Lost and Long-Term Television Narrative

Lost and Long-Term Television Narrative

David Lavery

David Lavery ponders the “neo-baroque” tap-dancing of TV’s most playful and commercially successful serial drama.

Ryan Brooks:

Jason Mittell explores the cross-media hybridity of another long-term narrative, The Wire, in this Third Person essay.


Prologue: Life on Mars

Narratives that require that their viewers fill in crucial elements take … complexity to a new level. To follow the narrative, you aren’t just asked to remember. You’re asked to analyze. This is the difference between intelligent shows, and shows that force you to be intelligent. (italics added) - Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You

In episode one of the BBC police drama Life on Mars (2006 - 2007), our hero, Sam Tyler, walking through a busy street in Manchester, England, the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” playing on the sound track, contemplates the show’s central mystery: Is he really in 1973, teleported back in time after being hit by a car in 2006, finding himself trapped in a Starsky and Hutch world, or is he still in a coma, or possibly insane, in the series’ present tense?The British would say The Sweeney (1975 - 1978), a Starsky and Hutch contemporary, which aired on Thames Television.

Strolling alongside “CID Girl” Annie Cartwright, the only one in the past to whom he has confessed his “true” situation, Sam insists that a “mind can only invent so much detail” and announces his intention to walk - following the “Yellow Brick Road” - until he “can’t think up any more faces or streets,” until he escapes the “madness” in which he finds himself. It is a transcendent television moment, linking Sam with cinematic heirs like John Murdoch in Dark City (directed by Alex Proyas, 1998) and Truman Burbank in The Truman Show (directed by Peter Weir, 1998), both of whom succeed in surpassing the artifice of their constructed worlds.

At this point in the narrative - as I write, fourteen of sixteen episodes have aired - Sam has not walked out of the cave, though his “life on Mars,” his existence in a world of the past that, as the opening voice-over of each episode tells us, might as well be “another planet,” is of course full of cracks - the Test Card Girl’s performances, the many messages from radios and televisions and telephones that bombard him from his supposed future, his uncanny encounters with his mother, his father, and himself as a child - through which he can glimpse the nature of his delusion.

At the end of the first episode of the second series, Sam answers the phone only to learn something of great importance. The voice on the other end of the line - for the first time a message our hero receives isn’t one way: the voice on the phone actually responds to Sam - tells him his mission is almost complete, and he must be patient and not disclose his situation to anyone. Soon, it assures him, he will be able to go home.

As a richly intertextual, open-ended, serialized, enigmatic mystery that may or may not be science fiction, the series calls to mind ABC’s Lost (2004 - ).Mars regularly evokes not just The Sweeney but a wide range of British television from the early 1970s. For example, in an episode in the first series, asked by Annie whether he has come to terms with his time traveling, Sam replies that he has “seen Doctor Who, who prescribed some pills,” and in a second series episode Sam has a dream in which he has become one of the figures in the stop-motion children’s show Camberwick Green (1966). On Lost’s problematic SFness, see Lavery (2007). But unlike its U.S. contemporary, now sixty-plus episodes in, Mars’ life span will be short: the current series will be its last; Sam indeed will, as the voice on the phone tells him, be going home soon. The narrative skein, the “yellow brick road,” of Life on Mars will not be long enough for Sam to outpace illusion, or in what amounts to the same perturbation, for the writing team of Matthew Graham, Ashley Pharaoh, and Tony Jordan to exhaust their powers of invention.

Typically British in duration, Life on Mars is not, for all its brilliance, a long-term television narrative (hereafter LTTVN).A few years ago, I appeared on the BBC’s Front Row to speak with television critic Mark Lawson about the astonishing difference in length - the number of episodes per season/series; the total number of years on air - between British and U.S. series. Famously, John Cleese called a halt to the brilliant Fawlty Towers (1975, 1979) after only two series and twelve episodes (with a four-year hiatus between the series). The Office (2001 - 2003), Ricky Gervais’s and Stephen Merchant’s virtuoso comedy, ran for only twelve episodes (plus a two-part Christmas special); the U.S. version (2005 - ) has already aired forty-two. Even Prime Suspect, the groundbreaking police procedural starring Helen Mirren in the role of DCI/DCS Jane Tennison and airing on ITV periodically from 1991 to 2006, only consisted of seven total “series” (really miniseries, none longer than 200 minutes), and its total running time of 1,525 minutes/25-plus hours hardly compares to any hour-long U.S. series with a five-year run (on average approximately 4,620 minutes, or 77 hours of narrative). (The narrative duration of Dick Wolf’s Law and Order [NBC], on air continuously since 1990, is approximately 14,784 minutes/246-plus hours.)

