Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost, BSG & TV mythology

Interesting reading the reaction to the Lost series finale today. Don't worry, no spoilers are to be found here! I gave up on Lost during the second episode of season one - the flashback structure had me running for the hills. Since then there have been, as I understand it, not only flashbacks but flash forwards and even something called "flash sideways". My concern, even back then, was that the fractured timeline storytelling was a technique to stall progress in answering the main question that was posed from the get go - what is the island?

For those who stuck with it, answers were slow in coming as the show mythology became even more intricate and obtuse. Expectations appear to have been enormous for season 6 and the finale to answer all mysteries and outstanding issues that have been debated incessantly by fans. Except by this stage that was literally an impossibility.

I went through this with Ronald D. Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Another show with a dense mythology that ran amok and seemed to get away from the writers - The Final Five, The Fifth Cylon, the nature of Starbuck etc etc. I for one, to this day, point blank refuse to believe Saul Tigh is a Cylon.

The episode "No Exit" in the final season was wall to wall exposition of the worst kind as it tried to retrofit an explanation for all the unanswered questions around the mythology. Moore pulled off a nice save with the series finale but the similarity to statements made by the Lost producers is very instructive. In essence - 'it's all about the characters, stupid!'

To me that's code for, 'yeah, I don't know the answers either'. And that's the danger of writing intricately plotted stories with elaborate mythologies where you fly by the seat of your pants. Is it really the characters or the plot that keeps the viewers coming back in these sorts of shows? Reading the Lost boards and blogs, people appear to agree the emotional side of the finale was powerful but that this masked shortcomings in the intellectual side ie character over plot. But people seem more preoccupied with wanting to know the answers to riddles and clues they have invested much time and energy trying to decipher. To me, you flirt with danger if you disregard the audience's visceral response to the devices and teasers you knowingly deploy.

So the question is, as a writer, do you deliberately create a dense and overtly mysterious mythology where you know you may never be able to answer all the questions you pose; or do you have some responsibility to your audience to have plausible and consistent explanations for the worlds you invent? Or does service to character trump everything regardless?

I know the Lost finale doesn't air until Wednesday in Australia but I suspect many diehard fans will see it well before then. If so, what did you think - were you satisfied with how the show ended or do major questions linger?


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  2. I made a couple more typos than usual above. Hence the repost.

    I think audiences are way more forgiving than writers believe is possible. I have watched the last season and a half of LOST at the behest of a filmmaking buddy who enjoys the improbability of it all. I find LOST to be idiotic in its blatant breaking of the rules of storytelling, timeline and character.

    If you're acquainted with the webcomic strip AXE COP - which is partially created by the six year old brother of its artist - LOST 5 & 6 has some of this feeling. Many of the twists and turns are nonsensical and unsatisfying. Unless, as you have suggested, you're turned on by the idea of a puzzle narrative.

    I think many writers stand outside of narrative structure looking in, so perhaps we're not the best people to judge what audiences will accept or not. I remember when audience numbers slumped after the TWIN PEAKS revelation of who had killed Laura Palmer. It genuinely surprised me that anyone regarded such an obvious surrealist style piece as a kind of whodunnit that needed unravelling. But that was EXACTLY why many watched.

    Like you, I could see when BSG had jumped off its tracks and it was clear there was no way for it to get back on, but in some ways that isn't the point for the average punter. Being engaged and entertained is the goal. And frankly, I believe most screenwriters are difficult to entertain.

    I think the fact that LOST fans believe the final episode will be deeply revelatory and maybe even 'pull the whole thing together' shows great loyalty. I'd love to have fans this dedicated for anything I had a hand in.

  3. "I'd love to have fans this dedicated for anything I had a hand in."

    Agreed, Phil. But Australian shows never plunge into this sort of mythology. All surface melodrama and soap. Where is the Australian Twin Peaks? The Aussie Lost? Dare I say it, the Battlestar Australis?

    Are we forever doomed to variations of the cop show procedural (my favourite being Rush, the premise of which appears to be what a police unit would look like if run by 12 year olds), the ABC's attempt to remake Seachange under various guises or the cartoon violence of Underbelly?

    We need a slogan for the real seachange needed in Aussie television: Arcane, profane & insane!

    Are you with me, brother?

  4. For what it's worth, I was completely satisfied by the Lost finale. It answered the questions I cared most about: What was the Island, was it real, where did the characters end up? The character journey's of everyone save one character felt completely right to me, and I didn't really care to see a finale full of business explaining what x,y and z were. I can see how people were frustrated that some of these questions weren't answered in the build up to the end, but it really didn't bother me.

    Also, I don't think you'll find an Australian show that creates it's own mythology because creating a show like that is a big risk. Which means that there's no way in hell any of the funding bodies will touch it. Australia just doesn't have the audience or the money to take said risks, and Australian viewers AND broadcasters just don't support Australian TV enough to pull it off. I wish it were, because I'd love to see an interesting, original, risk taking Aussie show. But I wouldn't bet on the likelihood of it happening - at least on network TV. Foxtel or ABC? Maybe. I very much hope to see it one day, and I hope even more to have a hand in it.

  5. I have now watched the finale, Cei. And from a purely objective perspective there were some nice moments, some things that seemed quite odd and stuff that was a little clunky. With no emotional investment in the characters nor any real interest in the mythology, it felt solid rather than exceptional. But then I'm not the target audience.

    I had the same reaction to the BSG finale that you had to Lost. There was no way RDM could answer aspects of the mythology so he focussed on character closure. Gave a kick-arse first half then a character driven close that was, for the most part, nicely done. Reaction from fans varied wildly as well.

    I guess the trick is part misdirection, part magic trick ... and lots of violins!

    As for Aussie television, it's a fair point about risk but is it the funding bodies/networks that are too safe or the writers? Do we even know how to create shows like this?

    So here's the challenge - when you get to write your Neighbours episodes add some cryptic clues and parallel realities. Hell, I might even watch! :-)

  6. Haha, nice try. If I add anything like that it'll be taken out pronto. Nobody liked my wormhole in Callum's closet idea. There would have been dinosaurs, damnit!

    I think writers possibly do try to create risky scripts and concepts, but they've been beaten down by colleagues or are too afraid to pitch to the funding bodies. Or they do and they get rejected, then remembered as that 'sci-fi/fantasy nut' every time the submit something in future. I don't think it's that Australian writers are afraid to take risks - I think many of them have something in their bottom drawer or saved in their writing file that would pleasantly surprise a lot of people. But I also think that it's hard enough to get a career in Australian writing without splashing around ideas that give the networks a collective heart attack.

    After all, you know as well as I do that even if a funding body DID let a mythological based show get through and a network DID pick it up, they'd give it exactly two weeks of prime-time to score a million + ratings. And knowing the networks, they'd do fuck all advertising to promote it properly and knowing Australian audiences, they'd talk about watching it and then forget to tune in until week three, when it's suddenly been relocated to 11.30 on 7two.

    I'd never encourage anybody to NOT take the risk. But practically, I don't see it happening successfully any time soon.

  7. As long as zombies aren't involved, bring it on, Cei! I can handle dinosaurs ... minotaurs, carnivores, even, um, Santa Claus? ;-)

  8. Now I've seen the debacle of the last LOST - I am completely with you, brother. Arcane, Profane and Insane!