Longtime readers will know that I’ve dedicated much of the last few years obsessively watching Cuse and Lindelof’s sci-fi masterpiece Lost, and that I liked the finale. Many didn’t, and with great and terrifying vehemence. I half-expect friend-of-the-blog @MhairiMcF to throw a sharpened copy of season 6 at my throat for suggesting it was a success right to the final, beautiful shot. I appreciate this is not the general consensus, but I’m a MAVERICK who’s not afraid to say what he thinks, except for when I write huge caveat-posts attempting to explain away my horrible cowardice.
Anyway, I’ve spent a long time boring my loyal readers about that Ben Linus and the very significant shot of an Avalon (not Apollo) chocolate bar in the finale (the key to it all), and I’m about to do it again even though it is no longer with us. No, come back! Please don’t run away; I’m trying to work out some thoughts on the nature of mystery in narrative, and how to set up small plot bombs on the way to the big stuff. This is even more on my mind after watching the masterful Breaking Bad season 4 finale, which paid off stuff I didn’t even realise needed to be paid off. Truly Breaking Bad is a thing of great wonderment. If you care about TV or storytelling, it has much to teach you. (Spoilers for Lost and Doctor Who follow.)
There’s a way to create mystery without also creating frustration and boredom
As a die-hard fan of Lost, in a world in which such an opinion makes a person some form of awful pop-culture pariah, I’m aware that my thoughts on long-arc mystery stories may be dismissed by you, the reader, especially by the time you have finished the next part of this sentence; I think Lost, a show now widely considered to have completely arsed up the landing, is one of the best examples of generating mystery in a long-run show. The finale transformed many former fans into board members of Pitchforks and Torches Inc., and I understand that, even while I pledge my allegiance to it. The final answers couldn’t satisfy everybody, though sadly they seemed to piss off almost all of the fans.
Nevertheless, it must have been doing something right to keep as many people invested for so long, and my super-scientific study of the show has identified two important elements in the way the mystery developed; the greater mystery of the Island was supplemented by smaller mysteries that were resolved in the meantime, and the larger mysteries were supported by numerous hints and clues that allowed audiences to create their own theories about what the ultimate meaning of the show might have been (and I still maintain that the genius of the show is that many unresolved elements have kept these debates going among my brothers-in-arms, who hide from view for fear of being murdered by haters).
Examples of the former are numerous. Though the new consensus on Lost is that many mysteries were dragged out for a long time, it took less than a (short) season to find out What Lies In The Shadow Of The Statue. The hatch is a mystery for about half of the first season, and then we found out what was inside at the start of the second. Even the reason for polar bears being on the island is revealed very early on, if you were willing to expend a bit of energy reading up about the Dharma Initiative online. Etc. etc. etc. The resolutions may have disappointed some, but the timescales were often shorter than critics maintain.
It’s easier to keep viewers invested if you’re throwing bones to them at regular intervals. Even better, giving the audience room to create their own theories helps too, and Lost was very good at introducing plot elements that serviced alternate interpretations throughout its run. Almost every revelation was ambiguous enough to strengthen all giant theories. The best example might be the run-up to season five’s finale. There was a chance that detonating a nuclear bomb at the site of the Swan Station could save the heroes or trigger the events that doom them; the summer after that incredible final whiteout aired was a great time to be a committed Lost fan, as debate raged over which possible interpretation was the right one.
And so to this year’s shows. Three examples of disappointing-to-disastrous long-arc planning come to mind; Doctor Who, The Event and The Killing, all of which fail in different ways and to different degrees. Who ended strongly with The Wedding of River Song, paying off the events of the season opener in a reasonably satisfying way, though it also repeated one of the show’s long-standing mistakes; not giving the audience a sense of when the end game will arrive. Lost had the benefit of having an end date, as well as a goal for the characters (getting off the island for good), that made sense to all viewers. An essential element of successful element of long-arc storytelling is giving clues as to the shape of the final story, which can be done without giving away any plot elements or surprises. That’s where Steven Moffat’s show falls down. How, and when, will Who end?
Of course Who isn’t going anywhere — it has become very lucrative and ridiculously popular, no matter how the press likes to spin the viewing figures by pretending timeshifting doesn’t exist — but it seems obvious now that what had seemed to be one season arc in Moffat’s first year was actually the beginning of a multi-season arc of head-melting complexity. Massive kudos to him for doing that, but the feeling that answers and resolutions are on the way is constantly being stymied. Having a better idea of when this long story will finish would help shape our expectations, but as the final scene of The Wedding of River Song came around, only then did it become apparent that we weren’t going to find out everything just yet.
And that’s fine, even if some of the answers we’ve had along the way (River Song is Amy and Rory’s daughter, and she “killed” the Doctor) are not really surprises at all. Nevertheless, the big arc is not paying off quickly enough, or establishing a recognisable shape, to allow the casual viewer to get a grip on it. Moffat has rejected criticisms that the show is too complicated to understand, and I’m willing to agree with him on that, but it is very complex, and the millions of ideas being thrown out are not allowing the viewer to paint a picture in their own head of what the final story will look like, even if they’re completely wrong because there are still some tricks up Moffat’s sleeve.
