This series is my favorite television show, period, and I hope that you'll feel my love for the material while I analyze it. My goal with these reviews is to provide a focus on the characters rather than the plot and to thoroughly and clearly explain why I see things the way I do. Even if you don't agree with me, my hope is that you'll still understand where I'm coming from. Regardless of all of that: welcome!
Series premieres are a tough cookie, much like (but in most ways less tricky than) series finales. While "Welcome to the Hellmouth" is not one of the very best series premieres I've ever seen, it is still pretty good and certainly better than most out there. The key things the episode does right are (1) establish a set of likeable characters with some depth and/or the potential for a lot of growth, (2) establish its own voice with very fun, snappy dialogue, and (3) set up some thematic underpinnings that will fuel the show as a whole for a long time to come, but also more immediately in the first season.
There are a series of important scenes in the episode that are quite adept at weaving introductions with character depth and theme. The opening scene of the series actually has quite a bit to like about it. For one, it gives us the initial mission statement of the show: high school is hell. More than that, though, it also sets up the concept of subversion, which ends up playing a big role throughout the series and is often tied to Buffy herself. This scene conveys the dangers that lurk in this universe while also subverting our expectations of how the scene will play out. One would expect based on both conditioning and the way the characters are acting that the blond girl here is about to be the victim of the bad boy who's lured her into the school for mischief. Instead the blond girl turns out to be the 400 year old vampire Darla who takes him out. The expectation has been subverted, and it won't be the last time. Even to this day I feel this scene remains clever and serves a wonderful introduction to some of the core themes of the series.
For me, a show is only as good as its characters. This is an area where a lot of other quality shows end up falling short for me. Without being able to understand and identify with anyone, it's difficult to emotionally invest in anything that's happening. While we all know that these characters will evolve into tremendously complex and well-developed adults, what we see here in "Welcome to the Hellmouth" are mere children; children that are completely innocent and ignorant of both the horrors and wonders that lie ahead of them. Most of the main characters are drawn with decent depth and also have a lot of room for growth. I admit that if that growth had never been capitalized on, this episode wouldn't rub off nearly as well as it does.
I enjoyed how we're introduced to all the major characters and how they first interact with each other. The first conversation we see between Xander and Willow nicely establishes several basic characteristics: Xander has the hots for Buffy, Willow's both smart (we find out with computers too a bit later) and adorable, the dialogue between the characters while not quite fully refined yet is snappy, playful, and fun, and that Eric Balfour's Jesse needs to go away quickly and he does. Overall: a definite success.
A brief exchange with Joyce the caring but somewhat clueless mother -- aside, the first real scene we get with Buffy is in the principal's office with Mr. Flutie. This scene is just entertaining in general, what with the report card being ripped apart and subsequently taped back together again, but it also establishes his trademark 'sensitive' personality and the first hints at Buffy's futile urge to be normal.
After the meeting with the principal, Buffy bumps into someone in the hallway causing Xander to immediately flock towards her. It's amusing and telling that his first words to Buffy are "can I have you?" This little statement speaks to early-series Xander quite succinctly in his romantic pursuit of her throughout S1 and his hatred and jealousy of Angel that grows through S2 and S3. Jesse's capture and subsequent death in "The Harvest" [1x02] goes on to setting up his hatred of vampires in general on top of these other issues. It all starts with these revealing words here.
Things get interesting when Buffy meets Giles for the first time. Giles, himself, actually rubs off as a little one-dimensional to me to start off with though. Whedon went a little bit overboard with the stuffy British persona early on. Buffy, on the other hand, is drawn very nicely showing off a bit of complexity and depth right from the start. Sarah Michelle Gellar is immediately comfortable in this role and largely carries this episode. When Giles says "I know what you're after" and throws down the Vampyr book, Gellar portrays the humanity and hurt in Buffy with wonderful subtlety.
In my eyes, the entire episode is anchored on the subsequent interactions between Buffy and Giles as we see their interesting relationship begin to form. When Buffy returns to the library after finding the dead guy in the locker we get to see the first glimpse of one of her most intriguing characteristics. In regard to the vampire attack Buffy says "and I don't care." Giles responds, "Then why are you here?" Despite Buffy's desire to leave all this slayer stuff behind, she still feels the pull to help others nonetheless, often sacrificing of herself and her desires in the process. This little scene resonates throughout the series. "The Gift" [5x22] is an example that offers a nice capper of how this quality will manifest itself over the years.
Another key scene between the two of them that furthers this discussion is on the balcony at the Bronze. Buffy is envious of the crowd's ignorance down below thus symbolizing her feeling of being superior to them, in both strength and knowledge, but at same time feeling inferior to them due to the weight the burden of being the Slayer puts on her (a topic "Conversations with Dead People" [7x07] specifically sheds light on) at the danger that surrounds them. Giles tells her that there is "so much you don't know about them, about your own powers," and he's completely right. Oh how true this statement is, both literally and thematically.
Giles tells Buffy, amusingly, to "hone" her senses to locate a vampire in the crowd something that is and will be effective for her down the road but she instead spots one by using a personal strength rather a supernatural one: recognizing outdated clothing. This entire conversation is the very first hint of what makes Buffy a unique slayer. Buffy doesn't submit to things, but instead subverts them using her power both external and internal in new and unexpected ways but almost always for the better. This scene also ties into the very first scene of the series with Darla in how we experience a reversal of expectations.
All of this talk about subversion also nicely connects with the villains. The Master and his followers while fairly corny very much represent the old way of things. This group of vampires the Order of Aurelius -- is trying to instigate the return of the old ones. While they wait for their moment they live below ground and only go up to feed or make more of their kind. Buffy as a character and as a show are all about subverting the outdated and the old. This is why Buffy will defeat the Master in "Prophecy Girl" [1x12] and why Spike will gloriously scorch the Anointed One in "School Hard" [2x03] with a proclamation about less ritual and more fun. Down the road, we also see how this theme ties into the patriarchal nature of the Watcher's Council and Giles' involvement in it. All the seeds are planted right here, in "Welcome to the Hellmouth."
Unfortunately, though, the episode certainly isn't without flaws. Obviously the music score is just terrible, being corny, overly synthesized, and trying way too hard to be surprising and suspenseful making it neither surprising nor suspenseful in the process. The production values are mediocre at best, the villains are extremely one-note and trite (which becomes a bigger problem in "The Harvest" [1x02]), and the secondary characters rub off as overly simplistic.
Despite the episode's flaws, though, it gets the most important things right. At the end of the day the plot takes a back seat in "Welcome to the Hellmouth," which is precisely why it succeeds so well. It launches this wonderful series on the right foot in terms of the core characters and has strong thematic relevance to boot. Funny likeable characters will take you a long way in a pilot episode. This is a very solid start to the series, one that provides some initial depth that launches the incredible journey that awaits both the characters and the viewer.