Tuesday, May 25, 2010

End of an Era (or two)

My week of eminent loss as a television scholar continued last night with the series finales of Law & Order and 24. Both shows redefined narrative television and are cultural landmarks. I was not nearly as attached to these series as I am to so many others, but I did follow them pretty closely at different moments throughout their runs.

Law & Order has been on the air since I was in grade school. That’s INSANE in today’s contemporary television marketplace. In terms of storytelling (technically, it’s the second longest running scripted primetime American television drama next to Gunsmoke), Law & Order brought a new element to the already well-established crime serial – the “law” part. Several shows explored the police end of the chase and capture of criminals, and a few had dabbled with the courtroom, but none had successfully paired the two together. Series creator Dick Wolf wanted something that depicted the justice process optimistically, and thus, more often than not, the criminals captured at the beginning of episodes were successfully prosecuted at the end. For that reason, it’s never been lauded as a realistic representation of the justice system, but it obviously served an important cultural function – fulfilling the needs of enough viewers to keep it running this long.

My take is that it’s a combination of the feel-good message of justice with the episodic nature of the show. As technology permeated the 90s, we started to have more outlets vying for our attention, and following complicated narratives series (say, like Lost) takes quite a bit of emotional and time investment. I guess you could say Law & Order is sort of like the after dinner mint of television – if you’ve ever watched the Law & Order marathons on TNT, you can probably understand the correlation as after several hours of that, it’s the equivalent of a candy high that makes your stomach sick and keeps you from sleeping.

24 holds a soft spot in my heart – it’s a series I followed fairly closely until the sixth season, but never in real time. I much preferred to view it all at once when the DVDs came out. Why? Well, it’s a bit of a patience thing, a bit of a time thing and a bit of a recording thing. I don’t have a lot of patience for extended periods of suspense because it produces too much anxiety; during the semester, my viewing time is almost always limited to shows I’m currently writing about; and recording technology didn’t used to be what it is today.

Point being, 24 appeared at a moment in our cultural history where we were still reeling over the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Jack Bauer filled a void where viewers felt helpless – who was working against these terrorist agents? And why did it seem like they weren’t doing their jobs? 24 offered answers, with Jack’s character almost universally knowing the right approach to terrorist threats, yet demonstrating his struggles with government bureaucracy, cover-ups, and ill-advised foreign diplomacy. In a lot of ways, the series functioned similarly to Law & Order in that sense, giving us solace that justice would prevail. The series also changed the way we think about crime serials by filming in “real time,” using the ticking clock to count down the moments of a day where a terrorist attack was imminent. In that way, it also helped pull in viewers as the reality television craze boomed in the early part of the decade.

24 made some mistakes, but it also did some things well. Unfortunately, I think the duration of the series, coupled with continually killing off key characters hurt its overall narrative form. Jack started the series by working *slightly* outside the confines of established protocols, and evolved to full-on vigilante. Personally, I found the on and off again moments of rebellion more compelling than the know-it-all Jack Bauer. Ending the series with the president realizing that Jack Bauer is right was kind of key to exposing the outrageousness of how the plots have progressed since its inception. But I also did like the signing off part, though I would have much preferred Tony or Michelle to still be around for it than Chloe.

So farewell to both series. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either resurface in another form - Law & Order still has its spin offs, Jack Bauer is probably headed to the big screen. Both will continue to influence our understanding of pop culture in the next decade.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Farewell to Lost

It has finally come to an end – and while I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it, I feel like I need to put in my two cents on Lost and it’s place in TV history as a way to “let go.” Also, I’m a little frustrated with the buzz going on around about the finale not providing “answers,” the failures of season six, and the hatred surrounding the series. I’m not going to delve into issues with the smoke monster or polar bears, but there will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, you’d best stop reading now. So as not to repeat much of what you can find elsewhere on the Internet, I’m going to stick to a couple main points and then offer some critical analysis that bugged me enough last night that after sleeping on it, I still want to talk about it.

First off, to all those who thought that Lost would give them answers to all the mysteries it set up – what were you thinking?? I understand that a lot of people watch television in a narrative contained vacuum, meaning, we attach to specific series and programs and follow the narrative, searching for some sort of narrative consistency. What many people seem to have forgotten is that Lost was the brainchild of J. J. Abrams. If you expected narrative consistency, you hitched your star to the wrong wagon. Let me count the ways:

Anyone remember Felicity? Brilliant set up about a girl who goes to college following her high school crush, then four years of narrative convolution to make sure they ended up together in the finale. Of course, this was as a result of Noel’s sacrifice of realizing Felicity would never love him like she loved Ben. Lesson? College is a consistent struggle, a journey to find yourself (which almost always includes massive changes to your hair if you're a woman), and really, at the end you already knew where you should be.

Or perhaps Alias is more your speed? Secret double-agent spy spends five years chasing random fringe organizations, culminating in defeating the ultimate bad guy/mastermind. The main romance between Sydney and Vaughn underscores the action (and is even impacted by a time shift!) and they end up together in the end with two kids, retired from their time in the CIA. Oh, yeah, and there’s a big show down between Jack (Sydney’s father) and Sloane (the big bad) where Jack traps Sloane in a cave after he becomes immortal.