What are The Silence? What is their plan? Did I miss this? I must admit the gabbled dialogue distracts me so much I miss a lot of the detail. They’re a religious order? Like the Order of the Headless and the future militant arm of the Anglican Church? At times like this I enjoy Moffat’s ambition, and I look forward to his resolution, but I feel like I do when I read some of Grant Morrison’s craziest comics; like I’ve come in halfway through the story and have missed a lot of important plotpoints, and I can’t prioritise which loose ends and currently redundant events will end up being relevant to the big arc, and so have forgotten many of the key moments and characters whenever they pop up again. Even if I get comments explaining this stuff to me, I can’t make it make sense in my head. As a result, despite sporadic bursts of great enjoyment, the show has become less interesting to me.
I’m not sure how this can be fixed, though it would be nice if we wasted less time on standalone episodes and actually spent more time fleshing out these concepts instead of leaving them as tantalising hints of a greater universe. Perhaps that would make the show more comprehensible, and allow us to interact with it more (though I can see from a quick search that Who theories are almost as widespread as Lost ones). I’m aware that feeling like an outsider here is how many felt with Lost, and basically I’m getting a taste of what it was like to casually watch Lost in a state of frustration. Maybe Who‘s ultimate failing is to not be “my kind of thing” the way Lost was, which is no fault of the show.
The Event‘s long-arc failed mostly because the mysteries posed early on were thrown out as the show tried to find a form that was appealing to anyone. The aliens were pretty sympathetic in earlier episodes, which meant the show’s bad guys were often humans. Obviously this was too confusing for viewers, who abandoned the show after its spectacular pilot, and so the show contorted itself into knots trying to move the aliens into a villain role, though it commendably made their motives justified on some levels. The Event was at its best when it explored this moral quandary, which sadly wasn’t often enough.
It also didn’t help that the show spent a long time dramatising the mysterious actions of James Dempsey (Hal Holbrook), a shady conspiracy archetype injecting himself with YouthJuice and conspiring with various characters from his gloomy Office of Mysterious Conspiracy. What could he be doing? Was he a threat to humans or aliens? Before the end of the season, perhaps sensing that the show was going in the wrong direction, we find out he’s one of a race of Sentinels who protect the Earth from alien invasion. And then, moments after revealing this, he kills himself so the show can become a 24 clone. He’s never mentioned again. Any investment in this plot was a waste of time, and that’s a deep wound to a show based on resolving a mystery.
Even a scene as ridiculous as Hal Holbrook shooting himself in the head after telling the protagonist to stop wasting time chasing him instead of looking for aliens (hell of a nod and a wink to the audience there) is preferable to the tricks played by the team behind The Killing, which dragged a relatively simple story out to absurd length by introducing suspects, making them seem as guilty as it’s possible to be, and then excusing them three episodes later in the most contrived manner possible and never speaking of them again. The show isn’t about people, or life, or even about the murder of Rosie Larsen and how that affects her community. It’s a shell game.
The Killing does just about everything wrong in making a long-form show about a single case. Though it’s been a long time since I saw the first season of Murder One, I remember it did a number of things right that The Killing didn’t even try to do. It supplemented the main mystery (Did Neil Avedon kill Jessica Costello?) with other plots, not least the tension between lawyer and professional BADASS Teddy Hoffman and his nemesis Richard Cross. There was always something else going on, and payoffs littered the first season. There’s no comparison between those plots and The Killing‘s secondary stories. A delayed wedding? A search for a mole in a political campaign (yes, a subplot similarly plagued by red herrings) dramatised by literally THOUSANDS of scenes involving William Campbell and his minions arguing about emails? Who cares?
Murder One also promised a resolution by the end of the season, and we got one. I remember thinking it was pretty satisfying, especially the final fate of Cross, which was poignant and brilliantly performed by Stanley “Ol’ Dependable” Tucci. The Killing hinted at something similar and then went out of its way to render the majority of the season completely superfluous. As with all of those shows that plot for the finale (see previous posts), it made the viewer conscious that they had wasted a lot of time. It wasn’t just the lack of resolution; it was realising that the build-up had been empty entertainment calories. That was the show’s great betrayal. A disappointing ending is one thing, but to regularly piss on us on the way there is unforgivable.
Pandering to an inappropriate audience doesn’t work
No Ordinary Family was not much fun to watch, despite the entertaining interplay between Michael Chiklis and Romany Malco, but then it was aimed at a very specific demographic. To a family with young teenage children, the show might have been a lot of fun, like an undemanding Incredibles rip-off with some bland banter and a couple of poorly shot action scenes in a car park every week (seriously, the majority of the show’s “action” takes place in the same car park, and usually involved someone being punched into the side of a van). That audience never really materialised, but instead of trying harder to win that audience over, it became more interested in chasing a nerd audience that would never accept it.
Throwing in references to specific comic tropes, or casting actors from Battlestar Galactica (a show aimed squarely at adults, let’s not forget), was not going to bring in an audience that would not be served by anything else in the show. Most comic fans were rightly wary of the low-level superheroics on display. It was not a show for them, and no matter how hard Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim tried (the guys who co-wrote the execrable Green Lantern, FFS), superhero fans were more likely to enjoy Alphas, a show that was smarter, funnier, and more gratifying than this. Guest appearances by Brent Spiner, Rebecca Mader (who also showed up in No Ordinary Family, playing a similar character) and Caprica‘s John Pyper-Ferguson made much more sense; they played internally-consistent villains, and were gratefully received by fans who appreciated that they were being catered for by showrunners who understood their interests.
More to come. I’ll keep the Lost chatter to a minimum. (SMILEYFACE)