Until all that’s left over is the question mark

I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
— Tom Stoppard,
Shakespeare in Love

Remember the days when we were all wondering what was down that hatch and what the hell those numbers meant? (I sometimes can’t remember what I ate the previous evening, but I will be able to list those damn numbers on my deathbed: 4, 8, 15, 16…) Remember when we were itching to find out more about Jacob, or the Others, or what the hell that black fog creature was? And remember those last couple of seasons that basically mocked us for wanting to know by saying, “Answers? Answers are for dummies. Have a trite, saccharine scene in a church instead.”

Lost Continue reading

Misinformed? Uninformed? By hook or by crook…

As I mentioned in my last post, we were just one episode away from finishing The Prisoner – the original UK series starring Patrick McGoohan, that is, not the remake with Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel. The Prisoner may just be one of the Top 3 cult series of all time; it’s up there with the likes of Twin Peaks. And, as with so many things that are given the ‘cult’ label, it’s difficult to come to them with fair, realistic expectations, isn’t it?

Well, to begin with: you have to make allowances for the series’ age. Even though everyone talks about how original and revolutionary the series was and still is, in some ways it’s very much a product of its time. Sometimes that’s charming – as in the ’60s art and costume design, making the Village perhaps the hippest prison resort ever – but sometimes it is tiresome, as in the pacing (few of the episodes need to be 50 minutes long, and most would have benefited from cuts) or the fight scenes, which are tame, repetitive and overly long, not least because we’ve all seen better, more exciting fights by now. I imagine that these are less of an issue if you’re revisiting the series wearing nostalgia goggles, but then, they’re not my main problem with The Prisoner.

The thing is, the series was undoubtedly a pioneer – it’s still rare to find much on TV that mixes mystery, politics, psychology and metaphysics as The Prisoner does, and that is as willing, or indeed eager, to keep clear-cut answers from the audience. The series definitely wants us to think along and to form our own ideas on what is happening to McGoohan’s Number 6. At times it’s almost like watching a spy thriller penned by Samuel Beckett. However, looking at the series, its world and its puzzles more closely, I think that one of the main reasons why it raises so many questions is that it has little to no internal consistency: to be quite frank, much of the mystery stems from The Prisoner’s overall mythologybeing an incoherent mess. Remember all the accusations levelled at Lost, especially as they were approaching the finale? “They’re making it up as they go along!” Well, the very same seems to be true when it comes to its older fellow puzzle box of a series. It establishes few rules that it is content to stick with, which may work at the beginning as Number 6 is trying to escape the Village but is foiled over and over again because, well, the deck is stacked against him – but the longer the series goes on, the more it feels like The Prisoner‘s universe is random and arbitrary.

As a result, it became increasingly difficult for me to engage with or care about what was happening on screen. Why think along if the series can just put on a monkey mask and make fun of your wish, if not for answers then for some sort of internal logic? I’ve mentioned Beckett before, and I think there’s a definite similarity between his cruel, bleak and at times strangely funny universe and The Prisoner – but while I may have the patience and will to sit through 1 1/2 hours of Beckett (and even then only if the acting is impeccable), I’m not sure I could sit still for more than one episode of Endgame: The Series. (Oh, wait: I just did. Doesn’t mean that I was happy to, though.)

It’s a shame, because there are a lot of scenes and ideas that are fascinating. There are moments that are great, like Rover sitting (does a giant white ball even sit?) in Number 2’s chair or the sheer silliness of kosho (a sport played by Number 6 that makes sumo wrestling look dignified), there are some fascinating characters, and at times the mood is as menacing as in The Wicker Man (though with less Christopher Lee in drag). There’s a lot of ambition in the series and a rebellious spirit that a lot of TV programmes would benefit from even today. It’s just that these rarely come together to form something coherent – and as a result I’m left to wonder whether the people who profess to love The Prisoner see something in it that I’m blind to or whether there’s an element of weirdness worship going on, where the series is loved uncritically because it’s just so different. It’s very well possible that The Prisoner broadcasts much of its goodness on frequencies that I’m not able to receive, but even then I think it’s fair to say the series is deeply flawed, with its first four or five episodes being pretty exchangeable, the final four suggesting that the producers were getting tired of the format (leading to their use of a rather Trekkian conceit, the Western Episode), and the entirety of the series never quite deciding whether Number 6’s adversaries, the constant procession of new and improved Number 2s, are always a step ahead of him or whether they’re playing a futile game of catch-up, with the titular character just being so much smarter than all of them.

Oh, and don’t get me started on a computer that’s blown up by being asked the Deep, Unanswerable Question: “Why?”

Why indeed.

Are we Lost yet?

