In two parts, lets look at how both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost were able to consistently raise the stakes for their characters, storyline, and viewers over the course of their respective TV runs.

Buffy: Raising the Stakes

WARNING: IF YOU’VE NEVER WATCHED BUFFY, I PRETTY MUCH GIVE IT ALL AWAY.

One of the most challenging hurdles that a television show faces in this day and age is stagnation. As audiences become more intelligent, more tech savvy, and are editing their own you-tube videos, the magic of actually making TV is leaking to the masses. The only thing that can keeps viewers coming back week after week, month after month, and season after season, is by presenting stories that are so well conceived, performed, and executed, that we NEED to come back next week to see what happens. TV needs to evolve. The laws of evolution state that when faced with a shift in environment you have three options, Leave, Change, or Die. Good TV should apply that mentality as they change their fictional landscapes. Characters and stories should evolve.

Any story, be it fiction, non-fiction, long form, short form, or, well, even a joke, follows a commonly known ‘story arc’ structure. You, as the writer begin with the exposition portion, where characters, locations, and necessary info is introduced and more or less spoon-fed to the audience. Through interactions, actions and situations the primary conflict is introduced. Something must be accomplished or overcome by the main character(s). At the climax/ apex of your arc, it is good to pull together the plot threads that you have running as the characters face their obstacles. Then there is the falling action, or back end of the arc, as the resolution and consequences become apparent. Not all stories have a clear resolution, also called the denouement, though. Some leave it open to interpretation for the audience. And, some audiences don’t sit well with ‘the true meaning’ being shoved down their throats.

(I couldn’t find the Denouement conversation from Adaptation, but this is a wonderful moment to watch as a writer)

In TV, application of the story arc gets complicated. Every episode needs its clear beginning, middle, end, conflict, climax, falling action, and possibly denouement. In addition, a show like Buffy has another larger arc, which spans the entire season of 18 to 20 or so episodes. And, because of continuity junkies like myself, creators feel compelled to tie things up by looking at an entire series as an arc, and bring their opus to a clear end when the time comes and the curtain falls.

So, how does this relate to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and more importantly how does this relate to Lost which is currently reaching its season climax, but is also in the series denouement? Easy. Buffy was a show that was in constant danger of being cancelled. Even though it was an underground sensation, the studios didn’t know what to do with it. As a result Joss Whedon, creator of BTVS, was constantly prepared to end the show at each consecutive season finale. This created a wonderful precedent in television. The stakes were raised at the finale to such a degree that, when asked to give Fox another Season I’m rather certain Joss must have scratched his head and wondered “Where do we go from here?….”

In order to not stagnate, and offer a conflict that was equal in horribleness to the prior season, it became necessary to raise the stakes to a near ludicrous level so he could go out on a high note. Although, it wasn’t ever really ludicrous because of the laws set forth by the ‘Buffy Universe.’

Buffy’s Season 1 Finale, Prophecy Girl: There was a clear plan here. The story arc built to this episode where a prophecy stated that the Slayer would die so that the Master, an ancient Vampire living under Sunnydale, could rise again. Buffy’s friends were keeping this information from her for her own good. People were planning to go fight in her stead, until…. In a very Three’s Company moment, she overheard them talking about it. She goes through normal reactions a sixteen-year-old girl would until deciding to go and face the big evil vampire. She faces him, and dies, rather quickly. But, she doesn’t die bloody in a violent fight. It all happens rather pathetically. He bites her and drops her unconscious and face down in a small pool of water. Buffy drowns.

Prophecy Girl - Season One Finale

Minutes later, her friends revive her using CPR. I guess millennia-old prophecies don’t consider modern medical techniques. Then, yadda yadda yadda, Buffy saves the day.

That finale would have been a satisfactory end. The Master was supposed to end the world, and Buffy stopped him. It would have been a very western-like way to end it. The hero walks off to fight again.

The second season had its work cut out for it. Of course the world needed saving again. This time it was the nature of the villain that upped the stakes. The world ending baddie was Buffy’s vampire ex-boyfriend Angel, who goes by the name Angelus when evil. Buffy, stood up to the man that she still loves, saves the world, and at the moment when all of the plot threads collide, Angel reverts back to being a good guy… But it’s just too darn late. Buffy needs to kill him in order to save the world. She does the bloody deed, and sneaks out the back door, avoiding any discussion or denouement.

