Monday, September 21, 2009

Lost in the Wasteland


Part One: The Vast Wasteland



I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.


Newton Minow, Chairman of the FCC, in the speech "Television and the Public Interest" delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961.

So said Newton Minow in his famous speech to the National Association of Broadcasters upon taking up the job of Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. It has since become known as the "Vast Wasteland Speech" taking its name from the last line of the first paragraph quoted above in which it is just as often mis-quoted that he said "television is a vast wasteland." To be fair, immediately preceding this most famous section, he actually praised television and specifically called out shows that he considered noteworthy including but not limited to Victory, Twilight Zone and CBS Reports. That section rarely gets mentioned but it's important because without it he is just another anti-television crank. With it he becomes a balanced observer. By recognizing the quality that television has to offer he can bemoan the fact that it also serves up generous portions of drivel that act as filler between the select few good pieces of drama and entertainment out there. Such it is with film, literature, music and probably any other art form to which one devotes anything more than casual attention. One must cut away at the weeds to find the beautiful saplings underneath. Most of the output of the popular arts is lazy, cliched and mediocre. Simply peruse the aisles of a bookstore or video store (if there are any left) if any of this is in doubt.

However, each medium produces a different kind of problem inherent to its method of production that produces in each a unique type of badness when the output is below the upper tier. That is to say each one has unique traits that allow them to be bad in very different ways, and equally good in different ways as well. Since television is the subject for this post, and that's a first here on Cinema Styles, it is television's unique methods of storytelling that will receive our focus and I leave it up to the reader to determine for discussion at a later date what exactly constitute the weaknesses or strengths inherent in film and literature when delivering their stories to the non-discriminating consumer. For our purposes we will stick with the tube, the boob tube as it so infamously known, and it's storytelling strengths and weaknesses.

Unlike a film or a novel, even a film or novel series, television is unique in that it has not only a continuing set of characters but their stories continue in real time. In other words, even in a serial, such as James Bond or Nancy Drew in both film and literature, the continuing adventures of these characters continues on a yearly basis, monthly at best. Where it can take decades to reach 26 installments in the story of a character in the mediums of film and literature, television can produce 26 installments in six months on a weekly basis. Given so much opportunity to develop the character, television can indeed produce great things and has done so with many characters over the years. Shows such as M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, Homicide, and The Sopranos enjoyed success by building on the lives of their characters over many seasons while other shows like Bob Newhart, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Law & Order and Columbo were content to develop traits for the characters that could be recognizable from one episode to the next while developing individual storylines that never required the character to be fully developed over time as each episode stood alone. These are in fact the two primary storytelling templates of television, usually referred to as serial and episodic, despite the fact that all television is episodic in that it is produced in segments, or episodes. Nonetheless for our purposes, episodic refers to shows that produce stand alone episodes, such as M*A*S*H, and serials are shows that provide a continuing, building story, such as Lost, the popular series still in its initial run, and these two shows will be the focus of Part Two.

As to the two types of television storytelling I have more often than not preferred episodic to serial. The episodic show can still develop characters, such as M*A*S*H listed above, but has the freedom to explore different stories without a continuous need for a connecting thread at the end of each episode or even more dramatic, and difficult to achieve on a weekly basis, the cliffhanger. Episodic television also avoids the problem of deciding when the mid-point of the show has been reached since thematically it doesn't matter. Not knowing when the story will complete itself often cause serials to repeat themselves while awaiting a decision or to provide endless loose ends few of which are ever resolved. The cliffhanger, or connecting thread at the end of each episode, is necessary to keep the viewers coming back, but without a definable beginning, middle and end those cliffhangers can't produce real change on the show lest they ruin what may become an important story thread later. Back in the nineties Fox aired a serial drama about five siblings making their way after the death of their parents, Party of Five. Its greatest strength was that its teens and twentysomethings spoke like teens and twentysomethings and not like clever Hollywood writers, an annoying trend of ignoring the character for which the lines are being written and simply giving every character the same clever voice, that of the writer (This hallmark of bad writing plagued such atrocities as Dawson's Creek and continues to plague much television drama and comedy as well as everything on the Disney Channel). It's greatest weakness was that there was no dramatic arc, a weakness shared by most serial dramas. Most serial dramas (most, not all - see Part Two), aren't building towards anything and Party of Five was no different. It was just there, week to week, as we followed the characters living their lives. There was nothing the show itself was moving towards, no goal, no endgame and that was not and is not conducive to good dramatic storytelling. Storytelling likes beginnings, middles and ends. Serial storytelling rarely if ever knows where that middle is and even more rarely has an end in sight. Usually the end arrives simply because the characters have run out of steam and viewers are tuning out. As the seasons went on with Party of Five the characters grew weaker and the desperate attempts at weekly cliffhangers grew more deceptive. Near the final season was a particularly deceptive one. The scene: Bailey (Scott Wolf) and Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt) go to the apartment of her mother because Sarah has not heard from her for days and is worried. As the episode reaches it's climax the two enter the apartment together with Bailey then entering the bedroom alone. The music ominously swells to a crescendo as the camera zooms into a tight close-up of Bailey's horrified face as he stammers "oh my God." Smashcut to black, to be continued. Pretty dramatic huh? Was the mother dead? Suicide? Murder? Did a grisly scene await Sarah just outside the door? No, no, no and no. The mother was simply gone and the room was in disarray. That was where the "oh my God" had come from, seeing the room in disarray. Then they found a message that she had gone on an impulsive trip, to Vegas I believe. And that was it. After a couple of bait and switch routines like that you learn to stop trusting serial television and start expecting mediocrity and laziness. But you can't fault the writers too much. They were tasked with bringing the audience back even if they knew there was no dramatic arc and nothing would ever happen.

