The Culture Beat

October 31, 2010

Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century

Filed under: Television — Alex @ 8:45 pm

No, the above title isn’t the same cartoon series about a master detective unfrozen from suspended animation and solving crimes in the future. The new Masterpiece Mystery! British import, titled Sherlock, that started last week posits that the legendary logician begins his adventures in our time and uses smart phones the same way Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s creation employed couriers and the Baker Street Irregulars to solves crimes. The concept works marvelously well because the series’ new creators, Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who’ve written for the BBC’s Dr. Who) steeped since childhood in the original stories, have stayed true to the spirit of the Victorian era adventures and best of all to the characters of Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson. Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch ( a name as striking as the character he plays) with such brilliance that I haven’t seen in the character since the classic Jeremy Brett portrayal from twenty years ago. (I was not at all attracted to the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes-as-action-hero feature film this summer) Arrogant but with a hint of loneliness caused by his singular genius and obsession with solving crimes, the modern-day detective finds a friend for life when Dr. John Watson (played perfectly by Martin Freeman, recently cast as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s upcoming The Hobbit), wounded while serving as a military physician in Afganistan (just like the original version) agrees to share quarters at 221B Baker Street in London. While Holmes benefits from Watson’s grounding normalcy, the doctor’s inner hero finds fulfillment in fighting crime with the great detective.

The first episode, “A Study in Pink,” was by turns thrilling, suspenseful and laugh-out-loud funny as the two new partners seek the cause of a series of murders that seem like suicides. When Watson discovers Sherlock on his couch deep in thought and wearing nicotine patches because of London’s proscriptive smoking ordinances, Holmes aficionados will laugh in recognition when Holmes states that “It’s a three patch problem.”

The PBS site is a great introduction and you can watch the first of three 90-minute episodes there if you missed it last week. Check your local listings for broadcast times.


April 26, 2010

St. Jack of the Lost Island?

Filed under: Faith Issues,Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 11:23 pm

This week, there is no episode of Lost, so let’s take this moment to contemplate yet another way in which the singular series opens itself to interpretations resonant of a life of faith. Anyone who’s read much from discussion boards or blogs of the endlessly analyzed show knows that there are elements that plainly encourage ponderings of its religious and philosophical symbolism. Heck, every viewer knows of the faith (represented by John Locke) and science (represented by Dr. Jack Shepherd.) is one of the Lost‘s main oppositions. We’re not exactly sure what the faith is in, or toward except that Locke believed in the healing or redemptive power of the island (until he was murdered, that is) and that Jack was a thoroughgoing materialist.

But as the final season winds down, the poles have symbolically reversed. The smokey thing that has assumed Locke’s form rejects any belief in any special qualities of the island that has been his prison (“It’s just a damn island,” he declares as he strives to gain his escape. But Jack has also shifted his attitude profoundly. After spending most of four seasons striving to lead the castaways, then escape the island, he learns that he was wrong to leave and returns a different man, no longer sure of much of anything anymore, except that somehow, he was meant to be on the island. He allows others, like Sawyer last season, to take the lead until he became convinced that exploding Jughead, the nuclear warhead, would interact with the island’s strange electromagnetic power to somehow change everyone’s destiny and avoid years of pain.

Dr. Jack examining his reflection in the Sideways world.
But even that seemed uncertain as the new season began in February. The first episode began with Jack on Oceanic 815, as if nothing had happened to cause its crash. When he goes to the plane’s restroom though, he stares at his image in the mirror with a looks of confusion, as if something isn’t quite right. And so have others in what was soon known as the Sideways world of familiar characters who never crashed on the island, which alternates with the same characters continuing their captivity on the island. Which is real? Both? Neither?

Jack seems to have the most developed character arc as he now watches events transpire on the island and no longer tries to control them. When, in last week’s episode, after sensing that staying on the sailboat with the others on their way to Hydra island was repeating a mistake, he literally took a leap of faith and stepped off the boat to affirm that the island wasn’t finished with him and he must stay–even though he wound up back in the hands of the Fake Locke. (If you haven’t seen the series, then you must be totally confused by this and I recommend renting the first five seasons and the online sixth season eps before continuing.)

So to return to the applicability of the narrative to faith issues, I was reminded of a certain castaway while reading a passage from St. Augustine Confessions yesterday. See if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, Pinky.

