Lost and Popular Culture (A guest article by Katie Burnett)

Before there was Lost, there was the original Beverly Hills, 90210.

First day of school, West Beverly High, 1990: Brenda and Brandon Walsh from the television show 90210 transplants from Random Town, Minnesota have no idea what they will be up against in Beverly Hills. Ten years later, the show ends with two beloved characters getting married which sweetly ties up the show in an unpretentious manner.

I found the show less interesting after high school graduation, because I only cared about Brenda and Kelly Taylor, as evidenced by my Brenda and [Kelly Barbie dolls](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_(Barbie)), bought in the 90's in Florida. When Brenda and Kelly chopped their hair off, I chopped off their Barbie's hair, making them hideous and completely un-sellable should I ever choose to part with them (if I could find them — I suspect they're with my Babysitters Club collection "in the basement".)

I really loved Beverly Hills 90210, yet for a million dollars I can't remember the character that Tiffany Amber Thiessen played (OK I just looked it up — it was Valerie Malone — phew). I believe what [IMDB](http://www.imdb.com) says since I have no memory of people calling out "Valerie". But I was completely wrapped up in that show. Ironically and to my surprise, I cannot name one secondary character.

OK, so the show started twenty years ago and ended in 2000 (apparently my family let an eight year old watch this show). Whose memory is that good, especially with respect to television?

I have found that when a show ends no one is ever pleased and most of our questions remain unanswered. In some ways, that's half the fun — we're left to discuss and wonder for years about our favorite characters what they did with their lives and where would they be now if a pathetic attempt at a reboot of the show were attempted? (e.g., the present day version of 90210).

By comparison, if I can't name every single character on Lost ten years from now then I will deem myself a failure as an observer of popular culture. And while the original 90210 can't be compared to Lost, it was an iconic show that I, and millions of other young people watched in its entirety for the duration of its run.

Shows come and go, but Lost is different. To me it stands out. The show practically cured me of my fear of flying — OK, a crash wouldn't be ideal but if it got me to the Island and if it got me to Jack/Sawyer/Desmond, well, I wouldn't complain. And a mango diet sounds good right about now.

Lost started as a "what if" — what if people crashed on an island that was a little different, a little weird? I wasn't hooked until the second season. I was in a hotel room waiting for a flight from London to Vancouver and there was an episode on one of the four British channels. Its title was "The Other 47 days". I have a strange thing about TV shows — I don't like the introduction of new characters.

I inevitably don't love them as much as the original characters. I'm bitter towards them, defiant, wondering why they were suddenly brought into *my* show. Well, as a good Lost lover would know, "The Other 47 days" involved only new characters — and yet I was transfixed. It never occurred to me that there were other survivors of the crash, and I had no idea what their experiences would be like. I went back to Vancouver thinking, "I should get back into Lost". Coincidentally, I was completely jet lagged and staying at my parent's house. My parents had taped the Season 2 finale. I decided, in the middle of the night to just watch it — why not? I didn't understand a thing but between this new hot Scottish fellow and some random button-hatch-thing, I decided I was completely back on the Lost train and immediately bought Season 2 in its entirety and watched it over a very short period.

What other show has had the courage to play with plot lines and characters like this one? If someone had suggested that one of the key locales for the show would be a hatch with a man inside pressing a button every few minutes in order to save the world, I would have laughed. Yet we (most of us?) accepted this reality once we start watching, and I think we (all of us?) fell wholeheartedly for Desmond as a result (male or female, who DOESN'T like Desmond? Definitely the most likeable guy on the planet). And, was Desmond part of the original cast? No. Do I have unwavering love for him? Yes. Does this mean I should accept new characters into my life on TV shows? I guess (grumble grumble.)

The series finale ended six years of turbulence. I've been on 14 hour flights, and even a few minutes drives me nuts. Lost has been a turbulent experience. Lost is about stress and anxiety and it has made me scream and cry and wish I had never started watching it. I don't know what the Island is, but I think I know what it means to me, and it's not just a meeting place of attractive, shirtless men.

I have watched many people I love on the show die: Charlie, Daniel Faraday, Charlotte, Alex — even Juliet, whom I was adamantly against for so many years. I hated her even more when she shacked up with Sawyer, yet she wasn't worried because she knew I would love her eventually. And I did; and I cried when a) I thought she was dead at the end of Season 5 and b) when she did die at the beginning of Season 6. I don't even want to touch on Jack's death because I am in denial. Maybe one day, but not today. Complete and utter denial.

I had so many questions I assumed would get answered in the final season until I realized I didn't really need answers. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindeloff, the writers of the show want us to keep the questions coming. They want us to debate the show and its outcome for years, if possible. They want to leave us with question marks surrounding all the mysterious elements that made up the show.

Once you accept Lost, once you know that there is a Smoke Monster, polar bears, a giant wheel that can hide the Island and also allow people to escape it you give yourself the freedom to simply enjoy the world created by the writers and director. How and why would Daniel Faraday's mother kill him in the past? Well, I was never going to get an answer to that. Is Richard Alpert finally mortal now that he has a gray hair? How could I have hated Ben so much and by the end love him like a dear old friend?

