As I mentioned in my review of season two, the bar was raised for this show heading into season three. The question, then, is did the show manage to meet its new, lofty standard?
Well, yes, yes it did.
I wouldn't go so far as to say every single episode of this season is great, but none of them are horrible. Sure, "Amends" is as melodramatic and heavy handed as anything we'd seen on Buffy up to that point, and every character during "Beauty and the Beasts" is willfully ignorant, but none of the episodes come close to the standard of badness that we saw in the first two seasons. I would imagine this had to do with the solidifying of the writing team on the show -- every writer has at least 2 episodes over the course of this season.
Season three benefited from the addition of 3 notable characters (yes, 3): Faith, the Mayor, and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Yeah, you probably think that third one is overstating, but I'll get to that in a minute.
Let's start with the Mayor, who is easily the best Big Bad the show ever sees. He's the only Big Bad who gets set up the season before. He's also payoff for the high school years, which could be perhaps more accurately described as the Sunnydale Years (later seasons may take place in Sunnydale, but they're not tied to the town the way the first 3 seasons are). The Mayor represents an organic expansion of the show, one which is much smoother than further attempts in season 4.
And, let's face it, the Mayor is just flat out hilarious. He's a wonderful change of pace from the melodrama of the Master and Drusilla (yes, I'm naming her the season two Big Bad, something that we'll get to again way down the line in season seven). He's also the only legitimately funny Big Bad we'll see over the course of the show, not to mention the only Big Bad with a well thought out, long term plan.
The introduction of Faith adds so many layers to the show. Aside from being a complicated character, Faith impacts every person. They dynamic between her and Angel pays off over and over again when she shows up on his show. She's also the most overt example of the "other" that becomes a running theme throughout Buffy. Each character ends up with multiple versions of his or her self over the course of the show, from Xander literally being split it two, to Willow losing control, to Ethan Rayne and Wesley being reflections of a Giles that might have been. It's a nice way to explore what makes the original character tick.
And, hey, Faith also kicks up the energy level of the show. While Buffy wallows in any number of new depressions, Faith is constantly up. She fulfills a hole on the show by embracing her supernatural role and luxuriating in it. She's the manic half to Buffy's depressant.
This leaves us with Wesley. How, you might be wondering, can I possibly consider Wesley a notable addition to the cast? He doesn't do much but get in the way and act officious (and somewhat lecherous).
But Wesley is added to the show to replace Giles, who has been fired, and this is a brilliant move. Basically, they have made Giles a member of the Scooby Gang. He's no longer the establishment -- he's a rebel, just like the rest of them. Firing Giles and bringing in what he was supposed to be like does a nice job of showing us just how different Giles is from the rest of the Watchers and, when push comes to shove, which side he'll choose. Giles may be old enough to be their father, but firing him closes the gap between him and the others.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't point out how nice it was to have a season of Buffy where her mom knows she's the Slayer. The secret identity business got tiresome in season two, and Joyce gets to show off some depth as she becomes involved in her daughter's life.
While there's room for debate about the quality of the show as a whole once it left the high school setting, there can't be any doubt that sending Angel (and Cordelia) off on their own was an excellent decision. Angel was never going to grow as a character if he stayed on Buffy, and Cordelia's involvement with the group had become questionable at best.
All and all, in was a nice send off for the high school years, and the revamped core cast (minus Angel and Cordelia, plus Oz) made for plenty of potential for the next season.
Stand out episodes: Band Candy, Lovers Walk, The Zeppo, Dopplegangland, Earshot, and Graduation Day, both parts.