Ever since I got hooked on the show, I've been advocating it as the best-written show on television. I'll allow how that is probably "one of the best...." The characters are believable and fun, the plots often surprising. The series includes long story arcs but individual episodes are often compelling on their own.
Though it includes the trappings of vampires, demons, and magic, it is one of the most realistic shows on television. During the first seasons, it was the most accurate depiction of high school life I've seen on television. Sure, the problems teens face were loaded up into an allegorical monster, but the solutions presented were more than beating up the monster. They weren't easy. People got hurt. Friendships were strained and characters grew.
Last night's episode was of such stuff. It opened with a sequence from the previous week in which Buffy returns home to find her mother collapsed on the couch. It seemed to me that the production might have been one long shooting day, taking off from the previous episode's wrap and heading straight into this week. We see Buffy go into shock at the reality before her. We see the various thoughts running through her head; moments of memory, "happy ending" fantasies. Throughout the episode we return to the lifeless body of Buffy's mom and are reminded: Joyce is dead. She's not going to get up and be OK. This isn't a dream. This is real.
Buffy's friends and family all have very real reactions. Willow frets through tears about whether her clothes are appropriate to the events. Xander cries privately and paces in frustration, eventually putting his hand through a wall. Anya, the centuries-old ex-demon who is unused to human politenesses and bluntly says what we all think, keeps asking what it is that they're supposed to do. They and the others looked like nothing more than a group of young people who have first experienced the death of a parent. They are lost in new territory.
I enjoyed the way the episode used sound very sparingly. Background noise only entered on a few shots. No music track ran. It felt empty and hollow, accurately reflecting the mood of the characters and setting the events in stark relief.
People are quick to dismiss television and, in particular, programming that includes fantastical elements. Sturgeon's Law applies and at least 80% of it is crap. The trick is to identify the 20% and let the crap go floating by. Buffy definitely sits in that upper 20%; a show worth making time for.