British television does have its long-term narratives of course. Soap operas like Coronation Street (ITV, 1960 - ) and EastEnders (BBC1, 1985 - ), both less than a half hour per episode, like their U.S. contemporaries General Hospital (ABC, 1963 - ), Days of Our Lives (NBC, 1965 - ), and One Life to Live (ABC, 1968 - ) - all now hour dramas - have had exceedingly long hauls. And the incomparable, oft-reincarnated story of Doctor Who (BBC1, 1963 - 1989, 2005 - ) has now been told in 723 episodes (as of July 2006).On the other hand, the exemplary Lost may well be, in keeping with the tradition of the form, an LTTVN in trouble, though it, and LTTVNs in general, do lay claim to a British forebear. For LTTVNs in this “era of television complexity” (Mittell 2006b, 29), it would seem the precursor, the patriarch, with whom they must come to terms is the seemingly unlikely figure of a Victorian novelist.

Dickensian Television

Master Sergeant: Set of keys; one pocket watch, gold plated; one photograph; one book, Our Mutual Friend. Why didn’t you bring that inside?

Desmond: To avoid temptation, brother. I’ve read everything Mr. Charles Dickens has ever written - every wonderful word. Every book except this one. I’m saving it so it will be the last thing I ever read before I die.

- “Live Together, Die Alone,” Lost

Everywhere we turn these days, Charles Dickens seems an influential figure on and behind our television screens, and not because Masterpiece Theatre is rerunning one of its Dickensian adaptations or the BBC is airing its more recent Bleak House miniseries.Although all the examples that follow are from the United States, Dickens, I should note, does put in an occasional television appearance in his native land. On a 2005 episode of Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead,” Dickens assists the ninth Doctor and Rose’s investigation of a zombie outbreak in 1869 Cardiff. My thanks to Leon Hunt for calling my attention to this episode. On Lost, one of his books, Our Mutual Friend, puts in an appearance and even becomes one of the island’s literary denizens.Lost’s executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse got the idea for Desmond’s choice of deathbed book from U.S. novelist John Irving, who has similar plans for Dickens’s own last completed work. The first episode of Lost’s third season, “A Tale of Two Cities,” also evokes Dickens. We also hear the prime movers of that enigmatic series speaking of Dickens as an admired ancestral serial storyteller. Tim Kring, the creator of “this year’s Lost,” the NBC series Heroes, likewise acknowledges Dickens as an inspiration.In an interview with the Superhero Hype Web site, Kring admits that “one of the things that we talked about early on when doing a big saga was Charles Dickens. Most of his novels were written in one-chapter segments from the newspaper, so that’s why they have that big serialized feel to them. He never knew quite where they were going. He was just writing them one chapter at a time. We’re doing obviously a very similar thing here, so the art of the coincidence becomes a big part of the show, how people cross, how people’s lives come together, and it’s a very fun way to tell stories.” (Kring 2006a) The creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, Joss Whedon, names the Victorian novelist his favorite writer (Whedon 2000; Wilcox 2005). In “Scene in a Mall,” a season four episode of the supremely literary Gilmore Girls, Lorelai explains (complete with an affected British accent) that while emailing, she likes to imagine Dickens writing letters, with his dog and pipe and “fancy feathered pen,” exclaiming “Cheerio old bean!” and asking “How’s Big Ben?”Gilmorisms commonly make reference to Dickens. The following episodes all evoke/mention him: “The Lorelais’ First Day at Chilton” (1.2), “Christopher Returns” (1.15), “Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin’ the Twist” (4.17), “Tippecanoe and Taylor, Too” (5.4), “Pulp Friction” (5.17), and “A House Is Not a Home” (5.22). Thanks to Scott Diffrient for the catalog. A soap opera scholar draws on Dickens in order to illustrate the usefulness of reader-response criticism for understanding television.“During Dickens’s lifetime,” Robert C. Allen (1987, 84) writes in a seminal essay called “Reader-Oriented Criticism and Television”: “Most of his readers read his novels in weekly magazine installments, rather than as chapters of a single book. In fact, says [Wolfgang] Iser, they frequently reported enjoying the serialized version of The Old Curiosity Shop or Martin Chuzzlewit more than the same work as a book. Their heightened enjoyment was a result of the protensive tension occasioned by every textual gap (What’s going to happen next?) being increased by the “strategic interruption” of the narrative at crucial moments, while the delay in satisfying the reader’s curiosity was prolonged. By structuring the text around the gaps between installments and by making those gaps literally days in length, the serial novel supercharged the reader’s imagination and made him or her a more active reader.”