But these are just questions, and they have allowed me to think about so many possible outcomes to the story. And Lost is about the debate between outcomes, reality and myth. The frustration we feel is also part of the joy that the story has brought us. We will always have so many questions, but isn't that the point? To question everything around us, to question each other? What other (network) show has brought up up so many different ideas and points of view and left so many stories dangling?

Lost will live on as a show that divided people, but its true followers know that it's an exemplary show that took us far away from what we thought it would ever be when it began. If it had been a simple show about people crashing and trying to live together, without all of the supernatural forces in play, would the intrigue have lasted six brilliant seasons? Sure, I would have loved a few more episodes of the castaways just sitting around, cooking fish and rice, arguing, but Survivor got pretty old after a few seasons. We got more than we bargained for and for that I am grateful.

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True Blood (2) and the Culture of Vampires

Vampires have become an important part of our current cultural milieu. They exist in various guises and over a number of different media. This is not an accident but a reflection of the zeitgeist that we are living in.

Various commentators have suggested that the reappearance of vampires both as heroes and villains of numerous books and films and television shows suggests an obsession with immortality. Others have referenced Bram Stoker's Dracula which was published in 1897. There are further references to the folkloric origins of the vampire both as metaphor and myth. Combine all of this with further references to the supernatural, the church, demons and monsters and reality seems to be a rather boring and mundane place. And that is precisely the point.

The 'undead' appear in all cultures and there is an obsession with the afterlife in most religions. Vampires don't so much reference immortality as they do history. One of the characters in True Blood, Eric is over a thousand years old. We even see him on the battlefield moments before he is killed by his 'maker' and becomes a vampire. Presumably, since vampires can be anywhere on the earth, they are not only immortal but all knowing. Their knowledge does not let them change their reality. They are stuck inside and outside of history.

However, modern stories of vampires are less transparent, with the vampires actually experiencing some measured conflict not only about their status, but also about their state of mind as well as their emotions. This was brought to the foreground in Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the vampire character of Angel. Somewhat like Bill Compton in True Blood, Angel falls in love with a human and the entire show circles around the existential angst that Buffy and Angel experience as their emotional attachment ebbs and flows. These shows are also connected to the endless procession of TV series which use the supernatural to solve mysteries and murders as in The Mentalist or where the supernatural becomes a source of danger as in Heroes.

The roots of superstition are complex and profoundly intertwined with paganism and spiritualism. One of the most important psychological elements in superstition is projection. Something or someone outside of oneself is responsible not only for our state of mind but for the events in our lives. This sense that control has been lost and that it will be very difficult to regain control is at the heart of nearly all the modern stories that have vampires as their main characters.

Vampires can only reproduce by killing and can only survive on more killing. That sounds a lot like modern definitions of terrorism and is a fair definition of war in general. But, the real underlying fear here is that our society has fallen into a cycle defined as much by anarchy as by societies that no longer clearly know which direction they are headed in and why conventional solutions to differences and crises lead nowhere.

Vampires reflect a deep and embedded nihilism that displaces responsibility for what is happening in the world onto someone else living or dead. After all, from global warming to terrorism to economic collapse, these are not the best of times. Vampires of course cannot see the sun and natural light is their enemy. Darkness, the time of nightmares and dreams and of danger and fairy tales is when they rule.

True Blood which is a critique of vampires and religion and actually links the two is also a brilliant exploration of what happens when magic and sorcery do in fact take over. The results range from endless loss to hope in the midst of decay. In True Blood, the rather medieval charms of shapeshifting are added to the more sinister challenges of witchcraft. In all cases, the universe is out of control and people, normal people if there are any, are always confronting monsters within and without.

The vampires in True Blood actually have a centralized governing structure with a hierarchy and clearly laid out responsibilities. The fact that the male and female vampires can make love to humans even though they are 'dead' suggests quite optimistically that even in a dystopic time sex and love don't die. This is also the central thematic of the Twilight series by Stephanie Myers.

All of this is fundamentally an attack on modernism, on change and on societies which seem to have lost any connections to their roots. There is a deep nostalgia in Bill Compton's face and demeanor. He wants love even though he is dead. He wants to have an impact on a society that discriminates against him. He wants truth where there are only lies. He is charmingly naive and cynical at the same time. He is both young and profoundly aged. He can magically appear from nowhere and move at the speed of light. But, none of this changes the profoundly decayed society that he inhabits. The circle of fear and retribution will only repeat itself. He is history's worst enemy. A great deal is learned only to be lost over and over again. This timeless world of ghosts and screams and fear represents the apotheosis of contemporary angst. Once again as with Six Feet Under, Alan Ball the creator and director of True Blood is a true historian of our times.

Taste and Television

This Fall's television season has been aptly described by Heather Havrilesky at Salon Magazine as a mess.