The bait and switch of deceptive cliffhangers becomes necessary in a storytelling structure that has no beginning, middle or end. They all have a beginning to be sure but without knowledge of where the second act commences even the beginning is questionable. Daytime soap operas rely on cliffhangers on a daily basis and yet they continue for years, sometimes decades, without any meaningful story or character changes occurring. At their core, serial characters and stories progress virtually unchanged, languishing in a storytelling limbo that has no idea what final resolutions await the characters. This is, I believe, the fundamental flaw of network television. Episodic or serial, the characters and stories flop about, playing for time as executives and ratings determine whether the show will continue or not. All the rich character development in the world is meaningless if the character ends abruptly because the writers never knew what was the story arc of the drama.

A novel or film has an enormous advantage over television in that the writer knows going into the story where and when it will end. That doesn't mean every novel and film is better than every television show, quite the contrary, simply that the method itself in producing novels and film is more conducive to proper storytelling. But what about the long term story?

The long term story is one in which the writers at least know how the story will end even if they don't know exactly when it will end. In the cases of miniseries they do know both the "how" and the "when" but we will stay with regular seasonal series for this discussion. In the case of the long term story, television has its advantage over novels and film in that it can take its time developing the characters knowing full well their final fate. The long term story can be told quite differently from show to show and can exist in both episodic and serial series. Let's look at one from each, an episodic and serial example, M*A*S*H and Lost.


______________________


Part Two: The Long term Story, M*A*S*H and Lost


M*A*S*H debuted in 1972, two years after the successful Robert Altman film based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. While the show was episodic in nature with each episode standing alone the creators and writers of the show knew how it would end, with the cease fire in 1953, if not when it would end. This allowed them to slowly build towards a finale and build stories for the main characters that could be continued in a non-serial sense. For instance, Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, played by Alan Alda, hailed from Crabapple Cove, Maine, was unmarried, had a strong relationship with his father, womanized, drank heavily and slowly but surely developed affection for and sexual intimacy with Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit. The writers continued to develop these character traits and situations of Hawkeye without necessarily connecting one episode to another with a continuing serial plot line. The story continued but the plots changed from episode to episode.

During the course of its eleven year run M*A*S*H "remembered" what had happened in previous episodes to keep the basic story going and characters developing as they made their way towards a conclusion. But the show also broke traditional episodic television norms with its character changes. Most episodic television, then and now, replaces a departing character with a similar character to keep what was popular going. For example, if Gomer Pyle exits The Andy Griffith Show then his brother, Goober Pyle, takes over providing almost the exact same character for fans to enjoy. When the simple minded Coach leaves Cheers a younger simpleton, Woody, takes his place. But M.A.S.H. did things differently. When McLean Stevenson left the show his character of Colonel Henry Blake was killed, and the befuddled, gentle non-military Blake was replaced with a career military man, sharp and disciplined, Colonel Sherman T. Potter, played by Harry Morgan. When womanizing Trapper John left, faithful father and husband B.J. Hunnicutt arrived. Incompetent buffoon Frank Burns stepped out, highly skilled, erudite and culturally aloof Charles Emerson Winchester stepped in. And that mirrored reality more than situation comedy. It's rare anyone is replaced at a job they've left with an oddly similar doppelganger. But television is more often than not afraid to take the chance that the audience will stay with them if something new is introduced, hence the preponderance of pod-people replacement characters in the history of network television.

In the end, M*A*S*H knew where it was going but didn't know when it would arrive and this hampered its originality as the show progressed. Because the show was immensely popular the network kept it going despite the fact that the story was based on a historical three year long event. They knew eventually the actors would clearly look to have aged more than just three years but didn't want to lose a cash cow and the writers and actors didn't want to stop developing characters of which they had grown so fond. As a result, plot lines started to feel familiar and the show began to borrow from itself heavily. Hawkeye writing a letter home to his father became a familiar and all too easy way to show a variety of vignettes that required no plot but could keep the show going. Other episodes used "racing against the clock" plots in which the surgeons once again struggled to save a patient before time ran out. It is not to say that the writers and actors did a poor job with this, just that over time, most dramatic situations had been done multiple times and were starting to feel stale.

After eleven seasons M*A*S*H finally made its way to the historical cease-fire of the textbooks and did its best to tie up loose ends and give the characters a fitting send-off. For the most part it succeeded but as a story with a dramatic arc, a beginning, middle and end, it failed. Despite having a firm conclusion in advance there is no feel of a building storyline ever present when watching an episode of M*A*S*H Watching an episode from the second season back to back with an episode from the ninth season, the viewer would notice different characters and a bit of age on the returning characters but otherwise see no furthering along of the story. They would see doctors in Korea in a M*A*S*H unit, they would see dramatic moments and comedic moments and then see the credits roll with that episode's plot neatly wrapped up. And here is the curse of episodic television: The beginning can only be the very first episode, the ending can only be the very last episode and the middle is doomed to be everything in between, and that makes for one hell of a long second act, too long to work dramatically.

