The Buffy Formula
Joss & Company, however unintentional, seem to have developed a pattern for seasonal story arcs. While not present in every season that has aired, it was extremely prominent from Season Two through Season Four. Season One, which only had twelve episodes, did not have time to utilize the Formula. That does not mean that it couldn't have been planned, but never used (see Odds & Ends.) Season Five and Seven, while featuring elements of the Formula, wasn't as clear cut as Seasons Two through Four or Six. The Buffy Formula focuses mainly on those seasons.
The main theme of the Buffy Formula is one of misdirection, usually in terms of who is the 'Big Bad' for the season. The Buffy Fan Community came up with the term 'Big Bad', to refer to who they feel is the Villain for the Season. Examples of the 'Big Bad' would be The Master, Angelus, The Mayor, Adam, Glory and Willow. (Note: Spike likes to refer to himself as the 'Big Bad', but actually has yet to be a Seasonal 'Big Bad').
The story arc in the Buffy Formula has two distinct halves. The first half, introduces us to what we would assume is the 'Big Bad' for the season. That character(s) is developed for most of the first half of the season. They don't have to be introduced in the first episode of the season. They usually appear around Episode Three, with their real motives becoming apparent around Episode Seven. This character(s), who I will refer to as the 'Little Bad', usually causes Buffy a great deal of trouble during the first half of the Season. Examples of the 'Little Bad' would be Spike and Drusilla, Mr. Trick, Professor Walsh and The Troika (Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew).
Then at some point after the mid-season point, things change in a very radical manner. Three events occur, in rapid succession, which totally change the story arc for the Season. The three events are...
The three events do vary slightly from Season to Season. Spike is paralyzed, but not killed, in Season 2. However, there are indications that originally he would have died (see Odds & Ends.) While the Mayor is a noticeable threat in the early part of Season Three, there is no indication of his true intentions until after Faith's betrayal. In Season Four, Professor Walsh wasn't actually out to get Buffy, until Buffy became too much of a threat to the Initiative's plans. However, she certainly frustrated Buffy a great deal in the early half of the Season. The events are clearly there, and we can see the pattern as demonstrated here.
There are other minor events that also occur throughout the Season, which seem to remain consistent with the Formula. For example, the 'Big Bad' is usually betrayed by one of their allies in the final episode. In the final episodes of Season Two through Four, we do have Spike, Faith, and Riley all either working for or controlled by the 'Big Bad'. Information or aid given by these characters allows Buffy to defeat the 'Big Bad'.
The following section outlines each season and how the plot fits the Buffy Formula. I also comment on Season Five and Seven and how they did not follow the Buffy Formula.
In Season Five, the show departed from the Formula. Although some elements were there, such as Ben's betrayal (both unintentional and intentional), Glory remained the 'Big Bad' throughout the Season. There are stretches that would make the Formula work, for example if we considered Dawn to be the 'Little Bad'. If we did that, then we could see "Blood Ties" to be the pivotal episode: Dawn is revealed to truly be human, Ben is not the good guy we think he is, etc. Unfortunately, it is a complete and total stretch. Likewise, one could consider Joyce's illness to be a 'Little Bad', since it dominates the first half of the Season. However, no matter how I look at it, the tight pattern the Buffy Formula presented in Season Two through Four is not apparent at all in Season Five.
Originally, I had very mixed feelings about Season Five. The writing was some of the best we've had on the show, and overall the episodes reflected that. However, I wasn't happy with the overall story arc for the season. After having the opportunity to sit down and watch the entire season over the course of a week, I've changed my opinion on the story arc for Season Five. The flaw in Season Five isn't in the writing, it's in the method of delivery. The twenty-two episodes that comprised Season Five aired over an eight month period, which is standard network practice. However, hardly any show on television juggles as many story arcs and plot points as Buffy. Two exceptions to this, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, have the benefit of airing as a complete package. Which brings up the question, why wasn't this a problem in the previous seasons
Perhaps it's because the writers were not throwing as many story arcs at the viewers in previous seasons. During the first half of Season Five, almost every character was involved in a story arc, many of which crossed over into other arcs. When seen in succession, the arcs become clearer and begin to form a very cohesive whole. Shown in chunks, with gaps of up to a month in between episodes, some of the story gets lost. In addition, with the exception of Buffy and Riley (and maybe Spike), the relationships of the characters entered into a very stable period. All of which had been developed previously, so that there was time to devote to alternate story arcs.
