Archive for the ‘watching’ tag
Lost spoilers through the series finale (6.17)
Note to readers: The first two sections are boring background. Feel free to skip ahead to the more interesting discussion in part three, below the video.
“I once was lost.” – John Newton
I’ve not always been kind to Lost. Maybe even a little harsh. I first came to the show from my dad, who was a fan. When my brother bought him the first season on DVD, I borrowed it and dug in. I found it very effective at times, with fun mysteries about rumblings in the jungle and weird smoke and a light shining out of the ground. But those fun moments were a little too few and far between for me. The format of the first season, with its on-island stories broken up by single-episode flashbacks developing each character’s history, both made the (to me) more interesting on-island stories move too slowly and was too dependent on the acting of its cast, who (especially that first season) were of varied abilities. Locke story? Yea! Jack story? Ugh. And so on.
I would step away, then try again at various points. I would rewatch a previous season or handful of episodes when I felt the push to try again. After enjoying a season four catch-up (DVRed off of Syfy when it was still Sci-Fi) to watch season five, my wife and I just couldn’t handle the week-to-week viewing of a show we just weren’t enjoying very much. So we gave up. For good, I thought. When season six rolled around in 2010, I’d skim through my Twitter feed on Wednesday mornings, catching some reactions to the previous night’s episodes while doing my best to avoid spoilers in case I did want to dig in again.
“I’m lost in the world. I’m down on my mind.” – Kanye West
Then all hell broke loose. Friends of ours who are not particularly television addicts were rushing home on Tuesday nights for their weekly Lost viewing, but they were increasingly annoyed by the slow pace of season six. And boy, did they hate the finale. So few answers! What about this? What about that?
Honestly, it left me a little intrigued.
But also a little put out. I didn’t feel a part of this fan community. I had never watched that closely for secret signals about what was going on. (If pressed, I could probably remember half the numbers of that famous sequence.) So after the hullabaloo died down, I began suggesting to my wife that we attempt a rewatch. From what point was a tough answer, but we settled on season four. That turned out to be a pretty great choice because I loved that season on the rewatch. The on-island stories were moving along swiftly, the new cast of characters included some stronger actors with richer stories to embody, and there were lots of intriguing questions rising to the forefront. I once again lost interest in the beginning of season five. Way too much time off-island. Glacial plotting. Until it got awesome with a few episodes left. And finally, turning to season six, I realized this was a show I loved. Or rather, in seasons four through six Lost became the show I always wanted it to be: not a collection of short stories with a couple mysterious strands running through it, but a creatively, structurally, and emotionally ambitious story with strong characters who made decisions without enough information and lived with consequences that they didn’t understand.
I watched the show with my wife, apart from the fan communities that were listening to showrunner podcasts and debating clues and constructing timelines and predicting where the show was going. Other than the general sense from friends and twitter buddies (and one afternoon in which I read Jason Mittell’s Lost Wednesday posts on Antenna) I’ve been able to watch it (1) without the questions that gnawed at the show’s devotees and (2) in one relatively compact stretch. Both of these factors presumably made a difference in how I watched. But I’ll leave it to smart folks like Jason Mittell to work that out.
I’ll focus on something slightly different. I knew from others that the show’s finale was religious, but I didn’t know the specifics. (Alison Janney is some kind of angel who decides who was good and who was bad? Or something?) I also knew that people were unsatisfied that so many questions were left unanswered. At the forefront of my mind in watching season six were not questions about how the Dharma Initiative got to the island or how the donkey wheel placed people in Tunisia. I wanted to know, “Why aren’t people digging this as much as I am? Why am I loving this so much when so many friends whose television opinions I respect dislike it so much?” What follows is my (inadequate) attempt at a (partial) answer.
“We are building a religion.” – Cake
With the possible exception of Angel, which was built around the idea of redemption (what it is, why it matters, how to get it) and secondarily around the nature of prophecy, Lost is the most religious show I’ve ever watched. First, I’ll say how it’s religious, which should lead naturally into my reasons for appreciating the final season (and especially the finale) more than the more devoted fans.
