the one thing she hasn't to that point - death.

What an amazing series! Time to watch it again!

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames Higginbotham

Another great moment in the show is when the two firetrucks race by during the singing of the line "And we will walk through the fire / And let it -- burn."

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike

"I think this line's mostly filler" for the win.
No, actually, it has a lot of internal competition. God this episode's SO good. No mention to Walk Through the Fire? I thought it was great in its campiness.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

Thanks for revisiting this great Buffy episode. 10 years already and I still sing along.

November 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNadine

This is one of the few eps of season 6 I like very much. But I don't agree Giles had to leave, at least not the way they wrote it. I felt they did a really bad job the way they wrote him out. They had to do something to free ASH from the series for the moment, but they could have done a lot better with his exit.

PS I'm sad they couldn't get an Andy Hallet cameo in. I'd have loved an Angel musical myself. Just as long as Angel didn't sing much...we know what that was like lol

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermm

I would never be able to narrow this episode down to 10 favorite moments.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

So, you're not staying then?

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeb W

The only problem I have with this otherwise perfect episode (which I agree is one of the best hours of television ever made) was that Xander was the one who summoned the demon ("Does this mean that I have to... be your Queen?"). Innocent people died because of it, but there were no repurcussions for him. It was no Acathla, but singing and dancing sounding fun aside, that doesn't help the innocents who died, and Xander was not the one known for having an open mind on demons being good, so that was very left-field. Since Willow was already shown going on a downwards spiral, she would've made more sense, but I guess the surprise of Xander's handraising wouldn't have been as funny.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

Joss Whedon asked his prop department to create that fake newspaper at the last minute and was amazed that they 1) got it made & 2) thought of such a funny headline.

"Under Your Spell" is an even-sexier song than "I'll Never Tell" if for nothing else than its hilariously-incomplete last line: "You make me complete. You make me come --".

@Phillip - Joss has referred to Hannigan's Williow as "the queen of pain". If she feels something, the viewer feels it, too. I agree with you that Anna Caufield is great - but how did that flimsy bra contain her breasts during the dancing in "I'll Never Tell"?

@James Higginbotham - Anya's speech about not understanding death is indeed one of the best in the series, but Caufield was actually thinking about how hungry she was and how badly she wanted to pee.

@Mike - The production had only enough rental time on the firetrucks for one take. If they hadn't nailed it the first time, they could not have reshot that moment.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHoward

Full disclosure: I have never watched this series. *ducks flying tomatoes* It was on back in the day when I didn't have TV/cable (and no Netflix or Hulu) but - reading this, I MUST correct that right away. Thanks Nat - you've written about Buffy frequently but this is the first time I've ever thought. "Ok I need to watch this series and see what the fuss is about". (I certainly do love Dr Horrible's Singalong)

So speaking of Whedon and musicals - why isn't he directing Wicked? Wouldn't that be a perfect fit? Musicals, fairytales, strong female characters - that's exactly in his wheelhouse, isn't it?

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Thank you Nathaniel - such great memories, and "Wow! It's been 10 years?"

Now "Once More with Feeling" is how a musical episode is done! (I'm looking at you, Shonda Rhimes!...)

November 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNightdrama
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