As fans remember the show on the 20th anniversary of its launch, Buffy is being lauded for the vitality of its female characters, its clever mixing of fantasy and horror tropes with regular teen anxieties, and the radical empathy of its characterizations. But Joss Whedon’s show also set the framework that many of the Emmy-winning prestige dramas of later years, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to The Good Wife, would use to tell their stories. Years before streaming TV existed, Whedon helped create the bingeable serial drama—one that endeavored to make every episode a special event, without taking the audience’s eyes off the larger story being woven.
In basic terms, he did this by making sure every season had a “big bad”: a villain or antihero with larger machinations developing in the background of every episode, twinned to our hero Buffy and her resolute band of friends in some magical way. Every season would build to an action-packed climax with sacrifices made and lessons learned, but along the way, Buffy would face off against minions of the “big bad,” problems of her own making, and various other monsters of the week amid whirlwinds of teen angst. It was a heady formula, but a surprisingly unusual one for 1997.
Of course, serial storytelling had existed in broadcast television since the invention of the medium—mostly confined to soap operas. In the late ’70s, the primetime soap Dallas popularized the season-ending cliffhanger as a way of keeping audiences on the hook and building buzz over its summer break; in the ’80s, imitators like Dynasty, Knots Landing, and Falcon Crest dominated in the ratings, while critically acclaimed procedural dramas like Hill Street Blues (a cop show) and St. Elsewhere (a hospital show) incorporated elements of longer-arc storytelling along with the usual cases of the week.
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 1990 phenomenon Twin Peaks, too, was driven by its serial nature—viewers tuned in largely because of the enduring mystery of who killed Laura Palmer—but couldn’t sustain it. It strung the mystery along as far as it could (Lynch later noted that he never wanted it solved, but network ABC insisted), and then tanked in the ratings after trying to move on from it. Sci-fi dramas like Star Trek: The Next Generation strongly avoided heavy serialization for fear of confusing viewers, whereas the cult hit Babylon 5 (which debuted in 1994) was practically unwatchable unless you’d seen every episode, granting it a devoted, but small, fan base. The almost-forgotten pioneer Murder One, a legal drama that tackled one big case per season, was acclaimed when it debuted in 1995, but audiences and critics alike were not interested in the new story offered in its second season, and it was canceled.
One of the biggest influences on Buffy’s storytelling style (and the shows that followed it) was The X-Files, famed for its ongoing mythology. But that show took careful pains to separate “monster of the week” episodes (which could vary wildly in tone and format) from the ongoing “mytharc” (which was, again, basically impenetrable unless you were a devoted viewer). With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon cracked the code on how to combine the two, by borrowing from the comic book realm he’d later inhabit as a film director.