Between conspiracies that never seem to stop — Fringe — to endless rounds of near escape from impossible situations — Prison Break — to death by robots — Terminator — to immature youngsters learning to become heroes to defend a future that seems more retro than the immediate past — Terminator, again — to a show that lost its audience and its plot — Heroes — to a show that lost its locale — Lost — to a medical show that turned into an endless series of love affairs both predictable and boring — Gray's Anatomy — to the bizarre spectacle of a doctor, drugged, insane yet intuitive — House — to the endless murders and deaths and special effects of hypothetical forensics — CSI and NCIS — to the repetitive games and egotistical characters of reality shows — Survivor — the key themes center on loss of control and how to regain some measure of humanity in the face of a dystopic world where people are never what they seem to be and society is in such decay that there are no immediate solutions to any problem.

This sad state of affairs after the conclusion of The Wire and end of the season for Mad Men has left television in a perilous state. The last show of Mad Men was one of the finest in the history of television, comparable to the series ending show of The Wire both in intensity and aesthetic depth. Beyond this, there is nothing much other than, True Blood developed by Alan Ball which survives on the acting of Anna Paquin much more than it does on any originality of plot or depth of thought. True Blood takes place in the south and is full of allusions to the political quagmire we now find ourselves in. But, the analysis and the metaphors of decay and ethical confusion are at best cliched and at worst superficial.

This crisis is in my opinion the result of years of decline. Mainstream television has still not woken up to the influence and effect of the internet and views digital culture as just another means of marketing existing shows. Except for a few rare exceptions, the same thing is happening with the music industry and the boom/bust mentality of the film industry has pretty well eliminated most of Hollywood. Even video games are suffering from the tired repetition of plots and locales that mimic films old and new.

The best thing on television recently was the American election — more excitement and more reality than we have seen in a long time. And, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Office keep going, never that great, never that spectacular but still not bad. Entourage gets it but who cares. 30 Rock like Saturday Night Live is as much about forced humor as it is satirical — there are a few moment here and there, but the skits are stale and Tina Fey sleepwalks through the stories she constructs. SNL was great for a few weeks during the election, but I watch it for its music and when will they get rid of the actors staring stage right or left reading their lines?

I am waiting for Generation Y who helped get Barack Obama elected to take control of television and popular culture in general. We need a whole new host of people producing shows that are a reflection of the many changes and crises we are presently experiencing. And no, I am not looking forward to the new season of 24!!!

Lost and Indiana Jones

I have been thinking about the relationship between the new Indiana Jones movie and the television show, Lost. The season finale of Lost connected the dots between the six survivors of a still unexplained airplane crash (which is at the origin of the show) and their 'exile' on a strange island that by the end of the show this season had disappeared into the ocean.

The six, who also happen to be the main characters, are to varying degrees suffering from a series of physical and psychological ailments as they struggle to survive in the 'real' world. They attribute all of this to the pain of being away from the island and to its magical qualities which were disrupted by their departure. In particular, Hurley has descended into a psychotic state. Jack has become a drug-addicted depressive and Sayeed has become an executioner as he takes vengeance on all those who might be associated with the death of his wife. (Warning, none of this makes sense if you have not been watching the show!!)

The island's powers seem to live inside Ben (who has also left through a magic portal frozen in ice underneath the island). He has become obsessed with killing the main antagonist and seemingly the agent of everyone's problems, a man by the name of Widmore (an all-powerful character drawn more from James Bond movies than a police drama or mystery show). Ironically, Widmore's daughter Penny has been searching for her lost lover for years, Desmond, who also happens to have landed on the unnamed magical island deep in the pacific as a result of a boating accident. (They do find each other, although that particular scene in the season finale is rather pathetic. )

If this sounds convoluted, it is. Part of the problem with Lost and the reason that its audience has shrunk, is the complexity of the plot and the continual way in which every story is extended into another story and so on. There is never any closure and there wasn't one at the end of this season as well. At the same time, it is the messiness of the narrative that makes it not only interesting, but a bit of experiment in television drama. The narrative is driven by the same elements that we have become so used to in both film and television early in the 21st century — evil that gets more powerful meets people of integrity who fight for truth and what is right. (See Heroes for another example of this, but there are many other shows as well.)

Lost experiments with all of this by sometimes inverting good and bad and by creating a deep ambivalence about why people act as they do irrespective of their negative or positive characteristics. Lost also experiments with the history of the characters in what can best be described as a psychoanalytic manner unveiling more and more about their past. Their personal history becomes a laboratory of human behaviour in which the audience plays researcher and analyst.

One of the key characteristics of Lost is the use of tunnels and portals and underground installations which are both mysterious and somehow full of technology. Lost endlessly explores Alice's hole in the ground both metaphorically and literally. The foundations of the island seem to be built on a series of basements that lead to other worlds. This is of course a central element in children's stories but has also become a defining element of many contemporary films. The portal in the Narnia series would be the most current example, but there are many others including Harry Potter and of course the many films that are now based on comic books.

