Lost returns to Australian television tonight (February 11, 2009), several weeks after it resumed in the US and in the rather unfriendly timeslot of 10.30pm.
Presumably the tardy return and crappy timeslot are a reflection of the show’s waning ratings, at least here in Australia. While the loss of viewers to downloads has forced Australian networks to release popular shows in a more timely manner than they have traditionally deigned to (SciFi on Foxtel are to be commended for their decision to screen the final season of Battlestar Galactica only hours after it goes to air in the US) old habits die hard, and as soon as a show begins to fail in the ratings it’s a fair bet the commercial networks will be treating viewers with the dizzying disrespect they always have by screening them long after primetime, delaying episodes and altering their schedules without warning (a disaster for anyone trying to record programs).
It’s a pity, in many ways, because as anyone who has stuck around through the longueurs of the second and third seasons knows, Lost went from strength to strength across its increasingly wild fourth season, and reviews from overseas suggest the fifth is even better. As Season Three ended, several of the survivors (Jack, Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Sun and Claire’s son, Aaron) are off the island, a turn of events a series of flash-forwards (mirroring the device of the flashbacks in the first few seasons) have revealed to have caused any number of problems of its own. Jack is a drunken wreck, his relationship with Kate has come unravelled, Hurley is in an asylum and talking to dead people, Sayid is an assassin employed by the perfidious Charles Widmore, Sun has taken over her father’s criminal and business empire and Locke, last seen trying to save the island, is in a coffin on the mainland. The fate of many of those back on the island, in particular Jin, is unclear, but the island itself seems to have teleported away not just through space but through time. And Ben has arrived to tell Jack and the other members of the Oceanic Six that if they want to save themselves and the other survivors they have to go back to the island.
It’s exactly as mad as it sounds, of course, and almost as incomprehensible. Like many shows which rely upon the unravelling of intricate plots, it’s almost impossible to keep track of precisely what’s going on, and indeed in many ways, keeping track of what’s going on is almost beside the point. What matters is the almost visceral thrill of the show’s twists and turns, and the sense that some new craziness lies just around the corner.
Last week I published a piece in The Australian Literary Review about the rise of what I called the new television. In it I argued that shows such as The Sopranos represent a mode of television drama unlike any we have seen before, filmic in their exploration of the medium’s visual and aural possibilities and novelistic in their preparedness to reject the generic conventions of series television and embrace the complexity and ambiguity of our inner lives.
One of the more striking aspects of this new television is the way it has been made possible by changes in television’s economic model, and by the rise of cable networks less reliant upon advertising and the growing popularity of alternative distribution models such as DVD and downloads, legal or otherwise. This shift away from reliance upon advertisers has allowed the cable networks to make more courageous choices about content and style, and to rely upon greater loyalty from their audiences over time, allowing longer and more complex storylines to be developed and explored.
Lost and The Sopranos are quite different phenomena of course. If The Sopranos can be understood as the early 21st century’s answer to Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy, Lost’s antecedents are to be found in the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s, and more particularly, the Silver Age comics of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others. Certainly Lost, like other, more obviously derivative shows such as Heroes, owes more than just its subject matter to the pulpy, four-colour world of the comic strip. Its structure, with the movement back and forwards in time from an essentially static present is reminiscent of the comic, as is its dependence upon the show’s complex and intertwined mythology. But in many ways it is its dependence upon the piecing together of the puzzles it presents, rather than the transformation of character through action and circumstance to generate narrative excitement and interest that ties it most closely to the comic. For all the intensity and vividness with which characters like Jack are drawn, it’s not their personal and existential travails we’re interested in, merely the part they play in a much larger picture, just as with Spiderman it’s the thrill of recognition we feel in discovering the Green Goblin is Harry Osborn’s father that keeps us reading.
It’s a mode of storytelling Lost’s creator, J.J. Abrams has spent much of the last decade perfecting. First in Alias (a show I never warmed to), and more recently in the drearily derivative Fringe, as well as in films like Mission Impossible III, Cloverfield and the upcoming Star Trek reboot, Abrams has demonstrated an remarkable capacity to marry a purely pop, MTV aesthetic to narrative elements which rarely find their way into mainstream television. Sean Williams, for one sees Lost, with its teleportation and time travel plots, as a trojan horse designed to smuggle science fictional tropes into the mainstream, and in many ways the same could be said of all of Abrams’ work to date.
Part of the Abrams mystique is the illusion that everything in shows such as Lost and Fringe is part of some intricate plan worked out in advance. Like many other television shows, Lost assumes many of its viewers will watch (and indeed rewatch) episodes on Tivo and DVD, allowing them to pause and rewind, and as a result every second frame has some secret unlikely to reveal itself on a casual viewing hidden in it. If a television is on during a flashback in Lost you can assume whatever’s on will pertain to the plot, if a document is glimpsed on a table it will matter, if a logo appears on a coffee cup it will be part of the larger picture.
Obviously this increasingly complex web of associations in Lost and other shows like it depends upon exactly the same transformation in delivery technologies that underpins the rise of the new television more generally. Yet they are supplemented, in Lost’s case, by the very intelligent and deliberate use of the internet. Google Lost, and you will find endless discussions and spoilers, attempts to unravel the show’s mysteries and general speculation about what every detail might mean. And it’s not idle chatter either: I suspect for many viewers this second life (if you’ll pardon the pun) is as much a part of their enjoyment of the show as its more immediate pleasures.
The illusion it’s all planned is, of course, just that. One only has to look at the description of the original pilot (which was meant to star Michael Keaton as Jack, and have him die at the end of the first episode) to be reminded of the organic manner in which any television show, even one as intricate as Lost, evolves. Perhaps to his credit Abrams seems happy to give away the sort of fascistic control over every aspect of his shows’ creation that David Chase clearly exerted over The Sopranos or Matthew Weiner now exerts over Mad Men (there’s a fascinating if appalling depiction of Weiner at work in this excellent New York Times feature about life on the Mad Men set)
It’s also interesting to contrast Abrams’ manipulation of the illusion of control with the cheerful and slightly dismaying preparedness of Ronald D. Moore, co-creator of Battlestar Galactica, another show whose success depends at least in part on the complexity of its overarching narrative, to admit how many of the crucial decisions about Battlestar Galactica are made in the most casual fashion (“Who shall we make the last of the Final Five? Adama? The President? Ellen?????”).
Given this careful calibrated interplay between the collaborative technologies of the internet (an interplay shows like Battlestar Galactica also build on through the release of mini webisodes between seasons) it would be tempting to see Lost and shows like it as the first wave of a new, viewer-driven mode of television, a wikivision if you like, but they’re not, or not really. The shows are still driven from the top down, even if they aren’t mapped out by their creators in quite the detail they pretend they are. And it is worth asking whether viewer-driven television would be attractive anyway. In the days of yore, when Xena was one of the hottest shows on tv, its writers checked out the newsgroups, and discovered, somewhat to their dismay, that its fans were enraged by many aspects of the current season. Pleased to have an insight into what viewers did and didn’t like, they began to change storylines and finesse characters to meet the wishes of their fans. The strategy worked. Within a few episodes the chat on the newsgroups grew far more positive. But simultaneously, ratings began to slide. Pleasing the diehard fans, it turned out, was not the same as pleasing viewers more generally.
Yet there’s little doubt Lost and its relatives are part of a broader transformation of television drama, a transformation driven by related, forces to those which have allowed shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Big Love to flourish. And, like those shows, they represent a flowering of television drama which speaks to its vitality as a form. Whether this renaissance can survive the next wave of changes to the media landscape is an interesting question, but for now, I’m just happy to have Lost back.