#1 "Once More, With Feeling" -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001)
It probably comes as no surprise that my number one favorite television episode comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor should this particular episode be a surprise to those who are Buffy fans as it tops many best of lists.
To get straight to the point: "Once More, With Feeling" is a musical episode. Now I must admit that when I heard the show was doing a musical episode, I was skeptical that they would be able to pull it off. Adding to my skepticism was the report that Buffy mastermind, Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the episode had no distinctive musical training and had never written songs before. Nevertheless, he wrote all of the songs for the episode and made all of the cast members do their own singing. The stage was set for abysmal failure.
But then when I watched it for the first time, I was stunned. In my biased opinion, it was the best single hour of scripted television I had ever seen. Now a musical episode might seem like a gimmick to attract ratings, but this was nothing of the sort. It made perfect sense within the overall arc of the narrative and actually tied up many story lines while creating new ones.
The gist of the story is this: a musical demon comes to Sunnydale and causes its citizens to spontaneously break out in song - typically in elaborately choreographed numbers. The trick is that when people sing, they sing the truth of their feelings. Thus, many hidden secrets get revealed and genuine emotions are laid bare.
"Once More, With Feeling" is a good partner to "Hush", my number three listing. Both deal with communication. In "Hush" people communicate best through silence and nonverbal means; in "Once More, With Feeling" we see how emotions are often most truthfully conveyed in song.
Now admittedly, one of the things that makes this episode so powerful is the way it deals with the characters on the show and propels certain long-running plot points. Consequently, one who is not a regular viewer of the show may find its impact to be less. But given the general demise of the musical in our culture today, "Once More, With Feeling" resurrects the genre with distinction.