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.
TEN BEST MOMENTS IN "ONCE MORE WITH FEELING"
• 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
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.
• "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)
• "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.
* EMMY HISTORY
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.