Imagine a man in whom the tumult of the flesh goes silent, in whom the images of earth, of water, of air and of the skies cease to resound. His soul turns quiet and, self-reflecting no longer, it transcends itself. Dreams and visions end. So too does all speech and every gesture, everything in fact which comes to be only to pass away. All these things cry out: “We did not make ourselves. It is the Eternal One who made us.”

I don’t wish to overinterpret this, but I think of Jack when I read this. He has allowed his soul to stop striving to force things to happen. He knows he doesn’t know everything, in fact, he knows very little, but he does know that he’s on the island for a reason and needs to stay. This reminds me of the attitude of the writer of Psalm 131:2:

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

If EW’s Lost commentator Jeff Jensen is correct (go here and scroll until he gets to where he tells us what he thinks Lost is about) that the show is about illustrating the crises that religious faith addresses, then there will be all sort of applications one can make of such parts of the series that will not definitive as to what is really going on, do provide compelling images of the struggles that people experience while going through dark nights of the soul and wrestling with angels. Well, that’s my two cents of how this fascinating show speaks to my inner pilgrim. We’ll see if Jack’s journey pays off and his faith is rewarded.

April 13, 2010

The Doctor is In, Again

Filed under: Television — Alex @ 12:02 pm

American media companies aren’t the only ones who have successfully relaunched pop culture franchises, such as Batman, Transformers and Battlestar Galactica. The BBC series, Dr. Who originally aimed at family audiences when it began in 1963, and running till 1989, was brought back on the air in 2005 as a filmed hour series with much higher production values. What didn’t change was the essential nature of the title character, referred to only as “The Doctor,” an eccentric, proccupied, cosmic-level genius often dressed with what looks like clothes out of your grandparents’ attic. He’s also an alien itinerant from a race of Time Lords and thus, though appearing human, has two hearts and is exquisitely attuned to the turning the galaxies, planets and time itself. And another thing, when his body is struck with some mortal blow, he can regenerate himself into a new body or a total of 12 regenerations, which each appear to be a different person with personalities differences unique to that regeneration.

The first Doctor (the different versions are known by their sequence), played by William Hartnell, fit the general stereotype of the absent-minded scientist, irascible and cunning with his white hair and formal, antiquated attire. Always accompanied by usually human companions, for audience identification, the Doctor traveled in his time machine, the TARDIS (time and relative dimension in space) a marvelous machine that outwardly appeared to be a blue police call box of the early 1960s but inwardly was a vast interstellar vehicle for moving through time and space. The show really caught on with the arrival of the Daleks, a scary race of robotic beings looking like more sinister versions of R2D2 and intent on exterminating their enemies, meaning anyone but themselves. The complete quirkiness of the program with its cheap sets and old-fashioned cliff-hangers became popular so that the show continued for over twenty years, going through a series of regenerated Doctors and offering actors a chance to bring their own contribution to an ageless character.

In 1989, with no firm support from BBC executives, the program had faltered in its direction and appeal leading to its cancellation. The series continued in the public awareness through home video of the years of episodes and audio productions of new episodes of past doctors but it took a new BBC regime to see the potential for a relaunch.

What was immediately striking about the new Doctor Who series was that it had truly entered the 21st century world of digital effects, high production values and enhanced characterization. Just as other rebooted heroes were examined more in-depth, like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, the Doctor was now more vulnerable, his need for companionship more apparent despite his seemingly insouciant demeanor. The episodes are also much faster-paced and dramatically richer than in the past with plot threads weaving in and out of episodes as in other high-concept television narratives.

The general direction of actors cast has been to make the Doctor gradually younger and thus more likely to appeal to a broader audience. With the 10th Doctor, played by David Tennant, the series reached the height of its popularity, as the sneaker-clad protagonist raced down corridors and across planetscapes in his hair-raising battle against evil aliens and monsters. After five years, Tennant decided to leave which once again challenged producers with how to cast the character that would continue audience attachment. The result was Matt Smith, a twenty-something who will bring his own interpretation when the new season begins on BBC America this Saturday the 17th. I imagine most fans have wondered what the BBC will do when Smith eventually leaves, to be replaced by number 12 leading to an eventual decision what to do when the thirteenth Doctor’s run is up. Christopher Eccleston, the actor who relaunched the franchise lasted only one year, announcing his departure early in his run so producers must be thinking about such contigencies.