A critic, contemplating HBO’s Deadwood’s seriality, draws extensive comparisons with Dickens’s work and, in particular, the novel Lost’s Desmond saved for last.With Our Mutual Friend, “a serial fiction about seriality,” in mind, Sean O’Sullivan (2006, 117) observes that “Dickens understood how the serial, by its nature, exists at the crossroads of the old and the new. Unlike the stand-alone novel, or a feature film, which presents itself to us in toto, the serial offers constantly the promise of the new - the new installment next week or next month, often bringing with it a new plotline or character that will change everything. Given its leisurely unfolding, however, the serial also draws us into the past, as old characters appear and disappear, as old green covers pile up by our nightstand, or old episodes of a program burrow into our memory, creating a history commensurate with our lifespan, unlike the merely posited past and present of a text we can consume in a few hours or days. Every reading, or every watching, requires a reconnection of old and new, an iteration of past and present; and within a week or a month, what was new will get funneled into the old.”

And in a controversial book, a cognitive science popularizer argues that “mass culture,” including television, reveals not the end of the world as we know it, as its adversaries so often insist, but a “progressive story” in which our entertainments are “growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year” (Johnson 2005, xiii).According to Steven Johnson (2005, 9), popular culture, video games, television, and movies are “getting more intellectually demanding, not less.” He has particularly interesting things to say about LTTVNs, which as he demonstrates, “have also increased the cognitive work they demand from their audience, exercising the mind in ways that would have been unheard of thirty years” ago (62). Now “another kind of televised intelligence is on the rise,” demanding the same kind of “mental faculties” normally associated with reading: “attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads” (64). And of course he finds Dickens to be “the classic case of highbrow erudition matched with popular success,… who for a stretch of time in the middle of the nineteenth century was the most popular author writing in the English language, and also … the most innovative” (133), central to his considerations.

Lost as LTTVN

Carlton Cuse: [Dickens]’s getting a lot of play on Lost, isn’t he?

Damon Lindelof: He is indeed. He’s a favorite writer of ours. He wrote serialized stories just like we did. He was accused of making it up as he went along, just like we are.

Cuse: That’s right … He didn’t even have a word processor. - Official Lost Podcast, October 3, 2006

The above exchange between the executive producers of Lost concerning serial fiction’s founding father took place in fall 2006, just after the airing of the first of a six-episode miniseries that would launch its third season prior to a two-month, Lostless hiatus during which the network would launch (unsuccessfully) Daybreak, a new serial drama in Lost’s time slot. The following exchange, on a later official Lost podcast (November 6, 2006), is likewise noteworthy:”Cuse: And Charles Dickens was also a wonderful inspiration, because here he was, writing these great, wonderful, sprawling, serialized books…Lindelof: Also, Dickens, the master of coincidence. Y’know…. His stories always hinged on the idea of interconnectedness … in a very strange and inexplicable way.”

