The CW premieres this week are about to send the new season of genre programming into full swing and you know what that means: season long arcs, new Big Bads, devious endgames, and angst by the barrelful. Serialized arcs are the bread-and-butter for genre TV, which is interesting because as recently as a decade ago, writers and producers were encouraged to be more episodic in their storytelling. (For those not in the know, this means that every episode was more of a standalone, with the stories being resolved in a single show with few continuing threads.) The thinking was that serialized arcs were a harder sell in syndication because they meant that the TV stations couldn’t show episodes in any random order.
Personally, I never understood why this was such a problem but at the same time, it’s hard to argue with the success that episodic shows like Law & Order, CSI and their various spinoffs had on the syndicated market. For the longest time, producers worked to find the right balance between telling a season-long story that had forward momentum through the season while also making as many of those components as standalone as possible.
Aside from the syndication argument, there’s probably a case to be made that it’s not bad on a creative level to take a break from the uber-arcs now and then. Just to name one example, as captivated as I was by the conspiracy arcs on The X-Files during their original run, in reruns I’m far more apt to settle in for a standalone rerun like “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” or “Bad Blood.” And let’s face it – sometimes it can get a little tedious if a show spends its entire season in strict serialization. Done right, it can lead to rich storytelling. Done wrong… and there’s a sense of treading water while the writers drag out an inevitable conflict between the good guys and the bad.
As an example of the latter, I offer up the last season of The Vampire Diaries. Don’t get me wrong, I really, really love the show and it’s one of the few series where my wife and I have a standing rule that one of us cannot watch it before the other. While there was a lot of good stuff last season, Klaus really was wearing out his welcome by the end of it. Klaus had been a villainous presence since the end of the previous season, so that meant the season already starts with the conflict in full bloom. On a number of other shows, it might take a few episodes for the hero to be aware of the villain, which is useful because it allows the writers to give the good guys more to do than just work against the bad guy.
On top of that, Klaus was virtually unkillable and incredibly powerful. That can make for a great short-term villain, but when you’ve got a bad guy who needs to sustain an entire season, it can be problematic. It can make for great drama to see the good guys try to kill the bad guy and fail once or twice, but after that tedium sets in. Plus, if your bad guy is seriously unstoppable and ruthless, not only should he win every encounter but in order to keep his cred alive, he shouldn’t allow the good guys to walk away unscathed. If our heroes survive too many encounters with this invulnerable force of evil, it doesn’t make Klaus very effective either, does it?
And as if making him immortal, strong and invulnerable wasn’t enough, Klaus also had very powerful mind control powers. If he can make any of the characters do anything he says, it again tips the scales so far in his favor that it’s hard to buy our characters lasting too long against him. The show did its best to find compelling reasons why Klaus couldn’t just tear through these guys, but by the last stretch of the season, it felt like every episode had some variation of this scene.
I need you to bring me the Cuff Links of Evil by the next quarter moon, which – by the way – is twelve hours from now.
Go to Hell, Klaus.
If you don’t do what I say, I’ll kill your girlfriend/boyfriend/father/long-lost mother/puppy/goldfish/bonsai tree while you watch and I’ll make it painful.
Dammit. We have no choice.
Maybe I’m alone on this, but I came to feel like Klaus would have been a more effective villain with a reduced presence. Either his arc could have been shorter, or there should have been a way to put him “on ice” at some point in the season just so the show could get a breather. By the end of the year, Klaus was becoming dangerously close to becoming TVD’s answer to Sylar from Heroes – a once-fantastic villain who saw his menace diminish through overuse.
So even though there’s a little more freedom these days to do longer arcs, a good showrunner probably still should try to mix in some single-serving classics. For my money, no season of television has been more adept at walking that tightrope than season 3 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
For the two of you who might not know this off the top of your head, this is the year where the Mayor was the Big Bad, Faith showed up and turned evil, and Buffy graduated. Though the first half of the season felt somewhat standalone, there were smaller arcs going on in the background that planted the seeds for the second half of the season. The elements put into play included:
- The Mayor revealed to the audience (but not to Buffy and her friends) as the major bad guy who has some sort of sinister endgame for Sunnydale.
- New Slayer Faith, a bad girl with a rebellious attitude, trust issues and an impulse control problem.
- A new Watcher for Buffy after Giles broke Watcher protocol.
- The vampire Mr. Trick as the Mayor’s lieutenant.
Several of these threads saw development across several episodes, but almost always within the context of a standalone plot that was concluded in that episode. As much as we saw the Mayor scheming behind the scenes, it was clear he was working on his own timetable, and suspense was built because none of the good guys even knew he was there.
That’s critical because once the hero is aware of the villain, their entire motivation should be trying to stop them. Buffy can’t be blithely going about her life if she knows there’s an active Big Bad in her midst.
The second half of the season is equally clever. We learn that whatever the Mayor is planning, it’s called an Ascension and it’s tied to graduation day, which also happens to be Sunnydale’s Centennial. No sooner do we learn this than the Mayor completes a ritual to make him completely invincible for the next 100 days leading up to the Ascension.
So we have a ticking clock – and a reason why he can’t be killed. Even though the stakes are soon upped by Faith switching over to the Mayor’s side, Buffy and her friends are still unaware of her betrayal and the fact that the Mayor is masterminding something big for graduation day. Thus, we get a few standalones that can play with the idea that Faith is a double-agent, but strictly speaking, those shows aren’t serialized.
The Scooby Gang doesn’t learn of Faith’s betrayal or the Mayor’s dark side until six episodes from the end of the season. After they make that discovery it forces them to regroup over the course of one standalone, fight back in another single-ep story, regroup again, and then actively take on the Mayor in the season-ending two-parter.
For my money, Buffy’s third season does everything right in terms of reveals, developing conflict and building up to the final endgame. It’s not a steady diet of Buffy vs. Mayor. There’s real variety in the season, both in terms of tone and in the kinds of stories that are told. It’s a mix that Buffy’s own creators wouldn’t get quite right in later seasons, which often seemed to pull the trigger too soon on revealing the Big Bad. If every episode features the same good guys vs. the same bad guys, the show soon finds its characters playing the old Wolf and Sheepdog routine from the classic Warner Bros cartoons.
(For those not in the know, that cartoon is built around the idea that the Wolf and the Sheepdog “clock in” every day, with the wolf going after the sheep and the dog thwarting him at every attempt. When the day concludes, they clock out and resume their lives until their next workday begins, at which point they resume their “jobs.”)
So as much as last season of TVD was a plus for me, I really hope that the new season isn’t quite so tightly tied to a single storyline. The lessons of Buffy season three are ones that can be applied to genre TV in general. 14 years ago (has it really been that long?!) Joss Whedon seemed to crack the code for perfect season-long structure. It’s about time others not only duplicated it, but refined and improved upon it.