**Warning: contains spoilers**
It's too early to say, but I don't think my opinion of any season of Buffy will change as much as mine has for its first season. When I first started Buffy, I saw these early days as a glorious send-up of horror clichés, a twist on the classic "helpless blonde" routine that managed to get in a few truths about high school along the way. While I fundamentally agree with those thoughts, I must say the flaws are much more apparent, to the point that I could barely make it through tghe shortened season.
Things start off nicely with the first episode of the two-part premiere. "Welcome to the Hellmouth" does an excellent job introducing the main characters and giving them a surprising amount of characterization for the very first episode. You can tell from the opening scene in which two teens break into the high school, hear a scary sound, and look about wildly, only to reveal that the girl (Darla, who would become a major figure in future seasons and in Angel) is the beastie. The resultant episode features lines a bit too much on the corny side, but it's easy to fall in love with Buffy, Willow, and Xander even here. Then "The Harvest" comes along and mucks it all up with stilted dialogue and Angel and Darla come off as completely one-dimensional. This wild swing in quality more or less erves as a microcosm of the season.
The chief issue here is that the plots never really gel, and mainly consist of simplistic "Monster of the Week" setups. The worst of these is "Teacher's Pet," in which Xander gets seduced by a teacher...who turns out to be a praying mantis. No, I'm not kidding. Even when the monsters work on a metaphorical level, such as the invisible girl in "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" (people who pass through school and life unnoticed) or the crazed teens in "The Pack" (hormones make teenagers cruel), make for boring literal plots; nothing on Earth can quite prepare you for "The Puppet Master," in which the writers try to make a smarmy talking dummy scary.
What does work is the character development; even in these early stages the characters move past the fun but limited ranges given to them in the pilot into people not entirely fleshed-out, but well on their way to breakthroughs. Giles could have so easily been a stuck-up, pompus ass who simply gave Buffy her orders and sent her away; actually, given Joss' usual depcition of parent-child relationships (which Giles and Buffy have, even though they aren't related), it's a surprise he didn't. Instead, he straddles the line between the lovable, quasi-crusty uncle and the youthful spirit that will be expounded upon when the "Ripper" days catch up with him. Even episodes with big flaws are worth watching for little moments of growth and originality. The only excpetion (besides the atrocious "Teacher's Pet") is the even worse "I Robot...You Jane," without question the worst episode in Buffy, Angel, or Firefly. The metaphor (chatroom hookups can be dangerous) is thin, the monster is dull, the lines aren't funny(!), and do we really need an entire episode devoted to Willow being shy when it has been so thoroughly covered in snippets here and there that were much more revealing than this? And as for anyone who isn't a lead or a prominent regular, none of the minor characters (apart from Principal Snyder, Flutie's replacement) is very interesting, and the Buffyverse as we know didn't really start to populate itself until the second season.
The finest episodes are "Angel," an early highlight of the show, and the finale "The Prophecy Girl." The former presents many of the themes that would define the first 2-3 seasons (chiefly the allegory-rich romance between Angel and Buffy), while the latter shows the writer's potential for handling something big and gives an insight into the future brilliance of arcs that would span multiple episodes. You can also see a more developed writing style emerging with a single line: Buffy, upon learning that she is destined to die against the Master, timidly mutters "Giles, I'm 16. I don't want to die." Nothing on paper to make that seem genius, right? Well, when you've heard it, you understand just how simple and powerful it is, just like all the best moments to come.
Upon this second viewing, I found the first season to be a moderately enjoyable parody more than a drama in its own right. The shoddy camera work; the stilted, obvious dialogue; the corny jokes; the characters who are moving out of one-dimensional territory but have not fully evolved all come off like a weekly version of Shaun of the Dead or Young Frankenstein. Then again, maybe I just choose to look at it as a spot-on, deeply ironic parody instead of a show that is struggling to move past its premise, like some sort of Buffy apologist. If so, then that attitude has been greatly lessened with a rewatch. Knowing now where this show will go, I found the majority of the season to be excruciatingly tedious, recommendable only to those who have never seen the show before on the basis of its slowly developing growth and its penchant for minor splashes of originality: what other show would kill an established character, and so quickly (Principal Flutie in "The Pack")?
Welcome to the Hellmouth
A fun introduction that touches upon all of the major characters and makes all of them interesting from the start. The dialogue isn't quite up to speed, but then the writers are still clearly finding their way.
The first episode to really point in the direction that the show would take in the future. It sets up the irony and even hints towards the inevitable doomed status of Buffy and Angel's relationship. The final shot of the cross burned into Angel's chest from their kiss is the most memorable image of the season.
Probably the strongest standalone, unimportant episode of the season. It serves as an early glimpse into the pathos and weaknesses of our heroes. This concept would come back again in the stronger Season 4 episode "Fear Itself," but this is an early highlight of the show.
The Prophecy Girl
The main Big Bad arc wasn't fleshed out and it wasted the Master, who hinted at being a much more entertaining villain, but "The Prophecy Girl" did a damn fine job of tying things together and really making them far more interesting than the separate elements. Buffy's reaction to finding out that the prophecy says she must die against the Master is the first heart-wrenching moment of the show: "Giles, I'm 16. I don't wanna die."
Ones to avoid:
Whedon follows up the shaky but fun pilot with a much weaker second part that stands as probably the worst episode of TV he's ever written and the only one that isn't eminently entertaining. It fails to build on the characters, despite the vast potential for growth even from the start and makes Darla, Angel, and The Master into one-dimensional characters, which they very much aren't.
Xander gets seduced by a teacher who turns out to be a Praying Mantis. I feel like I should stop here and let that sink in. It's not funny, deep, and the monster looks awful even by the standards of the ludicrously low budget of the first season.
I Robot...You Jane
Almost universally recognized as the worst episode of the series. The message is heavy-handed (BE CAREFUL ABOUT THE INTERNETS!!), it's rarely funny, and it moves absolutely nothing forward.Plus, it just retreads the already overdone notion that Willow is shy.