Reruns of Lost in season two had not done well in the ratings (the show’s avid fandom, it seemed, wanted only new shows to watch and found reruns a turnoff). Hence the new scheduling strategy: after the miniseries and the hiatus, the remainder of season three would air uninterrupted, a new episode each week, February to May.The usual gaps that punctuate a typical U.S. television season are the result of the necessities of production. It is impossible to have enough episodes for uninterrupted airing throughout a season “in the can” beginning in September of each year; the gaps allow a series’ creative team, working under a time-intensive schedule, to eventually catch up, turning out the (customary) twenty-two episodes needed to complete a season. A series like 24, which in keeping with its time-sensitive nature, now (since season four) airs all its episodes without interruption, can only do so by delaying the start of its season (or “day,” in 24 parlance) until January, a strategy that was implemented by Lost for 2007 on.

In Lindelof and Cuse’s simpatico bond with the ancestral father of modern seriality - both are charged with the “serial crime” of narrative contrivance - we can detect a hint of the difficult situation in which Lost, for most of its first two seasons a fan (and media) darling, now finds itself. Despite Lost’s creators’ insistence that they had, even at the outset, five years of stories to tell, they are now frequently accused of having Lost their way. In a March 2007 interview on National Public Radio, Lindelof acknowledges that the beginning and the end of the show have never been a problem; the “middle,” however, remains a challenge (Ashbrook 2007). When “Not in Portland” aired in February 2007, a month after the media was filled with stories that Lindelof and Cuse were in negotiation with ABC to set an agreed-on-in-advance duration for the series, three million viewers in the United States did not return with it.In the Ashbrook interview, Cuse is quick to dispute the commonly held notion that Lost’s audience is dwindling rapidly, reminding listeners that the “Live Plus 7” numbers, which measure the number of people using such other platforms as Web streaming, TiVo, and iTunes downloads, show the drop in viewers to be much smaller than reported.

The challenges, the “peaks and valleys,” as Marc Dolan (1994) deems them, facing the creators of today’s long-term television narratives are unprecedented. Of indeterminate length (they may have multiseason runs or could be peremptorily terminated); the product of multiple authors (who may or may not be there for the duration); required to sustain suspense and audience interest not only within an episode but between episodes; susceptible to diegetic and nondiegetic, internal and external, artistic and commercial, industry and fan pressure; and obligated to supply temporary satisfactions and yet promise continuing dramatic developments - it is amazing that so many television series have maintained their excellence for so long.

Lost, in this regard, is especially miraculous. The story of its birth - its metamorphosis from banal “plane crashes on desert island” into fantastic, perplexing serial mystery - has been told elsewhere (Porter and Lavery 2007). No LTTVN has been more cognizant of its failed predecessors.In an Entertainment Weekly - arranged colloquy (Jensen 2006) between Lost’s prime movers and their hero Stephen King, we find the following revealing exchange: “J. J. Abrams: I’m saying that the reason [ABC] would want the show to continue isn’t because they care about the characters. It’s because there’s an economic model that says the show must go on for five years. Twin Peaks did not make them money. We love it because it was cool…Carlton Cuse: …but it was a cult thing. Abrams: And a cult doesn’t pay for it.”

Yet none has taken larger risks, posed more challenges to its viewers or itself, or given us a greater “cognitive workout” (Johnson 2005, 77).

In its first season a Lost champion (and influence), Stephen King (2005) had pleaded in Entertainment Weekly for the series to end when it needed to end - when its story had naturally run its course, and not in subservience to “the Prime Network Directive: Thou Shalt Not Kill the Cash Cow.” Lindelof and Cuse’s seeming readiness to commit preemptive narrative euthanasia on their story in the hopes of maintaining quality of life for Lost’s remaining days would seem to indicate their acquiescence with King’s entreaty.For more on the struggle between art and commerce on Lost, see Jensen (2006).

How did it come to this? Why have even successful LTTVNs become imperiled?

LTTVNs: A Brief History

U.S. television has devoted increased attention in the past two decades to crafting and maintaining ever more complex narratives, a form of “world building” that has allowed for wholly new modes of narration and that suggests new forms of audience engagement.

- Jeff Sconce, “What If?”

