October 01, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

We’re the only manic-depressive show on TV,” says Buffy creator Joss Whedon. ”Some of the recent episodes, Sam Beckett is watching them going ‘Jeez, this is depressing!’ Then the next minute, it’s all laughing. We do that deliberately because the writers have very short attention spans.”

It’s this combustible combo of laughter and goose bumps, fantasy and reality, romance and suspense, that keeps us glued to Buffy; every episode jumps between genres, yet somehow its tone avoids schizophrenia. ”The jokes work because they’re in the context of drama,” explains Whedon. ”And the drama works because the guy who’s saying ‘I love you, Mommy!’ is sprouting horns.”

Buffy is similar to The X-Files, TV’s other supernatural phenom, in inspiring an obsessive cult following. But unlike that thriller, Buffy makes a heroic effort to tie up the multitudinous plot threads of its complex mythology. ”The mythology just evolves — the more we do, the more we fill in the blanks,” says Whedon. ”We don’t want to say, ‘It must be thus!’ unless it helps our story. Because 35 episodes later we’ll be like, ‘Well, what if we did…’ ‘No, we said it must be thus!”’

The show’s setting certainly keeps things nice and open-ended. Whedon’s baby exists in a universe where all manner of otherworldly bugaboos is possible. That’s because Sunnydale is situated at the center of a mystical convergence: a portal between one reality and the next, attracting, according to Giles, ”zombies, werewolves, incubi, succubi — everything you’ve ever dreaded was under your bed.” Specifically, it is the school’s library (which — in one of the show’s running gags — is rarely visited by students other than Buffy and her cohorts) that sits atop this peccant hotbed, aptly named Hellmouth. (As Xander once cracked, ”Something weird is going on — isn’t that our school motto?”) Buffy, being The Slayer, is doomed to dwell here, aided by a band of wisecracking misfits and guided by her Watcher, who in turn works under the auspices of The Council, a nebulous, Britain-based central authority for those in the demon-fighting biz.

The mordant thrills resulting from Buffy’s crack crew of actors, writers, and behind-the-scenes magicians reach heights rarely seen on television. Which is why you should bear in mind that our guide’s grades are relative to other Buffy episodes. Thus, a ”D” episode is heaps more enjoyable than an ”A” episode of, say, Nash Bridges. That said, let the slayage begin!

1 Welcome to the Hellmouth 2 The Harvest

WRITER Joss Whedon DIRECTORS Charles Martin Smith (1), John T. Kretchmer (2) PLOT Sixteen-year-old Buffy moves to Sunnydale, Calif. Her fate is quickly sealed by school librarian Rupert Giles; he wastes no time acquainting our reluctant slayer with the uncoincidental reason she ended up in this ”one-Starbucks town” (its proximity to Hellmouth), his assigned role in her life (Watcher/ trainer), and the impending ”suck-fest” that is The Harvest — a once-a-century opportunity for said Hell- mouth to open. INTRODUCES The show’s rollicking theme song (performed by Nerf Herder) and the series’ regulars. Plus, doomed principal Bob Flutie (Ken Lerner), Buffy’s season 1 bete noire, the Hellmouth-trapped Master (Animal House’s Mark Metcalf) — a snarky prototype for Buffy’s best foes to come — and vampire vixen Darla (Jawbreaker’s Julie Benza), a Master fave. HISTORIC MOMENTS The undead play group is born when Xander overhears Giles scolding Buffy about her slaying ambivalence, and Willow (a.k.a. Will) sees Buffy stake a vamp. Angel presents Buffy with a crucifix — though she’s distrustful of ”shadowy, lurky guy,” an unknown quantity until ep 7. First trip to The Bronze, dank local hot spot. CRITIQUE Whedon hits the ground running, delineating a large cast (the terrific ensemble jells instantly) and nailing the show’s signature blend of horror, fast-paced action, and humor. A-

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