One last comment: Many time travel tales in popular culture involve changing the past or repairing a mistake made when someone goes to the past, as in Back to the Future. I think Dr. Who is unique in that the character doesn’t change anything in history that he knows is set. He simply arrives at a certain time and place, is plunged into a dangerous situation, and works to stop evil machinations, because he knows that certain things in history aren’t determined and that’s where he can interfere. (Yes, Who fans, Tennant’s Doctor famously broke that rule in his last season, in “The Waters of Mars,” and was soundly rebuked for it. Thus, if you’re tired of the usual paradoxical headache-inducing time travel stories, consider a voyage in the Tardis starting this Saturday with a new Doctor.

April 5, 2010

Crises on multiple realities

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Science,Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 1:37 pm

This is a big year for alternate universes in pop culture. Where to begin? Last summer’s movie hit Star Trek rebooted the franchise by positing that a Romulan villain’s trip to the past that caused the death of the future Captain Kirk’s father, radically changed history. But it wasn’t by obliterating the long history of the Enterprise and its crew but by creating an alternate time stream with the same characters having different first meetings but still winding up together for some yet unwritten adventures.

And the J. J. Abrams sci-fi series Fringe, offered a mind-blowing revelation of a parallel universe impinging on the one of the main characters. But viewers of Abrams much more infamous series, Lost, are now experiencing alternate reality whiplash as the new and final season has left behind the series famous flashbacks and flash forwards to “flash-sideways” where we see the series’ characters living in a world in which Oceanic flight 815 never crashed on the island. Viewers are now asking which is the real world? Both? Neither? This picture of Jack Shephard in the Side-ways world suggests the parallel nature off his predicament.

It’s important to note that all of the above are part of Abrams’ Bad Robot productions with many of the same writers and producers using these concepts to create mind-bending tales whatever their understanding of or commitment to specific scientific theories.

Last night I watched JLA: Crisis on Two Earths, the latest in Warner Bros. direct-to-video movies featuring superheroes of the DC universe. The concept of multiple realities, based on the theory that every human choice creates a new universe, thus leading to a “multiverse” of infinite earths, feeds the concept of such stories. Despite the current vogue, the concept of parallel universes that are to some degree different from our own has spawned tales long before the 20th century. But instances of the science fiction thread discussed here can be found in television at least as early as several episodes of The Twilight Zone of the early 1960s and in the famous Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” wherein Kirk finds himself on a different, barbaric Enterprise with a goateed Mr. Spock.

Comics got into the act when in 1961, DC Comics offered “Flash of Two Worlds,” the “Silver Age” tale of the original speedster, Jay Garrick, from the comics “Golden Age” of the 1940s, meeting the new Flash, Barry Allen, who had been the instrument of DC’s rebooting of its superhero stories by re-inventing classic characters in an updated form. To account for characters of the same name who didn’t live in the same world, DC borrowed the alternate reality concept and posited that the Jay Garrick earth was slightly ahead, history wise, of Barry Allen’s earth and that many of the same characters had their versions in each world. Thus we would see more and more DC characters re-introduced into current continuity as inhabitants of “Earth One” often crossing over to or being visited by their counterparts on “Earth Two.”

Eventually there were two Green Lanterns, Atoms, Hawkmans (Hawkmen?) and others each with their distinctly different costume designed that sent young readers’ brains spinning with wonder and delight. Periodic expansion of the concept led to the discovery of other earths, one with an “Crime Syndicate” that had evil counterparts to Superman, Wonder Woman and others and resisted by its lone hero, Lex Luthor in a topsy turvy reversal.

Eventually, by the 1980s, DC had accumulated so many characters and parallel earths that it did a major housecleaning with its historic 12-issue series, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” which saw the elimination of the multi-verse into a single universe. That tradition of dimensional crossovers is the basis of JLA: Crisis on Two Earths. The Batman criminal counterpart, Owlman (voiced by actor James Woods) does a surprising dive into philosophy by surmising that an infinite number of worlds created by choices makes human free will pointless and humanity insignificant. Thus it would be no crime if he was to set off a superbomb that will destroy the multiverse–just because he can. This isn’t the first time DC animators have delved into modern philosophy. In this YouTube clip from the Justice League series, titled here “Sartre and Superman,” the original evil Lex Luthor advises an android seeking purpose for his life, to go all existential and create his own purpose. Owlman shows his fidelity to his nihilist beliefs in the movie’s climax. This and a well-executed story lifts the movie out of simple bash and crash beat ’em ups.