The LTTVNs at which the medium has excelled have taken on many forms in television’s relatively short history.Here and throughout this section, I have relied extensively on the superb examinations of television’s narrative forms by Marc Dolan and Jimmie Reeves. The work of John Ellis, Jane Feuer, John Tulloch, Manuel Alvarado, Robin Nelson, Jeffrey Sconce, and of course, Jason Mittell has also been influential. Prime time was dominated until the 1960s by the episodic series, in which individual episodes stood for the most part alone, discrete, with the story line of any particular hour (or half hour) almost never escaping its own frame, seldom spilling over into episodes to come. “To a certain extent,” Dolan (1994, 33) observes, “viewers of an episodic series watched in the secure knowledge that, whenever something drastic happened to a regular character like Lucy Ricardo or James T. Kirk in the middle of an episode, it would be reversed by the end of the episode and the characters would end up in the same general narrative situation that they began in.” In such series, “narrative change is minimized.”

Existing contemporaneously with the episodic series but ghettoized in the different mediacosmos of daytime television, continuous serials told stories that “were by contrast, deliberately left hanging at the end of each episode; nearly all plots initiated in a continuous serial were designed to be infinitely continued and extended” (ibid.).Until the 1970s, Dolan (1994, 33) explains, “the episodic series and the continuous serial were almost inevitably segregated into separate areas of viewing time, the former dominating the prime time hours, the latter dominating the mornings and afternoons. This gave network television a remarkably split personality, with happy love affairs and marriages ruling by night, for example, and infidelity and divorce ruling by day.” Linear, as opposed to the episodic series’ inherent circularity, the continuous serial makes narrative change its raison d’e tre.As Tulloch and Alvarado (1983, ix) note, the continuous serial is “characterized by the fact that it can run infinitely and that it possesses multiple narrative strands which are introduced and concluded in different temporal periods.”

Once the continuous serial broke free from its daytime prison, migrating to prime time first in the form of nighttime soaps like Dallas, the sequential series was born.Tulloch and Alvarado identify a closely related narrative form that they deem the episodic serial. Episodic serials exhibit continuity between episodes, but only for “a limited and specified number” (Tulloch and Alvarado 1983, ix). The subject of their study, Doctor Who, serves as an example, as does another famous British series, The Prisoner. Television schedules were quickly populated by shows that “had they been made a decade earlier, would almost certainly have been constructed in almost purely episodic terms,” series that “could very often not be shown in an order other than their original one, since events in one episode clearly led to events in another” (ibid.). Horace Newcomb (1985) uses a different designation for essentially the same narrative manifestation: “cumulative narrative.” Like the traditional series and unlike the traditional “open-ended” serial, each installment of a cumulative narrative has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. However, unlike the traditional series and like the traditional serial, one episode’s events can greatly affect later episodes. As Newcomb puts it, “Each week’s program is distinct, yet each is grafted onto the body of the series, its characters’ pasts.” (Reeves, Rodgers, and Epstein 1996, 30)

The last two decades of television have seen the spread of what Robin Nelson (2006, 82) terms flexi-narratives, a “hybrid mix of serial and series forms … mixtures of the series and the serial form, involving the closure of one story arc within an episode (like a series) but with other, ongoing story arcs involving the regular characters (like a serial).” The widespread appeal of the flexi-narrative is not difficult to understand, for it “maximises the pleasures of both regular viewers who watch from week to week and get hooked by the serial narratives and the occasional viewers who happen to tune into one episode seeking the satisfaction of narrative closure within that episode” (ibid.).

Drawing on the ideas of Umberto Eco’s (1989) call in The Open Work for a “poetics of serial thought” and Gilles Deleuze’s (1993) notion of individual narratives as incarnations of the “infinite work in progress,” Angela Ndalianis (2004, 86 - 87) has described the advent of the latest generation of LTTVN as “neo-baroque.” The defining trait of neo-baroque, she argues, is not, as is traditionally thought, the visual or the spectacular, but “lack of respect for the frame.” The “madness of vision” of the neo-baroque manifests itself in narrative - in what Henri Focillon once deemed “an undulating continuity, where both beginning and end are carefully hidden.”

