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So here is a rather belated third episode of my four-parter devoted to tip-top time-travelling televisual treat, Lost.

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In parts one and two of this rather indulgent series of posts I suggested that Lost will come to be seen as the defining TV show of the decade (and not just because it will have lasted for most of it). This will be, I believe, due to the ways in which it tells its stories (vaguely and deliberately without signposting) and the way that those stories are written (generative and emergent), amongst other things.

The aspect of the show I wanted to spend a little time on in this post is the role of Lost‘s writers, and the space they occupy in the ecosytem surrounding the show.

When reading other posts, comments and messageboards about Lost, I’ve found that its often compared unfavourably to Twin Peaks , a show which more than any other tends to be held up as the zenith of enigmatic mystery programmes. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of mister D. Lynch – the only films I’ve  managed to sit through without feeling annoyed are The Elephant Man, The Straight Story and Eraserhead– but I do think it’s interesting to compare the two series. If I’m going to claim that Lost is worthy of being held up as defining of our current media culture, then a comparison with Twin Peaks should throw any alleged innovations into sharp relief, coming as it does from its own very different televisual milieu – that of the early 1990s.

It’s strange how dated the graphics look now, though the Badalamenti score still sounds eerie and brilliant.

Now whilst I think the concerns of the two series are poles apart (Lynch is primarily an auteur translating his signature concerns into a new medium, whereas Cuse, Lindelof and Abrams seem like far more pragmatic TV people) they do bear some similarities:

  • Twin Peaks is credited with introducing filmic cinematography to TV, with each episode costing over $1m to create. These high-production values are now part and parcel of the televisual landscape (see also the short-lived Carnivale) with Lost as the most obviously ‘cinematic’ of recent big-budget shows – the opening episode of the series featuring the crash of Oceanic 815 cost a reported $14 million.
  • both shows are were commissioned and broadcast by the Disney-owned ABC network, one of the ‘big-three’ US networks. Given the tortuous, mazy nature of the plotting of the two shows, the aforementioned expensive production values, and both series’ propensity to defy the tropes of genre (particularly in the case of Twin Peaks) this is surprising. As it was, both were big ratings successes for a mainstream broadcaster that has traditionally been amongst the more conservative forces in US television.
  • The themes around Lost‘s peculiar mode of storytelling that I identified in parts one and two of this series are also true of Twin Peaks. In both shows the main story is told vaguely, generating theories upon theories about the possible direction of the plot and engaging the audience in an active mode of consumption more akin to playing a game than passive viewing. Also, Lynch (as is his wont) kept things interesting by improvising on-set, famously casting set decorator Frank Silva in the fabulously scary role of ‘BOB‘ after he was accidentally filmed in a scene. This sort of free-form approach is mirrored in the writers’ and producers’ approach to Lost, and is something I wrote at length about in part two of this series of posts.
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BOB being SCARY

Now this is where we start to look at some of the differences between the shows.

I’m going to ignore the Lynchian queasiness of Twin Peaks versus Lost‘s seemingly more earnest approach, as this stylistic difference is so obvious it goes without saying: Lynch wasn’t really making a TV show, he was making ‘David Lynch’s take on TV’ – a series that attempted to transcend the strictures of genre television. Lost on the other hand is very definitely primetime mass audience fodder, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned, any comparison of the respective shows’ unique artistic vision would be likely to see Lost lose out.

What I’m interested in is less about the content of the programmes or even what appears on the screen, and more about the differences between the shows’ internal engines and their relation to what I’ve referred to as their ‘ecosystem’ – essentially how they were concieved, created and consumed within their respective cultural environments.

Both are mystery shows that refuse to give anything away too cheaply (driving hordes of fanatical viewers to speculate wildly on possible explanations) and because of this both series’ also became part of culture more broadly; both were satirized and celebrated in mainstream media and referenced by numerous other TV shows, movies and comic books. However, where Twin Peaks was perhaps the ultimate in ‘watercooler’ TV programming, igniting debate about what was actually happening in the show, it remained essentially tied to one man’s vision, a creator who remained very much aloof from his audience. Lost is fundamentally different in that it is a child of the internet age, and as such is part of a changed media environment.

In short, Lost has the web.