Season three culminates at Buffy’s High School Graduation. The Mayor is the big evil this time (Joss have a problem with local politics?). He plans to achieve ascension, which means that he will become pure demon. Pure demon is ominously described by the character Anya in the finale.

“All the demons that walk the Earth, are tainted, are human hybrids, like vampires. The Ascension means that a human becomes pure demon. They’re different.”

“Different?”

“Well, for one thing, they’re bigger.”

To make matters worse, the ascension is scheduled to occur at graduation and the mayor is the commencement speaker. As you imagine, Buffy and the gang survive, save the day, and beat the baddie. They survive High School and Evil and demons.

Season four is a bit of a toss away. It creates a ‘who can you trust’ problem for Buffy, as the US government gets into the demon hunting and dissecting business.

Season five introduces Glory, an actual goddess from a higher dimension. She is slumming it in our universe looking for the ‘key.’ She find’s it. The universe gets re-written and Buffy’s spontaneously created sister, Dawn, is revealed to be a hide-a-key in human form. This finale ups the stakes as much as you really can. Buffy sacrifices herself to close a door between dimensions. She dies. You think she’s going to wake up, and she doesn’t. It ends with her friends crowded around her lifeless body as they cry.

Dead is DEAD

Dead is Dead, unless you are Buffy Summers

So where do you go from there? Really? Joss was asked if he has one more in him.

“Buffy is dead.”

“Well, you have to fix that, right?”

Her friends resurrect her with a spell. When Buffy returns something is different. She is distant and detached from her friends. It is revealed, in one of the best hours ever of television, (“Once More With Feeling” the musical episode) that Buffy was not rescued from a hell dimension at all. She was ripped from what she described as pure bliss. She thinks she was in heaven. Even after all of the violence, she was in heaven. As Buffy comes to terms with her reincarnation, this season raises the stakes so far as the brutality it depicts. A would-be super villain utilizes something rarely seen on this show, a gun. He kills one of the Buffy gang, which sets off a series of events leading to Willow, Buffy’s best friend who just happens to be a powerful witch in training, going completely nuts and attempting to end the world. Again…. But this time it is her friend.

Season Seven: The Final Season – Buffy faces an evil, that is in fact THE evil. He/She/it refers to itself at “The first.” The first true evil. It is the inspiration for all that is bad in the world. Buffy has always fought her enemies one way, with her fists. How do you hit something this big, both metaphysically and physically? She raises a slayer army. She recruits for the big showdown.

Slayer Army Stand at the ready to kick Vampire ass!

They win of course. Some of her friends die. Some escape. In the end, the status is not quo. Buffy has become something more. She is now a warrior teacher that has the remnants of a slayer army looking to her for guidance. She is no longer a cog in a machine; she is now controlling the machine.

The universe in which Buffy takes place allowed this story to take place. These conflicts and finales could not have taken place in the Law and Order universe of NBC. Many shows are generally afraid of change. Studio execs like when they discover a formula, and they like to stick to it. The majority of half-hour comedies return to status quo by the end of an episode. Buffy defied status quo, as does Lost.

A quick series of coincidental similarities between the villain of BTVS Season 7, The First, and MIB/ Flocke:

  1. Both are really old. The First is, if you believe it, the origin of evil, soooo I guess it was there pretty much at the beginning. MIB is old. We’re not quite sure how old yet, but old.
  2. Both have the ability to shape shift, and they use that to their manipulative advantage to mess with their opponents’ minds.
  3. They both seem to be able to travel pretty much at the speed of thought.
  4. They are both trapped, and they want out so they can play with the world again.

That is it for now. Tribeca Film Fest is this week! I saw Zonad last night. It is the next film by the folks that did Once. It was really funny. Check it out if you get the chance. Also, Tribeca Film Fest Films are available On Demand on a lot of cable systems this week, and one of the films, Timer, stars Buffy alum Emma Caulfield.

Look for Part 2 Tuesday as we examine at how Lost consistently raised the stakes!

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