- Religious Themes: Central to Lost, at least in its middle seasons, was the conflict between faith and reason played out between John Locke and Jack Shephard, respectively. This conflict became more nuanced in the later seasons, as Jack’s arc took him from “man of science” to “man who was convinced that his life had purpose, despite there being little more than a gut feeling telling him this.” Locke went from faithful servant of the island to dead. Importantly, both end up in the same place in the end, but for most of the last two seasons the show was in favor of a “reason tempered with humility of the unknown” approach that Jack came to embody and which allowed him to be the island’s savior. (Nothing in those early seasons suggested to me that Jack was a Christ-figure, but that’s how the finale played it.) There were plenty of other religious themes, including the nature of prophecy (again, parrallels to Angel), the existence and nature of free will, the role of authority, the possibility of miracles, and the search for meaning. Lost was a pretty religious show, at least from season two on.
- Religious Mythology: But Lost went beyond merely entertaining questions about religion, and built its own religious mythology. It borrowed from existing religions to create its own set of myths, symbols, and rituals. (I don’t want to play up to much the notion that “Lost fans are like religious devotees,” but lots of people set out Tuesday nights the way that religious practitioners set out their holy day.) More interesting to me is the way that Lost gloriously defied reducing any of its symbolism, imagery, and ideas to a specific religion. It probably borrowed more from Christianity than other religions, but the show really creates its own set of artifacts, heroes of the faith, and symbolism in a way that few shows attempt. It borrows liberally from other religions, but puts them to its own use in creating a mythology built on common archetypes (twin brothers, games, individual sacrifice) that has its own specifics. Protect the light at the center of the island! Turn the donkey wheel! Trust Jacob! Don’t trust Jacob! Lost created a fictional universe with a set of moral principles, focal stories, and religious perspectives that goes beyond typical world-building. (Side note:I was a little annoyed at the stained glass window in the church(?) in the finale that included symbols from various religions; this suggested a that the show was more about the unity of all religions rather than creating something new out of them, which is the reading I prefer.)
- Religious Readings: Lost also provides a unique, although obtuse entry into thinking about how people approach religious texts and the parallels for television shows with rich mythologies. Here’s four rough groupings of how people approach religious texts … and Lost. (1) There are those who expect extremely detailed, accurate, and literal reconstructions of religious texts. They might, to point to one contemporary instance, determine that Jesus Christ is returning on May 21, 2011, based on a combination of interpreting vague phrases (“rumors of war”) and interpolating from specific chronologies. They expect their religious texts to provide all the answers to all the questions they bring to it. These folks aren’t more or less religious than others, nor are they all crazies. (But those May 21 folks are a little crazy.) Perhaps the Gemara era of Talmudic commentary might represent this sort of precise, detailed approach that expects coherence. These interpreters expect a level of detail and foreground a kind of interpretation that parallels (in some, but obviously not all ways) the kind of answer-seeking that marked many Lost fans. (2) Other folks approach religious texts with a set of non-religious questions. What can this text teach us about the culture at the time? About literary form? About the sociology of religion? Similarly, some folks (the kind most likely to write books about Lost) are interested in what Lost can tell us about television, about America, about our desire for meaning and community. (3) Another set of Lost viewers is primarily concerned with the stories or the characters. They don’t care about what the island really is or whether there is a scientific explanation of Locke’s ability to walk after the plane crash. They care about these people, they marvel at their stories, and they want to know what happens to them. And plenty of folks approach the Upanishads or the Koran or the Book of Ruth as a collection of really great, emotionally powerful stories. In both cases, we can learn things from these stories, the way we learn things from any great stories. (4) Finally, some folks expect that religious texts are collections of stories, often gathered from multiple authors and even more editors, that more or less hang together, and which generally tell a coherent narrative, but do so not by filling in all the details but by leaving things so open that there are any number of ways to make it consistent. Plenty is left open to interpretation and plenty is left underdetermined because the point was never to fill in all the details but to tell parables, allegories, and other good stories that are compelling and instructive.
These groups are not exhaustive, nor are they mutually exclusive. One could easily shift perspectives and embrace the value of these (and more). I prefer approach (4), with an interest in the careful analysis represented in (1) and plenty of external questions like those valued in (2).
Ultimately, appreciating the last season of Lost is about adopting approach (3) or approach (4). The first approach will set you up for disappointment. The second is interesting, but not one that the show really cared about. (Unlike, say, 24 or The Wire, which emphasized their real-world applications.) The fourth approach is the one I most closely identify with in the interpretation of religious texts, so I think by being removed from the fan communities that emphasized (1), I tended toward this approach and was thus able to get more enjoyment out of the final season. And while the show often flirted with (1) and mostly focused on (3), the finale was really focused on (3) and, especially in those last fifteen minutes, on (4). Having spent most of the final season thinking about how little interested I was in answers of the sort that (1) expected (I could barely remember the questions), and only mildly interested in (2) and (3), I think that I was a better position to appreciate such an ambiguous finale. This doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t hang together; it may fit together as tightly and coherently as the first approach expects. But I never expected everything to be explicit, everything to be answered, everything to be tied together. (Again, this is only partly because of this taxonomy of religious reading; I was also primed by other viewers to expect a lot of questions remaining unanswered.)
