Monday, May 28, 2007

Lost and Found

I've devoted one previous post to the series Lost (Lost Legs), and made passing comments in several others, and for the most part have expressed my frustration with a series that started out strong and went off the rails during its second season. But after viewing the final few episodes, and especially the season finale this past Wednesday, it seems to me that the Lost may be back on track.

A series such as Lost that has a relatively linear story line that is something like a shark in that it needs to keep swimming forward to stay alive (jumping the shark being another matter altogether, as I discussed in a previous post, 24 or 6 to 5). For a while there it seemed like they had either stopped moving forward, or were doing so way too slowly for the typically impatient television viewer.

I even considered making a dumb comment comparing the plane crash survivors on Lost to our troops in Iraq, with all the calls to bring them back home, but this using the name Lost in conjunction with our military action and mentioning the topic of bringing the troops back home might leave me open to charges of being unpatriotic, comparing the situation our soldiers are in with a television show (even though most of us experience Iraq as a TV show as well) would leave me open to charges of being disrespectful of their genuine heroism and sacrifice, and comparing the protestations of members of the antiwar movement to irate fans of a TV series would leave me open to charges of mocking and belittling their sincere efforts. In other words, a lose-lose situation, and look what they did to Imus.

Bu the series moved forward with a vengeance in Wednesday's 2-hour episode, providing exactly the kind of excitement that was missing for so long. Now if only this isn't an aberration, and the creators of Lost have come to their senses and realize that the only significant elements in a linear narrative are the ones that move the story forward. Storytellers have understood this for as long as people have been telling stories.

In oral cultures, the singer of tales would perform for an audience without a script (no writing, no script), drawing on memory and improvising by stitching together various formulas and formulaic expressions. The audience would be heavily involved in the performance, perhaps even singing along at times, or taking part in call-and-response sequences. And if the audience was really responsive and into the song, the singer knew how to stretch it out, elaborate on the details, draw out the various sequences, add new plot elements, characters, etc. And if the audience seemed bored or distracted, the singer could shorten the song as well. The situation allowed for maximum feedback and flexibility.

The written text, in contrast, is more or less fixed (although subject to revision either through scribal copying/corruption or through editing). Moreover, the audience is almost never actually present (as Walter Ong put it, "the writer's audience is always a fiction," so the writer generally does not receive immediate feedback and cannot adjust the story in response to whatever feedback might make its way through (aside from publishing a new edition or writing a sequel).

What's true of writing and printing also applies to the mass media in general--feedback is indirect and delayed, that's what we teach in Mass Media 101. There is no audience present, although it is possible to try to get feedforward (a term that's been around for a long time, but has not been widely used) by using test audiences--standard operating procedure for advertising campaigns and major motion pictures, but not so easy to implement for ongoing series). And anyone who actually writes or calls a TV station or network about the programming is almost always in such a small minority that he or she is immediately written off as unrepresentative of the actual audience. So, in lieu of direct feedback, especially for television programming, there's the indirect sampling technique known as the ratings (see my previous post on Audience Abuse).

Of course, the internet opened things up a bit, so that there can be more direct communication between fans and creators, or at least the creators can monitor fan communication and get a better idea of what the fans are thinking. Mobilizing the fan base can be the key to keeping a series from getting canceled (this began with The Man from UNCLE series in the sixties, followed by the original Star Trek series which gained a third season through fan protests), and for contributing to the financial success of a film (I'm thinking of Peter Jackson's appeals to Lord of the Rings fans here). But fans are not a mass audience, and their support only goes so far. For example, last summer's much-hyped movie, Snakes on a Plane, had enormous buzz on the internet, so much so that the producers were convinced that they had a major smash on their hands, but all the posts on message boards and blogs did not translate into seats in the theaters, and the movie was a flop.

Even taking internet-derived feedback into account, the producers have to sit down and map out their season, have scripts in hand for at least the early episodes and in development for the later ones, be well into the season in production by the time the first episode of the season airs. So, it is very hard to adjust to feedback in mid-season, sometimes impossible.

