Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Finale Series

If you are interested in the next four parts of this excellent video essay, click here.

"24" came to television at a curious time. I do recall it's initial ambitions, as a throwaway action suspense series, one that hinted at an anthology approach should there be a last-minute renewal. The first season centered on Jack Bauer, not yet a superhero but actually a clock-punching soldier of a counter-terrorism unit. He was just another face in a sea of soldiers, one with a troubled family life (his wife is not pleased he continues to work with a woman he's slept with) and an approach that was less justice around-the-clock and more "we do what we can do." Kiefer Sutherland, an actor of conviction if not much range, hadn't adapted the jowly grunt that would become the character's trademark, playing Bauer as more of a Dad with Gun. His responses to the violent outbursts behind the season one schemes was half man-of-action, and half terrified of further casualties. In one key moment, during a critical juncture he tips his head back and catches himself nearly falling asleep, shocked at his own vulnerability.

Of course, "24" became something else entirely, known to fans as the Jack Bauer Power Hour. The show's writers found themselves incapable of writing more than eight or nine different stories, and so each season was a rush towards the greatest hits: Who will the mole be? Who will be tortured this episode? What sort of improbable, largely irrelevant troubles could daughter Kim find herself involved in? "24," for all it's achievements, which included Emmys and Golden Globes, was the world's biggest drinking game.

But we forget that, in 2001 upon the show's launch, few were willing to delve into multi-part plot structures, complex character interactions and heavily serialized storytelling. The show's real-time aspect was a thrill compared to the generic procedurals and laugh-track sitcoms of the era, which have somehow proven they can co-exist with more progressive narrative-driven programs. As seasons went on, the connective tissue between them only intensified - there would be no relaunch or reboot. While the show's real-time aspect wavered on an episodic level, the overarching tale of Jack Bauer, afflicted superagent, intensified, with most of the momentum being given Jack's greater losses in the battlefield.

A show like "24" (and the similar shows afterwards - the post-"24" spike in even lightly serialized storytelling is impossible to ignore) tested the overall objective of a television show. If you're willing to present a semi-realistic world where you take your characters seriously, then has your show become one singular story? Even with the show consistently jumping forward an improbable amount of time between seasons (the final season has to be somewhere between 15-20 years after the first), continuity suggested that there was an end to this particular story, one that began as the tale of a semi-realistic "Mission: Impossible" task force and ended as the singular journeys of Bauer, a man impossibly dogged by the violence he's inflicted on others to preserve a fragile world peace. With "24," there was always the uneasy revelation that whenever the major threat behind a certain plot (usually involving a bomb, natch) was vanquished, there was always a puppet master pulling the strings. As the years went on, "24" mirrored the real world conundrum current governments were faced with, that there was a certain futility in consistently asking "Who do you work for?" and then literally climbing the chain of command. In the end, Jack Bauer's politics went from "save my family" to "save the world" and, through his failures at both, "save myself." We never know if he accomplishes that mission.

A similar end met "Lost," the quasi-sci-fi program that began around a similar time period. "Lost" was also dogged by the problem of it's own existence: it is a weekly television program, and it's necessary to not only pull in new viewers week after week, but also to never lose them during the commercial break. "Lost" tested the normally Pavlovian responses of many viewers by presenting a central tangled mystery - how do we get off this island? - and then tangling it further by involving science, magic, suspense and emotion. Unlike "24," which had solid but unspectacular production values usually revolving around busy gunfights, "Lost" had a strong, nearly cinematic focus. It's vast multi-culti cast, sweeping island vistas and stirring Michael Giacchino music distinctly separated the show from anything on the air, then and now.

But was "Lost" a closed narrative? The BBC notably only keeps shows on the air for two or three shortened seasons at a time, but it's America that insists on 22 half-or-full hours per fall, lasting as long as the public will accept. If "Lost," with a pretty close-ended story, were to maintain it's popularity over twenty seasons, would the creators not be tasked with keeping up the story threads and denying closure for those viewing the week-by-week incidents as part of a bigger whole?

"Lost" took a curious approach to this dilemma, eventually developing several realities and multiple narratives to maintain what ended up being six seasons. Each revelation drove "Lost" deeper into hard science fiction, and as a result, the show unquestionably lost more than a few followers, a dedicated cult remaining for the convoluted, excessively busy final season. What started out a narrative became a weekly adventure, and then a deep mythology. It was not satisfying in a conventional sense, but it was certainly never less than fascinating.

Each revelation changed the scope of the entire program, to the point where a casual viewer would have a different synopsis of the show's purpose each season. In the first episode, it was an unseen monster causing havoc. By the end of the first year, it was the castaways facing off against creepy mirror versions of themselves, a group called The Others determined to mess with our heroes. Later it became a mystery involving a secret organization that calls the island home, and eventually a temporal procedural, as characters were followed through different points in their existence. The one constant in the series was that it was an Adventure, through and through. Each answer led to more questions, and each question remained vague and potentially-exciting enough that you clung to hope that the answers wouldn't destroy our beloved castaways.

Indeed, the writing was never approaching the level of "sharp," but it was a strong cast and intriguing backgrounds that made the cast of "Lost" easy to watch and follow. Each character had their own secrets, their own insecurities, and, as we often saw in the show's consistent flashbacks, their own crushing failures. The performances from this cast provided the necessary depth to allow for this sort of narrative dicking-around, with the hope that, whatever was happening, it would lead to them freeing themselves from this rotten island.

In the end, the "Lost" creators merely opened too many doors they didn't know how to close, raising a number of questions too vague to ever contradict, yet too plentiful for any six season series, let alone one with such a massive cast. When the mysteries bogged us down, it would take another cast member, or another plot twist, or an action sequence, all executed with a level of panache not seen on broadcast television. The creators knew how to set up a beautiful framework, but they couldn't stop indulging their love of red herrings, even with chance to end the series of their own volition, a generous gesture not normally reserved for faded six year old shows. What was "Lost"? What we learned in the end was that it was the story of a group of people who experienced something very powerful together, enough to bring them back together in the afterlife, a focus on faith instead of the hard facts and science of the show. It didn't answer anything about polar bears or four-toed statues, leading many fans to gripe, some with very respectable points. But that would be something left to a normal, pedestrian series, wouldn't it be?

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