Religious texts mostly don’t make things explicit when they are telling stories. (They often do that elsewhere.) They tell you parts of the story: the parts that answered someone else’s question or that portrayed a particularly resonant idea. And as in most religious texts, Lost is about people without enough information, making monumental decisions, the consequences of which they don’t understand. Occasionally the gods/God/showrunners step in with another piece of the puzzle, either directly or surreptitiously. But mostly we live in ignorance, trying to learn a little more, fitting together the pieces, knowing that ultimately even if it all fits together we’ll live most of our lives without all the pieces in place.
As in Lost, so in life.
[Having written all this now, I am interested to go and read others' interpretations of the final season and especially the finale. Perhaps I'll even update this afterwards.]
The Price Is Right is perhaps the only place on television where you can consistently find expressions of pure joy. There’s certainly a good deal of happiness in a show like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but it requires a journey through a family’s greatest sorrows. It’s also easier for scripted dramas to explore dark places, moments of tragedy and even triumph. But pure joy? Almost never.
Game shows can fill a lot of needs in our lives, but The Price Is Right has the singular ability to demonstrate the communal nature of joy. Having your name called (“Come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price Is Right!”) leads to eager jumping, flailing, and hugging/climbing over each person in your row as you make your way down. The audience participates in a way uncommon in game shows, shouting suggestions and cheering on friends and strangers alike. Unlike the recent rash of Japenese-inspired game shows that feed off of humiliating others, The Price Is Right remains a place in which people join together in celebrating minor accomplishments. The games shows inspired by the popularity of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? also encourage isolating the individual. And it’s no surprise that Regis Philbin would be the only one who looks as if he is enjoying himself on Millionaire. Compare that to Bob Barker and Drew Carey, who are the least expressive hosts imaginable, rarely showing more emotion than cracking a smile, and smartly so, since any effusiveness on their parts would take the show (even further) over the top. Barker or Carey can stand while they are hugged, kissed, and nearly knocked over by excited contestants celebrating their victory or their opportunity.
The community of The Price Is Right is not just constituted by the studio audience. Viewers are drawn in by the host looking directly into camera and the showcase models exhibiting the prizes for us. Sit in a doctor’s waiting room or the holding tank at a automotive repair shop, and you’ll find that the show most likely to draw everyone’s faces toward the television is The Price Is Right. The joy is both intensely personal, as we watch a person jump up and down, screaming, and also communal as people cheer on their peer. It’s a rather wonderful thing to watch on TV.
If I am right that The Price Is Right is the rare show that allows housewives, frat boys, and retired grandparents to join together in expressions of shared joy, it is also problematic for encouraging these expressions through material consumption. The Price Is Right has been doing product placement since long before Spiderman reached across the room for a Dr. Pepper or Big Mike took a bite out of a Subway sandwich on Chuck. And the expressions of joy that I came here to praise are expressions of joy at the opportunity to win stuff. Hardly a person in the country won’t recognize “… a new car!” called out in your best Rod Roddy impersonation. The greatest expressions of joy on television are for getting a car, a boat, or a trip to the Eiffel tower, and we encourage this by watching a show whose purpose is to reward people for knowing the cost of common (and increasingly uncommon) consumer products. The two shows most like The Price Is Right are Let’s Make a Deal, which shares some of the community feeling, but in a detached, silly way, and Supermarket Sweep, a low-budget alternative that tries to capture some of the energy of The Price Is Right and its rewarding of pure consumerism. But neither has managed to stay on television as long (Deal is back with Wayne Brady after a long absence from television) nor be as successful in their runs.
The Price Is Right‘s success, I think, has to do with its unique ability to showcase and encourage shared joy. Like other shows, it can test our knowledge of trivia and allow us to compare ourselves to the show’s contestants. But unlike reality competition shows such as Top Chef or Jeopardy!, where we can see expertise exhibited but in an arena designed to pit players against one another and promote tensions, on The Price Is Right everyone is encouraged to cheerlead each other. You may not get to compete for a prize, but you are primed to cheer on those who are.
How rare is that? Almost as rare as joy itself.
