WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:
Everyone must have thought: With the little half-length first season, and such a strong second season, that Buffy season 3 was heading toward a huge sophomore slump. But no, this season is even better than the second. Several things contribute to this:
1. The writers learn to deepen the mythology. They bring back old characters in surprising ways. They take gimmicks that made previous episodes great, and reintroduce them with new twists that get even better. Through it the characters and dialog stay strong, the veneer of comedy and fantasy is used to toe into, and then later delve deep into places where TV was usually afraid to venture.
2. The “experimental” or more radically different episode is introduced. These special episodes shake up the viewers preconceptions about the show. Many of these are written and directed by Whedon himself, and make up some of the best episodes of the series, culminating in Season 6′s “Once more with feeling.” Season 3 comes out of the gate this way with “Anne” (Buffy alone in LA), and continues with “The Zeppo” (told entirely from Xander‘s perspective), and “The Wish” and “Doppelgangland” (where an alternate version of the town and characters are explored). These introduce vampire Willow, who heralds some of the long term changes in store. Willow: “It’s horrible! That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and…skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.”
3. The main series arcs become more integrated with each of the shows. We get the best darkly comic villain of the whole series, the sinister “Mayor.” The arcing becomes so sophisticated that even the most standalone episodes have important changes affecting the relationships of the characters. We meet bad-girl Faith, who provides delicious counterpoint to Buffy’s honor-bound sense of duty — not to mention introducing sexy newcomer Eliza Dushku. Her presence, twisting as it does across the entire season and winding together with the overall villain arc helps stich the entire season together. The result is very few episodes that feel standalone, as even those with a monster of the week are moving forward the relationships between the characters.
4. Sub arcing involving character relationships, notably the love lives of Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Oz etc. proceeds fast and furiously.
This season could have sunk the show, as High School shows often fail after graduation. It’s stil a transitional season, but it accurately reflects many details of college life (adapted to the Buffyverse). The show’s formula is mildly upset by the change. The relationship of the Scooby Gang (the main gang of friends) and mentor Giles teeters — enough that by season five, college will be downplayed and a new equilibrium established around the magic shoppe as headquarters.
Additionally, the main villain of the season is the weakest of the series, involving a government/army conspiracy and a frankenstein-come-terminator monster. Still, the great writing holds everything together through the change.
Many classic elements of a High Schooler’s transition to college are parodied successfully: college jitters, bad roommates, one night stands, over-drinking, fraternities, four-year lesbians, etc. The show keeps us engaged by continuing the ever evolving relationships. Willow and Oz explode, and she goes gay. Xander finds love with an ex-demon. Buffy has her only healthy relationship of the entire show. Spike, the popular villain from season two makes a return and begins a long an amazing transformation that is pretty much a Whedon halmark, where villains can become heros and heros villains.
The tradition of special episodes also continues with the groundbreaking “Hush,” the extraordinarily creative “Superstar,” and the oddball “Restless.” In “Superstar” for example a relatively minor (at this point) reoccurring character from the past literarily takes over the show. This extends to a meta level, involving the creation of a new custom title sequence just for the episode. There is a radical creativity here, a willingness to experiment and play with even the container and format of TV itself.