The latest Indiana Jones film also centres on caves and underground installations within which there are artifacts that reveal some historical truth or connection to the present. Archeology meets anthropology and both connect to history and to adventure. The early part of the film is fascinating because it takes place at ground zero in Nevada where the first atomic bombs were tested in the 1950's. Further mention of Eugene McCarthy and the witch hunt for communists situates the film within a critical historical narrative (and is perhaps why it was so well received at Cannes). In addition, Indiana Jones brings ET into the narrative as Steven Speilberg and George Lucas play with their own work as well as that of other filmmakers. They generate a phantasmagoria of cinematic references that suffuses nearly every element of the film and all of this is made possible by a variety of portals which progressively reveal more and more about the causes of history in general and about the role of images in particular.

Mystery meets truth meets pseudo-science in a dance of questions about the unknown forces that really rule the world, from god-like spirits to angels. In Lost those forces are explained (somewhat) through the appearance and disappearance of the dead (like Clare and Jack's father) incarnated by a biblical character with the name of Jacob who is only visible to those with the power to see him. His messages are certainly understood by the key characters like Locke. For Indiana Jones the unknown forces are often old civilizations like the Mayan which are wrapped in riddles that can only be solved through a fight with evil or the accomplishment of some near impossible task or challenge. The film takes place in the 1950's so inevitably it is the Russians who represent evil. Cate Blanchett plays a horrible Soviet acolyte of Stalin's who is searching for absolute power. There are an abundant number of cliches, but Blanchett is simply channeling numerous characters in hundreds of films as opposed to simply being THE evil one. In this, both Lost and Indiana Jones are trying to be critical, even analytical but in both cases, the mysteries of history are really insoluble. This notion that we cannot understand why certain events happen is repeated so often that it almost becomes a mantra. The mantra reads like this: History and people's roles in history cannot be explained by rationality and in the end cannot be explained at all.

The world is wrapped in mystery because humans don't recognize how their understanding of reality is inherently distorted by forces which they cannot control. Human agency is both fragmentary and a figment of our collective imaginations. There will always be other powers greater than that of humans which will determine the outcome of events, their direction and impact. This deference to mysticism and spirituality and finally to religion is at the heart of the work of Lucas and has always been central to Speilberg's films. The startling similarity between the island in Lost disappearing as a round disk into the ocean and the appearance of a spaceship that it also disk-like in Indiana Jones is not an accident. The fact that both use portals in a play with magic realism is also not accidental.

Ironically, the world is a broken place because irrationality has taken hold and the only explanation both Lost and Indiana Jones offer is that the irrational is fundamental to the human psyche. All that is left to conquer, even examine, is the dream-like space of the unconscious manifested in the mutterings of Hurley and in the metaphoric resonances of dead languages. Coincidence, chance, sorcery and the accidental are at the heart of a dadaesque swirl of stories that ultimately produce protagonists and audiences without any control over their lives — a dire message in these very difficult times.

Gray's Anatomy (Season Finale)

Okay, so Shonda Rimes tells fairy tales. Her characters all speak with the same hesitant inflection, the same stutter and most of the time, they are self-absorbed and narcissistic. But, Rimes is also clued into the temper of the times and the need for integrity and truthfulness when so much of the public and political sphere is bereft of truth and integrity. Rimes for better or for worse "feels" the temper of of this historical period in a way that most television writers cannot, lost as they are in strange plots or repetitive narratives that hint at truth without understanding its foundations. There is a moment and it is brief, in the season finale of Gray's Anatomy, when the Chief asserts his leadership, his manliness and his integrity with enough force to reclaim his wife and his marriage. It is a poignant expression of the confusion between what we know about ourselves and our desire to live in an enchanted kingdom where deferred desires finally become real.

This year's finale is about childhood, about the losses, pain and learning that children experience without really understanding that they are forming the base upon which their adult lives will endure. Childhood for Meredith Gray is the discovery of her mother's real reason for trying to commit suicide (to attract attention) and Alex's revelation that he had tried to take care of his dying mother and failed to save her. Childhood is about pains that come and go without the perspective to recognize their impact. This show is about the success of psychiatry and the talking cure (Meredith finally understands her relationship with her mother.). It is about scientific experimentation (its mistakes and successes), but mostly it is about developing in the words of Miranda Bailey, a big picture view of the world. It is about stepping back from the seemingly endless swirl of everyday life with enough force to recognize not only complexity but also and more importantly, how to tell yourself a story in which you are both heroine and failure, but nevertheless can succeed.

In this context, honesty becomes a tool for self-effacement and for ego. The contradiction is obvious. You cannot at one and the same time be on top of the world and your game without also chipping away at your presumption that you know yourself well enough to understand what you are doing and why. Rimes balances between pop psychology and insight, between an Oprah-like obsession with reducing the world to a series of simple equations, to recognizing that fairy tales make the world go round. Rimes is the antithesis of the characters she creates. Her characters are immersed in the contradictions of a medical world that engages with death and disease while also pursuing dreams of perfection. For Rimes, perfection comes from the endless pursuit of the right story through a combination of dialogue rhythm and music. Every time that Rimes solves one part of the fairy tale another challenge rears its head.

