It may be hard to believe, but there are still people out there — people with Netflix accounts, even — who’ve never seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A lot of these people are younger and missed its first run because they were in bed by 8pm when the series initially aired on the WB; others were put off by the vampires but later drawn to Joss Whedon via Firefly, The Avengers, Much Ado About Nothing (yes, really), or simply Whedon’s reputation as one of TV’s most beloved auteurs.
Premiering two years before The Sopranos, Buffy pioneered many of the features of today’s prestige dramas: intense serialization; ambitious multi-year storylines (hi, Dawn!); self-contained, season-long mysteries; the now-common practice of having the season climax occur in the penultimate episode (see Buffy Season 4); and its own highly idiosyncratic vernacular.
Despite its influence — and Buffy‘s status as one of my favorite shows ever — I find it increasingly difficult to recommend the show to friends. Whedon’s mediocre Agents of SHIELD doesn’t help, but the main reason is that each season contains so much filler, and each episode is structured so formulaically. Buffy‘s greatest strengths are the steady accrual of tension over a 22-episode arc and the wonderfully leisurely development of the teen characters (i.e., watching Buffy, Willow, Xander, even Anya and Faith grow up from children to adults).
But the bigger pictures that make the show so wonderful are hardly visible in most episodes.
Instead, there are always Monsters of the Week to contend with, week in and week out. Sure, some are memorably impressive, like the “Hush” gentlemen and the musical-inducing demon. (Was his father an opera-inducing demon?) But most of the monsters aren’t so memorable — remember when Willow almost went on a cyber-date with an Internet monster named Moloch? No? Exactly. And in a media marketplace with an overabundance of quality programming, it’s hard to justify recommending a series stuffed with the TV equivalent of packing peanuts. (This isn’t even getting into how weak the first year-and-a-half of the show was.)
Granted, a lot of people like procedurals; there’s a reason why Law and Order ran for twenty seasons. But Buffy is a heavily serialized shows. For maximum pleasure (and narrative sense), it has to be watched in order. The thing that troubles me is that, as a TV critic who’s pretty picky about her recommendations, it doesn’t just feel increasingly irresponsible to push my friends toward artificial fattener-filled shows — it’s that it feels increasingly futile to do so. A 108-hour show like Buffy is an extremely tough sell. Few people with full-time jobs feel that they ever have enough free time as it is, let alone the metric tons of empty hours necessary to take on a seven-year series. (In fact, the only network drama I’ve successfully pushed on to friends in recent years is Scandal, and that’s largely due to the fact that Shonda Rimes’ show is just now beginning its third season and that the speediness and density of its plots rival Arrested Development‘s.)
Earlier this week, film scholar Anne Helen Petersen wrote a fantastic essay on how the availability of certain TV shows on Netflix has extended the afterlives of those shows to the detriment of others, specifically HBO shows like The Wire or Deadwood that the current generation of critics list among the highlights of the Golden Age but are neglected by younger audiences. It seems worth asking, then, whether serialized network dramas of the past, like Buffy, The X-Files, and NYPD Blue, will eventually become — or even already have become — victims of their own success. Their too-long seasons, compounded by their lengthy runs, has resulted in formidable episode lists. Once a sign of popular acceptance, they now seem a heavy burden that consigns their shows to a legacy-less fate.