It's easier, though, when it comes to a series that is episodic, such as a situation comedy. Adjustments are relatively easy, as you can add some new characters, eliminate or downplay characters that are not working out, change the scenario somewhat by adding a new situation (a workplace added to a domestic sitcom or vice versa, for example), etc. But when there is a linear narrative involved, it's tough to make major changes. Producers can, however, stretch the storyline when a series becomes popular, and accelerate it when the ratings go down (when a series is not renewed but there is sufficient notice, we often get a rushed and condensed wrap up to the series, such as occurred on the HBO series Rome, as I noted in a previous post, Rome If You Want To, Rome Around the World), but at least that's better than leaving behind an orphaned narrative, aka televisionus interruptus (again, something I discussed in Audience Abuse).

So, the problem with Lost is that they were spoiled by the success of their first season, and started to stretch the whole storyline until it lost its shape and texture. They actually introduced an entire second cast of characters, gave us their back stories, and then proceeded to kill off almost all of them, the only one remaining being an altogether minor character. Yes, devoted fans still pored over each episode searching for the little clues that generated so much internet buzz, and maybe the creators also started to write for that specialized audience and disregard the mass audience. And that's fine, as long as you're not trying to succeed on the massiest of the mass media, network television, where there's no room in the schedule for cult followings.

One of the creators of Lost, J. J. Abrams, also had the same trouble with a previous series, Alias, which in my opinion totally lost its focus after a strong first season, and never recovered. I wonder if this is a pattern for Abrams, or just a coincidence? I guess we'll see with his next series (assuming there is one), but at least in this instance it appears that all is not lost for Lost. That's assuming it hasn't already forfeited too much of its mass audience, because once the bleeding starts, the wound is very hard to heal. Simply put, it's hard to get new viewers to start watching a linear narrative so late in the game (although the availability of past seasons on DVD does help), but it is very easy to lose viewers who simply no longer care about the resolution to the story.

I give Lost credit for its ambitions. The series is a highly complex narrative in which each episode includes flashbacks for one of the characters, letting us in on their back stories bit by bit. At first, this seemed to just be a device to help us get to know them better and care about the characters, but over time it became clear that their back stories actually are part of the mystery, pieces of the puzzle at the heart of the program. The past also impacts the present in all sorts of different ways in the program, as it turns out that most of the survivors stranded on this island have crossed paths prior to their arrival, even if they don't remember it or didn't take note of it. The biggest revelation this season was that Locke's father, who abandoned him as a child, who turned out to be a con man, and whose reunion with Locke was just an elaborate con, was also the swindler who seduced James/Sawyer's mother, stole his parents life savings, leading to their deaths, the man that James/Sawyer had been longing to confront. And the past comes back to haunt (or maybe help) in that Locke's father (or a simulacrum) is found on the island, giving both men a chance for revenge.

There is a blurring of past and present, and now future, as in the season finale instead of flashbacks we get flashforwards (or is it feedforwards?), seeing that Jack, the physician and leader of the castaways, will self-destruct when they get back (and this of course suggests that they do get back), and will decide that it was a mistake to leave the island). These flashbacks coincide with major developments that suddenly bring them closer to leaving the island. But, unlike the past and present, which we assume to be real, there's some ambiguity about these days of future past that we are witness too. As Scrooge would ask, is it what will be, or what may be? Is time like the Rocky Mountains, or is it fluid and subject to change. Where does this peek into the future come from? With flashbacks, we can assume that somehow we're drawing on the characters' memories, but with flashforwards, might this be a premonition? The character of Desmond already has had numerous premonitions, a new ability gained after surviving the electromagnetic pulse that Locke initiated, and he has demonstrated that knowledge of the future allows you to change the future, at least a little bit, and to stave off fate, at least temporarily, as he was able to keep Charlie from dying until Charlie was in the right place and time to do some good when he sacrificed his life.

Moving back and forth between past, present, and future in this way may be a sign of the break down of a coherent sense of time--the postmodernists use the term temporal schizophrenia, which implies a break down of meaning as well as time, because for anything to mean anything, the signifier must link to the signified (i.e., the word to its meaning) and sign must link to sign (i.e., word follow word to make a statement) in chronological sequence. And maybe this is so, but a breakdown of time and meaning leaves us with a mystery without a resolution, and the sense of incoherence and illogic, and that the mystery is going nowhere, is part of what's been alienating viewers.

