So this has been one of those great weeks for me: the book finally in my hands, four sweet long days with my little daughter Izzy in Austin, Inauguration Day, and tonight, in an hour or so, the premiere of the fifth season of Lost.
Lost (and also The Wire) has been one of the main reasons why I haven’t been blogging about movies as much. I’m not a big fan of television at all, so I myself am surprised about the amount of time and energy I’ve invested in these two shows in the last three months. (I consumed all four seasons of Lost in a little less than two months, bloodshot eyes be damned.) I suspect part of it has to do with the sprawling, sequential nature of both serials, but even that seems to be a fairly new development. (My friend Ben was wondering whether the popularity of Mexican and Korean soap operas around the world had influenced this reimagining of what television audiences could handle; I’d like to think that The X-Files‘ shifting between their mythology arcs and stand-alone Scooby-Doo episodes had something to do with it as well.)
Sitcoms, of course, were almost always episodic in nature; Larry David’s misadventures on one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm didn’t necessarily have any consequences in the succeeding one. My favorite dramas back in the day — St. Elsewhere, Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues — did follow particular character developments, but one could still dip into an episode (of any season) more or less at random. (My favorite show of the ’90s, the brilliant Homicide: Life on the Street, briefly flirted with a continuous, solid story arc in its first season before adopting a more conventional episodic structure. It would return to this in the fifth season upon the introduction of Erik Todd Dellums — also in The Wire and the son of this feller — but by then the magic of the first three seasons had dissipated.)
In contrast, Lost and The Wire aren’t audience-friendly at all; drop in mid-season, and all the clues, the references, the consequences of decisions made, are lost on you. Even The Wire doesn’t always have a story arc within a particular episode (it seems to just end once it hits the 50-minute mark); it doesn’t even “reboot” itself every season, as it were (like another favorite from the ’80s, Wiseguy). Both require a certain degree of commitment, a kind of labor on the audience’s part, and perhaps that is what makes them work.
What has honestly surprised me are the narrative possibilities inherent in the medium: the opportunity to deepen the audience’s knowledge of and relationship with the characters, with a luxury feature films simply don’t possess in the same breadth. Was it always like this? Why have I now become so invested in the fates of Locke and Ben and Sayid and Juliet and Omar and McNulty and Greggs? Is it simply the caliber of writing, with better writers attracted to the medium at this point in time, or were David Starsky and Jack Tripper and Kelly Garrett really never allowed to have fuller lives?
I think I can explain it this way, though: for myself, there was an emotional angle as well. In these unstable times, in a year when careers and savings and jobs and everything else were so vulnerable, one could at least be sure that Jack and Kate, or Bunk and Avon, would be there week after week, or at least one click of the remote away.