A Long Post About Lost, Prestige TV, Comic Book Movies, and the Serialization of Everything


It's clear that my relationship to genre cultural properties has changed in the last ten years, and given enough time, it's clear that Lost is the reason for that change. I had a much larger appetite for them before, and almost none now. It's not entirely clear what exactly about Lost took me in that direction. But for need of a lot of something to watch, I've returned to it. I had a disparate reaction on this occasion to two of the most famous emotional beats in the story, and it might be worth exploring why. "Not Penny's Boat" had all of the resonance it did the first time. "The Constant" was a tremendous disappointment. This isn't surprising, since they were told in very different ways.

"Not Penny's Boat" is genuinely affecting because it builds over the course of several episodes before resolving. Desmond begins to get flashes that Charlie will die, and tries to save him; Desmond gets a particularly tempting vision and almost lets Charlie die. For his part, Charlie has to come to accept that his death is going to come soon and there's nothing he can do about it. The emotional punch comes because he gets to pick the cause for which he dies: he's found something worthy of that kind of sacrifice. Making that resolution changes him, frees him, to become someone who can be bold and active and self-sacrificing. He is free because there's meaning in his death. That allows him to be calm enough to save Desmond and communicate the important message that only he knows and then die.

"The Constant" is not genuinely affecting because it contrives its own problem and provides too pat of a solution. The "problems crossing between times" bit is introduced no earlier than the very end of the previous episode, and does not reappear again for another whole season (where it claims one single victim, conveniently not a major character). The life-threatening problem is given to two characters, one of whom only exists in order to pass along crucial exposition about the threat and how to get around it, and the problem for the main character is completely resolved by the end of the episode. This serious problem also, surprisingly, affected no one else involved in any travel to or from the island, and none of the numerous people shuttling back and forth between the freighter and the island for the rest of the season. The episode exists only for its endpoint--Penny and Desmond getting in contact with one another--and the rest is simply a means of getting the viewer there. It's emotional manipulation rather than storytelling, gesturing at rather than being something great.

The difference is that one of these is a storyline for a character's arc in a narrative, and another is a cool episode.

The difference between these matters because their reception says something about how we understand stories at this moment. Big cultural properties are (again) serialized: movies, books, tv shows are often now guaranteed out a certain distance into the future; like previous serials, they encourage looking at individual parts closely and wholes very rarely, and then only from certain narrow perspectives: we ask what the stakes are, whether the stories are internally consistent, whether they are, in each piece, entertaining. As a whole we might ask whether the story is worth the time invested, but these are judgments of the whole, rather than "we might omit 40 minutes/three episodes/200 pages without great loss" because the economics inform the structure of the content, rather than the content dictating anything at all. No one complains very much about mid-season episodes of a tv show that spin their wheels, because, as goes the usual critic's line, these come up of necessity in every season: even if there are only six episodes of plot, there need to be 13, or 22, or 24 episodes, so something has to fill that time. That you probably need to have seen all the other Marvel movies to understand the new ones is considered a feature, rather than a bug, and anyway, that's just how they make movies now.

When I was much younger I remember watching a few soap operas (hey, they were new tv in the summer, back when that was unusual), and particularly General Hospital when Luke and Laura were first re-introduced. Luke had been a bad guy at first, but now he was a good guy, because the show needed him to be one. The catch with a soap opera is that none of the stories can ever end, because the show must go on five days a week, and should ideally involve the same popular characters or actors. Consequently narrative logic must go out the window--filling out the time is the only thing that really matters--with characters changing allegiance and motivation all the time, and all the loopy narrative flourishes one associates with soap opera as a form.