But what about serial television? As noted earlier, it suffers from the same fate when it has no endgame in sight but what if the series is developed with not only a conclusion in mind, but an end date as well? Such is the case with Lost, the current ABC dramatic series about the survivors of downed flight Oceanic 815 on a mysterious island somewhere in the... well, somewhere in the Pacific. Supposedly, Lost was developed with an end in sight and its principal writers and developers stated well in advance that it would end after its sixth season, the one to begin this January. Is it really as tight as all that? Perhaps.

The time frame of Lost is brief. From beginning to end it covers only a few months on the island, however, there are three years that take place off the island as well as three years that take place back on the island thirty years prior with other time displacement events scattered throughout. All this is to say that the main story of the crashed survivors on the island itself, in the present day of the story, last only a few months. Having never watched an episode of Lost on commercial television but in fact watching all of the first five seasons online I was able to approach the show from a unique perspective. Roughly speaking, I was able to watch the show in about the same time as the events on the show were taking place. And I must say, considering that the actors have been playing the roles for five years now but are supposed to have only been on the island for a little over a hundred days, they look remarkably similar from one season to the next. The continuity alone is extremely impressive and probably deserves some sort of special award. But it is the development of the characters and the story that are our concern, and the question of whether Lost succeeds where so many other serial dramas have failed. It does but not without some of the same longevity problems that will most likely always plague serial drama.

First, the story arc. Watching the show every day online, often several episodes at a time, until reaching the end of season five, may have impressed with its continuity prowess but revealed flaws perhaps not as noticeable to the weekly viewer, and the show didn't necessarily produce an episode every week in the first place. Those flaws came in the form of redundancy. Most of season two into the first half of season three felt like watching the same episode over and over and I admit, after the beginning of season three I was ready to call it quits. Apparently the shows creators and producers; J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof; were in negotiations with the networks and an end date was undecided so they didn't want to continue much further with the arc of the story until it was. Watching all episodes back to back to back on a daily basis this was more than obviously the case.

More importantly the series has created an abundance of characters and an over-abundance of story threads that makes one suspicious of how easily all the loose ends will be tied up. Take the characters of Ben Linus and John Locke, played by Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn, for my money far and away the two most interesting characters and two most skilled actors on the show. Their two characters have undergone multiple jarring revelations of who they are, where they come from and what their motives may be for their actions. Logic is applied and then abandoned. Red herrings are most assuredly the order of the day. They are fascinating characters but the misdirections concerning them seem to be doubling over onto themselves at this point. There is a feeling too many cans of worms have been opened to close at this point and perhaps those negotiations in season two and three will be, in the end, the tragic flaw of Lost. By playing for time they may have introduced too many story arcs with which they have to deal. Or maybe, as some fans fear, they're going to reboot for season six to make the clean up a little tidier.

Without going into many details (and to a non-fan of the show explaining the plot at this point would be a fundamentally futile endeavor, a more intricately latticed plot line you will rarely find in network television history) Lost deals with familiar science fiction tropes including that of time travel. At the end of season five a catastrophic physical event made possible by several characters occurs, in the past, which will, they hope, set everything back to normal, but which may just set the show back to day one, when the crash occurred, so that the viewer can watch the final season possessing knowledge the characters don't have as they achieve a conclusion to their woes. While it would be interesting to watch a final season repeat the first season but at a ninety degree angle it would also be a cop out of the first order to destroy every loose end by simply blowing them up. Still, there is a feeling more than most shows I have watched that the writers do indeed know where they are going, and even though it hasn't yet concluded, I can discern a distinct beginning, middle and end. The beginning seems clearly to be season one through the halfway point of season three, the middle is the halfway point of season three through season four and season five clearly feels like the machinations of a final act. To the writers of Lost, bravo, especially considering how complicated the storyline has become.

So the story arc of Lost is good but its quality cannot be fully determined until the series concludes. What about its character development? Here we find Lost's greatest strength and its completist approach to the backstory for each character, achieved through flashback coupled with the present day situation, provides the show with characters as well drawn as any in film. So well drawn that it sometimes becomes distracting to have to follow the plot because of the desire to watch certain characters simply interact.

Lost proves, so far at least in its unfinished condition, that television can produce a proper story arc over multiple seasons, providing an identifiable beginning, middle and end. While it suffers from the fact that two of its defacto leads, played by Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lily, aren't nearly as interesting as most of the other characters and certainly nowhere nearly as interesting as the second leads of Linus and Locke, it still holds the viewers attention and I am as eager as any to follow it to its conclusion, although now I wish I had waited for it to end and just watched the entire series online so there would be no infernal waiting for a final season.

Unlike film and literature, television has great difficulty bringing a story full circle because it operates in the dark most of the time. It wanders around that vast wasteland that Newton Minow described so many years ago, wandering and waiting to learn its fate, rarely knowing when the end will come. But it can succeed and many times has even if many more times it has failed. It probably deserves more credit than it is given for having to extend most characters lives well past their expiration date and continue stories with no end in sight. Maybe in the future more shows will determine their story arcs in advance, allowing the creators and writers to develop a show fully before the first scene is even shot. Until then most television will continue to wander blindly but not all will be without direction. Currently, on ABC, there is a show that, so far, proves one can wander the wasteland...

...and not get lost.

49 comments:

bill r. said...

Take the characters of Ben Linus and John Locke, played by Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn, for my money far and away the two most interesting characters and two most skilled actors on the show. Their two characters have undergone multiple jarring revelations of who they are, where they come from and what their motives may be for their actions. Logic is applied and then abandoned. Red herrings are most assuredly the order of the day. They are fascinating characters but the misdirections concerning them seem to be doubling over onto themselves at this point. There is a feeling too many cans of worms have been opened to close at this point...

