Format: DVDBox set, Subtitled, Full Screen, NTSC
List price: $199.98
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From its charming and angst-ridden first season to the darker, apocalyptic final one, Buffy the Vampire Slayer succeeds on many levels, and in a fresher and more authentic way than the shows that came before or after it. How lucky, then, that with the release of its boxed set of seasons 1-7, you can have the estimable pleasure of watching a near-decade of Buffy in any order you choose. (And we have some ideas about how that should be done.) First: rest assured that there's no shame in coming to Buffy late, even if you initially turned your nose up at the winsome Sarah Michelle Gellar kicking the hell out of vampires (in Buffy-lingo, vamps), demons, and other evil-doers. Perhaps you did so because, well, it looked sort of science-fiction-like with all that monster latex. Start with season 3 and see that Buffy offers something for everyone, and the sooner you succumb to it, the quicker you'll appreciate how textured and riveting a drama it is. Why season 3? Because it offers you a winning cast of characters who have fallen from innocence: their hearts have been broken, their egos trampled in typically vicious high-school style, and as a result, they've begun to realize how fallible they are. As much as they try, there are always more monsters, or a bigger evil. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the core crew remains something of a unit--there's the smart girl, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) who dreams of saving the day by downloading the plans to City Hall's sewer tunnels and mapping a route to safety. There are the ne'r do wells--the vampire Spike (James Marsters), who both clashes with and aspires to love Buffy; the tortured and torturing Angel (David Boreanz); the pretty, popular girl with an empty heart (Charisma Carpenter); and the teenage everyman, Xander (Nicholas Brendon). Then there's Buffy herself, who in the course of seven seasons morphs from a sarcastic teenager in a minidress to a heroine whose tragic flaw is an abiding desire to be a "normal" girl. On a lesser note, with the boxed set you can watch the fashion transformation of Buffy from mall rat to Prada-wearing, kickboxing diva with enviable highlights. (There was the unfortunate bob of season 2, but it's a forgivable lapse.) At least the storyline merits the transformations: every time Buffy has to end a relationship she cuts her hair, shedding both the pain and her vulnerability. In addition to the well-wrought teenage emotional landscape, Buffy deftly takes on more universal themes--power, politics, death, morality--as the series matures in seasons 4-6. And apart from a few missteps that haven't aged particularly well ("I Robot" in season 1 comes to mind), most episodes feel as harrowing and as richly drawn as they did at first viewing. That's about as much as you can ask for any form of entertainment: that it offer an escape from the viewer's workaday world and entry into one in which the heroine (ideally one with leather pants) overcomes demons far more troubling than one's own. --Megan Halverson