Exemplary LTTVNs

This narrative system has permutated a wide variety of LTTVNs over the last three decades. Dallas (CBS, 1978 - 1991), a nighttime soap/sequential series, which gave us perhaps the mother of all cliff-hangers (1980’s “Who Shot J. R.?”); begat the manically inventive and intertextual St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982 - 1988), a medical drama episodic serial; which begat Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990 - 1991), a splendid postmodernist failure of an episodic serial, which peremptorily ended with its hero, Special Agent Dale Cooper, possessed by the supernatural parasitic being named BOB;21. Tulloch and Alvarado (1983, ix) raise the intriguing question “whether a continuous serial which `fails’ … becomes, through its failure, an episodic serial!” What does a failed episodic serial then become? which begat The X-Files (FOX, 1993 - 2002), a flexi-narrative, which mixed monster-of-the-week episodes with a multiseason “mythology” arc about an alien invasion of Earth; which begat Babylon 5 (PTEN, 1994 - 1997; TNT, 1998), an unprecedented series conceived in advance by J. Michael Straczynski, its mastermind, as a five-year narrative arc; which begat Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003), another flexi-narrative that each year combined a self-contained, season-long story arc, in which the Scooby Gang battled and defeated a “Big Bad” threat, with multiseason character development and a repeated famous line in its final episode (Giles’s “The earth is doomed”) that had ended its first installment, 144 episodes and seven years before; For more on Buffy’s narrative form, see Lavery (2002, 2003). which begat 24 (FOX, 2001 - ), an episodic serial in which each season tells the “real time,” “by the clock” story of one day in which Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) must save the world from enemies of the United States; which begat The Sopranos (HBO, 1999 - 2007), a flexi-narrative mob drama, which put similar demands on its audience’s memory; and all the quality “not television” HBO dramas that followed in its wake, including series such as Six Feet Under (2000 - 2005), The Wire (2002 - 2008), and Deadwood (2004 - 2006).

Signs of the neo-baroque can be found throughout these series as the era of television complexity dawns and comes into its own. One season of Dallas (its eighth) turned out to be Pam Ewing’s nightmare while her husband Bobby was in the shower (thus permitting Patrick Duffy, who had quit the series, to return after his character had seemingly been killed in the seventh season’s finale). St. Elsewhere’s final shot - a snow globe containing the series’ eponymous hospital - suggested that its entire story had been the dream of an autistic boy. Twin Peaks regularly showed no respect for the frame: to cite but one example, after his landmark dream in the second episode, Agent Cooper impossibly snaps his fingers in sync with the extradiegetic score on the sound track. In a famous season three episode, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,”’ The X-Files self-consciously spoofed its own conventions, and in season seven’s “Hollywood AD,” agents Mulder and Scully serve as consultants for a hyperreflexive Hollywood version of their story. Buffy the Vampire Slayer often deconstructed itself, and season four’s “Superstar” gave us an episode in which a minor character hijacks the diegesis, making himself, with the assistance of a magic spell, the show’s hero. The Sopranos has regularly given dreams significant roles in the ongoing story; in season two’s “Funhouse,” for instance, a talking fish reveals to Tony the identity of the traitor in their midst.

But none of these series, for all their playfulness, for all their willingness to engage in what Sconce (2004, 107) calls “conjectural narrative,” for all their self-conscious creation of universes primed for audience exploration and habitation, could be said to be so ardently neo-baroque as Lost.Sconce’s (2004, 105 - 109) essay offers a superb overview of such playful experiments.

Lost as Neo-Baroque

Certainly, chief among Lost’s pleasures is the show’s ability to create sincere emotional connections to characters who are immersed in an outlandish situation that, as of this writing, is unclassifiable as science fiction, paranormal mystery, or religious allegory, all constructed by an elaborate narrational structure far more complex than anything seen before in American television.

- Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”

The “madness of vision” of Lost, its “undulating continuity, where both beginning and end are carefully hidden,” is both its blessing and its curse. Conscious as no LTTVN before it of the potential of the “collective intelligence” (Mittell 2006b, 31) of its hyperactivated audience, Lost’s creators have stoked the fires through a number of strategies.

At heart the story of a plane crash on a mysterious South Pacific island and the struggle of its survivors in its aftermath, Lost also opted to tell the backstories, in flashbacks, of each of its key characters, in which we learn, in a series saturated by dramatic irony, of the many ways in which the lives of Oceanic 815’s perfect strangers have actually intersected before they boarded the plane (“Lost crosses,” Lindelof and Cuse call them in a podcast).