But I see a different view of time at work here, one that the great media ecology pioneer and linguistics scholar Benjamin Lee Whorf discovered was characteristic of Hopi and Navajo Native Americans: they only have two tenses in their languages, one for things that are manifest, that is, in existence, which encompasses both of our past and present tenses, and the other for things that will be, or things that could, would, or should be. This is a more mystical, sacred sense of time, which coincides with the sensibility of the island (a sacred space?). The survivors' pasts and their present are interconnected and the intersections move the plot forward (that key requirement again). Their future, and the resolution of the mystery at the heart of the program, remain an undiscovered country--and yes, the theme of death comes up repeatedly in the series. So does the theme of life, especially children and pregnancy, both obsessions of the threatening Others.

The brief title sequence that opens each episode resembles the movie titles from the old film noir films, and although Lost is not all that noirish in visual style, it does present a mystery than is more than a whodunnit, but rather an existential question of the meaning of it all, of whether all coherence is gone, and of how to find our way in a world gone mad. Like so many neo-noirs (in particular, the film Blade Runner comes to mind), the deeper mystery is one of identity. We, as viewers, learn about them bit by bit through the flashbacks over the weeks, and many of the characters seem to have more than one identity, a kind of alias, such as James/Sawyer, and Kate, and Eko, and Locke's conman father, but those characters don't seem to be confused about who they really are themselves, about the real person behind the false front. There's confusion about the island itself, its true nature, the reality of the environment they find themselves in. But the one thing the survivors have yet to question is their own identities, whether they are who they think they are. Now, maybe the series won't end up going in that direction, but it would be consistent with this genre for individual identity to be called into question, for the survivors to at least consider that they are wired to some virtual reality machine Matrix-style, or that they are artificial intelligences/robots/androids/replicants who only think they're real, or that they're clones who think they're the originals (given all the emphasis on pregnancy and birth, a biological angle seems the most likely possibility, and given the hint that the wreckage of their flight was found and there were no survivors, clones are a possible explanation for their waking up on the island, no to mention Locke's miraculous ability to walk again). If I had to put money on it, I'd say that by the end of the series, the question of identity/reality (the two are inseparable) will be called into question directly and significantly.

Like a game, the final score must remain uncertain, or else there is no game (in this sense, games are all about information in the sense that Claude Shannon used the term, whereas narratives are only about information in a very limited way). And Lost, in many ways, resembles a game. On the surface, it resembles that archetype of reality television, Survivor, and I imagine that it was pitched in those terms initially, although in the case of Lost the survivors want nothing more than to be voted off the island. To me, the series more closely resembles an adventure game, otherwise known as interaction fiction, such as the cinematic Myst that once was so popular (and also involved an island), but maybe even more so the old Infocom text adventures like Zork, based on the granddaddy of them all, the public domain mainframe game known as Adventure. These games all were about solving puzzles to move forward in the story (or what passed for one), trying to get to an ultimate goal that also includes trying to figure out the mystery behind the scenario (more so with the later games, especially Myst), while exploring, meandering, and mapping a strange environment, meeting other characters, picking up objects, etc. Those games could get frustrating too, when you get stymied and stalemated (especially in the days before readily available cheat codes on the web). But the player took an active role in trying to solve the puzzles, trying to figure out how to use an object, which object to use, etc., the trade off being an attenuated (at best) narrative.

While Lost resembles a game, and the postmodernists (following Wittgenstein) may look at everything as amounting to nothing more than language games, a TV series is not interactive fiction. Admittedly, all mysteries are games in the sense that they are puzzles, but they have more to do with working out plot lines than with game play involving uncertain outcomes (again, this has come up in previous posts such as The Plotz to Save Socrates and All Blogged Up!). And yes, a touch of the gamer sensibility has added some spice to the series, but the viewer is still unable to participate actively in the events that are unfolding. Yes, Lost fans have made the most of the DVR's enhanced capacity for slow motion and frame-by frame to search for clues, but this kind of active involvement still does not have any effect on the unfolding narrative, we make no decisions on behalf of the characters, no choices as to which path they will follow.

Lost may point the way to a future with increasingly more sophisticated interactive programming (in both the TV and computer sense of the word), but we will still be looking for that eloquent and tuneful singer of tales to sing us a song, to tell us a story, time and time again.

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