And while I still think this is true, this rewatch has made me appreciate season 1 much more and realize that it's much closer in quality to the later seasons. Yes, in the first half of the season there are a lot of cheesy moments, production values are not that good, some of the characters (Giles and Cordelia in particular) still seem like stereotypes at that point, the mythology hasn't been developed yet so there are some blatant inconsistencies with what comes later, there is a lack of continuity, and a jarring habit of ending every episode on a cheerful note whatever happened. The most unforgivable flaw is the lack of follow-up to Jesse's death, even though he was supposedly a close friend of Xander and Willow. This should have been treated as a major factor in Xander's character development, especially when it comes to his later black and white views about vampires and his animosity towards Angel and later Spike. In addition, Angel's personality undergoes a drastic change between "The Harvest" and "Teacher's Pet", Buffy is all over Owen in one episode than seems to forget she was ever attracted to anyone in Sunnydale except Angel, and the events of "The Pack" are swept under the carpet even at the end of the episode itself. However, there is a noticeable rise in quality around the middle of the season, starting with "The Pack" and then especially evident in "Angel" and the last 3 episodes of the season, and the season finale is the first really great episode of the show.
Watching the season now, I've also come to enjoy it and appreciate it more because I see the characters with different eyes now that I know how they would develop later, and because I can see a lot of foreshadowing (whether it was intentional at the time or just something that the writers picked up later and developed). BtVS is one of those rare arc shows longer than a couple of seasons where almost everything holds together well and fits in the overall story and characterization, from the first to the last season, and since so many of the developments weren't planned, I'm guessing it's just because of the writers' ability to look back and build up on what has come before. For me it's particularly different to watch Xander's development now, since he was a character I disliked in early seasons when I first watched the show, but later grew to like. I liked him and understood him much better this rime around.
One element of the show I really disliked the first time around was the unrequited-love triangle Willow/Xander/Buffy (or the love quadrangle Willow/Xander/Buffy/Angel), both because I thought it was a teenage drama/romcom cliche, and because I think those kind of triangles and real friendship are unmixy. I was very relieved in later seasons when they moved on from that and all found other love interests. But now that I know how the triangle develops, and that it doesn't last forever, I appreciate the story much more. I can now see that the show actually played with and subverted the "Betty and Veronica" romcom cliche, or two of them: the geeky guy in love with a hot girl who only thinks of him as a best friend and prefers another, more confident/glamorous guy (but of course eventually she's going to Have Her Eyes Opened and see how the geeky friend is the best guy for her and they'll end up happy together...) and the guy caught between the girl he's pining for and the girl who's pining for him (but of course eventually he'll realize that his friend who's pining for him is the right girl for him and they'll end up happy together...). Of course, those two "obvious" solutions cancelled each other out, but the show didn't go for either of those stereotypical teen romcom resolutions. And it also subverted the hell out of another Betty/Veronica triangle with Willow/Xander/Cordelia, but that's a story for seasons 2 and 3.
Season 1 is simpler than the later seasons of the show; the lines between good and bad are still strongly drawn, things are black and white compared to what will come later; most of the monsters are not just unambiguously evil but usually also inhuman and monstrously ugly (with the exception of Darla, who is the only vampire other than Angel and the Anointed One who gets to be out of vampface for more than a moment or two). There won't be many occasions in later seasons when Buffy will be able to again say to a Big Bad "...but I'm still pretty, which is more than I can say to you". The Master is an embodiment of this, as an ancient, very inhuman vampire who has disposed of human features and looks similar to Count Orlok from Nosferatu. But while I prefer the unconventional villains of the next seasons, it has to be said that the Master was an excellent classic horror villain, who worked perfectly for season 1 (even if he would have been out of place in one of the later seasons). I really liked that aspect of season 1 on this rewatch - now that I'm so used to the different, more human and more anarchic vampires we'll meet later, it's interesting to be reminded of the Master and his minions with their strict hierarchy and an almost religious vampire traditionalism. The Master might seem like a classic Evil Overlord, but he's also a stern patriarchal figure who commands respect and loyalty from his minions, he has his own set of beliefs, a father/daughter relationship with Darla and a mentor/student relationship with the Anointed One (which both serve as dark mirror to the budding relationship between Giles and Buffy), gets some moments of gruesome humor, and even gets to display some human emotion and affection when Darla dies. And in the end, he's still the only villain to ever kill Buffy (in both this one and in the alternate Wishverse).