Ultimately, none of these stories is meant to prove the reality of quantum physics. Writers just love to explore the dramatic story potential of parallel lives intertwining. Indeed, many are meditations on the consequences of human moral choices, again reminding us of the significance of our actions and the power of imagination.

Note: Soon after posting this, my buddy Thom Parham, also known as the “DCU Continuity Cop,” let me know of several errors of names of the complex DC history, which I’ve since corrected and for which I am grateful.

March 12, 2010

Once was Lost, Now is Found?

Filed under: Television — Alex @ 8:27 pm

This is my first post on Lost since the sixth and final season began in February. I’ll assume those reading this are familiar with the epic series’ dense storyline and mythology of airline crash survivors facing strange perils and their own tragic histories on the weird island that seems in control of their fates. The endgame that started in the two-hour February season premiere has continued in bringing to a head the conflicts that will gradually be explained by season’s end. Here’s my take:

The ensemble cast is seperating into two camps–each aligned with the two entities we saw at the end of the fifth season–Jacob, the white-shirted inhabitant of the statue’s base, who long in process weaving of a tapestry with a blessing from Homer’s Odyssey seems a metaphor for his working towards redemption of those who will work out their salvations on the island, and his counterpart, the Man in Black, who has been seeking a loophole in their arrangement that will allow him to destroy Jacob and leave the island. Now that the Man in Black has taken the form of the deceased John Locke and revealed himself to be the Smoke Monster, various commentators have given him amusingly appropriate names: Flocke (for fake Locke), the Locke-ness Monster, Smocke, etc. He’s seemingly the death principle, an avenging force who has taken various forms over the years, and had seduced John Locke into believing in the positive purpose of the island when in fact, he was setting Locke up for his own purposes until he had conned Benjamin Linus into killing the hapless seeker so that he could take his form and lead Linus to Jacob where the oft-rejected Linus could be induced to kill Jacob out of yet another seeming rejection.

The divided cast will soon either be in one camp or another. Flocke has already recruited Sawyer, broken-hearted and angry at himself at losing Juliet, Sayid, infected with growing evil after his revival in the tainted Temple pool, Claire, looney as a goony bird after abandoning her infant son Aaron in the 4th season and determined to kill Kate when she learns that Kate raised him for three years. Each has been promised their hearts’ desires by Flocke in Faustian bargains that seemingly damn them. After the Smoke Monster gains entrance to the temple, and destroys the remaining dwellers, Kate follows Smoky’s group not out of any bargain but apparently because there’s nowhere else to go and she remains an uncommitted wild card.

Those in Jacob’s camp are Hurley who can see Jacob’s ghost who gives him often cryptic instructions that involve getting Jack to follow him to an ocean cliffside lighthouse where Jack discovers a mirror device where Jacob has watched him from childhood. Jacob has left Jack to discover his own purpose for his complex and manipulated life and seems to have come to a level of faith in the most current episode where he confront the mysteriously long-lived Richard Alpert on the Black Rock. Richard, believing himself betrayed by Jacob, and knowing he cannot end his own life, asks Jack to light a fuse and blow him up. Jack knows that if he himself is a candidate of Jacob’s, he also cannot die until he fulfills the reason he was brought to the island and proves it by staying with Richard as the lit fuse burns out before igniting the explosive.

The person most in need of redemption, if that can be rated, is Benjamin Linus, the ratty, manipulative former leader of the Others who finds himself the most manipulated by Smocke and now condemned to die by Jacob’s vengeful servant Illana who orders him to dig his own grave before she puts him in it. When Smocke appears to Linus and tells him he can take over charge of the island if he follows his instructions, another recruiting tactic, Linus follows his directions to run to where a rifle is waiting and grabs it to turn it on the pursuing Illana but instead of shooting, he makes a wrenching confession of how he had chosen power over his daughter Alex’s life and been seemingly rejected by Jacob and that he was going to Smokey’s camp because “he’s the only one who will have me!”

Illana amazingly graceful response was, “I’ll have you,” stuns Linus and he follows her back to camp, broken and apparently on the road to redemption. The chief of Lost’s sinners fate looks more hopeful now.