Regular tv shows, movies, and multi-part books, lacking plot to fill out the allotted time and space, now indulge generously in melodrama and soap-opera antics (*paging George R.R. Martin*). Lost would disappear as a show if people answered each others' questions and didn't just go hiking off into the jungle every time they thought about doing something: the story needs these distractions as it needs the various other fancy-looking macguffins because the story can't hold out on its own. (As an experiment: try to summarize season 5 of Lost in one sentence. It is either impossible to do, if you try to include any of the details, or quite easy--"Ben tricks everyone into coming back to the Island, except in 1974"--which only exposes how superfluous much of it is.) Everything else is plot machinations for their own sake: Daniel and Charlotte get a romantic attachment which is entirely told and never shown, because Daniel needs some stakes for his own arc and the love of his life being threatened can provide them. Don Draper cycles through alcoholism and various women either because that's what he does or because it provides a few episodes of him looking seductive and cool and then a chance to blow it all up at the end, which will happen every season at fixed times that just so happen to coincide with the major parts of the season. (Friends, by contrast, didn't bother to get Ross and Rachel together, or break them up, at any significant moment in seasons 2 and 3 (February Sweeps, probably, but at least not as predictable). Then again, when you're a cultural phenomenon, you can do whatever you want and be certain you'll get a rating. That the MCU movies don't attempt this is probably also notable.) Loki gets himself captured in The Avengers, and it hardly matters whether his plan makes sense because it provides for Character Exposition and A Chance To Heighten The Themes Of This Movie. When movies, books, tv, engage in these kinds of stalling tactics, they kill actual organic character growth, but do so simply because the economics of the situation demand it. The skeleton shows in so many places now. One only has to look for it.

The flip-side of the soap opera-ization of things is that individual moments mean a lot less. No one soap character's great scene or arc means a lot when it's stacked up against others of wildly varying quality and changing motivation. Wasn't that time Don stopped drinking and recognized his problems really inspiring? Does "The Suitcase" mean less as an episode now that you know absolutely nothing about Don changed as a result of it? "The Constant" is a great episode if you have no idea what's going to happen to Desmond. Once you know it only serves to torture him with a bit of happiness before his life is ruined, how does it seem?

The single biggest factor contributing to the Golden Age of TV is the fact that no one can conceptualize of a creative model that works differently than this ("tell a fixed-length story until it's done and then end it?"). It used to be only comic book nerds that were suckers like this: the "even numbers are good" joke about Star Trek movies is an admission that 50% of them are bad; the hype for the new Star Wars movie seems to have forgotten that four of the six were disappointments. Now people are prepared to hold out hope for years and against all evidence that the results will be worth it, or that mediocre installments (the third of any series) are just the price we pay for the good ones.

Oddly, people seem more ready to see this in comedy than drama, where no great tv show of the last 15 years goes without criticism for losing its edge (some never regaining it) and where everyone can see the problems of The Hangover or Pitch Perfect making sequels that largely repeat the plot of the original films. The Office, for example, had one great idea--bring Jim and Pam together slowly, then keep them together--from which they got three seasons of very good tv. Once that idea was done, though, there was nothing behind it, try though they might to recreate that magic--more shocks and twists than one might reasonably expect of a faux-documentary about a paper company. Why did the show stay on the air through a number of increasingly bad seasons to the point that it poisoned its own legacy? Economics.

This matters because critical standards can do something to help explain and interpret what we're seeing. The overwhelming tendency of American aesthetics for the last hundred years has been to divide out entertainment from art, to push one lower and the other higher, until there is very little room in the middle. If a property is meant to be entertaining, this serves to silence all possible criticism; if it is entertaining, it has served its purpose. Art is reserved for those things that aim at something more complex than entertainment. But since these are the only two categories, things end up wildly misplaced: the bad Marvel movies are intended only as entertainment, the good ones compete with the best of film. Prestige tv often cannot reasonably be said to attempt to entertain, so it must be art, after a fashion. But there are trashy attempts at being artistic--Rain Man, Braveheart, the run-up to Oscar season in any given year--and joke-factory workplace sitcoms that transcend being merely entertaining (Cheers, for example). Attempting to be art does not necessarily make art; having the trappings of art isn't art, either; that no one has yet recognized The Dark Knight Rises to be the highest of camp is a great disappointment to me--it looks and feels and acts like a deadly serious movie but has a scene with a football player outrunning a sinkhole as it forms. That place between entertainment and art is so often vacant because no one recognizes it even exists.

Sorting this out is a lot of work. So much easier to let it simply wash over you, and like or dislike to your heart's content, and not worry about it. That, however, is a recipe for knowing what date "Untitled Female Superhero Movie" will open on ten years from now, because the identity of the superhero matters less than knowing that the right market segments will be served in a timely manner.

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