Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1 (1997)
Flip to any review of a television series with a strong female lead, any critical paper on modern pop culture, or any list of the top 10 television series of the 1990s, and you'll find the curiously incongruous title "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" sitting there. One television show has dug its tendrils into the world and squeezed for all its worth - and done it all while airing on the "lesser" networks of the WB and UPN. It's really not hard to see why - well-defined characters spouting clever dialogue in a world rich with its own mythology from which endless plots can be spun when the characters aren't busy spinning them on their own.
The first season of "Buffy" suffers a bit in comparison to later seasons - it was still finding its legs, and like many nascent series would introduce elements only to drop or even contradict them later. Most of the episodes are standalone "X-Files High" type mysteries with a basic setup-setup-twist-fistfight structure. However, in these episodes lay the seeds for what would become one of the most richly layered programs in television history.
As the show opens, the events of the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer have more or less already occurred (recapped in an off-hand manner that suggests the writers don't really want to go there) and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has moved to beautiful Sunnydale, CA, fully intent on dropping her destiny like last year's Gucci and being a normal girl again. However, since the show would be fairly boring as "Buffy the Mall Shopper," events conspire to bring her back to her gig, with wisecracker Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and computer hacker Willow (Alyson Hannigan) at her side (and slightly to the back). Guiding her (sort of) is her new Watcher/school librarian Giles (Anthony Stewart Head, bringing sexiness to the word "musty").
Horror has a lot of built-in tropes, and just as many clever reversals of those tropes that have become ubiquitous enough to be trope-esque themselves. Creator Joss Whedon's mission statement with "Buffy" was to take those preconceptions, flip 'em upside down, and shake out the loose change. That ambition is basically realized here; it gains serious momentum in Season Two.
"Buffy" is a show big on metaphor, and Season One played strongly with the "high school is hell" thread that would run through the explosive Season Three finale. An Internet boyfriend turns out to be a monster. A wallflower becomes invisible. A mother literally relives her glory days through her daughter. While occasionally more goofy and hokey than absolutely necessary, it's a pretty strong set-up for a formula that the writers would later delight in twisting.
Fox's DVD is probably the least intuitively designed of the seven seasonal sets. While it has nothing as ponderous as Season Two's roving camera menus, navigation just isn't intuitive here and many of the menu items are redundant. Furthermore, there's only the one commentary (Whedon discussing the genesis of the show over the two-part premiere), although the multiple interviews with Whedon (one on each of the three discs) are nice. The video is horrendous, but that's more to do with the source - Seasons One and Two were filmed on grainy 16 millimeter and suffer for it.
Speaking as a long-time fan of the show who has been somewhat entrenched in the later seasons, it was something of a breath of fresh air to come back to these earlier episodes and watch the earnestness and innocence of the characters. Season One has its own kind of charm and spunk, if one has the patience to deal with the show's growing pains.