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Monday, March 7, 2011

Television: Serialization - Copying The Wrong Attributes


Hey again everyone! This is an article I wrote over Christmas break for SpoilerTV. I'm reposting it here. Enjoy!

Now that Christmas Break is upon us, I can get back into the swing of writing articles more than once every few months. I thought that I would begin again with some posts about television in general. This particular article is an idea I have been struggling with for a few months. As such, it’s kind of a doozy in length, but bear with me!


The core of this idea is that Network Television is, more often than not, a colossal creative failure.


Don’t get me wrong; there are some phenomenal shows out there. The problem I’m talking about is that Networks tend to play it safe. This means churning out inane procedurals like there’s no tomorrow. This also means banking future success on past accomplishments.

In order to illustrate this point, I want to compare Lost to several failed attempts at creating new shows in a similar vein. Every year, the major networks try to shove a new serialized science-fiction mystery drama down our throats. These shows often try to be intellectually stimulating, philosophically profound, and emotionally gratifying in a way that Lost could often be.


Unfortunately, they have failed almost every time.


In a SpoilerTV article written a month or two ago, Indy42 asked the question: "Is The Event the new Lost or the new FlashForward?" Many of the commentators came to a resounding “Lost is better than both by far”.

Before fans of either of those shows decide to stop reading this article, I want to express the fact that I enjoyed FlashForward and am currently enjoying The Event; however, this enjoyment is based on one major caveat. I like them for what they are. I have issues with them based on what the networks have tried to make them. Let me give a brief run-down of what each of these shows looked like in their first few episodes so as to demonstrate this point.

All three shows begin with something incredible happening.

Lost: A PLANE CRASHES on an island in the middle of nowhere. There’s something mysterious in the forest. There also seem to be Polar Bears. Drama ensues as characters bond over their predicament and people react in different and relatively believable ways. We slowly learn more about each of these characters' pasts through FLASHBACKS and we begin to care about them. Their pasts tend to explain why they act the way they do on the island. They are eventually forced to band together in order to defend themselves against a group of MYSTERIOUS OTHERS.

Flashforward: Everyone ever falls asleep for two minutes and seventeen seconds during which many of them see visions of a possible future. This brings up very important philosophical questions about the nature of destiny and free will. BUT WAIT, some people weren't asleep. The blackout was probably planned by a group of MYSTERIOUS OTHERS with nefarious intentions. Also, there’s a Kangaroo. We can also assume that PLANES CRASHED at some point during the blackout. A helicopter did. That’s kind of like plane, right? Drama ensues and FLASHBACKS occur, which may or may not cause us to care about the characters who act erratically even in light of said flashbacks.

The Event: Something seems to be happening that is later revealed to be the unexplained disappearance of a PLANE about to CRASH into The President. MYSTERIOUS OTHERS who don’t age at a normal rate have been held captive for several decades. They might be aliens. They are likely intended as a metaphor for being an outsider. FLASHBACKS occasionally occur, which rarely lend much of anything to the current plot and certainly don’t add much to many of the characters. Some of what's happening seems nonsensical.

Flashforward and The Event, though entertaining, were specifically written and marketed to fill the void left by Lost as it took its final bow. These shows were purposely constructed to remind us of Lost and yet they missed the point entirely. All three of them have time jumps, mysterious others, mysteries, and drama; however, Lost is the only one that had excellent pacing.

What Lost managed in its entire first season, Flashforward and The Event tried to cram into their respective pilots. Lost had a sense of mystery that was by definition vague and, well, mysterious. Sure, there was a monster in the forest, but that was hardly the point. We were watching these people from disparate places with disparate backgrounds learning to work and live together (so as not to die alone). Lost put its characters front and centre and allowed the plot to develop around them. In contrast, The Event and Flashforward have/had their characters bend to the will of the plot.


Many Lost fans spent so much of their time stressing about whether or not Darlton was (were?) making things up as they went along that they failed to see the beauty in Darlton's organic approach to the show. While the overarching plot might have been in place (i.e. the last shot was Jack's eye closing), they allowed their actors to play off of their chemistry with other actors. Ben and Desmond would never have been the integral parts of the show that they became were it not for Darlton’s openness to new ideas.



Darlton killed characters because they weren't working out (*cough* Ana Lucia *cough*) or to advance the plot (*cough* Daniel, Juliet, Jin, Sun, Boone, etc *cough*). Do we really think that Flashforward was going to turn around and say "You know what? No one likes Aaron. Lets kill him and find some other way for Jericho to do what it was supposed to do"? Absolutely not! They had a "bible". They had to stick to the "bible" and characters be damned. The Event is just as intensely entrenched in its serialized storytelling. With complex fragmented time-jumping and decade-spanning storytelling, they can't risk the slightest screw up.


Lost, though heavily serialized, wasn’t about the serialization.

An important point to note is that there was very minimal actual science fiction on Lost during Season 1. Season 1 also had something like 18 million viewers. As the series progressed and the mystery and science fiction emerged, viewers started to leave. Still, that isn't necessarily what made those viewers leave *coughs* third season's initial lack of direction and long breaks between pointless episodes *coughs*. Every kind of viewer, including the opinionated science fiction hater, had something to take from Lost. Lost maintained 8 to 12 million viewers from seasons 4 through 6, which is still very impressive. Those numbers wouldn't have been possible without the earlier seasons. Remember when Lost had musical montages at the end of the occasional episode?

It's as if every attempt at a Lost clone forgets about how Lost began.

The Networks took a look at Lost and tried to take away what they thought was a winning formula. Unfortunately, in their impatience to solidify their shows as rock-solid ratings powerhouses, they just dived into their premises without any build-up whatsoever. When Lost began its initial run, the producers had trouble convincing the network executives that Claire’s psychic storyline was the right move to make. Obviously, they proved the executives wrong; however, they didn’t just leap headfirst into that kind of storytelling. They wrote intriguing characters, let them evolve in directions that made sense, and allowed the bigger mysteries to slowly build around them. It was only in later seasons that things developed quickly in an overtly science fiction fashion.

When creating shows to mimic the success of Lost, the Networks copied all of the wrong attributes.

Thanks for your time :). Please comment away!

- Cadence

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