Twin Peaks had many committed fans (and still does) but it didn’t have forums, chatrooms, blogs, and wikis – the focus for mass fan conversations and theory-swapping, as well as the site of interesting interfaces between the viewers and the creators . It also didn’t have access to new digital distribution and storytelling platforms that have become important parts of the Lost ecosystem- Youtube, podcasts, and ARGs, DVDs and PVRs.

One of the most important shifts that this digital ecosystem has allowed lies in the potential for writers to experiment on, commune with and draw inspiration from the audience for their show.

Remember this?

The dharma shark!

The dharma shark!

The ability to pause, rewind, examine and then post, share and discuss the content of the show with potentially millions of other dedicated LOSTies allows the writers to increase (by an order of magnitude) both the amount and the obscurity of the ‘clues’ they provide. The celebrated DVD easter eggs, the clues and hints in the official podcast, the two (at last count) Lost ARGs- as well as what actually happens onscreen frame by frame- are all pored over by fans producing hundreds of thousands of hours of analysis. This then results in many long and complex theories (this is one of my favourite theories actually- that Lost is actually generated through a complex game being played between Lindelof and Abrams– though the writer lost me with his revelations about eye colour as his evidence runs to hundreds of pages). These theories are ultimately what fuels the show’s ecosystem, providing the necessary nutrients to support the diversity of content provided by the writers.

Now Twin Peaks generated loads of discussion too, with one important distinction – the discussion between fans of Lost happens in public, and is closely observed by the writers of the show. In fact, popular site the fuselage is an official Lost fans forum sponsored and frequented by Lost’s creative team.

In previous posts I’ve looked at how the characters of both Ben and Desmond were plucked from the supporting cast and put centre-stage because of the power the actors brought to their roles. The audience’s immediate recations to them were also very important, however, as demonstrated in this quote from Cuse:

“you’re right about Michael Emerson [Ben]. He’s the biggest example of a character who we just fell in love with beyond our expectations. I would say Desmond would also be in that category. The audience really fell in love with him right from the get-go and he quickly moved right into the mainstream of our cast.”

The fact that the writers and producers of Lost allow themselves room for this type of improvisation or ‘generative storytelling’ (as I termed it) allows them to be highly reactive to the characters or plot elements (i.e. Hurley’s numbers) that grab the fans’ interest. It also works the other way however, moving characters introduced by the writers from the centre to the periphery when the elements just don’t seem to ‘click’…

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The ill-fated Nikki and Paulo are a good case for what makes Lost such an interesting series to me. The writers made the decision to introduce these new characters, handled the introductions badly and then acted swiftly and resolutely when it didn’t work out. It is the way in which they decided to write off the Nikki/Paolo experiment however that really demonstrates Lost‘s special kind of brilliance.

The episode of their demise, Expose, is one of my favourite Lost moments- not because of the noirish theme and the gruesome finale, but because the whole episode is basically a gift to the fans of the show. The new characters that the viewers loathed were killed off in a hilariously OTT double cross (with spiders!) which served as both apology and admission of failure by the writers- but the show also integrated them, by way of flashbacks right into the first episode of the series, giving us all-new perspectives on some pretty old Lost lore, and resolving one dangling plotline (Sun’s kidnapping by Charlie)- a rare and satisfying occurrence.

This kind of ‘easter egg’ doesn’t come cheap. The cost of returning to the spectacular crash that opened the series, editing in the new characters (to the extent of bringing back actors who had been killed off in previous seasons) only to kill them off at the end of the episode must have been considerable. At the same time, they gave the actors they’d hired to play the ill-fated Nikki and Paolo a whole episode to themselves in which to shine. Way to turn a crappy situation into a win/win for all involved.

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Nikki is edited back into the crash of Oceanic 815

I don’t know another programme where this kind of relationship would even be attempted, let alone pulled off with panache. For me this demonstrates another aspect of what makes Lost worthy of comment – not only is Lost a game, not only is it an experiment in generative storytellling, Lost is also a property shared between writers and viewers. Lost is a conversation.

So whilst Twin Peaks blazed a trail that Lost is deeply indebted to (openly admitted by the writers), it is a markedly different beast in my opinion, with different artistic concerns and a new mastery of a different media ecosystem. Also, unlike most things involving David Lynch, Lost will have an ending that at least goes some way to satisfying the fans who’ve sat through it.