I haven’t even gotten into the “Sideways” world that has replaced the series’ flashbacks and flashforwards with a seemingly alternate universe where not only did Oceanic 815 land safely in LA, but that the characters’ histories were different before the trip. We’ve seen John Locke a much less desperate man, more reconciled to his loss of his legs and engaged to be married. Jack Shepherd reconciles with his teenage son and now Ben Linus, a high school history teacher, opts to help Alex Rosseau, one of his brighter students, get into Yale rather than blackmail his way into the principle’s chair. Only Sayid’s Sideways fate is uncertain–will he always be a killer?

We still don’t know who Jacob and Smokey are or actually represent and why the island is whatever it is, but the most satisfying element in Lost is seeing characters make sometimes surprising choices, sometimes purely on faith, that will pull them out of their self-created hells or else secure a worse fate. These images of forgiveness and costly grace are some of the best tales of redemption in popular culture in our times.

January 23, 2010

Preparing to Get Lost One Last Time

Filed under: Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 9:25 pm

Fans of the groundbreaking ABC series have, depending on the depth of their devotion and available leisure time, numerous ways to indulge in their favorite series as they await the Feb. 2nd season première of Lost‘s last season, the one in which their patient waiting for answers will be rewarded with some sort of grand explanation of the island’s many mysteries. I absolutely love the series but, perhaps by temperament, have never immersed myself into the vast ocean of website, plot minutiae or peripheral activities spun off by ABC. But I hope to pursue my own line of research of the series as an exemplar of what I call the television Maxi-Series, a dramatic program with an intended ending and thus a limited numbers of episodes, rather than the typical rolling episodes until the series expires creatively and ratings-wise. So here are some ways to prepare for the last chapter, volume or whatever you want to call the last season of one of television’s most magnum opi.

Readers of this blog will recall my love and appreciation for Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff “Doc” Jensen’s brilliant “Totally Lost” blogs that at least double the pleasure of the show. Jensen, one of the magazine’s most energetic followers of pop culture, is also highly intelligent and continuously delves into the more esoteric theories, mythologies, philosophies and scientific ruminations to offer highly entertaining interpretations of the show’s meaning. During last season’s his EW colleague Dan Snierson joined Jensen in an online video series that riffed on the current plotlines and was screamingly funny. I look forward to the guys’ return to the small computer screen.

But meanwhile, Jeff’s latest theory, on the island as a place where addictive behavior of various characters may perhaps find healing, currently the lead piece at Totally Lost, ponders the series’ redemptive theme, and Jensen’s Christian faith again serves him in understanding the need for healers, like castaway Dr. Jack Shepherd, to look at the mote in his own eye before he can truly help others.

Speaking of redemption, I teach a class at Palm Beach Atlantic University called “Redemptive Storytelling in Television and Film and I used this video last year since it encapsulates the various situations from which so many of the characters need redemption.

Another place to look for those wanting very in-depth discussion of whole episodes, there’s “Lost in Translation,” a blog by Shawn McEvoy, Senior Editor of His blog appears at the same place mine is carried, He’s currently going through every episode “looking specifically at Christian/religious themes, other important or interesting concepts, literary references, and the theory that it’s largely been about a game in which someone has won, and someone has… LOST.”

Finally, there’s the ABC Lost site full of clips, interviews and entire episodes to help you get up to speed for season six. Soon we will begin to see just what will become of these complex and compelling characters as they deal with the new chessboard they will find themselves on after Juliet hit the “reset” button on the nuclear device.

August 9, 2009

Staying Lost until January

Filed under: Television — Alex @ 11:01 pm

Lost-Destiny Found
Because ABC’s agreement with show producers to end cult favorite Lost after six seasons, the last three being 16 episodes each, the network faced the challenge of keeping awareness of the series in viewers minds through the long break between May and the following year. The producers have always had creative viral marketing campaigns to keep fans interested with clues and extra-canonical characters sustaining the mythological mysteries, but in the break between last May’s time-bending finale and next winter’s premiere of the sixth and final season, executive producers Damon Lindleof and Carlton Cuse have pulled out the stops to exploit the many themes and storylines as the climactic events converge.
This will be a spoiler-free (regarding season 6, since I avoid such givaways) list of fun places to go to get your Lost fixes before the show answers all the questions it is going to. To get in the mood for next year, this Season 6 trailer is a thematic and emotional summing up of Season 5 and points to the Season 6, titled by ABC, “Destiny Found.” A few weeks ago at the San Diego Comic-Con, Lindleof and Cuse made their last visit with a huge audience and plenty of entertaining surprises. Fake ads and the panel session segments are here.
Lost U_logo
Those wishing to dive into the philosophies, science and and ancient cultures referenced on the series are advised to enroll in the ABC-sponsored Lost University where they can take all kinds of short courses, read books with show-related content that could shed light on the big ideas behind the series.