As a loyal fan since the first episode, this is my great fear. On the plus side, I have no idea where Locke and Linus will end up when all is said and done, but, on the other side, even if the finale is immediately satisfying, when I go back and watch the show from the beginning, which I know I will some day (unless the finale is an abomination), will any of it hold together?

I don't know. I watch Lost week to week, so I know there are all sorts of holes and loose ends that I simply can't remember, and in my ignorance I am absolutely in love with the show. If they can pull of a satisfying ending, I will still love it, plot holes or not, but I do fear that much of what has so intrigued me over the years about the show, and specifically about Locke, won't add up to much. But it has to, right? Locke and, to a lesser degree, Linus, are the show.

The show is just so bonkers, there's so much going on, and I'm just so worried about being let down at the end. I've invested so much time into Lost, and think it truly is a brilliant piece of work, whatever its flaws, that I don't want to feel like I've been had.

Anyway, I've said it before and I'll say it again, if O'Quinn gave the performance he gives on this show in a film, he'd have an Oscar.

Ed Howard said...

I thought you were waiting until Lost ended to check it out; did Bill and I nudge you into watching it before the sixth season?

Anyway, I agree with you that the way the show stands now, much of the second season is the obvious weak point, when they were really stalling and treading water a bit, not moving anywhere -- especially when they introduced a whole troupe of new characters most of whom are now dead without having had a real substantial impact on the way the series ultimately went. This was, I gather, especially galling for those who were watching week by week, since they'd have to wait a week only to get an episode that didn't really move things forward at all. I caught up with the show after its third season, so I watched the first 3 seasons in a very condensed period of time and then watched the much more satisfying fourth and fifth seasons week by week.

One of the things that's interesting about Lost, as you pointed out, is that what's made is great is largely not what first got people interested during the initial season: the planewreck survivor story, with everyone struggling to survive and investigate the island's weird mysteries. Since then, the show has morphed into something quite different, and with the exception of Locke, the most interesting characters haven't even been the initial survivors, but people like Ben, Juliet, Desmond and Penny, Richard (who I expect to get his own episode in season 6), Faraday and his mother, and now the intriguing glimpses of Jacob and his mysterious rival. And the simple survival story has turned into a time-jumping sci-fi adventure. I imagine anyone who only watched the show in season 1 could turn it on now and barely even recognize the show, especially when whole episodes go by with only minimal focus on any of the original characters.

Greg said...

Bill - He does have an Emmy for it, and richly deserved may I say. My wife mades jokes like, "You going to marry Terry O'Quinn?" because after watching several episodes during a day or so I would invariably bring up how great he was and how he pulls you in as an actor. He's just phenomenal.

but I do fear that much of what has so intrigued me over the years about the show, and specifically about Locke, won't add up to much.

Boy is that my fear too. I really have enjoyed watching Lost and it plays into all of my sci-fi loves. It's just that SPOILERS AHEAD watching the final scene with him on the season finale and realizing it wasn't him and he was IN FACT dead and then hearing Richard say to Jack that he never found him special I thought, "No, he ISN'T dead and HE IS SPECIAL, dammit!"END SPOILERS

Really, I want Locke to be the answer to everything. All of it.

Greg said...

I imagine anyone who only watched the show in season 1 could turn it on now and barely even recognize the show, especially when whole episodes go by with only minimal focus on any of the original characters.

And thank goodness because I find Jack, Sawyer and Kate rather dull and it was the focus on them in the first season combined with the aimlessness of the second season that had me close to just saying, "People are crazy who like this show." But then it got a lot better. Of the original characters, Sayid and Hurley bothered me the least. Most of the others didn't cross my mind one way or another. But John Locke IMMEDIATELY got my attention. When he wasn't onscreen I grew impatient for his return.

And you're right, almost everyone introduced from the other crash is now dead so what in the hell was the point except for filler.

Anyway, I'm pretty excited for the finale now.

It better be good!

Ed Howard said...

Yea, Jack and Kate are mostly pretty boring. I like Sayid, Hurley's OK and has had some of the better comedy relief moments, and I actually finally started to like Sawyer during this last season, maybe because he was paired with the always fascinating Juliet rather than the always snooze-inducing Kate.

The finale was definitely a big blow for John Locke fans though; you're right, it suggests that, at least the way things stand now, Locke's arc has been for naught. Not only is he dead without having been redeemed, but his earlier self was actually manipulated and jerked around, through time jumps, by the mystical force who's currently possessing his body. It's a pretty sad end for a guy who's been desperately striving for redemption, for becoming something special. I don't think that's the way it'll end for Locke though: I imagine the final season is going to be quite the mindfuck and that fade to white at the end of the fifth season means that pretty much anything can happen next. I too am hoping it's something good.

bill r. said...

He does have an Emmy (as does Michael Emerson, now), but ultimately nobody cares about Emmys. Nobody should care much about Oscars, either, but the receiving of an Oscar brings with it a great deal more respect, which is really what O'Quinn deserves. That and busloads of cash. I wish nothing but enormous success for that guy, and I would marry him if I could.