For my fourth (and definitely FINAL) post in this series, I’m going to look at the blurring between the fictional world of Lost and the real world of the viewer, and also consider the particular challenges the show faces as a primetime ratings driver.

Apologies for the length of this one, I got a bit carried away!

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lost-locke2Yesterday I wrote about Lost‘s deliberately vague storytelling, and suggested that the narrative paradigm the show adopts is more akin to that of an ARG or a mystery game (like purported influence, Myst) than to a more typical unfolding of dramatic events. Today I wanted to focus our attention behind the scenes, and think about the lore surrounding how Lost’s stories get written.

There are two aspects of the show’s creative process that I think are worthy of some examination; both the writers’ approach to writing the show and role of the writers themselves in the Lost universe.

In the case of the former, popular legend (and a great deal of messageboard commentary) has it that the witers on Lost have only a vague idea how the story will ultimately pan out, and perhaps even less fixed notions on how any given character’s arc will develop from series to series. In effect, when writing Lost, those involved are making it up on the fly, improvising willy-nilly and creating a discordant mess of half-baked plot lines, ultimately to rely on a heavy-handed deus ex machina to resolve the story come the series’ end.

I have no idea how close to the mark this is, but in terms of how much license the writers have to alter the direction and flow of the show (adding unexpected narrative nodes and connections), it does seem to be the case that they are afforded extraordinary freedom.

Given the difficulties that some American television dramas (particularly those in the science-fiction genre) have had with Networks approving storylines  (Joss Whedon‘s new series Dollhouse is a case in point) or indeed with writers arguably being allowed too much scope for sweeping character changes (I’m looking at you Sylar) it is remarkable that Lost seems to operate the way it does.

It is interesting to speculate on ther mindset of the creators; the narrative, the story, the message, whatever you want to call it seems to play second fiddle to themore immediate, tangible qualities of the world they are trying to create. Their willingness to re-write at the drop of a hat is aptly demonstrated in the anecdotes about the casting process and- seems typical of the  approach to the show overall (the character of Hurley was invented after Jorge Garcia auditioned for the role of Sawyer, and the character of Sawyer was re-written to fit the accent and irascibility of Josh Holloway).

Perhaps the best example of this willingness to adapt and change mid-flow is the character of Benjamin Linus, easily the most compelling, complex and devious player in the whole drama.

benjamin_linus_by_lecsica_by_michaelemersonclub

It is hard to imagine how a character who is so central- indeed pivotal– to the world of Lost was originally only scripted for three episodes in season 2. So the story goes, his contract was extended to eight episodes, and then to the whole of series 3 and 4 as the writers sort of riffed off of Michael Emerson‘s brilliant, bug-eyed presence.

It appears that the overall narrative, the ‘story’ of what happens in Lost is far from sacrosanct – and in the case of Ben’s character, much the better for it. The world of Lost and the charisma of the players who inhabit it seem to be more important to the creators than the integrity of the tale itself. This of course, is another reason why Lost sits uneasily with television dramas like The Wire – a show that takes the existing televisual tradition of the hard-bitten cop drama to an apex of verisimilitude.

In The Wire, the story (ultimately the moral of the story) is everything – and quite right too.

In Lost however, it is the being in the world that seems to matter most.

Why is it that this seems to upset people? In much the same way that pop bands often get castigated for not having written their own songs, for being simply performers (though it doesn’t seem to affect president Obama)- it seems to many as if the writers of Lost are somehow affronting us, insulting our intelligence by not sitting down and writing the show properly.

I suspect this is something about the show, and something about the audience.

Because Lost seems to ride roughshod over the writerly, literary approach to narrative, it seems somehow less genuine when compared to shows that have a more readily demonstrable artistic vision. At the same time, the kind of audience that time-traveling, science-fiction, high-concept adventure shows would normally attract can be quite fickle, and I suspect many see Lost as a high-gloss confidence trick – a mainstream, big-budget drama that looks like its written for sci-fi fans but is a actually a hollow shell designed to suck in ratings and plenty of these…

dollars1

I have some sympathy with this view, because I’m exactly that type of fickle fan – however, rather than castigate Lost for sitting outside of one artistic tradition, I prefer to locate what it does within another. As the introduction of Benjamin Linus shows, in Lost’s peculiar ecosystem one actor’s performance, one variation, can literally remake everything else around it.