Yes, once again I’m months behind the real world – but opinions that are full of themselves never go past their sell-by dates! Remember when everyone was talking about that final episode of Lost? Well, they’ve now shown it in Switzerland, so here I am, ready to put forward my opinion at a point when no one’s interested anymore.

A lot has happened since Lost began – and I’m not talking only in terms of polar bear attacks, electromagnetic incidents and casual time travel. Things in my life have changed in certain fairly fundamental ways, and some of my attachment to Lost comes from associating the series with some of these changes. I’ve mostly enjoyed the series, even at its most convoluted moments, in spite of getting annoyed as hell with characters such as Shannon, Boone or Charlie. (At least the series lost its knack of making these characters worthwhile only in time to kill them off.) I was even intrigued when the series stepped up its metaphysical Überbau by introducing the ancient fratricidal conflict between Jacob, the manipulative quasi-deity of the island who’d been ‘touching’ several of the Losties since they were children, and his smokin’ Cainesque brother, Dwight. (Okay, that’s not his name, but the writers were being just a tad too cute when they did their “I only came up with one name!” in-joke.)

When they introduced their flash sideways, with intriguing glimpses of a world where the Losties hadn’t become lost, where the island was at the bottom of the ocean, I was fascinated – at first, that is. I was curious: was this parallel existence the result of the bomb exploding at the end of season 5? Was it the world Smokey (sorry, make that Dwight) was trying to escape to – or was it a world in which he’d escaped the island and Jacob’s words about how this would destroy everything had proven so much, well, smoke and mirrors?

But then the writers fell back onto their old tricks: when in doubt, introduce new ambiguous antagonists (call them Yet Other Others), make the characters re-evaluate their allegiances and have your cast trek from one side of the island to the other. The problem with those tricks is mainly that of diminishing returns: do we care about yet another group of strange people who speak in riddles (the temple dudes or Widmore’s merry men and annoying woman)? Also, if we don’t know what either side in a cosmic conflict really is about, what does it matter whether Jack’s on one side or Sawyer’s on another? And yes, the island backgrop is nice to look at, but after six seasons even that has lost its initial charm.

In the end, this isn’t the major problem with season 6 and the series ending, though. Every season of Lost had its share of filler material that would have benefitted massively from tightening the story. The problem was this: the ending – in fact, both endings, the island storyline and the “is this heaven? – It’s Los Angeles.” metaphysics-for-the-21st-century one – rendered most of the six years irrelevant. The hatch, the numbers, the polar bears, the Others, the Dharma Initiative, Widmore, time travel, basically anything… It didn’t matter for either ending. And it’s no excuse to say, “It’s all about the characters, stupid!” – least of all if you’re writing a series that, week for week, was driven by the WTF?! question. What the fuck was that polar bear doing there? What the fuck is down that hatch? what the fuck is up with those numbers? Yes, you had nice flashbacks fleshing out the characters, but that doesn’t make the series about the characters – because, let’s be honest, would we have watched the series for six years if it hadn’t been for all the weird shit going down? Would we have sat through more than one Jack or Kate episode without them dangling the answer to some of our questions at least in front of our noses?

The series tried to make the finale not only big and loud (betrayals! fights to the death! Star Wars references!) but also meaningful in some ill-defined spiritual way, but the longer the season went on, the less it was able to answer the “So what?” question – in the end the only question that matters in entertainment. Obviously it’s an unfair question, because it can be asked of anything, and in the end no stories are necessary – but that’s where, as storytellers and entertainers, you have to keep the audience interested and distracted enough so they never feel like asking the question in the first place.

To be fair, the final episode had its share of emotional moments. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, and yes, I did feel moved by Sun and Jin’s moment of revelation at the hospital, or by Hurley’s realisation that the weight of Jacobhood was going to be placed on his shoulders. But with every new burst of flashback-revelation, with every montage of people falling in love, giving birth or staring down holes on the island, our old friend, Diminishing Returns (Dimi to his mates), struck – and by the end of it, what struck me were two things: a) how quickly the sideways universe unravels if you think about it too much and b) how little it ties back to what we’ve been watching since the beginning. It was a story that didn’t need the island – and that made the series as a whole ever so slightly pointless. Basically we got an ending that said: “You know, everything you’ve been watching over the last couple of years? You enjoyed it, right? Well, beyond featuring the same characters it’s pretty much unimportant to this story we’re telling about the afterlife.” The characters weren’t in sideways LA because they had been on the island, because of Jacob and Dwight, or because of the nuclear bomb. They were there because they all had, at some point or other, died. Their island adventures were pretty much incidental to that whole storyline – all that mattered was that they had met and played important parts in each others lives.