And I'd just like to say that I like Jack, and I think Matthew Fox does good work with him. He gets kicked around a lot, but I've never understood why. People complain that he's a Boy Scout (which he obviously isn't) or that he thinks he knows everything, but if those people were stuck on a time travel island, they'd want a guy who could find water and from hut-building committees in their group, too.

That being said, Locke, Linus, Juliet, Sayid (who will probably be dead soon), Richard, and various sinister Dharma supporting characters are all easily more interesting.

bill r. said...

Not only is he dead without having been redeemed, but his earlier self was actually manipulated and jerked around, through time jumps, by the mystical force who's currently possessing his body...

But that fake Locke actually still seems to be Locke...right? He's not simply wearing a rubber Locke mask.

Greg said...

Ed - One of my problems with Kate is that her character should be interesting but Evangeline Lily simply doesn't project any charisma to make her interesting. Same goes for Matthew Fox who is as solemnly dull as he was on Party of Five. Josh Holloway does have charisma but his con-man character was just too standard rake/scoundrel material to evoke much interest until all that got dropped and he became a LaFleur. Then he became interesting because he was no longer just a caricature.

Some loose ends questions:

When Ben first "introduces" John to Jacob things get thrown around the cabin and John sees a fleeting glimpse of an older unkempt man. What the hell was that? It clearly wasn't Jacob and Ben admits to never actually meeting him. If they think I'm just going to forget these things, I won't. I want explanations before it's done.

What's the magic box? Will the concept of people being able to magically appear on the island be returned to? If someone like Locke can "summon" his dad to the island, why is a sub needed at all for transport?

I have several others but I'll leave it at those two for now.

Greg said...

But that fake Locke actually still seems to be Locke...right? He's not simply wearing a rubber Locke mask.

But the real Locke is in the crate on the beach.

As for Fox, I just find him lacking all charisma as an actor. He does fine as Jack but bores me nonetheless. As for his character, Jack does on multiple occassions tell Locke or Kate or Sawyer or Sayid that THIS is what they're going to do and he should just shut up and go with Locke's ideas every time so it does get a little annoying.

bill r. said...

But the real Locke is in the crate on the beach...

I know, but the other Locke seems to know and feel everything the supposedly dead Locke thought and felt. So I'm with Ed, Locke's fate is much more complicated than it looks.

If you were on the island, you'd think Locke was crazy, too, and might not want to listen to him. Jack is the audience stand-in in a lot of ways, but because the audience can see more of what's going on than he can, we tend to think he's an annoying fool, even though were we in his shoes we'd probably behave in much the same way.

Ed Howard said...

A few things:

I think the guy in the cabin was Jacob's rival. Whether that was actually the same actor playing him or not, I gather that's who has been using the cabin during the survivors' time on the island. Which would mean that he's probably the one possessing/controlling Jack's dad as well.

I think the "magic box" was just Ben's metaphor/misdirection to make Locke think "the island" wanted him to kill his dad, when what actually happened was that Ben sent some people off the island to kidnap him and bring him back. Makes Ben look much more mysterious and powerful if it's thought of as magical.

I'm not sure if the fake Locke is possessing Locke's body or has made a copy of his body, but either way it's not Locke, as in not his consciousness. He knows enough about Locke and his memories obviously to fake being him though. That said, I doubt this is the last we'll see of the "real" Locke: one way or the other he'll get a proper end to his arc next season.

Greg said...

Bill, I agree about Jack as an audience stand in, I just don't find Fox an engaging actor up to the task. And yes, in reality, I would think Locke was a nutcase with his "listen to the island" stuff.

Here's a purely pedantic complaint very noticeable to someone watching the entire five seasons over the course of a month or so: the hitting. I don't know how familiar any of you are with a real fight but I've been in a couple and my brother got punched in the eye when he was around twenty. Anyway, that black eye was there for a full week before it started to fade, which took another week. The characters in the show get beaten - And I mean badly - almost every other show. First, they would be permantly and badly scarred at this point. Second, there would probably be some motor function loss and maybe more severe signs of mental decay. Third, some might actually be dead. Fights happen all the time in movies and tv and I ignore it but watching all of these episodes back to back I realize sometimes these horrendous beatings were occuring WITHIN THE SAME DAY TO THE SAME PEOPLE. 37 punches to the face and 6 hours later not a sign in the world that anything ever happened. It's actually a little funny at this point and I think the writers have been doing it on purpose for some time now. I mean, when Michael, Jin and Sawyer first met Mr Eko, his beating them down with a six foot long log probably should have killed them right there. Of course, the island does have magical healing properties now doesn't it?

Greg said...

I think the "magic box" was just Ben's metaphor/misdirection to make Locke think "the island" wanted him to kill his dad, when what actually happened was that Ben sent some people off the island to kidnap him and bring him back. Makes Ben look much more mysterious and powerful if it's thought of as magical.

Ed, it's true and Ben did say as much BUT... Locke's father implies something very different. He remarks, "Don't you know where you are?" That's never returned to but his father seems to be implying that he is aware of this place and that his journey there was not by ordinary methods.

bill r. said...

Ed, it's true and Ben did say as much BUT... Locke's father implies something very different. He remarks, "Don't you know where you are?" That's never returned to but his father seems to be implying that he is aware of this place and that his journey there was not by ordinary methods...

That just means they flew to get him on a magic carpet.

Greg said...

I thought the magic carpet got blown up in 1977.

bill r. said...

No, that was the magic genie lamp. And that wasn't even really destroyed, because you see it in Jeff Fahey's house in that one episode. So who knows what that's about.