Big Bads are a representation of some important part of Buffy's life and a dark mirror to the main characters. In season 1, the Big Bad is an evil father figure, who represents the dark side of authority and tradition. It goes hand in hand with Buffy's issues about her father, which we learn about in "Nightmares" (her parents' divorce and her father leaving is the first big formative trauma of her life, other than being called); high school principals (particularly the authoritarian Snyder, but ineffectual Flutie is not all that positive either) as negative authority figures; Buffy's struggles with duty, tradition and destiny, and the development of her relationship with Giles, mentor figure who becomes a more positive father figure. In season 2, we get introduced to very different, attractive, youthful and rebellious villains who embody sexuality and romance - foreshadowing the moment when Buffy's boyfriend becomes the Big Bad after she loses virginity to him. Season 3 introduces Faith who becomes a dark mirror to Buffy, and this time it's not about father figures or boyfriends but her issues with herself and her Slayerhood. (Though the Big Bad is again a father figure.) Season 4 is the only one that doesn't fit, which may be why its main arc and especially its villain is so forgettable, Adam doesn't have close ties to any of the main characters and doesn't serve as a dark mirror to anyone except maybe Riley, which is not enough. Season 5 is about family, and season 6 about real life struggles, with the Trio mirroring the Scoobies, and Warren being a dark mirror to several of the main characters, until one of the Scoobies becomes the main villain. And then of course season 7 has the First, whose very nature is to mirror people's darkest sides (which sadly got kinda lost once it stopped looking like anyone except Buffy; they could have developed it much better).
It also has to be said that season 1 does have some elements of moral ambiguity. We got to see one of the main characters show his dark side (Xander in "The Pack"). Two of the Monster-of-the-Week episodes have ordinary human villains. (Three have human villains, if we count the witch Catherine Madison.) One of them is a very sympathetic character we can relate to and feel sorry for - Marcie Ross from "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" - and that episode reminds us that sometimes we are all (unintentional) victimizers. We also get to meet the first "good" vampire with a dark past, even though his uniqueness is explained by the introduction of the concept of "soul". Darla is the first one of the evil soulless vampires to show a recognizable human motivation that isn't related to blood sucking or destroying humanity - wanting to get her lover back and to destroy her romantic rival. Having a child as a villain could have been brilliant, but that didn't work out so well because the boy cast as the Anointed One just wasn't up to task and didn't make the character creepy enough.
Overall, the season did a very good job of combining its two elements - the high school setting, with characters such as ineffectual or authoritarian principals, bullies or bitchy cheerleaders, and with Monsters of the Week that were representations of real life teenage issues; and its arc about the Master. The brevity of the season worked in its favor in that respect - I'm not sure if the storyline could have been stretched out to 22 episodes without becoming stale and ridiculous, with the Master being kept underground all the time. Yes, the metaphors in this season were most of the time very obvious. But it all worked, for a season that laid the foundations for the rest of the show.
- Prophecy Girl - 4.5
- Out of Mind, Out of Sight - 4
- Angel - 4
- Nightmares - 4
- The Pack - 3.5
- Welcome to the Hellmouth - 3.5
- The Puppet Show - 3
- Witch - 3
- Never Kill a Boy on the First Date - 3
- The Harvest - 2.5
- I Robot, You Jane - 2*
- Teacher's Pet - 1.5
(EDIT: On second rewatch, I've decided to change the rating frorm 2.5 to 2.0, which brings the season average down from 3.25 to 3.21.)