Friday, 5 June 2009

Lost and gained

I've been watching the first episodes of Lost, first screened in 2004.

Many people pointed out a while ago that Lost resembles the 1960s TV drama The Prisoner, and I think a comparison of the two is interesting. Both concern the sudden and violent arrival, against their will, of English-speaking individuals in a beautiful and sinister, exotic-looking location. One is kidnapped, the others fall from the sky in a plane crash. Where they are, they don't really know - it's a major enigma and plot driver - but it seems to combine the idyllic, the touristically delightful, and the dangerous, the menacing. Stranded and striving to survive, these people have secrets which they may or may not want to reveal; they are opaque to each other and to the viewer. The attraction of both series is the unresolved nature of their premises - who these people really are, where they are, and why, are all nebulous, such that viewers become simultaneously hooked and frustrated, eager for explanations and ready to advance their own. And so a "cult" series is created, in the sense that its fans become ravenously keen to know more about it.

And yet there are differences between the shows which suggest to me the passage of cultural time. One key variation reflects the shift from "popular culture" to a dominant "children's entertainment" paradigm which is consonant both with the fulfilment of postmodernism and its superannuation. The Prisoner was a mature man, a worker, sober, serious and inscrutable; most of the Lost cast are very young, single, non-employed, and childless adults who dress and act for the most part in order that young teenagers can identify with them. I've never been on a flight with fewer couples, kids, or over-thirties on board! They all look 23 going on 18. Moreover, they're "young" in a teenage way - as cool dudes and slackers, geeks and rebellious babes. They wear scratches from the crash like make up, like members of some hip subculture. They're lightly unattached, sexually attractive, and given to fashionably unexamined attitudes about gender and race.

Much has been lost by Lost. The geopolitical, ideological, technological and indeed political aspects of The Prisoner have been evacuated by this dash for a young teenage audience. No knowledge of or interest in the actual existing world is assumed by Lost's makers. Equally missing is any philosophical enquiry, however allusive and finally unsatisfying was the one sprinked through The Prisoner. Consequently the stories oscillate between the soapily quotidian (the backstories, the character interplay) and the mystically sinister, between the natural and the ineffable, squeezing out the middle ground, the social, on the way. It's a Prisoner for a consumerist, a post-political age, and just as it's not really "popular" (it has no desire to please the older half of the population), it's not really "cultural" either - not really significant or resonant beyond itself.

Narratologically, too, the episodes are rather shapeless compared to those of The Prisoner. The show seems predicated on its own apparent endlessness: just piling enigmas and mysteries and riddles on to each other, just ceaselessly adding puzzles and their solutions, the show is set up to go on, in principle, forever. It moves forward episode by episode, but in no very palpable direction. Most interesting new TV dramas made over the last decade grow from episode to episode and contain no internal mechanism by which they could end themselves, so that they continue until halted by a TV executive (rather than until they conclude their own business). Lost is an obvious example of this. Personally, I find it rather ridiculous, though enjoyable: it seems so nakedly arranged to be "intriguing" and "addictive", to draw its viewers along a wild goose chase-cum-treasure hunt, rather like Life on Mars and The Da Vinci Code, with no intention of ever repaying the fascination they elicit. Such stories, with their evocation of a problematic and opaque reality system, owe much to the strand of postmodernist fiction that destabilized their characters' sense of the real, from The Crying of Lot 49 to The Matrix and from Money to The Man in the High Castle. But Lost isn't interested in ideas related to the "fabrication of the real". It's like an afterecho of such fictions, rendered shallow and subjugated entirely to its prevailing endless narrative structure.

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