BEING A REVIEW OF THE 5th SEASON OF LOST AND AN INTRODUCTION TO THE 45-MINUTE FORMAT
But why exactlty is Lost more important than the entirety of Latvian literature? It would not hold up to this honor on it’s own, that much is for sure. It’s the the evolutionary trend this series is part of. That trend, you see, is as as massive as it gets.
When David Lynch and Mark Frost first approached the folk at ABC with the idea of revolutionizing the 45 minute format, it was the year 1989. That was the beginning of the end for shit television, a death-knell for the „the idiot box“. And they called it – „Twin Peaks“. The afore-mentioned revolution viewed the dramatic series - consisting of regularly broadcasted, 45 minute episodes - not as repetitive formula entertainment, but a brilliant, flexible format for epic storytelling. A friend of mine once expressed his amazement at how well „Twin Peaks“ turned out with the kind of forceful acknowledgment one seems to discover at the very moment of it’s utterance. „Pretty much the best thing anyone’s ever done,“ he said, much to his own surprise.
To put this hyperbole in context, „Twin Peaks“ showed us how the 45-minute format, if handled correctly, can be far more effective than the 90-minute one. Which is, of course, the motion picture. Now don’t get me wrong, I adore films. I adore them although there is something fundamentally wrong with the length and nature of their presentation.
Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed this! Most films begin with an unholy rumble of excitement and color and then, in the last third, they just kind of fizzle away. This has led me to the rather extreme view that there is no such thing as "a brilliant film ending“. I have witnessed a couple of almost brilliant film endings and many satisfactory ones, but they're always playing against the odds, against the format’s inherently flawed nature. On one hand, 90 minutes is way too long for an effectively manipulated cycle of emotional investment. Entertainment works in cycles and rhythms and this one is an ellipse-shaped bicycle wheel, because, on the other hand - it's ridiculously short. Name one reasonably epic narrative that can be squeezed into 90 minutes? Perhaps two or three chapters, but an entire book's worth? Hardly. (It must be said in the defence of these 90 minutes, though, that they work perfectly in documentaries where plotting is somewhat less crucial)
It’s compared to the concept of chapters where storytelling in a motion picture ultimately fails. This ancient cyclic device perfectly corresponds with the human psyche, and it just doesn’t fit the very recent format of the motion picture. The motion picture is a product of it’s venue – the movie theater – and thus, as it schemes to entertain you, it follows suit to it’s ancestor – the theater. Without going too far into this, theatrical storytelling replaces chapters with „parts“ and because the rhythm applied to movies is a more rigid form of theater, we’re left with the beginning, the middle and the end as a kind of visualized book where there’s only three chapters. All of which are bloated and out of shape, the last one being inexplicably boring compared to the furious gallop of a book’s closing chapters.
Enter the 45-minute format, which is – and here’s the part of the presentation you want to take home with you – exactly the same as chapters.
Introducing: chapters – first proposed in „Gilgamesh“ where each of our titular character’s adventures forms one. Then later Homer seems to think this was a pretty nifty way of telling a story and thus what is basically „the wheel of story-telling“ is introduced to written history. The beauty of chapters is that they can go on forever. And because of this, they can also be brought to a climax whenever it’s most efficient to do so. No one will turn the lights back on, this building will not convulse and vomit you out on the sidewalk. Chapters form a kind of cozy, epic entertainment experience – every night a new adventure unfolds as your local scald tells of Loki’s latest mischief. Children, gather around the bonfire.
But what then is the strength of the motion picture? Well, you can, like, see the stuff actually happening! Yes there’s bloated parts instead of nifty chapters, but then there's also "acting" and shiny, expensive-looking production values. The reasoning behind this less-perfect-than-a-book pacing system is that it suits the physical requirements of business establishments (the flow of visitors in and out of the building), as well as the limits of an actor performing live (in the case of theater) and above all - your ass. It’s all about the audience's ass, really. It just gets tired of sitting. For some reason.
But let’s face it – presentation has it's charms. Although a point could be made against having these lines delivered to us by some ridiculously good looking people with great voices - that it somehow takes away from the magic of getting to imagine those lines ourselves (and the fleets of spaceships going against armies of dinosaurs in the background) - audio-visual presentation is at least a viable alternative. I mean, the mind can be vivid indeed, but for every vivid moment there is a counterpoint of vague fuzz where you have no idea what’s going on in these pages. I’m not saying films are somehow „better than books“ or even „worse than books“, I’m saying both are viable alternatives to each other. Not much unlike masturbation is to having sex with actual people.
Which, after the rapturous applause from that last metaphor has quieted down, brings us back to the 45-minute format – the perfect marriage of chapter-based entertainment of books and the audio-visual presentation of movies. As illustrated by „Twin Peaks“. And perhaps now you can fully understand what that friend of mine meant by "best thing ever". This being the only possible format where those shiny production values won´t limit the structure of story-telling. Instead of short arcs of inevitably predictable character development, a sphere cramped up into a quarter-circle, you have unlimited time to explore motivation, romance, quirks of character. You can center an episode on a previously marginal side-character or explore a minute aspect of the mystery in case – all in full, attentive detail. Climaxing the story whenever you feel it’s comfortable to do so.
All of this, of course, applies only when you’re doing it right.
Regretfully, pretty much no one is. What Lynch and Frost set out to accomplish is make this format play out exactly like a book, setting it free of the trappings of cyclic television programming. Because in 99 cases out of 100, these noble possibilities are wasted and where you end up is in television hell.