Rimes's world frees patients from encasement in concrete (both psychological and physical), brings love to people where and when it is needed, and finally allows men to combine new forms of sensitivity with enough verve to remain at least partially macho. If all this sounds like a bit of a mess, then Rimes's has captured what other television shows cannot, the fact that fairy tales are always immersed in the detritus of what they leave behind just as most stories are not solely about the lives of the people they depict. Television is obsessed with narrating the clash between childhood dreams and adult failures (see this season's episodes of Lost). Gray's Anatomy in contrast revels in the romantic pain that comes from self-recognition. Narcissism it seems reveals an endless series of mirrors, none of which really capture the truth with enough depth to complete the story of any one character. This only happens when television series come to an end.

The New Television Season (Fall 2007)

I always look forward to the new Fall season on TV. I generally watch as much as I can in September and over the years, there have been some surprises, much banality, a great deal of repetition, and on occasion the extraordinary show that marks a new phase in the history of the medium.

This September, however would rate as one of the worst starts to a new season that I have ever experienced. Not only are the plots repetitious, derivative and generally unimaginative, the shows themselves are shot with no attention to detail, camerawork, or aesthetic differentiation. Many of the shows involve some sort of "supernatural" shift either through time travel — JourneymanHeroesLife (yes, that is the title) or through extra powers gained by God or medicine — Bionic Woman. Others are centred on close equivalents to time travel like Lost.

Then we have the medical shows with Grey's Anatomy having now developed a new lens that softens the eyes of its characters so that everyone looks like Meredith Grey. I call it the SQUINT. This is a mode of acting that makes you look sensitive when you are not, involved and attentive when you are not, and most of all empathetic (with an emphasis on the pathetic).

There are the police shows and the anti-terrorist shows like NCIS — with its tired characters, silly intrigue and CSI-like use of forensics by a goth character who seems to use computers that can find any information and a pathologist who listens to the souls of the dead to gather information.

The Reaper is about the devil (yes, the devil appears) and 'his' ownership of the main character's soul. Do what I tell you or you too will go to hell. I believe that this might be the twentieth incarnation of this type of show, just as Journeyman is Quantum Leap and Time Traveler retold.

I won't talk about the obvious relationships between Smallville and Bionic Woman, or Gossip Girl and the OC — the former about the tragedy of the superhuman and the latter about yet another bunch of rich kids with the same jealousies and school experiences as every other show ever situated in that key age of 0-21.

No need to mention the endless repetitions of Law and Order, CSI and CSI - other cities. There must be a logic to the patterns here and it is sheer lack of imagination.

Oh, catch Mad Men on AMC. It is the only show that actually tries to explore some new strategies of storytelling and aesthetically, it is beautiful. Set in 1960 in an advertising agency, we are presently in the final days of the battle between Nixon and Kennedy for the Presidency.

"24"and all that

The two hour conclusion to "24" was both anti-climactic and irrelevant. In fact, the hint at the end that Jack Bauer was contemplating his own death by suicide was gratuitous and unnecessary since we know the show has been renewed for yet another season. So, what went wrong with this show? Why did it fall apart?

For years the show has been based on the genuine fear that Americans have of another terrorist attack. It is not that that has disappeared. Rather, the nature of the fear has changed from an everyday sense that something is around the corner, to a wiser understanding that the rules of everyday life are not the same and that we are in a phase of history where unconventional controls over violence, conspiracies and irrational behaviour cannot be exercised without also compromising the very reasons we believe in the future and in democracy. (The writers of "24" should take note of the conclusion to the far more intelligent show, "Heroes.")

"24" has remained locked into forms of violence, evil and the general turmoil of power that have lost their intensity. The show has revolved around the same failures, overwhelming threats and simple resolutions for too long. It is a comic strip. But even Marvel knew when to change its heroes or invent new ones.

"24" spent a great deal of this season in a state of hysteria. The fatal error began with the first few shows when the nuclear bomb went off in Valencia (?) and then devolved into a silly chase show.

However, the key figure was Phillip Bauer, a seemingly incorrigible maniac whose dual role as father and killer, meant to be the opposite to Jack, dragged on through endless Oedipal reversals until he finally killed his other and equally evil son. Why did the show decide to include this particular theme? And why does this man get shot by the grandson in the last episode? I am not going to dwell on the psychoanalytic tangle of father-son-grandson, other than to say that the references are all too simple — haven't all our father figures failed us in this age of dystopic conundrums synthesized most tragically by the war in Iraq?

Even if "24" were commenting on this, and I have my doubts, the visualization they have given us does not explain why so many signposts in our society don't seem to be leading to any kind of truth or resolution, but rather to cynicism and the endless ruptures of bad faith and betrayal.

Poor Jack. At the end he believes in nothing and we have stopped believing in him. The character has been so diminished that I doubt the show can come back from the marginal status that it has now acquired.