This example doesn’t suggest a writer carefully constructing narrative in accordance with an artistic vision, instead it shows new content being generated through the interactions of a set number of players acting in accordance with some basic rules.

It is emergence.

In this sense, Lost can be said to (at least in some part) be generating itself.

If we believe this to be intentional, this process would place Lost within a very different, but no less canonical tradition. Emergence is something that has fascinated many artists over the years, and continues to do so today. For an artistic read on the topic, you could do a lot worse than listen to this discussion between Will Wright and Brian Eno in this talk from the Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT) series organised by the Long Now Foundation.

eno_qa_fullIn short, emergence is the study of how small interactions- which take place on only a very local level with very limited inputs- can produce complex behavioural systems. The classic example is ant colonies, where whilst individual ants don’t take orders but act as autonomous units, the colony as a whole displays complex behaviour (such as finding the maximum distance from all colony entrances to dispose of dead bodies).

Emergent behaviour can be created and studied using cellular automata, illustrated in the video below. Simple rules govern each individual cell’s behaviour, whereby its state (black or white) changes only in relation to the states of the cells in its immediate vicinity.

Out of these simple rules, very complex patterns emerge.

In art with both big and small ‘A’s, there have been plenty of experiments using algorithms and processes to generate novel and unpredictable work, from William S. Burroughs’ “cut-up” technique to the automatic writing and exquisite corpses of the Surrealists or the Musikalisches Würfelspiel supposedly practised by Mozart.

Indeed, in the Wright/Eno talk mentioned above both speakers talk about work they’ve produced based on a fascination with the possibilities of this approach.

I particularly like Brian Eno’s example of a wind chime as a cheap and basic machine for creating generative music within established rules.

So is Lost set up to allow emergent narratives to appear?

Even if not their explicit intent, it seems that the interaction of actors, writers and creators is allowed to take precedence over the pre-existing narrative if it produces a variation that feels right. It may be idle speculation on my part, but if the writers and producers really were experimenting with emergent wrting it would make the whole show a rather grand project, I hope even for those who currently feel somewhat cheated by it.

After examining how the process of writing Lost sets it apart from many of it’s contemporaries, I intend to use the next post to explore the second aspect of Lost’s writing – the role of the writers themselves in Lost’s universe, where fiction and reality are blurred.

See you tomorrow 🙂

Brian Eno image sourced from Wired and Benjamin Linus image from DeviantART user Lecsica

Oh well.

I was planning to live-blog the series opener of Lost this Sunday, pretty much aping the Guardian’s patented minute-by-minute update style.

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I was really quite taken with this idea.

However it turns out I’m going to see Sebastien Tellier on Sunday evening instead of sitting in front of the TV, as a gig that was originally supposed to take place tonight has been rearranged.

I can’t complain too much about that as either way my Sunday evening will be awesome- but it does throw a spanner into my electronic-publishing plan of works somewhat.

spanner?

Sebastian Tellier: spanner?

As a result, I decided to replace my liveblog idea with a series of posts that will try to capture some of the thoughts I’ve had about Lost over the years: why I think it is such a landmark piece of television programming (and much more besides) and why I have asserted confidently that it is the TV show that will be remembered most readily in future decades as defining it’s era.

There are four reasons for my plaudits, and as I’m going to go into each at some length, I’ve decided to make this post part 1 of a four-part series. I will try to post the other 3 reasons before Sunday’s premiere so I can add to the build-up of excitement in my own insignificant way.

The first reason I think Lost has significance other than simply being great telly lies in the way it tells a story.

Following the argument that Steven Johnson so memorably made in ”Everything Bad is Good for You“,  Lost is an important (if not the definitive) example of  popular culture’s evolutionary algorithm: mass-market TV shows will start to swell with characters, plotlines and sub-plotlines, story arcs, disassembled narratives and countless hours of ‘overspill’ content  in other in other types of media (webisodes, fan-generated content and references, homages and parodies) as audiences become  more culturally adapted to ‘reading’ the medium and therefore demand more complex experiences from it (eventually, Johnson argues, driving increased intelligence on a mass-scale as witnessed in the flynn effect).