And of course, no Culture Beat Lost post would be complete without a reference to the indefatigable Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly‘s house Lostophile who offers two recent additions to his Doc Jensen musings on the show. First, Jensen discusses the core themes and mysteries in Lost that have captured the imaginations of so many fans. Even for seasoned viewers, this is a useful primer that summarizes the show thus far. Then there’s the two-part “Diary of a Super Fan” that gets touchingly personal as Jensen expresses how the show hooked him and helped him get through some trying times. Finally, if you’re wondering what EW readers of Jensen’s Lost scribblings think are the show’s main must-answer mysteries, go here to see that sometimes surprising survey.

That’s my list–have you found interesting Lost-related sites you can share? Send them in to the comments section and spread the fun.

April 19, 2009

Telling One Colbert From Another

Filed under: Faith Issues,Television — Alex @ 8:51 pm

I doubt I’m the only one who has gone back and forth on what I think of Stephen Colbert, the brilliant political satirist and well-known star of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. I assumed that, like The Daily Show, from which it was spun off in fall of 2005, it leaned toward politically liberal ideology as it’s host, playing a right-wing cable news show host (think Bill O’Reilly), and thus I had little interest in seeing my conservative positions regularly attacked.

However, the Report‘s huge success was hard to avoid. Colbert’s deeply witty schtick and sharp parody of politics and punditry created much buzz, and everyone could laugh at his coining of terms like “truthiness” to describe certain kinds of political rhetoric. Last year I decided to give in and give the show a try and was delighted when Colbert’s wide-ranging topics included gags drawing from pop culture and a deep sense of the ridiculous in politics and society generally. Yes, he used his faux-conservative persona to make ironic digs at Republicans and I was particularly appalled at his apparently vicious mocking of Pope Benedict and the Catholic church, since I’d heard he was himself Catholic. Assuming he was another bitter lapsed Catholic, I eventually had enough, despite the cleverness, and stopped watching.
But this week, a friend sent out a link to a Holy Week show segment where Colbert had interviewed the episode’s guest liberal theologian Bart Ehrman. I had seen an earlier exchange between the two where Colbert had completely demolished Ehrman’s doubt-filled arguments while displaying an apparently unironic committment to orthodox Christian beliefs. The new segment (pictured left) similarly displayed Colbert’s knowledge of scripture and classical church teachings and again he eviscerated the liberal professor’s fatuous arguments against the divinity of Christ.

I had a crisis of confusion, a brain sprain of cognitive dissonance and eventually came to realize that Colbert was a playing at spoofing right-wing ranters, while sticking up for what mattered most, defense of the ancient faith. He’s treated enough priests, preachers and conservative pundits respectfully enough to see he has no brief against Christianity and traditional values, but you’ve got to see through his extremely dry schtick to recognize the balancing act. In fact, he’s an active member of a Catholic church where he teaches Sunday school. Here’s a link where he quickly and humorously affirms the faith while looking askance at those with vaguely stated beliefs. And it helps to have a thick skin politically when he does jab at Republican positions he disagrees with.

So, now I’ve put “Dr. Colbert” back on my DVR programming rotation and think I’m better prepared to detect the truth from truthiness on the Report.

April 12, 2009

Lost and Found

Filed under: Faith Issues,Television — Alex @ 8:43 pm

It’s been said that media doesn’t tell us what to think but rather, what to think about. That is, it can be an agenda setter in the marketplace of ideas. I saw a good example of that today as we drove across Florida after attending the Easter service at our church. The Lakeland, FL, Ledger has a front page article, Searching for Answers, that starts with a description of (mandatory spoiler alert) a scene at the start of a March episode of Lost, where spiritual seeker John Locke, having been murdered and placed in a coffin, finds himself alive and back on the strange island (as illustrated by the before and after pictures above) at the center of mysterious forces. He is thought to have given his life to get six island escapees to return to face their true destinies and now, having died and returned to life, he is different–but what, the audience wonders, does it mean? The faith vs. science debate, perhaps the chief theme of the show, continues to play out and this article is but one example of how entertainment can raise the level of discourse in its audience. (Update: A Breakpoint article I wrote from a few years ago is related to this post.)