Prison Break (à la carte)

I have been trying to figure out Prison Break for over a year. It began with the most conventional of premises, as do many television shows (which says something about the paucity of good writers working in the medium today). A man (Michael Scofield) decides to become a criminal so that he can be incarcerated in the worst jail in America in order to free his brother (Lincoln Burrows) who has been wrongly accused of a murder. The wrong man theme is a dominant feature of many films (Clint Eastwood is a master at it.) and also of television. The quest to right the wrong appears and reappears throughout the history of popular media and also popular fiction. It is always a quest and often (as in the films of Quentin Tarantino) truth does not win even though the audience is always rooting for the underdog and even Tarantino plays games with some possible endings which might, just might resolve themselves into a victory for right over wrong.

In Prison Break the brothers are not only overwhelmed by the reality that one of them will be executed, but must also contend with the fact that they are the victims of a conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels of the government and includes the President. (The time is right for this, but the transparency of the connection to politics in Washington, circa 2007 seems forced and overdone.)

I am a fan of "wrong men" plots and also of conspiracies, as long as I don't have to take things too seriously. In Prison Break, the weight of the conspiracy is determined by the need to continue the narrative and to keep the show on the air. In the first season, the narrative followed all the various improbable ways in which the plans for escaping from Fox River Penitentiary were hatched. The entire narrative was so unreal that it didn’t much matter that the warden allowed one of the brothers into his confidence and into his office, or that prisoners were able to dig a tunnel under the not so watchful eyes of their guards.

The narrative tension in this show comes from something else, the possibility of success in a world violently bent on making success impossible and where danger can be found not only at every corner, but also within the very structure of society itself. Danger is after all, the core of modern-day politics in Bushworld (to borrow a wonderful metaphor from Maureen Dowd). It is the framework for nearly every action Bush and his government undertake with the overriding intent being to make it seem as if sleeper cells are everywhere. Danger surrounds us (the core premise of 24 and a host of other shows) and hence we need and must be prepared for the inevitable violence not only of criminals, but terrorists.

But, we have so few avenues of escape from this box! No sooner does a character in Prison Break become ever so slightly happy, than he or she must be brought down either by murder or by suicide. The prison is within and the protagonists are fighting their inner demons as much as they have to confront a world that has lost its moral compass.

We live, I think, in simulated Shakespearean times where tragedy lurks within the very fabric of politics, is the essence of the everyday and where storytelling must limit itself to demarcations of good and evil with no grey zones and even fewer moments of pleasure (unless, that is, you count the perversity of competition on American Idol as pleasurable).

This existential quagmire has become even more complex on Prison Break largely because the show is no longer about a prison escape, but is about the brothers being chased by nearly everyone from wicked policemen to even more evil politicians. And of course, this is another and important convention in television and film — the chase, the endless battle of good guys and bad guys — not very forensic in the CSI sense, but endlessly compelling, because after all, we want the good guys to win. After an entire season of convoluted plots, Scofield finally ended the show last week by saying, "that's it, we have to disappear."

So they must, into the dustbin of television history because no recent show has had the nerve to reveal a President who had an incestuous affair with her brother. (Yes, the President is female which raises other questions.) He then commits suicide in a seedy motel. The show has a secret agent who may have been a lover of the President as well and who tries to assassinate her and a famous FBI agent who is a drug addict so obsessed, so flawed that he kills and maims with impunity.

In this mix of tragedy, conspiracy, farce and double-crossing, Dr. Sarah Tancredi, (Scofield’s love interest) herself a recovering drug addict and the daughter of a murdered Governor (yes, he was found hanging in his house), is a calm centre of love and affection, trying to right the wrongs and being tortured in the process. Again, she is so flawed that inevitably, her demons reappear through torture and pain (how about being nearly drowned in a bath tub?).

Lost in an urban wilderness that seems populated by aliens who tunnel their way into conversations, where everyone is listening to and watching everyone else, and surveillance combined with paranoia is at the heart of social interaction, the brothers on Prison Break epitomize the sharp edge of despair that our culture has tumbled into. The brothers and their doctor have a little bit of integrity, but they have no discourse, no means of explaining either to each other or to anyone else, why this conspiracy is so important. It seems that it is just not enough to point out the fatal flaws of a President because at the heart of this show is a deep sense that failure is at the core of storytelling and politics.

We are living in the era of Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears who invite surveillance, enact the tragic consequences of conspiracy and manufacture their reality as a theater in the round. This latter day atmosphere of trivial scandal is why Prison Break may well be a designed failure since its own ideology must prevent it from becoming a success.

Hollywood: Is the cinema dying?

There is a myth circulating in Hollywood and in the media that film is dying. True, box office revenues are down. The impact of flat screens in the home as well as DVD's and the Internet is changing the dynamics of viewership and audience. Yes, there are less people going to the cinema and the medium is changing because more people can now make films at home and then upload them to YouTube. There are many more venues in which films can be shown, which dilutes the power and the role of the majors. True, cinemas are closing and those that remain are deteriorating. Yes, there is more variety and many more choices available to people than ever before and this is highlighted by the strength of videogames.