Greg said...

So who do you think Jacob and his rival are? Aside from the obvious God/Lucifer allusion, are they original inhabitants of the island? Do they both have only four toes like the statue? Was there once a civilization of omnipotent godlike people on this island? If so, are the Others also four-fingered toed freaks? Richard says he remains young thanks to Jacob, implying they do not all share his abilities. Any theories?

bill r. said...

I hate to disappoint you, but I have no theories. Not anymore. This show has gone in some many directions, and so many of those directions I was entirely unable to predict, that right now I'm just going along for the ride.

Marilyn said...

I have watched I think 1/2 an episode of Lost, so my interest in this post is in the explication of the strengths and weaknesses of television. You allude to problems Lost had when negotiations for the future of the show were underway. This, I think, highlights another problem with television. Creative teams come and go. Consider any of the programs Joss Whedon has been involved with; invariably, the episodes Whedon writes himself are the best, because the entire show is his creation. He has the story arc and characters in his head. It's not easy for a team to approximate that vision day in and day out. Having tried myself to write in the "voice" of other people as a speech writer, it's a very, very difficult task. That can explain why stock characters are used (Gomer/Goober). It's easier to write a type than a person.

Greg said...

Marilyn, as much as I enjoy discussing Lost, and I do, I'm glad the other 70 percent of this post was noticed by someone. I didn't think to mention creative teams changing but that would be one more inherent flaw in the product. I think, overall, I find television as a medium naturally opposed to good storytelling which is why I don't latch onto many shows.

Lost is interesting in that it seems to be successfully navigating the terrain but as mentioned in the post, it can't be declared a full success until it is over. M*A*S*H provided quality programming but failed as a story, as I mention in the post. Even if Lost does ultimately succeed, it won't change the fact that the nature of television itself will continue to work against good writers wanting to tell a story.

Marilyn said...

There is, however, a different relationship people have with television than they do with books and movies, for example. A book is generally a solitary affair, a one on one relationship. Movies can be one on one, but they are designed - at least initially - to be a communal experience that is finite and ideally outside the home. Television has always been something that is akin to inviting people to your home to meet your family and spend time with. People on television can become friends - that's why I can mourn the loss of a television host like Walter Cronkite or, from my childhood, Frasier Thomas, decide I don't want a serial killer like Dexter in my home, or enjoy working out with Margaret Richard from Body Electric, someone I don't mind "watching" me in my workout clothes. We watch Newhart because we like spending time with Bob and the gang. That's actually the appeal of soap operas, too. It's a family experience even if you're isolated in your home taking care of your toddlers, and you can share that family with other people - the social aspects of gossip, for example.

I know you're examining the storytelling aspects of TV, but TV performs a different function that is perhaps more important than the story.

Greg said...

I'd like to explore television more now that its shows both past and present are so readily available online and its function as companionship would be an area I would like to explore.

I watched General Hospital briefly back in the early eighties but grew bored after a couple of months of noticing absolutely no forward movement in the story. It was my only experience with soap operas but it was very interesting to me how they could continue to draw people in with one deceptive cliffhanger after another. Of course, if they're just people you know and you're peaking into their private lives, that's different. Soap operas could, I suppose, function not so much as storytelling but as voyeurism.

bill r. said...

I think, overall, I find television as a medium naturally opposed to good storytelling which is why I don't latch onto many shows...

Historically, you have more evidence for your opinion than I do of mind, but I think that TV is BETTER suited for storytelling than films, for all the reasons you mention in your post. It's just that TV, or at least American TV, or at least American network TV, isn't set up to accomodate it. But look at the original Office or, especially, Dennis Potter, and you can see what wonderful things can be achieved in the mini-series format.

It's sort of like novellas in literature. A lot of writers consider it the perfect story-telling length and structure, but because they're too long to place in magazines, too short, generally, to publish on their own, and collections of them don't sell very well, there's finally almost no market for it.

Marilyn said...

No, Greg, it's not voyeurism in the strictest sense - not like the reality shows like "The Real World." If you listen to soap opera fans, they talk about these characters as though they are real people. There is something about immersing yourself in the problems of others that is deeply satisfying - either feeling your problems aren't as bad or feeling like you're helping. It's hard to explain, exactly.

Marilyn said...

Bill - That's the miniseries version of TV, and I agree with you. TV gives storytellers the room to expand, where a movie is time-delimited. But long-running series, either episodic or serial, get stale, get stock.

Greg said...

But Bill the reasons I mention in my post are that there is no definition of the beginning, middle and end which in your examples there is. Like you I have often found British television quite different from American television in that they start out with limited seasons in mind, or series as they call them, and usually far fewer episodes, sometimes between four and six for each series. This does create the best possible way to do a television show I agree. I might watch some American mini-series as well and do a separate post on that in the future.

Marilyn said...

And yet, how does one explain Dr. Who?

Greg said...

Marilyn, no it's not in the strict sense but it does have that gossipy feel to it. Their your friends sure but people want to know what their friends are up to behind closed doors and soap operas afford that opportunity.

That's not to diminish the therapeutic nature of enduring problems vicariously, and thus dealing with them indirectly.

Greg said...

I've never watched Doctor Who. I've seen snippets of episodes on PBS like everyone on the planet but I've never actually watched it. It's been on now for 87 years right? They're up to, I believe, episode 7,348. It's the longest running sci-fi soap in history.

bill r. said...