If a series’ ending tells us that, in the end, almost everything leading up to it is irrelevant, we’re in a bit of a quandary: do we dislike the ending, reject what it seems to imply and remember the series for the bits we enjoyed? Or do we embrace the ending and in the process come to realise that the series has more or less rendered itself pointless?

And for old time’s sake, I’ll end this blog entry without answering any of those questions. Cue credits!

P.S.: I love this reply to some of the misunderstandings of the final episode:

Fringe dwellers

Remember the old days, when Lost was one of my favorite non-HBO TV series, a tasty snack in between the substantial but demanding Sopranos, The Wire or Deadwood? And Fringe was basically an X-Files knockoff for the 21st century – fun enough, but flimsy and without much of a voice of its own apart from having a gooey, gorey imagination?

Well, we’re now watching the final season of Lost on TV (Switzerland may have the cheese, chocolates and watches, but we get TV series late since everything has to be dubbed), and I’m afraid I’ve lost most of my interest. Sideways universe, shmideways universe, added to which I have pretty much had my fill of Jack, Kate et al. Yes, they obviously know where they want to take the series for the finale, but so many of the answers we get for the mysteries built up in the previous five seasons are banal, boring and not particularly convincing. Case in point: how did the Black Rock end up in the middle of the jungle? Big wave. Never mind that it smashed into a gigantic statue hard enough to smash the statue, but the ship’s still mostly, well, ship-shape.

But no, the series writers tell us, Lost is not about the mysteries – it’s about the characters! Obviously! I mean, it’s not as if the series’ main driver was that what kept the series going was questions like: What is the hatch? What are the numbers? What is the black smoke? Who are the others? Yes, Lost also spent a lot of time on its characters, especially in the flashbacks (and flash-forwards, flash-sideways and quite possible flash-upside-downs), but the impetus always, always came from the mysteries.

Fringe, on the other hand… It’s still frivolous entertainment, and like so many US series it suffers from the need to do 20+ episodes per season, but they’ve definitely shifted the overall mythology up a gear or two. They’ve become much more confident with their storytelling, to the point where they play with the format and the audience in delightful ways. To give just one example, consider the usual intro of the series:

… and now check out the intro they did for one episode set roughly 30 years earlier:

There’s a winking self-awareness that Lost has, well, lost if it ever had it (well, perhaps in “Exposé”, Nikki and Paolo’s final episode). There’s an awareness that this is silly stuff, but let’s just roll with it. And most of all, while the mythology is being built into something riveting and surprisingly poignant, it is never as convoluted as Lost has become. For all the heavy-duty plotting in Fringe, it’s the characters that keep the weirdness grounded – and enjoyable. Bring on season 3 of Fringe, and finally bring Lost to an end, so we can go back to remembering its early days when it was fresh and exciting.

USA! USA! USA!

As I’ve written before, I like The West Wing. Admittedly, season 2 lacks some of the urgency of the first season (except in the double episode that starts off year 2 of the series), but it’s still a witty, well written and acted, greatly enjoyable 42 minutes per episode. I appreciate its politics and the idealism of its characters, tempered as it is by an appreciation that there’s a gap between ideals and reality that needs to be negotiated almost constantly.

Every now and then, though, the series does something that strikes me as uniquely American, and it annoys the hell out of me: it goes into Pledge of Allegiance Mode. A typical example of this is at the end of the season 2 episode “Midterms”:

To give you a bit of context: after an assassination attempt by a white-supremacist group Toby, perhaps the character on the series who is furthest left-wing (and one of my favourites, the grumpy old Eeyore that he is), spends most of the episode desperately trying to find ways of legally restricting the constitutional rights of such groups. Obviously the Constitution is sacrosanct, this being the United States, but Toby’s take is that there may be things more important than a piece of paper, however old and revered that piece of paper is. By the end of the episode he comes around to believing that perhaps it isn’t all that bad that the government protects the rights even of those who try to bring it down. His “God bless America” is earned, it comes out of a process. I may or may not agree with the sentiment, but Toby’s not made this easy on himself.

The others, though? They’re basically joining in the choir, cheapening the sentiment. It’s not idealism in the face of ambivalence and reality: it’s facile, slogany patriotism. Now, I have to admit that patriotism is something my brain fails to comprehend in general, but I can accept that the main characters on The West Wing are patriots. At the series best I can almost grasp that when these people talk about the United States of America, they mean an almost mythical construct, a symbol of perfect democracy, and that they’re aware that there is, and always will be, a huge distance between the symbol and the reality. But when they go into cheerleading slogans, with everyone in the round repeating the words, there’s something disturbing about it to me. With every repetition it’s stripped of the self-awareness, meaning and complexity that a character like Toby brings to it and becomes something insultingly, childishly simple and chauvinistic. It’s this belief that the ideal, the symbol and the actual country are close enough to one another that allows for crusader-style action around the globe – hey, if your country is the embodiment of all that is good and just, then your actions must be good and just by definition, right?