BUT, the real reason that this is happening has much more to do with content, storytelling and the role of images in our society than with any substantial change in audiences. Hollywood has lost the ability to tell stories largely because it is so out of contact with the publics it tries to address. Much of the slack has been taken up by the independent cinema which in relative terms is thriving. Relative, because independent cinema needs to find small audiences and so can survive on less than the mainstream. I know that there are some people who will not be unhappy to see mainstream spectacle-oriented cinema decline, but I am not one of them. But, if the mainstream is to survive, it will have to reinvent itself, shed the marketing departments that dominate the selection of projects (when will producers realise that marketers have basically no understanding of audiences — which may explain why the vast majority of films fail) and develop new models of storytelling and narrative.

In my opinion, the cinema is not dying. The conventional approach to production and distribution is changing, but Hollywood producers still think that they are back in the 1970's. Examples abound. After many years of videogame production, audience building and the growth of production companies, Hollywood took notice and began to make films as if they were like games. The films failed of course because as related as the two media are, the activities of viewing are different. Videogames remain, in my opinion, locked into models of narrative that are as predictable and dry as Hollywood's have become, but at least some elements within the organization of a game allow for new strategies of audience involvement. The documentary cinema has risen in prominence over the last decade both because of reality television and the fact that there are so many stories out there that need telling. One of the few films that grasped this phenomena was "Good Night, and Good Luck" which used black and white film as a way of telling the important and often overlooked story of Edward R. Murrow in post-war America during the McCarthy era.

George Clooney's film took advantage of the strength of newsreels, combined that with close-up cinematography and then mixed in a soundtrack that not only evoked the era, but said something important about the media and their role as purveyors of information and opinion. Clooney didn't get much support from Hollywood for this film, but it succeeded nevertheless.

The cinema is not dying because audiences will always be hungry for stories and for new content that addresses their concerns or reveals experiences and worlds to them that they know nothing about. Ironically, a television series like Deadwood which is shot in the style of the cinema, has become a success largely because it manages to tell stories so well. The characters are powerful precisely as a consequence of the power of the FICTION. Here is David Milch, the brilliant creator of the series talking about his creative process. (From the HBO web site — producer of the show)

Executive producer David Milch warns that Deadwood is not a docu-drama about the famed outlaw town. "I want to make it clear," he says, "that I've had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate."

That said, Milch spent months immersing himself in the true stories of the people of 19th century Deadwood, absorbing not just the events, but also the subtle motivations behind them. "I like to read the primary materials; I love reading the Black Hills Pioneer, you know," he says. "I could read that all day. I'm interested in the personalities who were kind of the first prime movers in the community."

What has emerged is a picture of a place finding its own "order" without the benefit of laws. "Deadwood was a place created by a series of accidents. A kind of original sin — the appropriation of what belonged to one people by another people — was enacted with no pretense at all," he says. "You know, the people who landed in Manhattan, they paid 24 bucks. Well, maybe they got a bargain, but they still recognized the obligation to pay. In the Black Hills, the land had just been given to the Indians, to get 'em to move from another piece of land."
“I want to make it clear that I've had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate.

Somewhere between David Milch and George Clooney lies a middle ground for the new Hollywood. Go to the Ars Technica site for an interesting analysis on the future of videogames and why they may not be threatening Hollywood at all.

Some comments on How Images Think

Professor Pramod Nayar of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad comments on "How Images Think." This is a small selection of a longer review that appeared in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology

How Images Think is an exercise both in philosophical meditation and critical theorizing about media, images, affects, and cognition. Burnett combines the insights of neuroscience with theories of cognition and the computer sciences. He argues that contemporary metaphors - biological or mechanical - about either cognition, images, or computer intelligence severely limit our understanding of the image. He suggests in his introduction that image refers to the complex set of interactions that constitute everyday life in image-worlds (p. xviii). For Burnett the fact that increasing amounts of intelligence are being programmed into technologies and devices that use images as their main form of interaction and communication - computers, for instance - suggests that images are interfaces, structuring interaction, people, and the environment they share.

New technologies are not simply extensions of human abilities and needs - they literally enlarge cultural and social preconceptions of the relationship between body and mind.

The flow of information today is part of a continuum, with exceptional events standing as punctuation marks. This flow connects a variety of sources, some of which are continuous - available 24 hours - or live and radically alters issues of memory and history. Television and the Internet, notes Burnett, are not simply a simulated world - they are the world, and the distinctions between natural and non-natural have disappeared. Increasingly, we immerse ourselves in the image, as if we are there. We rarely become conscious of the fact that we are watching images of events - for all perceptive, cognitive, and interpretive purposes, the image is the event for us.

The proximity and distance of viewer from/with the viewed has altered so significantly that the screen is us. However, this is not to suggest that we are simply passive consumers of images. As Burnett points out, painstakingly, issues of creativity are involved in the process of visualization - viewers generate what they see in the images. This involves the historical moment of viewing - such as viewing images of the WTC bombings - and the act of re-imagining. As Burnett puts it, the questions about what is pictured and what is real have to do with vantage points [of the viewer] and not necessarily what is in the image (p. 26).