Welcome! Here, in hell, this proposed miracle-formula plays out as the myth of Sisyphus instead of Ilias. Every week the pathetic mystery/romance/crime momentum reaches a puny 45-minute peak, then resets back to pretty much exactly where it started. And next week you get to see Carrie Bradshaw do her inane, repulsive, uterus-shaped ritual all over again. Or worse – it can be Ally McBeal, that most thankfully forgotten of all dead ends. In fact, almost everyone on TV exists in this state of eternal re-occurrence, dr House is stuck in the same Groundhog Day as Mulder and Scully. Every now and then then – usually when the season ends – minor differences are introduced. Sisyphus gets a new hair-cut, instead of a rock there’s a delightful box waiting to be pushed up scenario hill and perhaps his old side-kick, having impaled himself from the insanity of the routine, is replaced by a new one. But all these changes do is highlight the routine itself. Time to die. Next series please, this time perhaps with the premise of some grapes and some water...
It’s because of television hell, that I can´t blame the people who still think of TV in such antiquated terms as „the idiot box“. While it can be quite relaxing to watch that grey goo of a scenario circle around it’s own colorful premise, there´s not much there in terms of Epic, Massive, Revolutionary and Awesome – The Four Horsemen of Awesome (redundancy intended).
And by the way: I do promise we are nearing the fifth season of Lost some time in the next century.
But now, let me introduce you to the the most beautiful term in television writing. That term is the difference between „doing it right“ and „television hell“. It was also the secret weapon in Lynch and Frosts´s arsenal. The one they successfully deployed on „Twin Peaks“ until the weapon ran out of ammo and we were left in television hell from the middle of Season 2 onwards. This is what happens when the superweapon runs out of ammo: you are simply no longer doing it right. That is the importance of The Story Arc.
While giving your characters an end purpose – a quest upon the finishing of which the moral of the story plays out and all the threads of the plot are brought together into the singular punch of The End – is by no means a new thing to fiction, the 45-minute format got around to it in... the year 1990. Congratulations! But can you guess what happened then? Can you guess what happened after The Story Arc was implemented with earth-shatteringly spectacular results to create a sublimely atmospheric display of screenwriting? After they demonstrated how this ancient device can turn tedious repetition into jaw-droppingly grandiose reveals, finales, climaxes? That’s right! It was forgotten! Buried! Fuck that shit, the audience are retards, let’s not ever dare to do this again!
You see, it’s not actually the pioneers who introduce change in the entertainment industry. It’s no more difficult to pioneer something than it is to perfect it. The powers that be are always prepared to out-maneuver their rivals by publishing „some crazy shit“ that they know critics and hipsters will dig simply because of it’s novelty. This brings prestige and with it, more financing for the same Sisyphus-style money cows. It’s not the celebrated Columbus or the well-off Clinton, it’s the dudes in between that discovered the Americas. For television and The Story Arch the dudes in between came in form of „Babylon 5“, a cult hit science-fiction series that aired between 1993 and 1999. You know why it ended there? Because that was where The Arc ended. No fading away, no cancellation. Surprisingly enough, this was a the first time in the history of television that the story truly ended.
And while other shows during this and the last decade have kind of toyed with the idea of using the 45-minute format as it should be, Lost – I would say – is only the third one in a row of saints to really do it. Therein lies the justification for being awarded the More Important Than the Entire Works of Kivirähk, Õnnepalu and... whoah! Wait! How did that happen? I mean, yeah, how about them Latvians... those ridiculous Latvians... Latvian literature is so puny!
And we’re back on track. Season 5 of Lost has just ended with what I think was perhaps the second best of their legendary season finales. January 2010, Season 6 will begin and that will be the very last season of Lost. By the end of that season, you will know what The Monster really is, what The Island is... everything. And while it’s been a relatively bumpy ride to get there - time-travelling it’s way through what is no doubt the single largest and most complicated narrative ever conceived for television, (and shedding a healthy 15 million viewers on the way) - I have no doubt that the direction the show is going is the right one. During the last two seasons we have seen the writers slim their juggernaut of an international hit down to one, sharp science-fiction epic for the die-hard fan base. This is a truly uncompromising move and one that’s quite unprecedented as well.
About the season itself, I am amiss to why I consider it, if not the best thus far, then definetly in the top 2. It's not like the script is masterful or anything. It’s hopelessly convoluted, the idea of getting half the people off the island did not work at all in a dramatic sense, slowing down the first half of the season. And the show’s aesthetic is still way too colorful for a critical viewer to award it the kind of praise I’ve done here. But the beauty of the narrative structure itself remains unchallenged. And even more – certain technological advances have given Lost the ultimate edge. While experiencing this cock-tease drip-feed you information on it’s central mysteries weekly can be tiresome to say the least, it is vindicated on DVD. There it becomes the quintessential marathon TV show.
To finish off this equally epic and convoluted award ceremony of a review, I’d like to step out of this whole culture analysis guy role and share with you a view on what lies at the center of Lost (and possibly an explenation as to why I liked Season 5 so much).
It’s the cave behind the waterfall, you see. You’ve got that torch lit and you're going in. This reoccurring sensation has haunted the show all along but it intensifies as the end approaches. It belongs to 19th century adventure novels. A sense of unknown, yet strangely comfortable mysteries lying ahead. And it’s not so much the cave itself, it’s the way it’s hidden behind the waterfall. It’s the dark of it.
No doubt a familiar sense of disappointment will arise when we get to the inevitable skeleton and the inevitable treasure-chest, but the dark of it is fantastic! That, for me, redeems the jungle color-scheme and the old-school characterization. Deconstructionism healthily missing. I mean, dude... there were these ruins of a four-toed statue, and in this season finale I got to see it in it’s full glory! It was a friggin´ Egyptian god, with a crocodile head! Like, what the fuck was it doing there?
Tell me, what the fuck was a ginormous statue of an Egyptian god with a crocodile head doing on that island?