To be fair, those moments on The West Wing are just that: moments. By and large, the series remains firmly aware of the clash between ideals and reality, and of the fact that it is practically impossible to negotiate the two without despairing that you’ll never get to where you’re going, that you’ll always be compromising your ideals in the end – but that, in the face of compromise, you can still keep fighting for your ideals and achieving small victories every now and then. I just wish they could do without the “Rah, rah, USA!” moments altogether, because they just feel tacky.

Okay, and after all this heavy stuff, dude, here’s a fun little something for those of you waiting for or already watching the final season of Lost. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers.)

My HDTV runneth over

Today I finally became the proud owner of a digital TV set-top box. I haven’t really checked it out that much yet, but it finally allowed me to see the Future of TV. More pixels. Full HD. And lots of other terms that basically boil down to “Let’s let the boys play a bit, shall we?”

So far I’ve checked out three of the HD offerings: HD Suisse, BBC HD and lastminute.tv. The latter was basically a glorified travel ad for last-minute trips, BBC was showing some nature documentary and HD Suisse was broadcasting a classical concert. Not exactly the most exciting programming imaginable. But I was sitting there going, “Wow, look at that image, you can read every semiquaver on that violinist’s sheet music, and even his notes, and check out that Capuchin monkey. see how every single hair on its head is visible? And that cheap, computer-generated price tag for the hotel, you can hardly make out any aliasing on it! This is what TV is all about!” (Okay, that last one is even more wildly exaggerated than the other examples.)

 

If they actually showed Lost or Battlestar Galactica in Full HD, chances are my brain would implode and I’d end up a drooling imbecile. Right now I don’t drool yet.

And my girlfriend’s reaction? “Cool, they’re showing Doctors on BBC!”

Talking about the future of this and pixelly goodness that, the latest entry in the AV Club‘s “My Year of Flops Case File” is a highly enjoyable panning of Speed Racer, latest proof that the Wachowski siblings’ worst movie may not have been a Matrix sequel. Share and enjoy!

They see dead people! (Ouija board optional)

As I mentioned recently, I’m currently watching both the first and the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – season 1 has replaced our previous Sunday morning show, Six Feet Under (there seems to be a distinct funereal vibe to our Sunday mornings…), but since I was watching Buffy before, I didn’t want to wait for two or three years until we caught up with where I’d previously been.

Season 1 is fun, but damn, is it cheesy… It’s goofy to an extreme and somewhat difficult to go back to after the last few seasons of the series. It also allows me to see how much the series has grown up with its main character – it has changed a lot in terms of tone and depth. Lots of fans would say that it turned into rubbish in seasons 6 and 7 – but I must say, I don’t see it. Yes, there’s less of the careless fun of dusting vamps, partying at the Bronze and pining after tall, dark, mysterious Angel. But the development the characters have gone through makes sense.

Yes, some episodes of seasons 6 and 7 are rather meandering, but that happens with most US series that run for 22 episodes each season. Practically any of those series would have benefitted from tightening to, say, 16 episodes per season. (Yes, Lost, this is a not-so-subtle jab in your direction. Don’t screw up now!) But then again, there are some episodes there that a) are among the handful of best episodes and b) wouldn’t have been possible in earlier episodes. The development that Buffy, Willow, Xander & Co have gone through is what makes an episode like “Conversations with Dead People” possible.

I was surprised when I read that four writers worked on “Conversations with Dead People”, because it’s one of the tightest episodes of the entire run of Buffy in terms of its writing. Everything fits together. It was in “Conversations” that I felt most strongly: this series was made by the people who created Firefly. It has the same astute mix of humour, drama and action as the best episodes of that sadly-missed sci-fi series. The episode manages to tell five stories in its 42 minutes: Buffy fights, and is psychoanalysed, by a vampire she went to school with (much funner and less corny than it sounds), Dawn is visited by what may or may not be the ghost of her mother, Willow gets a message from her dead girlfriend (or does she? – you get the gist), the nerdtastic duo Andrew and Jonathan return to their erstwhile stomping grounds, Sunnydale High, and Spike goes in for a little non-verbal Blonde-on-Blonde action.

What this shortest of summaries doesn’t reveal is the subtletly with which “Conversations” shifts its tone from witty to scary (for a horror-themed series, Buffy rarely had genuinely frightening moments, but this episode more than manages) to poignant. Like so often, the Big Bad in the series is at its most effective when what it says is largely true, but the kind of truth that the characters don’t like to face up to.

Okay, anyone who sat through all of this stuff on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer must be desperately bored or a fan of the series. In either case, here’s a little reward for you sitting this out. Enjoy!