If season 2 saw this series building on its first season's few strengths and evolving into a smart, effective, and genuinely intelligent piece of genre programming, then season 3 is Buffy on overdrive, as nearly every episode delights the viewer in its unpretentious and expert handling of the characters, their relationships, and the plot.
Honestly, the story lines on this series are, superficially speaking, fantasy soap-opera story lines. The romances on the series, the good-turns-bad twists etc. are pretty standard material, but the way the writers write out the story is completely unpretentious, smart, witty, and different. The acting is top-notch and really brings the writing to life. I mean, The Mayor could've turned out horribly, and though not exactly menacing (little is on this series), The Mayor is a wonderfully rich, funny, creepy, and well-drawn villain who serves as the base for most of this season's ridiculously entertaining episodes.
In Season 3 Buffy finally got rid of the moronic monster of the week episodes which plagued its first two seasons. These formulaic episodes, in which some ugly monster was fought off by the core cast and eventually killed, really dragged down the quality of the otherwise fantastic second season. Luckily, in season 3, these 'independent' episodes take after series classics like "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" in the place of garbage like "Bad Eggs" and "Inca Mummy Girl", in that they are linked to the psychological or physical state of the characters, and in the case of "Band Candy", another fantastic episode, is loosely connected to the season story-arc. So while Season 3 has its fair share of episodes not exactly crucial to the story-arc, they are done in a far more evolved and intelligent form than the simple 'gang fights monster' format (the mediocre "Gingerbread" being the exception). These episodes take fascinating concepts and execute them with real style.
Buffy Season 3 sees natural development of the characters leading up to the only reasonable end points for them as we reach the end of the season. New characters, Faith and Wesley being the ones that survive beyond this season, are terrific and are more than convenient plot devices.
I thought the best episodes this season were:
"Band Candy"- clever and hilarious pretty much describe this one.
"Lovers Walk"- an ingeniously written episode which sees the return of a lovesick Spike. Character interaction at its finest. A potentially moronic and soapy scene where two characters suffer betrayal is executed brilliantly and works as fine drama.
"The Zeppo"- The series at the peak of its comedic prowess. Xander is an irresistible character.
"Doppelgangland"- I'm actually not too crazy about Joss Whedon in general. Even some of his episodes for Buffy (usually his most praised work) have struck me as seriously flawed bits of writing. Every so often though, he'll come through with one hell of a script. He did it in season 2 with Innocence and Becoming Part 2, and he's done it here.
"Graduation Day: Part 2"- The big season finale works precisely because it doesn't feel like one. Brilliant stuff.
Season 3 is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable seasons of genre television I have ever seen. It is exceptionally well-written stuff, there's just no denying that.
Season 3 Avg. Rating from all episodes: 8.23/10, a much more consistent season than its immediate predecessor and a truly outstanding bit of television in general.