Greg, I was talking about what your points about the strengths of TV storytelling, which are basically:

Given so much opportunity to develop the character, television can indeed produce great things and has done so with many characters over the years...

I was basically just agreeing to that. And there CAN be a beginning, middle and end, if more networks would allow it. Lost is hardly a mini-series, but, for all its faults, if the finale works, it will have achieved something pretty extraordinary.

I'm not actually disagreeing with anyone, you know. All I'm saying is that TV offers amazing potential for storytelling that is almost never realized. That's why Potter worked in the medium, and why he was so endlessly frustrated by it.

Marilyn said...

Bill - Correction. Potter was not frustrated with the medium of television. He was frustrated with what it became under Rupert Murdoch. He was always a great champion of television, up to his last days. He named his cancer "Rupert," by the way.

bill r. said...

Marilyn - I know about his anger at Murdoch, but his career in TV was hardly smooth sailing before Murdoch. He championed the potential for television all his life, but do you think he was a big fan of, say, Benny Hill, the likes of which were far more common than anything akin to his own work?

Greg said...

Bill, it really can achieve great things which is why I'm so frustrated by it even if Potter wasn't (I'm going to start naming my viruses after people I hate. Next cold I get is going to be named Melanie Griffith).

Marilyn said...

I don't know that he ever said anything about Benny Hill, but I have pretty much read everything I can about him, and I don't remember any condemnation of television. He lived during the Golden Age and was treated like royalty - his dying wish granted by the British networks at the time. He was nothing but complementary about the medium, though not always the critics and the public.

Ryan Kelly said...

I've always had trouble getting into television shows. No matter how engaged I am with the drama, I have trouble committing myself to a show. If I really like something I'll catch up with it on DVD, but it is exceedingly rare that a show that isn't a comedy does that, honestly.

But this is a great essay that is both historical and critical. As always, thanks for some good reading Greg.

BLH said...

I've noticed that a few times throughout this discussion people have qualified their generalizations about the weaknesses of serial TV by making sure we know they're referring only to network TV. Apart from Greg's mention of The Sopranos, however, the issue of cable TV hasn't been brought up.

So: How do we feel that the best of cable television during this last decade (a label which we can apply to about a half dozen shows on HBO, the two big ones on AMC, and maybe a few strays here or there on F/X and whatnot) has managed to work with and around those weaknesses inherent to the medium (at least those weaknesses assured by the demands of major network broadcast)?

Take, for example, the "Stuff White People Like" certified The Wire. The shows milieu allowed for a new case and a new venue with each season. Indeed, each of its seasons, with the probable exception of the fourth, which was propelled in no small fashion by the momentum of the third (these two seasons taken together forming in my mind the decade's pinnacle achievement in long-form dramatic storytelling), was essentially a distinct miniseries with a specific socio-economic focus folded into its vaguely procedural structure. Characters remained consistent, wavering only enough to ensure our continued interest in them as conduits for deeper exploration of the "issues."

We know that cable networks extend to their flagship shows the luxury of extended hiatuses, thereby allowing that entire season-long story arcs are meticulously plotted before shooting commences. So do these programs represent the best of both worlds as far as you're concerned? In practice as well as in theory?

Greg said...

Ryan, thanks very much. All of my series television watching comes on DVD. When I watch tv it is in the form of movies (TCM, HBO, etc) or a tv non-fiction like Mythbusters, American Masters and assorted shows like that. Otherwise, from Lost to The Office, it's online or DVD. That way, if I like the show and want to continue, I can do it on my own time and finish when I like, which I can't do with Lost because I didn't wait for it to end first so now I'm hooked in and have to wait months for a conclusion. Dammit.

Greg said...

BLH, I haven't seen The Wire yet although it is next on my list of online/dvd viewing. I read up on it before writing this and it appeared to me to be in more the mini-series vein where a story is developed and completed in a season so it didn't fit with what I was covering. I also watched a season of 24 and could not bear to ever watch another but will discuss that further in the next installment covering mini-series, probably in three or four months (it takes time to get through all these).

Cable networks do seem to be producing more critically acclaimed shows than commercial networks and that itself could be the subject of a comparison. With their revenue coming in the form of subscribers instead of commercials (except for AMC and FX) they seem freer to take time developing a story before shooting it.

Bill brings up the BBC and has a good point. With American network television a show is given a pilot and if it's a hit, it keeps going. With the BBC, a show is developed for a series with a beginning, middle and end and if it's a hit, tough. It wraps up when it's supposed to. If it's not a hit no chance of extending it is ever given. In the case of successes, further series (seasons) can be developed. That was the problem with Party of Five and almost all American serial shows. No one developed it as a three season story with say, season one being about the kids adjusting, two about them finding their own way, three about moving on. Instead it just started, was successful, they kept it going. Cable and the BBC don't seem to have that problem (at least not as much) so perhaps I should consider this first installment on television an exploration of storytelling methods on American commercial network tv exclusively.

Marilyn said...

I don't watch network TV anymore. The series I follow are Monk (in its final season), Bones, True Blood, and Dollhouse (at least for now; not sure I'll stay loyal). I think these shows are well-written. The first two are funny, the latter two are decent fantasy shows, though neither really has captured my wholehearted fascination.

In general, I don't think cable has done any better than network television in creating series that are cutting-edge, diverse, or compelling. The best they have done is create decent diversions, which is all I really ask of them. Good comedy is especially lacking. The overwelming amount of cop and doctor shows continues the bland trend on network TV from at least the 70s. The cop shows have gotten so graphic, I can't watch them. The doctor shows are just ridiculous.