Happy Easter!

March 29, 2009

Television Storytelling with the End in Mind

Filed under: Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 10:19 pm


How many times have you experienced the long slow decline of a favorite television show as it runs out of steam, drifting into low ratings, its beloved characters fading into ghosts of their once vibrant selves? The nature of network programming, set up to keeping popular shows on the treadmill till they die of creative exhaustion, usually insures that we will see such sad spectacles rather than the rarer cases of a show that goes out strong.

Long ago I wrote an article entitled, “The Titan Who Eats His Children,” about this problem of network series. Saturn was, in Greek mythology, one of the titans that gave birth to the gods of Mt. Olympus. Fearing they would overcome him and rule in his place, Saturn would devour this children as they were born. His wife finally gave him a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes allowing Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek nomenclature) to grow and defeat him, banishing the old Titan and allowing the flourishing of Olympian rule.

Television executives need programs that consistently bring in a certain audiences both in numbers and types of viewers, the number between 18 to 49 being a preferred demographic. Thus each fall they launch a new slate of shows, most of which don’t survive the season. Those that succeed must continue to draw their viewers to the ads placed on the series’ which is of course where the networks get their revenue. A network will stick with promising or strong shows, the happiest outcome being warhorses like the Law & Order and CSI franchise that go for many years. But pity the poor show that falters as the writing staff begins running out of ideas. Whether this happens in the fourth season or tenth, producers can hear the chimes at midnight tolling their imminent demise and will often resort to stunt plots to excite viewers with weddings, deaths of ongoing characters, births or other attention-getting events. But when the audience starts feeling the show is stale, their attachment to a once strong cast of characters wanes and the ratings numbers drop–the best hope at this point is for a show to know the date of its last episode to wrap up any dangling plot threads and depart gracefully for the afterlife of syndication and/or DVD releases of each season.

Happy is the program whose producers negotiate an exit strategy that allows the faithful audience the closure of a farewell. Comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H*, and Everybody Loves Raymond had happy endings, and perhaps the first drama to quit while it was ahead was the The Fugitive, running, literally, from 1963 to 1967’s big event conclusion where Richard Kimble (David Janssen), finally caught up with the one-armed man. Similarly, other shows were able to end their runs without abrupt cancellation, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation (and the other series in the Trek franchise), and as I recently noted, the recent end of Battlestar Galactica. It’s particularly fortunate for fans when such epic-sized series are able to bring their stories to an end. Crime-oriented shows like The Sopranos and The Shield were able to do notorious or acclaimed finales as well.
The announcement two years ago that Lost would run three more abbreviated seasons put fresh fire back into a show that was clearly running in place since the producers were uncertain when they would need to finally begin paying off all the clues and mysteries they had concocted and thus agreeing with the network on an endpoint revived the show’s energy and my own engagement with the unique series.

Last week’s Entertainment Weekly addressed the question of whether is was time for networks to start conceiving of shows with a serial storytelling format and deep mythological backstory, like Lost, as a sort of maxi-series with a pre-determined endpoint–in other words, like a real, complete story with a beginning, middle and end. This is similar to what the British television has done for years with limited run, just like a novel or play, so that audience attrition, with some viewers tiring of myriad detailed plot points, doesn’t doom a show before its denouement.

The challenge for network executives is that this would be a radical departure from the model of dependably long-running shows to base strategic programming decisions around. They would have to think in two modes–episodic programs, such as the CSI shows, and serial storytelling, with strong creator control of a complete series’ execution. The result would a sort of “maxi-novel” for television that could allow a new form to emerge, capable of complex narratives able to surpass feature films in their multiple storylines and characters and thus gain the potential for greater artistic achievement. Think what J. K. Rowling achieved with her Harry Potter series, always intended as a seven-book epic, and imagine how that might greatly widen the storytelling boundaries for television. (Of course this has been happening for years on soapy Latin American telenovelas.) As television network and cable executive work to solve the challenge of declining revenues during the recession, it may be a good time to rethink the way television tells its stories.

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