*Note: I actually wrote this several months ago, before the third season of iZombie started. Some of the questions raised in this post have now been answered, but I think there are still things here that are worth discussing.
With the entrance of early spring comes the moment we wait for all year, that other little thing besides the warmth that keeps us hanging on until the summer: teaser trailers.
Teaser trailers are the absolute worst because they remind us of all the shows we’ve been waiting months and months for, but reveal absolutely nothing. I just watched the teasers for the next seasons of Game of Thrones and iZombie, and came away, as everyone always does, feeling extremely unsatisfied. But the iZombie one did get me thinking about something, and that’s what I’m here to talk about.
iZombie is entering its third season, a milestone which could either mean the show is still in its nascent stage—as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer— or that it’s showing signs of having run its course— as with Buffy’s lesser-watched spin-off, Angel. This raises a very interesting question about how, exactly, a show is supposed to plan its storyline. There’s a lot to consider there beyond plot, and it’s an especially important question with genre shows like iZombie. So with this discussion, I want to look at two successful series, both made by iZombie’s parent network, the CW—Buffy and Supernatural—in thinking about where iZombie might go next.
Buffy and Supernatural lie on different parts of a spectrum. There’s the “series” end, which Buffy occupies. That’s the type of show that focuses more on episode-to-episode action, rather than longer-ranging arcs. It’s where you find most sitcoms and police procedurals. Then there’s the “serial” end, which focuses more on the longer story arcs, and individual episodes are less differentiated. Game of Thrones and Marvel’s Daredevil lie at the extreme on this end. This is the end that Supernatural lives in.
Now, in truth both series are closer to the center on this issue. They both follow a general “monster of the week” format that belongs at the “series” end while also maintaining larger, more important storylines. In fact, in many ways Buffy more closely resembles a serial in many ways than does Supernatural, since as the show progressed it dropped the “monster of the week” formula in favor of seasonal arc. No, what makes me say that Supernatural belongs on the “serial” end is because for at least the first five seasons the show had a definite plan, a multi-season story arc with a single, focused direction. Buffy always had an open-and-closed, single-season Big Bad with nothing of the previous season’s arc carrying over into the next one.
The reasoning behind each choice is clear. Supernatural was confident that it could last five seasons, so it committed to a complex plot line that could only be resolved in five years. Buffy was constantly afraid of being cancelled, so every year it created an arc that could be resolved in a single season. There are pros and cons to each way. The Buffy way allows for infinite seasons: you can keep on creating open-and-shut season arcs as long as you can keep thinking of them, and you can use this to develop your characters however you want. But it also makes those seasonal arcs a bit shallow, less interesting. It really doesn’t allow for much complexity. By contrast, the Supernatural way allows for infinite complexity (as long as you tie it all up at the end), but with two dangers: first, the danger of being cancelled before the arc is fully completed; second, the danger of being forced to continue on after the arc is completed.
Imagine Game of Thrones being forced to keep putting out seasons after the story had come to a conclusion. Imagine if Danaerys had finally come to Westeros, if the Iron Throne had a new ruler, if the White Walkers were defeated by an as yet-unidentified hero. Imagine an entirely new plotline, haphazardly compiled together, a year after you and everyone else thought it had drawn to a satisfying close. That’s what happened, to a lesser extent, to Supernatural. An arc which had been created in season one, and then identified and drawn out in season two, had reached its climax in season 5 and there came to a close. I am nowhere near Supernatural’s biggest fan, but I will admit that the first five seasons had, at least, a fairly gracefully laid out story arc. And then there was season 6. And just like that, Supernatural, much like one of its main characters, was dragged from the depths of the afterlife to carry on a confused and soulless existence for the rest of time. The show had absolutely nothing to do after the completion of Season 5, nowhere to go. It couldn’t pick up a Buffy-like format and just do monster-of-the-season plotlines: its viewers had become accustomed to longer, more elaborate story arcs, and to do anything else would feel like a letdown. They had to create a new one, unplanned and unwanted, out of thin air. And it shows— the series has become lost and meandering, agreed by all to be worse than its first five years, without a focus or a destination.
That’s the magic of Buffy— it doesn’t need a destination. A very similar thing happened after Buffy, season 5. The endings of Buffy, season 5 and Supernatural, season 5 were so similar that I can’t tell if the Supernatural one was a ripoff or an homage. Anyways, Buffy was pretty sure it was going to be cancelled after season 5 so they decided to end it with a bang. And then it came back. Unlike Supernatural, though, they could just start back up again with a single-season story arc because it didn’t have the precedent of something more complicated. The downside is that this format can start to feel stale after a while, and the show’s writers may feel the need to keep raising the stakes after each season to ridiculous levels just to keep it feeling fresh. Look at Teen Wolf: in season 1, the villain was a werewolf who was slightly more powerful than the protagonist. In season 5, we’re now at horse-riding ghosts who kidnap and murder entire towns, working towards their goal of destroying the entire world.
