Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lost and 24 Compared to Comics

Stumbled across this commentary on the television shows Lost and 24 . I agree more or less completely with all the points made.

Confession: my wife and I watch both of these shows. Further confession: I do so out of inertia more than anything else. Both of these series long ago jumped the shark.

My small contribution to the discussion is to compare these series to superhero comics.

Like an aging superhero comic book series, 24 simply ran out of new ideas for catastrophic crises and started to repeat itself. Unlike a superhero comic book, 24 doesn't have the option of staging an epic crossover with other titles to renew flagging interest, reimagining the powers of its protagonists, or dumping a retcon upon its viewers. All of these would violate the parameters of suspended disbelief that its audience has agreed to: violent torture will produce swift and viable intelligence, one guy can kill dozens of terrorists in a 24 hour period without ever being incarcerated or held for questioning for more than 20 minutes, you can drive all around a major metropolitan area without taking more than 15 minutes to get anywhere, and nobody functions worse on when sleep deprived.

24 is in the same boat as a venerable comic book character like Batman. It has to rely on two types of fans: those that have committed to watching/collecting the "character" regardless of who is writing or what the storylines are, and those who are new to the experience and the familiar plots. At the same time, the central conceits of the character have become creative straightjackets for the writers. You can't draw out storylines in 24 because everything has to take place in a frenetic rush as the clock ticks away. You can play up his gadgets or his detective skills, but these days you pretty much have to write Batman as a dark, terrifying hardass.

Unlike 24, Lost actually does employ comic-book inspired techniques such as retconning, time travel, alternate dimensions, body doubles, and paranormal powers to try and stay fresh. But it mixes this madness with an attempt to make us interested in the everyday lives of its characters, which becomes a bit confusing given that the characters are supposed to be normal people one second, supernatural candidates the next.

The biggest flaw with Lost is that the writers obviously never had a clear idea how their story was going to end when they started it, or even what the hell the story was about from one season to the next. It's like a comic that switches the creative team every year, changing the tone and style of the series.

Lost also makes two fundamental mistakes that a typical ongoing comic book series, at least a successful one, avoids. First, Lost very rarely answers any of the puzzles that it introduces. Second, it adds too many new characters and elevates them to major character status too quickly, diluting the focus on the characters that the audience has come to appreciate.

It's kind of amazing how Lost manages to rope in viewers, including me, by continuing to violate basic storytelling principles. On the one hand, I wouldn't watch the show with any regularity if my wife wasn't still interested in it. My main reaction now is amusement at the train wreck the plotline has become. On the other hand, I'm amazed at how fervently many fans seem to believe that there really is a point to the story or an upcoming conclusion that could possibly tie up all the loose ends that have been left dangling.

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