Television (NCIS)

In the previous two posts, I began to draw a map of all the connections among a variety of television shows which concentrate on terrorism. The connections are not only at the level of plot line, but among actors who move from show to show.

The following MISSION STATEMENT appears on the CBS web site:

"The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)--the Department of the Navy's (DoN's) primary law enforcement arm--is in the midst of a transformation. No longer is the traditional reactive law enforcement model adequate given the complex and increasingly blurred terrorist, intelligence, and criminal threats to our Navy and Marine Corps. To counter the evolving threats, NCIS has implemented a new, proactive strategic plan, which emphasizes preventing terrorism."

The mission statement blurs the connections between TV drama and reality, an in-between or middle space within which the "war on terrorism" becomes an overarching metaphor for how TV relates to and depicts everyday life. These connections are all foregrounded by what I described in the previous post as some fatal flaw that is always discovered about the terrorists, a flaw which leads to the situation being resolved, even if (as in "24") some people die.

The question is, what is the purpose of this retooling of television drama and storytelling? What does this suggest about the intersections of popular culture and real life?

Television (The Grid)

"The Grid" is a British/American co-production with Turner Network Television, Fox and BBC. One of the stars is Dylan McDermott who was a lawyer on the David Kelley show, "The Practice." The Grid is about a counterterrorism cell in much the same way as The Unit is about a counterterrorism cell in much the same way as another show "Sleeper Cell" is about counterterrorism — and across all of these shows, the same plot lines are used. To varying degrees they are all based on the original formula developed by "24" which combines various levels of incompetence with seemingly inpenetrable terrorists groups who seem to be invincible until a fatal flaw is found.

More soon......

Television (The Unit)

Many of the new shows on television this season deal with terrorism, heroism and the hidden dangers of post 9/11 America and the effects of 9/11 on the world. None quite matches "The Unit" which uses all the elements of every spy show ever broadcast on primetime. These range from a secret unit that no one can know about to levels of heroism and competence that exceed the norm of any human being — a combination of Superman, James Bond and the apparent science and precision of CSI. Best of all, the army community in which the unit lives with their wives might as well be the set of "Desperate Housewives."

Does this add up? Yes, but only because David Mamet's scripts are so theatrical and characters talk to each other with a purity of expression that sometimes borders on the poetic. All of this is brought together by the main male character in The Unit played by Dennis Haysbert who played President David Palmer in "24".

If all of this seems like it is connecting, wait until I finish the map.

More soon..........

The Age of Six Feet Under (2)

In today's New York Times, Joan Didion describes her shock and grief at the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne. It is a very moving article about pain, loss and the ways in which the death of a loved one bring memories and feelings to the surface that are often buried and sometimes inaccessible until the shock of death rears its head. In an age (zeitgeist) which as a friend of mine recently said, pathologizes everything that is related to the body, health and death, Didion's piece brings personal confession, the confessional into the foreground. As she explores the confusion, the sheer magnitude of death and the finality of everything that surrounds it, Didion tries to bring the craft of writing forcefully into play while also recognizing that nothing she says will fully explain the complexities of what she is going through. At one point, she mentions a strong urge to make a film, to create images as a way of explaining what is happening to her.

Most of the plots of Six Feet Under centred on confessions of guilt, pain, incomprehension and of course, death. The personal became public — emotions otherwise hidden away in the private worlds that we all inhabit were brought to the surface. This confessional mode is audience-centric. Confessions reveal that which is normally hidden. But confessions are only possible if someone is listening. Didion's piece is as much for us as it is for her husband. We are the transitional listeners who allow her to regain some control over the loss. In a fictional TV show the dead can be brought to life and can listen and react to their loved ones. It is that fiction which is at the heart of all confessions, because they are ultimately for the living, for the living who still have memories.

The Age of Six Feet Under

The title of this blog entry is also the title of a new book that I am developing for the University of Chicago Press. One of their top editors is an old friend and we have been talking about the extraordinary degree to which the contemporary environment in North America is dominated by various forms of hypochondria, paranoia and anxiety. This is more than post 9/11 worries about terrorism, although there is much to be concerned with, including the challenges of confronting the dystopic vision of modern terrorists. Hypochondria, for example, has become a social narrative, a way of talking about the world through the lenses of fear with respect to the human body, nutrition and disease.

The book will also explore the television series, which in its narrative content and character development is not only superb television, but an exploration of precisely all the issues that surround mortality, love and apprehensions of death. While these may seem to be grand themes, almost clichés, the program manages to move far beyond the rather limited story-telling 'body' of television into a profound examination of the dynamics of family life.

So, the book will be an in-depth study of the show and an exploration of of how mediascapes build the infrastructure to support anxiety in the digital age.

My intention is to provide extracts of the book on this blog as I write in order to get feedback and suggestions.