So where did that leave the Formula? That depends much on what happens in Season Six. Certain elements of the Formula can exist outside of the pattern, like the 'Big Bad' or 'The Betrayal'. These are elements that the writers will likely be unable to avoid incorporating into a Season's Story Arc. The 'Big Bad' because you need something for the Scooby Gang to fight during the Season, and 'The Betrayal' because you need a plot-twist to separate the two halves of the Season. In Season Five, the 'Big Bad' was Glory and 'The Betrayal' was the Ben/Glory twist. The question now is this pattern going to repeat in Season Six, will it fall back on the original Formula, or are we looking at something entirely new
When news about the season first started breaking, it appeared that the season would indeed following the Buffy Formula. The Troika was a perfect candidate to become the 'Little Bad', while the Willow rumors indicated that she would become the 'Big Bad'. Halfway through the season, it appeared that this would not be the case. For the three seasons that did follow the Buffy Formula, the events always feel around mid-season. This year, Willow was well into her recovery from the Dark Arts and Warren had obviously stepped up the plate as a Potential 'Big Bad' growing from the Troika as the 'Little Bad'.
Turns out I was correct the first time, as although it comes later in the Season than it has in the past, the Buffy Formula is alive and well and played out over the last four episodes of Season Six.
Season Seven started off with some potential. Even though a 'Bad' was introduced at the end of the first episode, we didn't know if it would be the 'Big or Little Bad' until Episode Nine ('Never Leave Me') when it was finally revealed that the 'Bad' was indeed 'The First Evil'.
Which introduced a problem, how can a entity like 'The First' be a 'Little Bad'? What could be a greater threat, or neutralize 'The First'? It turns out, that there really wasn't anything that could threaten it. Though for the most part, it really couldn't do anything to threaten the Scooby Gang either. That is, until Caleb came onto the scene in 'Dirty Girls'. Caleb was not only more of a threat to the Scoobies, he actually caused the greatest amount of damage and suffering in the group.
Essentially, Season Seven is 'The Buffy Formula' run in reverse order. With Caleb being the 'Little Bad' and 'The First' being the 'Big Bad'. The season itself would have been much tighter in terms of story arc, if the first half had introduced Caleb (perhaps even having him brainwashing and bending Spike to his will), eventually revealing that the source of Caleb's power was 'The First'. Then the final half of the season would have been Buffy and the Potentials trying to defeat the plans of 'The First'.However, even with that twist there is a big lack of 'betrayal' in this season (unless you count the Scoobies turning on Buffy, but to be honest, that's been a constant in most seasons to date).
In the end, compared to the rest, Season Seven is perhaps the weakest of them all. There were a lot of questions left unanswered, and in many ways it seems that the flow was being changed as the episodes were written. Events and Plot Twists were introduced, that either had no resolution, or ones that didn't make much sense. In addition, many of the episodes themselves seemed to be merely variations on the same theme. Season Seven didn't fit the Buffy Formula pattern at all, perhaps even less so than Season Five.
If you are interested, you can read more on my thoughts about Season Seven (and my ranking of all the Seasons), at The Spoiler Slayer.
Another interesting aspect is the amount of time spent developing the 'Big Bad'. Character development can take place in 5 episodes or less. In each consecutive season, less time was spent specifically developing the 'Big Bad'. Although each of these characters appeared in other episodes during that season, the episodes listed were the ones that actually developed the character in terms of motive (or madness).
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