Lost is undeniably complex, but what sets it’s particular brand of complexity apart from other celebrated TV shows like The Wire or 24 is it’s vagueness.

Vague complexity might sound a little oxymoronic, but an essential part of the experience of watching Lost is the sense (shared by the characters inthe show) that you have no idea what is going to happen next – not because the writers are deliberately attempting to out-fox the most committed plot-guessers in the way that a season of 24 does- but rather because what might happen next is simply not deducible from the what has happened previously.

Like the survivors themselves, the viewer lacks agency and insight: the most significant events in Lost‘s world happen to you, not because of you. It’s futile attempting to figure out what may actually be going on because the centre of the puzzle, the island itself, remains obscure; obfuscated in plain view.

This is not a dramatic device designed to keep audiences on the edge of their seat (the flow of a season of Lost is not nearly as frenetic as that) but rather a central part of how Lost‘s narrative world functions.

The Wikipedia entry for the show states that an influence on Lost‘s creators was the celebrated Macintosh computer game Myst, and the connection between the two worlds runs deeper than the obvious analogue of the mysterious island.

myst

Myst became renowned because it was a computer game experience which subverted many of the norms of computer games- for example, there is no set time frame in which you must act, there are no enemies to kill or avoid, and there is precious little context other than what the player discovers through their interaction with the world. Discovering the conceit of the game is what the game is actually about.

This is also true of Lost– the storytelling paradigm is not one of an unfolding dramatic narrative- a grand story being revealed piece by piece- but rather one of exploration, investigation and extrapolation. So much of what is revealed is unconnected, seemingly random and with precious little indication of it’s relative importance versus everything else that the viewer’s response has to be to catalogue and file these story ‘bits’, attempting to delineate a ‘big picture’  through a process of connecting them. It’s actually a lot closer to an alternate reality game than a typical TV script, only without explicit viewer/player input.

I suspect that many of the questions Lost raises won’t be answered ever by the writers of the show- previous form would suggest it’s probably foolish to expect anything else.

I think that this is the reason why many people find the show (some even the idea of the show) so annoying- it feels like there is no grand plan and so therefore it cannot be worthy of the investment of time. Moreover, it probably doesn’t qualify as literary in the way that The Wire does, because this sort of ‘make it up as you go along’ schtick is simply not very writerly. Also, some people seem to hate it because it’s not Twin Peaks.

In a way, all these objections are true- but they miss the point for me because they are judging the show with the wrong set of expectations. The thrill of watching Lost does not lie in seeing an intricate plot device click satisfactorily into place- it doesn’t reward viewers in that way.

In fact, rather than making the viewer feel clued in, rewarded and powerful, the pleasure one derives from Lost is revelling in your utter powerlessness. Giving yourself over to the spectacle of it. Realising that everything you think you know is probably wrong.

The prototypical exclamation from a satisfied Lost viewer is not ‘aha!‘ but ‘wtf?

The shift at the end of season 3 and into season 4 from flash-backs to flash-forwards is a great example of this. We all believed that the story of Lost was the struggle to get off the island, and the role of the ubiquitous flashbacks was to give us all-important clues as to why the survivors were destined or fated to be stuck there: the flashbacks pointed us to the island, to the present- tantalisisng us with the promise of revelation.

To then be confronted by the sight of a future Jack, grizzled and troubled, far from the clean-cut leader of men we had become accustomed to and desperate to get back to the island moved more than the goalposts – it shifted the whole centre of gravity of the narrative, it knocked the wind out of us.

It was brilliant.

The complex yet deliberately vague way Lost tells us it’s stories is something worthy of celebration- if you approach with the right expectations. However, whilst the way the story is told is a key element of the Lost phenomenon, it is arguably not as groundbreaking as the way the story is written.

Tune in for more on this tomorrow 🙂

me

I work in media as a strategist. I like art, robots, comics, interaction design, karaoke, wildlife photography, indian food, campari, gaming, American TV (teen drama included), reading non-fiction, reading fiction and listening to music. I also have a tenori-on because I'm so rad.

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