It's long been a dream of mine to come up with the perfect episode playlist for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the kind of limited list that you could give to someone if they asked you "Why do you love Buffy and what might convince me to love it, too?" To be honest, I think it would be impossible to make a list that would work completely for anyone--this list would have to be aimed carefully at the heart of the viewer. In other words, this is the type of quest best performed for a loved one who never got into Buffy but whose taste is generally a known quality, like my girlfriend.
So, I've been home sick this week with a minor fever that might warp my speaking ability but has left intact my Netflix-navigation acumen. So I rewatched the first, short season of Buffy, and here's my take:
The thirteen episodes of Buffy's first season set up the general dynamic for the long, three-season arc of Sunnydale High, including all the main characters--Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Jenny Calendar, Angel, Principal Snyder; and yet none of the episodes reaches the level of must-see. Almost anything you need to know about those characters, a dedicated viewer could sum up in a sentence or two, or maybe just a phrase: slayer with a ditzy side, male friend with unrequited crush, etc.
The only episodes that rise to the top for me are those non-vampire, weird episodes that make the metaphor of monstrous teenagerhood into something real, like "The Pack," which is all about cliquehood (and involves the authentically weird moment where the students eat the principal); or "The Puppet Show," which involves issues of being out of place and out of control.
"The Puppet Show" has one advantage in Principal Snyder's introductory line about how children are criminals and any attempt to deal with them as humans is just "the kind of wooly-headed liberal thinking that leads to being eaten." This is an issue that comes up a lot in the series: the powerlessness and assumed criminality of the young.
Also, another issue that comes up frequently: Xander's clothes are so dated.