Tonight is the premiere of the fifth season of 30 Rock. Despite its poor ratings, NBC has kept 30 Rock on the air because it usually cleans up at the Emmys and because it is a critical darling.
Oops. Did I say “is”? I meant “was.”
Last season, 30 Rock suffered from the dreaded double whammy of any critical darling: Emmy backlash and critical fatigue. What is Emmy backlash? Shows that do well at the Emmys consistently lose their critical champions because by winning many Emmys (a good thing), it excludes other shows that critics and TV fans think are also deserving (a bad thing, apparently). People begin to list shows that were better than the Emmy winner in that particular season. Suddenly, shows that made us laugh or cry or tense up all seasons suddenly appear to have massive flaws that gnaw away at us. If your show is experiencing any of these symptoms, it may have Emmy backlash. Consult a script doctor immediately.
Critical fatigue is a related phenomenon. Some shows (Chuck comes to mind) become critical darlings, but fail to live up to critics’ high expectations. Really, this is a problem for critics rather than shows, since the shows may not have changed at all, but the critics’ viewing experience has. Chuck may not have been ambitious enough or it may have been too ambitious, depending on what the critic thought Chuck could and should be. It fails to meet expectations. Critics lose interest in championing the show. In a case like Chuck, this fatigue may be legitimate. Weighing perceived benefits to the cost of championing the show, a TV fan or critic may not want to put the effort into hyping the show.
The case of critical fatigue surrounding 30 Rock is a bit different, I think. In this case, the overriding critical complaint about the show is that it hasn’t grown any: its characters are thinly drawn, its plots are being recycled from earlier episodes, these jokes were used before. All of these lead critics and other viewers who watch shows intensely to conclude that the show is less funny than it used to be. But this is only because critical viewers typically watch shows in order even when there is no particular reason to do so. Apart from a few mini-arcs and the occasionally callback, there is really no reason to watch 30 Rock in order. But most of us do. So we recognize the same jokes, the same plots, the same everything. Then we begin to notice that Kenneth, who seemed like a breakout character that first season, has broken out into nowhere. Tracy’s glorious non sequiturs now seem like a stretch. And why did we ever think Jenna was funny?
But here is the problem: The last season of 30 Rock was as good or nearly as good as the previous seasons. Why do I think that? I apply the new viewer test. Would a new viewer of this show, entering at the fourth season, think this show is as hilarious as in-order viewers thought the first two seasons were? In this case, I think the answer is probably yes. (Or at least, close enough to being as good as not to justify the critical disparity.) For someone who hadn’t seen these plots before, there would be no reason to expect more from Liz and Jack’s relationship or to have grown tired of the use of guest stars that draw away from the strengths of central characters.
Now, there’s no easy cure for critical fatigue. The new viewer test is really just a check on our intuitions about how funny a particular season is. In fact, we might do a variation of the new viewer test called the syndication test: if this episode showed up out of order in syndication, would we think it is as funny as the earlier episodes? I suspect many comedy series that last four or more seasons will see a marked improvement in critical judgment if we apply either of these two tests.
Critical fatigue, I suspect, is a side-effect of the particular sort of careful viewing demanded of critics. This form of viewing and criticial analysis is particularly well-suited to the long-developing dramas that have become the calling card of “quality television.” As a point of comparison, because the characters change little over time and the plots often follow the same beats and twists, popular procedurals like CSI and Criminal Minds tend to get little critical attention even though they are typically the most watched shows on television. That’s just the way it goes. Contemporary television criticism, which is getting more refined and more impressive, hasn’t yet found a way to adjust to procedurals and, I am arguing, the later seasons of television comedies.
So when we turn to 30 Rock and the other returning comedies this season, I encourage us all to watch (if we can) with the fresh eyes of a new viewer, or at least the blurry vision of a future viewer watching out-of-order syndication. I suspect we will all enjoy the returning comedies a good deal more.
On Wednesday, Psych returns for its fifth season on USA, a network that has solidified a place as the most-watched cable network by developing original content branded around a helpfully loose “Characters welcome” theme. (See a good discussion of its branding and the role of genre at In Media Res.) Critical reaction to this show is some mixture of ignoring it and reviling it. And frankly, I’m not sure I disagree with a lot of the criticisms of the show: the writing is too on-the-nose, the acting is too mugging, the humor is too broad, the mysteries are too predictable, the lead character is too irritating (to other characters and to us), and… well, you get the idea. Even the score gets trashed.
