Lost In Seriality

Curator's Note

This promo for the Lost episode “The Man From Tallahassee” aired on March 14. It, and the episode it teased, encapsulates all that is intriguing and problematic about this series (or to be more precise, serial).

Amidst much rapid cutting, explosions, and close-ups, we are essentially told This Is It. This is the one you’ve been waiting for. Why? The cause of John Locke’s paralysis (his pre-crash state, which was revealed way, way back in Season 1’s “Walkabout”) will be revealed. The ostensible gravity of this revelation (pun intended) is a function of Lost’s de facto contract with its long-term viewers, which promises eventual narrative resolution in exchange for continued viewing. Dangling a tasty narrative carrot, the promo explicitly acknowledges the waning patience of the audience, and implores it to keep the faith, if only for one more week.

While serial narratives, even on prime-time television, are nothing new per se, what is new about Lost is the degree to which it requires not only diligence but patience. Bits and pieces of exposition are peppered throughout every episode, but, two and a half years in, have only added to the overall enigma. Every Big Revelation has, thus far, led to another Big Question. Fair enough, in principle. Narrative “arcs” have, after all, been a common feature of prime-time drama since Dallas and Hill Street Blues, and long-running, complex narratives have driven daily daytime soap operas for decades.

However, Lost’s plotting pushes the conventions of prime-time television drama to the breaking point, piling on enigmas, clues, and ambiguities, and occasionally even exploding (pun intended) viewers’ perceived diegetic stability (e.g., the recent episode, “Flashes Before Your Eyes”). Whatever the arguable aesthetic and cultural qualities of Lost’s narrative experiment, it is, after all, also a particular kind of product (a prime-time television serial, and an expensive one at that) thoroughly dependent on ratings stability and/or growth. The limitations of that format and its conventions (including, among other things, the length of episodes and seasons) presented considerable, and ultimately insurmountable challenges to David Lynch and Mark Frost back in 1990 with the (now) relatively straightforward Twin Peaks, let alone anyone attempting anything on Lost’s scale.

In the actual episode, “The Man From Tallahassee,” which aired on March 21, the missing chunk of John Locke’s backstory (the cause of his injury) is predictably replaced in the denouement by another, out-of-left-field enigma. Earlier in the episode, Locke actually says “This is going to be more complicated that we thought,” a deliciously metatextual line that encapsulates the series’ precarious position, revealing the anxieties of the series’ writers and network, and the increasing frustration of its viewers. Accordingly, at this point, the narrative enigma I’m most interested in is whether (and how) Lost will ultimately pull it off, rather than in what’s actually going on on that damn island.

I’ll have more on this subject up soon on my blog, DKMM.

Comments

Jason Mittell's picture

Derek - of course I cannot

Derek - of course I cannot resist commenting on this! I think you’re dead-on about the meta-pleasures of Lost, which have emerged as a central mode of engagement for the show. In fact the latest episode is all about that meta-engagement (see my blog for one take on it). I think I see this shift-to-the-meta as less of a problem than you do. And the buzz about “Man From Tallahassee” was more positive than most episodes, as both the revelations & new mysteries were provocative. And I wouldn’t put too much faith in the so-called “ratings crash” of the show - given the nature of its fan base, ABC realizes that much of its viewership comes from iTunes, ABC streaming, and DVD sales. It’s in no danger of losing network support…

Jonathan Gray's picture

I wonder, though, how immune

I wonder, though, how immune we may’ve become to the grand “this is the answer” promises. Yes, in the longrun, we all want answers, but just as every pizza joint in New York claims it’s The Best and The Original, and I don’t believe any of them, when Lost or ER or According to Jim tell you this is *the* episode that you’ll remember when you’re old and grey and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, do any of us really pay attention? Or to rephrase to be specific to Lost, when fans want and expect *every* episode to give answers, does the promise that this one will be special hold any ground to them? Obviously, I’m wondering here more than answering, but to offer one slight answer, given that even casual fans tend to know what sweeps weeks means, there is an oddity with most shows that we only expect big movements during a sweeps month, as though our expectations get mapped onto a production calendar, telling us not to fall for the bait at other times

Derek Kompare's picture

Jason, despite my snark, I

Jason, despite my snark, I actually enjoyed “The Man From Tallahassee” as well, and I agree that ABC will remain behind the show because of its other significant distribution assets (which is a whole other fascinating topic for some other time). At the same time, though, they have to sell the traditional broadcast incarnation of the show to potential advertisers, and that’s why ratings still matter to the industry. Yes, it’s still got strong ratings relative to all of TV…but it’s also lost about a third of its audience over this season by the same measure.

As for the “shift to the meta,” I don’t think it’s a problem per se; indeed, it’s a been a feature of cult TV for quite a while. I can’t comment on “Expose,” yet, though, as I haven’t yet seen it! :)

Derek Kompare's picture

Jonathan, great point about

Jonathan, great point about network pimping and viewer awareness. They do it because that’s the way it’s done. In other words, while they know that we know that promos are shamelessly portentous, they also know that we’ve come to expect them (especially on NBC; ABC’s promo pimping pales by comparison). This connects to Jason’s “meta” comment, as the aesthetics of promos and trailers are well ingrained in savvy media consumers.

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