Consciously modeled on/inspired by video games (Porter and Lavery 2007), Lost teases both the characters within the diegesis and the fandom with Easter eggs to reward their diligent obsession.In the On Point NPR interview, Lindelof takes the metaphor one step further, reminding us that kids on a real Easter egg hunt sometimes find things the parents didn’t actually hide. In other words: at least some of the discoveries of Lost’s voracious fandom were not intended (Ashbrook 2007).

It even offers its own painstaking alternative reality game, the Lost Experience, from which discoveries made might be imported back into the narrative (see Mittell 2006a). In a startling admission, Lindelof and Cuse answering a listener question about why the revelations of the alternative reality game have not yet been incorporated into the narrative proper, acknowledge that the Web seems to them the perfect venue for dissseminating information about the series’ deep mythology for the “hard-core fan.” For the characters on the island, fighting for survival, are not concerned with the identity of Alvar Hanso or the Dharma Initiative (Ashbrook 2007).

Lost has also been wildly intertextual. Cinematic ancestors - disaster films, Castaway, Jurassic Park, and The Wizard of Oz - and television series - The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilligan’s Island, Survivor, The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files - have all influenced Lost’s themes, mise-en-scène, characterization, and narrative style. And no series has made actual texts more a part of its own text than Lost. I have already noted above Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend’s guest appearance, but a list of book cameos would need to include as well Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, Stephen King’s Carrie, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Richard Adams’s Watership Down, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Walker Percy’s Lancelot, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (the last five all read by Sawyer), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and most notoriously, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (the last three found in the hatch), and Bad Twin, a Lost tie-in novel supposedly written by the late Oceanic 815 passenger Gary Troup. To paraphrase a question that Stanley Fish (1980) once famously asked in the title of a book: “Is there a text on this island?” Many, many texts is the answer, each of them inviting additional reading and rereading, research, and speculation.

And Lost piles mystery on mystery. What do Hurley’s lottery-winning numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42) really mean? What is the monster that terrorizes the island? How/why was Rose’s cancer cured and Locke made to walk again on the island? Who exactly are the Others? What is the significance of that four-toed statue? Why did a shark have a Dharma logo on its fin? Did that bird call out Hurley’s name? Can Desmond see the future? Satisfying answers have yet to be provided.

At the beginning of the last decade audiences were so impatient to learn, finally, who killed Laura Palmer that they began to jump ship en masse after only eight episodes. Visitors to Mars have only been asked to wait for sixteen episodes to learn the truth about Sam’s conundrum. The core Lost audience has to date waited patiently, enjoying speculation, engaging in their own “amateur narratology” (Mittell 2006b, 38) in lieu of answers, but many are now becoming increasingly irritated and annoyed.

“Tap dancing,” Lindelof tells Tom Ashbrook (2007), using that nuanced, virtuoso, yet strangely immobile art as the vehicle for his metaphor, is interesting for a limited period but ultimately boring. And yet an LTTVN as ambitious as Lost - especially one as ambitious as Lost - must perform in place, must stay for a time in the diegetic middle, before it can head for the exits. Series like Life on Mars or Grey’s Anatomy need not tap: a run of sixteen episodes does not require time in idle, nor for a different reason, does a “franchise” show (as Cuse deems Grey’s [ibid.]) with no discernible end point.

The Future of LTTVNs

We don’t own Lost. While the network is committed to the show creatively, their job is to develop shows and hope that they become hits and then support them so that they stay hits. When we pitched Lost, part of it was convincing ABC we could keep it on the air for as long as they wanted. If we told them we could only do the show if we ended it after 100 episodes, they never would’ve agreed to it. And who could blame them?

- Damon Lindelof, quoted in “When Stephen King Met the `Lost’ Boys”

Jason Mittell (2006b, 35) detects evidence in the sort of narrative moves Lost makes - he speaks of “narrative pyrotechnics” and “the narrative special effect” - of a growing tendency to “push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; often these instances forgo realism in exchange for a formally aware baroque quality in which we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis.”