Even the BBC series have gotten more violent than I think we should tolerate. Wire in the Blood was a horrible series that tortured women on a regular basis. ON the whole, though BBC America has produced better-quality series - better writing and actors, though story lines are hit and miss.

Greg said...

I think Curb Your Enthusiasm is a good comedy show but I only see it sporadically. I also thought Flight of the Conchords was very funny. Neither uses laughtracks which American tv is finally starting to get used to starting decades back with animated shows like The Simpsons and then live action shows like Freaks and Geeks and later The Office and 30 Rock followed suit. I can't stand laughtracks, especially the British shows which are quite overdone. Back in the seventies, from Monty Python to Are You Being Served they used the same riotous laughtrack for every joke leading the viewer to believe anyone in the non-existent audience was about to die from an apoplectic fit.

Marilyn said...

I think Curb Your Enthusiasm is a mainly unfunny, nasty show, just what I'd expect from the creator of Seinfeld. I don't want any of the people on those two shows to come into my house. I don't know the other shows; my brother's family's memorization of The Simpsons has permanently turned me off that show. I jsut don't like mean humor. At all.

Ryan Kelly said...

I wouldn't expect someone who doesn't like Seinfeld to enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm became one (obviously) grew out of the other. But I don't think Seinfeld's humor is actually nasty; I think the show, quite brutally, is taking the self absorption and narcissism and pettiness of New York in the 90s to task. You're not supposed to think they're good people --- they're awful and they all deserve one another, and it's wonderfully fitting that they wind up in jail at the end of the show because they're so selfish.

What I like about the humor on Curb is the way that David's personality and sensibilities clash with all those around him. I think it's a fascinating little microcosm of the phoniness of show-business.

Marilyn said...

Ryan - You're right and that is exactly what I don't want in my house. Would you want to have those four over for dinner, knowing they'd find something about you to pick at? These are not people I want to spend time with, even to laugh at. They are extremely unpleasant. And I personally think people identified with them more than they despised them. And that's scary.

bill r. said...

Everywhere I turn, The Wire is being hailed as the greatest show that has ever existed. I've still never seen a single episode. I suppose at some point I'll have to.

I think Larry David is a douche, but what I've seen of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I kinda like it. I think it's enormously overrated, but not at all bad. Neither that or Seinfeld is even a patch on the look at narcissism and pettiness that was The Larry Sanders Show. Hank Kingsley is one of the greatest characters ever invented. Truly.

I saw one episode of True Blood, and I despised it. Sorry.

Marilyn said...

Bill - You need to get over this wishy washy attitude of yours and take a stand.

Ed Howard said...

I must admit, in light of all this high-level discourse about TV storytelling and such, that the TV shows I watch are largely just trashy entertainment. Lost and South Park (at least when it's being satirical rather than simply scatological) are probably the most "serious" shows I watch, which tells you how seriously I take TV. I also get a kick out of True Blood, which is consistently campy, over-the-top trash. Likewise, on opposite ends of the spectrum, the grisly Dexter and the poppy, lightweight spy comedy Chuck. That's about it, honestly, since Heroes rapidly descended into utter nonsense after some promisingly fun first season high points.

I think TV can be a great medium for serious expression, of course, and I greatly appreciate all the fine work that European filmmakers like Godard, Fassbinder, Bergman, Mike Leigh, etc. have done in TV, either in miniseries or made-for-TV movie formats. But when it comes to actually sitting down to watch modern American TV, for some reason, I tend to gravitate towards relatively fluffy entertainment

BLH said...

I'm a relatively young guy, I suppose. In my youth I watched The Wonder Years and the best seasons of The Simpsons, then later moved on to stuff like Larry Sanders and Homicide. My point, I guess, is that I grew up with a respect for American television as being capable of greatness on occasion, however rare those occasions may be.

In the last decade, I've seen a handful of American shows that I consider truly great: Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Home Movies, Arrested Development, and maybe Mad Men. And that's probably it. There's more of quality out there, of course, but most everything else strikes me as being spoiled to some degree by the sort of wheel-spinning and laziness that Greg speaks of in his post.

My girlfriend likes to fall asleep to TV, so we end up watching a lot of shows on DVD late at night. Most of it is not particularly memorable, but considering the alternatives (talk shows, informercials, etc.), it's worth my time when I happen upon something that's fun or genuinely impressive. Lost and True Blood are enormously entertaining. Weeds is consistently funny but kinda wonky. Dexter is awful, especially the most recent season. Damages isn't much better.

bill r. said...

Greg, give Eastbound and Down a look. There've only been six episodes so far, and I'd be really curious to know what you thought of it.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I haven't been subscribing to cable for the past couple of years and found I don't miss television. Even when I stayed at a hotel because of work related projects, I found I just did care. The closest I'll be getting is on my DVD queue with the previous season of The L Word and the second season of Rome. Last year I finally saw the last season of The Sopranos as I was in Thailand during when it aired.

I tried to watch the first episode of Lost and gave up after about fifteen minutes. Part of it was revulsion to the basic premise as a person who's been flying internationally. As for MASH, yeah, I watched it, but my best memory is reading that when Altman's film was broadcast, and this was after the series had been on a while, there were complaints about the use of different actors by an audience totally unaware of the source of the television series.