Over on Fringe, in case you haven’t been watching, we have a narrative quite similar to the X-Files with alternate universes and a budding romance between Olivia and Peter destined to be screwed up by his alternate reality origins. And again, the pairing of two halves of male counterparts – Walter and Bell…of course, Bell (Leonard Nimoy) sacrificed himself at the end of the second season in order to send people back to their universes (and because he publicly announced his retirement from acting, so look for there to be some kind of replacement big bad here in future seasons).

Is it any wonder that Lost went down the way it went down? The similarities are uncanny and show the same narrative preferences – Abrams creates a general world, one where romance and relationships are key, and then fumbles around with general narrative confusion ala Pulp Fiction for as many years as the television networks that sign his series will let him. AND in each of those cases, the final seasons of those series suffered when his creative attention was diverted to other outlets (the final season of Felicity was panned almost unilaterally, the last two seasons of Alias were woefully sub-par once he started working on Lost, and now Lost is catching flack for a lackluster sixth season while Fringe is getting all kinds of props for kicking up their second season). If you went into Lost looking for answers, you were duped. Abrams’ narratives are all about the journey, the underlying message that relational connectedness is what makes us human, even in the face of the most inhumane, random, odd occurrences.

So, Lost ended the only way it COULD end – with a montage of narrative connection, illustrating that each of these characters was ultimately “lost” when they arrived at the island – none of them trusted anyone, they were generally shrouded in secrets, and all of them were fundamentally flawed. Their journey was what they needed in order to truly connect and trust others, ultimately saying that without human connection and trust, the soul will never be whole. I dig it. I honestly don’t care all that much about picking apart the narrative for inconsistencies – because doing so in a J. J. Abrams series is sure to give you a migraine, and honestly, think about it. As someone who writes for a living, I can’t tell you what I wrote word for word five years ago – and half the writers working on the series probably don’t even remember some of the narrative arcs they started at that point. On one hand, you could argue it’s their job to know, on the other, have you ever tried to kick out scripts for a series that needs 20-24 new episodes in a year on a timetable fast enough to shoot it (especially with Lost being on location in Hawaii and the scenic elements of the series) over a six year period? 

In terms of the haters, I get it. You probably dislike narratives that don’t wrap up neatly. You are probably fans of more serial series scripted by CBS (aka anything that Jerry Bruckheimer touches). And that’s okay. But allow us tortured souls to enjoy our convoluted romps in peace.

That being said, my only problems with the way everything ended were problems I had very early on in the series. I’ve actually started to see these as specific patterns in Abrams’ work, so I’m not surprised, but it’s still disappointing.

1) I’ve actually commented academically about my malaise surrounding the “internationalism” Lost became acclaimed for – when in reality, the “international” characters simply serve as postcolonial templates (though a bit more interesting than have appeared in the past), and ultimately are the characters that all die so that the white people can escape. While I loved the beauty of the moment between Sun and Jin, it was more heart-wrenching that they ultimately sacrificed themselves so that Jack and Sawyer could live. And with all the awesomeness of Sayid, the fact that he got taken out by a bomb trying to save everyone was really unfulfilling given his development over the past several seasons (besides, wasn't he already dead?). Plus, the other black characters were killed/written off long ago (sans Rose, but she's always been more of a sage/wisewoman archetype, so see below). Now, I get that in the end, they're all dead. Fine. But the narrative consistently sacrifices characters of color at the expense of furthering the white characters' personal growth/journey. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised here – in Alias and Fringe, the black characters pretty much serve similar functions that support the white persons’ quest for the “truth.”

2) While Abrams is often lauded for creating interesting female characters, his work is always about the relationship between two men. The role of women, though more prominent than in perhaps other sci-fi narratives, leaves much to be desired, relegating fans to interpreting the narrative in ways that bolster the women’s images. (Aside: I commented here on how fans of Alias tried to reclaim the narrative power of the series from the predetermined romantic arc with Vaughn through fan fiction.) The main struggles are between Noel and Ben, Jack and Sloane, Jack and Locke, or Walter and Bell. The only thing Lost did was mix it up a bit because sometimes in the middle of the series, it made itself about Jack and Sawyer. The women are almost entirely reduced to their romantic attachments, and ultimately their roles as mothers. I actually sort of screamed at my television when Jacob told Kate she was crossed off the wall because she became a mother! She can’t take a job saving the world because she had a kid? Seriously!? And why is it that Juliet is the mother of Jack’s kid in alternate land? Is that because she was the only main female character NOT to have one (as a result of her being unable to have kids, if I remember correctly)? It’s amazing to me how much of a six year narrative on an island where women apparently can’t give birth revolves around ways for them to get around it so that they can have children and ultimately become mothers. The only one who doesn't fall into this trap is Rose, and that's because she fulfills the wise old woman/sage role, and is clearly past the age of childbearing.

So, farewell Lost. I enjoyed you immensely. I fell in love with your characters and appreciated the ride.