Mittell’s choice of the word “machine” is perhaps unfortunate. The behind-the-scenes processes that fans of LTTVNs now follow as avidly as any ‘shipper follows mating patterns on a favorite show are not being executed by a computer or ground out by an industry engine. They are born in the neurons of a Whedon, Lindelof, or Kring.

If Johnson and Mittell are right, if today’s television viewer is becoming smarter - and must become smarter - to keep up with today’s series, then it goes without saying that the creators of these series must be smarter too. Consider the hit series du jour, NBC’s Heroes (2006 - ), created by Tim Kring, best known previously as the creator of Crossing Jordan (2001 - ), an episodic serial about a Boston medical examiner (played by Jill Hennessey). While Lost, whose inspiration Kring readily acknowledges, is indebted to video games, Heroes draws on the conventions and look of comic books. From its opening sequence - in which (unlike most television shows) we actually get to see the episode title and chapter number on-screen (“Chapter Seventeen: Company Man”) - to Issac’s paintings (rendered by comic book artist Tim Sale) to its episode-closing “To be continued,” Heroes embraces the comic book aesthetic, splicing it together with the LTTVN. Will Heroes and Lost succeed where Twin Peaks and The X-Files failed?

For several years now I have been speaking of “rooting for television” (Lavery 2004), a scholar-fan tendency I find in myself as well as others (McKee 2007), to identify with television creativity, finding myself happy, thrilled in fact, at brilliant character developments, ingenious narratological developments, tour de force action sequences and special effects, delicious subversions of broadcasting codes, getting-away-with-murder wickedly risqué verbal and visual double entendres, and perfect, fertile, closureless endings. Mittell’s notion of the foregrounding of operational aesthetics and mine are not in opposition. I root for creative achievement in all its forms and spheres, and nowhere does it amaze me more at present than in television’s splendidly imaginative engagement with long-term television narratives. If Lost or Heroes pulls it off, makes it to the finish line with its integrity and sense of wonder still intact, still believing with Whedon (2001) that there is “a religion in narrative,” and their audiences still reasonably devout, the human imagination will be the victor.


Since I wrote the above, season two (and with it the series itself) of Life on Mars, season one of Heroes, and season three of Lost all came to an end. Prior to its final episode, word got out that Mars would have a sequel, Ashes to Ashes, set now in early 1980s’ London, with Sam replaced by another cop from the future, a woman it was rumored (correctly) to be partnered with Gene Hunt.

So not surprisingly, the series finale was ambiguous, since it needed to require narrative space for Ashes. Sam returns to the present. The 1973 cop who had involved Sam in a conspiracy to expose Hunt’s criminality turns out to be his twenty-first-century surgeon, and Sam awakens in the here and now in the middle of a life-and-death situation in the past. But he finds the present lifeless and soulless, and jumps off a roof, finding himself, of course, back in 1973, where he heroically saves his friends and pledges himself to Annie - “forever.” In the episode’s final moment, the Test Card Girl, who turns out to be a neighborhood child, looks directly into the camera, and then reaches out and turns off our sets, calling attention to Mars’ exuberant televisuality.

Heroes ended its first season with a superficially extraordinary three-part episode that for the most part disappointed fans because of its predictability and heavy-handedness.

Lost’s “Through the Looking Glass,” however, saved its season and rewrote all of its, and LTTVN’s, rules. In the final moment of a Jack-intensive episode (in which war breaks out between the castaways and the Others, Locke comes back from the grave, Charlie dies, and escape seems imminent, or if Ben speaks the truth, everyone will soon be killed by outside forces anxious to take possession of the island), we learn that what we thought were flashbacks are, in fact, flash-forwards to the present day, in which a suicidal Jack and a happily married, Volvo-driving Kate are off the island, back in Los Angeles. (We should have known from the name of that funeral home, Hoffs/Drawlar - an anagram of “flash-forward” - that things were not what they seemed.)

The negotiations mentioned above for a predetermined end to Lost proved successful. Darlton (the new slash name fans have given Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse) secured an ABC commitment to three more dramatically shorter seasons (sixteen episodes instead of twenty-two or more), each starting, 24-style, early in the new year, with the series ending in May 2010. In the meantime, Lost will combine, in an unprecented LTTVN experiment, flashbacks and flash-forwards, taking the neo-baroque to another level.


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