Despite all of these (and in some of these cases, because of them), I dearly love Psych. There’s probably no show I enjoy watching more than Psych, none that makes me laugh more, and none that gets watched as quickly after the DVR records it. And it really comes down to one simple thing: Psych is funny.
Funny makes up for a multitude of sins. I’ll watch and rewatch a funny show far more quickly and more regularly than an otherwise superior drama. So when Psych‘s fourth season gets released tomorrow, it will soon make it into the DVD player for a second viewing, and probably a third viewing within a year.
There are some things to be said in favor of Psych. The supporting cast is stronger than Monk, a show that is viewed more positively by critics and Emmy voters. They’re about equal on the quirk-o-meter, for whatever that is worth, and both can attract some solid guest stars. But for me, the show works for one main reason: Dulé Hill.
Critics (and, I suspect, many fans) claim that the show lives or dies by the James Roday’s performance at the center of the show. Shawn Spencer is the fake psychic, after all, and he gets the most lines and the most story arcs. I can’t disagree that the show rests a lots on his shoulders. But what makes Roday’s mugging and irritation to others watchable is Hill’s Burton “Gus” Guster.
Gus fits into a particular subgenre of the bromance that I think of as the Male Black Best Friend. There are Lenny and Carl on The Simpsons, Phil and Lemm on Better Off Ted, Shawn and Gus on Psych, and (the fullest realization of this subgenre) J.D. and Turk on Scrubs. In each case, there is a pair of male best friends, one Caucasian and one African-American, who view each other as equals and are viewed by outsiders as inseparable. (The second half of Community‘s first season saw them pairing Abed with Troy, interestingly putting a twist on the formula by putting a character of Palestinian-Polish descent in the role of the white friend.)
With Phil and Lemm, the idea was that these are codependent coworkers who need each other to be successful. Lenny and Carl began as background figures, drinking buddies to Homer, but The Simpsons has generated a lot of humor out of their pairing. Scrubs pushed the bromance aspect farther than any show or film has yet done, but what interests me the most about it was that it gave Turk more stories and a greater depth of characterization than any other Male Black Best Friend, Guster included. Turk not only supported J.D. through residency and beyond, but he had an interesting and complicated relationship to Carla and had meaningful interactions with the rest of the cast. Gus has far less of that characterization and almost no relationships that aren’t mediated or interrupted by Shawn, and thus he suffers as a character. But he surpasses the others in the central role of the Male Black Best Friend: alleviating the white best friend’s perceived dorkiness by being equally dorky.
The joy of watching Psych for me is watching Hill’s performance as the Male Black Best Friend to a character that is built out of hamming it up and irritating others (including his father and those who sign his paycheck). Hill finds a nice balance between joining in with Roday’s antics and giving a look of sharp displeasure or an annoyed tone of voice that serves as a helpful counterpoint. Psych never passes up a joke, a reference to an ’80s film, an antic, or a farcical conclusion,(except in a handful of darker episodes near the end of the last two seasons). And there is simply too much silliness in the show for one character to carry without the show self-destructing. Many are annoyed at Tony Shaloub being nominated for his portrayal of Monk yet again, but that show is nothing without his performance. Roday’s take on Shawn is too thin to do the work of carrying the show single-handedly. So we have Burton Guster to carry us through, to take the weight off Shawn, to serve as a bridge to the somewhat more realistic characters on the show, and to ground Shawn.
This ancillary nature of the MBFF is disturbing insofar as it suggests that a television show can’t survive with a black lead or further contributes to racial tokenism. And there is probably something significant in the fact that Hill’s most famous role was on The West Wing, where he was a late addition to the cast, forced by NBC to address complaints about its whitewashed primetime lineup. To their benefit, USA has always promoted Psych as a two-lead comedy, but unfortunately that’s not how the show actually works in terms of stories or characterization. Gus is no more than the MBFF.
But I return to Psych because it is funny and because of Hill’s performance. In one of the show’s few (mostly) serious episodes, Shawn is tracking a serial killer and finds he can’t work under the stress, so he asks Gus to be his surrogate and lighten the mood. Rather than aim for mimicry, Hill delivers a performance as Gus that takes Shawn’s levity into absurdly literal territory and thus makes a joke of the very idea that Gus could be funny. But the real joke is that Gus is the funny one. Shawn is the class clown, the big-joke guy who can’t take anything seriously. Gus is the classic straight man who gets more laughs with an exasperated look than the wildly gesticulating man beside him.