On the flip side, the other danger of the Supernatural format is being cancelled before that multi-season storyline is fully completed. Angel is a good example of such a show. The mysteries that had been promised in season 1 were still unfolding during season 5 when Joss Whedon found out the show wouldn’t be renewed. That meant he had to suddenly try and wrap up the series—with all of its promised conclusions– in the half-season that remained. And, in my opinion at least, it shows. The fifth season of Angel is not good television, and the last few episodes are the worst of it.
Now I’m aware this feeling is not shared by everybody. I know several people who prefer the ending of Angel to the ending of Buffy, as the ending of Buffy wraps everything up, for the most part, and with most of its main characters still alive; Angel does the exact opposite. People who like Angel’s conclusion better prefer its “the fight never ends” mentality to Buffy’s “saved the day” mentality. I would respond that the fight will probably end when all the main characters die, which is what happens in Angel. However, I’m writing based on my opinion, which is that season 5 of Angel was crap for the primary reason that it was cancelled before its time. The various seasonal arcs— the prophecy of the vampire with a soul who could become human, whatever Wolfram and Hart actually is— were wrapped up hastily and in a very unsatisfying manner. I’m not saying Angel needed to become a human again for me to be satisfied, but I’d have preferred something a little less sudden and random than what actually happened. For me the ending of Angel was like the ending of The Sopranos: I genuinely thought something had gone wrong with my television when the episode cut to black and the final credits rolled. Surely I must have missed something. I’m all for people trying to experiment with the format of television, but you can’t end a show like Angel, with five years’ worth of mysteries promised to be solved, without some sort of solid conclusion. This isn’t The Lobster or some other indie movie that relishes in not bothering to come up with an ending. This is a television show on the CW and I expect different things.
Bottom line, the Supernatural format is riskier but often has a better payoff than the Buffy format. That’s not to say I think Supernatural is in any way a better show than Buffy; quite the opposite, in fact. But most shows, if they have the time but know when to end, will flourish using the Supernatural format while many shows languish using the Buffy format. It takes quite a lot of skill to make the Buffy format work as a sophisticated show.
So where does iZombie come in? Well, iZombie is about to start its third season, which means it is entering a precarious adolescence that can either mark the beginning of newfound quality, as with Buffy, or hit its peak and commence a downward slide, as with Angel. In the end, it will either be considered one of the earlier seasons or one of the later ones. In both Buffy and Supernatural, which both carried on far beyond their third seasons, it’s considered the earlier part of the show. Buffy is still in high school. Spike isn’t even a main character. Sam and Dean are still hunting Demons-of-the-Week. In Angel, which only made it to Season Five, Season Three saw a bunch of shit go down that drastically altered the rest of the show. Season Three often begins or ends with a noticeable cast turnover, as with Teen Wolf, MisFits, and Glee.
iZombie has put itself in an interesting, I daresay difficult, position: the position of where to go after Season Three. The entire show, up until this point, has been following the Supernatural format: the time in each episode is split between a Murder-of-the-Week and the gradual progression of a very complex, multi-season arc plot: the mystery of how the zombie drug came to be, who is really pulling the strings, and what the final endgame is.
So what happens when that mystery is solved? Conspiracies can only go so deep. In Season One, Liv and the rest of the gang were flying more or less blind, focused on answering the most basic questions that come with zombieism (how many are there? how can they live? etc) and fighting against Blaine, who is a very small-time sort of villain and therefore a good jumping-off point for more impressive villains. Season Two brought us to Max Rager and its sinister lab, and showed us hints at government ties to the zombie epidemic. The final cliff-hanger revealed a cult of zombies apparently intent on transforming Seattle—and then the rest of the world— into a zombie utopia, with brains aplenty.
So the logical next step, as we reach Season Three, would be to further develop the mysteries introduced in Season Two— but can iZombie do that while at the same time neatly setting up for future seasons? In a show that has flourished on deepening the conspiracy with each season it’s unclear what they’re going to do after those depths have been thoroughly plumbed. They’ll have to find a new direction to go with— maybe the zombie wars really will break out. But that’s going to require an immense overhaul of the series, including at some point scrapping the Murder-of-the-Week format iZombie will only let go of when we prie it from its cold, undead hands. Does the show— and The CW— have the capacity to completely change up a series for the sake of continuing a good story? I guess we’ll see.