Today I have been rediscovering the genius of Joss Whedon. Not that it really needed rediscovering, mind you. After all, last year he crafted possibly the best comic book movie to date (yeah, all you Batfans can go suck a chode - Avengers was perfect comic book, whilst Batman was just 'the final part of Nolan's trilogy'), and he was behind Cabin In The Woods, a wry and loving stab through the heart of horror genre films. However, it is his work on Buffy which really shows his genius, and none more so than the episode "Once More With Feeling"
The concept (for those who dwell under rocks) is a musical episode of the show about the vampire slayer. You see, a demon has been conjured who has the power to make people break into song randomly, which affects the whole of Sunnydale. Now this idea, when initially pitched, sounded like a huge risk. Most people expected it to be a wacky diversion at best, or an utter disaster at worst. However, the end result ended up being the best hour of TV ever, and on reflection I think that testament still stands.
To really get to the root of what made the episode so amazing, it is important to know what was happening on the show at the time. At the end of the previous season (Season 5), Buffy sacrificed herself in order to save the world. Yes, after years of fighting demons and slaying vamps, she made the ultimate sacrifice. When season 6 started, the gang resurrected her, believing she had passed through a hellish portal, and thinking they needed to save her from whichever dimension her sould was trapped in. The Buffy they brought back, however, seemed a bit distant and distracted, putting on an act around the others, but not connecting. At the same time, Willow had been meddling more and more with magics, which Tara saw as a bad step, worried that she would start to crave the dark magics. After an argument, Willow cast a spell on Tara to wipe her memory and make her forget the disagreement. Giles was starting to question his place in the gang, feeling that Buffy was relying on him too much. Spike was becoming more and more obsessed with trying to prove to Buffy that he could be good. Xander and Anya were preparing to wed. All of them were keeping secrets about how they really felt towards each other, or what they had been doing. Through this episode all of their inner thought came out as musical moments. The culmination of Buffy's terment since coming back from the dead was this song towards the end of the episode, and the reaction of the gang at the reveal around 2:45 mark onward was heartbreaking. At that point you know the rest of the season would never be the same.
Buffy had always dared to be different as a show. Jokey in nature, yet sometimes staggeringly serious, it threw out a silent episode (Hush), dealt with the reality of losing a loved one (The Body), but in this musical episode it managed to surpass anything else on TV to that point in moving so many story-lines on in such a powerful way. We discover that Giles is ready to leave the gang, Tara finds out that Willow is wiping her mind, Xander and Anya both have reservations about marrying, and most importantly, Buffy was at rest in what she believes was Heaven...and the gang selfishly dragged her out of it.
Joss Whedon had never written music before, which makes this all the more staggering an episode, as the songs are snappy, beautifully constructed, and fantastically witty. It wouldn't be the last time Whedon dabbled with songs (See Dr Horrible), but it was the last time that Buffy would truly be great. From this point onward, the show began to wind down, and the following season was the final one. There was no way the show would ever surpass this episode.