I'm super late to the party with Whedon. I was always aware of him, and I worshipped Firefly throughout college, but my enthusiasm for that has waned considerably in the years since. I always wrote off Buffy as a lame girly girl show (yeah, I was one of those assholes), but the one-two punch of Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers convinced me to actually sit down and give Buffy a chance. Really glad I did. I've been lagging way behind Draco and trying to avoid spoilers, so I've stayed out of the discussion, but reading through this thread has been a lot of fun.
I'm just cracking into season 7 now, so I'm still not caught up yet, but I had to jump in here and stand up for season 6, which I absolutely loved. Its hands down my favorite season so far, and its not really that close. I get the love for seasons 2 and 3 - I think Angelus and The Mayor (and Faith actually) are the strongest villains the show has had, and in terms of long-form storytelling, both seasons were immensely satisfying. I had fun with season 4, probably because of some excellent stand alone eps (Hush, Restless), and also because The Initiative stuff gave off a heavy Cabin in the Woods vibe. Season 5 was a lot of ups and downs for me - some stand alone episodes were fantastic (The Body destroyed me), but I found myself really bored with the Glory arc.
Season 6, to me, succeeded in a way that the previous 5 seasons did not - it managed to consistently find balance between the fantasy genre stuff and (for lack of a better word) 'gritty' real world stuff. The mentor / father figure leaving, financial woes, custody battles, grappling with addiction, etc - this stuff kept Buffy grounded in reality, in ways the previous seasons did not. The dark tone always feels earned, and never gimmicky, particularly with the way the show handles Buffy's resurrection, and how it leads to her relationship with Spike. Really effective. I wasn't crazy about The Trio as the big bad, but that ended up being brilliant misdirection anyway. Warren's demise is probably the biggest HOLY SHIT moment of the entire series, hands down. All that being said, I despise Hells Bells just as much as you guys, so there's that.
But still. Whats with all the season 6 hate?