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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Get Lost.

Been gone for ages again. Sorry. At least it's for a good reason, having been knee-deep in a new script and dabbling in the short story form, the results of which may (or may not) be posted here some time in the future.

Anyway, on to today's rant.

And, boy, is it a big one!

I hate Lost.

I really, REALLY have a problem with it.

Before I launch in, first a little context. Being in Australia we're now about half-way through the second season. I, along with my partner Amy, was an avid viewer of the first season - like the rest of Australia it seems - but my interest only stretched to about ten episodes whereby I swore off the thing, I thought mostly because of the constant teasing nature of the narrative. I was thoroughly p*ssed off at being told "Next Week: You'll finally find out the big secret of the monster on the island!" and it just not happening. Even the presence of the gorgeous Evangeline Lilly wasn't enough to keep me tuned in. Amy continued to watch it, and still does to this day.

In the intervening months between then and now I have had, on more than one occasion, heated arguments with friends about its relative merits, each time becoming more and more fervent in my hatred of it. I'm apparently in the minority thinking that it's bad television. I was able to live-and-let-live though, as I'm out at work when it airs so Amy doesn't have to put up with my protestations. Equilibrium was reached.

Then last week, I received an email from PK back in England, one of my oldest friends, that went a little something like this:

Jim,

Have you watched 'Lost'? I've started watching it and it's fantastic!! So well written and completely gripping!

Talk about a red rag to a bull!

I actually feel a bit sorry for him as I vaulted right up on to my high horse and laid in to him like never before. It wasn't that I said he shouldn't like it, or that I thought any less of him because he does, but I tore the show apart and managed to offend him in the process. Perhaps it was because I told him I thought it was a show for stupid people, I'm not sure. I was just unable to keep a lid on it.

I think I have a right to hate it, though, and it's coming totally from a writer's point of view. I consider the precedent that Lost is setting to be damaging for narrative drive in film and TV. Of its typical 45 minute running time, often considerably more than HALF of that is flashback, or backstory as it's termed in Hollywood. For those of you reading this who don't write, you must know that backstory has to be handled very carefully and executed with great skill to drive the present narrative. After all, in a flashback we are watching something that has happened in the past which the character has moved on from because he/she is here in the narrative present. We don't think, in a flashback, "Wow! I wonder what will happen to them next? Will they make it out? How will they be changed?" because we already know the answers to those questions. A character can't lose a leg in a flashback, for instance, because they would be without that leg in the present, of course. To quote Robert McKee, "Powerful revelations come from the backstory - previous significant events in the lives of the characters that the writer can reveal at critical moments to create turning points." Those revelations are supposed to create turning points that turn the story in the present.

Lost doesn't do that. Lost substitutes exhaustive filmed backstory for genuine narrative turning points that move the story forward. It seems to be very much the case of the writers being unable to think of something to propel the narrative along, so instead they'll film another week of one of the ensemble casts' pasts. And coming from the man behind Alias, which had one of the most pacy and dynamic narrative builds I've ever seen on television, this is terribly disappointing. Partially it's because Abrams and his writers have given themselves very little to work with, dealing with a bunch of people on a deserted island. And now, with the monster being revealed as a cloud of growling black smoke it's just getting silly.

The reason why you don't see this level of backstory on screen is because it slows down the pace and has the audience continually living in the past. Writers are taught that it is bad practice. Abrams and his team are breaking one of the most important rules in screenwriting (The narrative must move forward) and, because others know not to, are being lauded for the originality of their show.

The most worrying factor is that there are likely to be many more shows that ape the design of Lost in Production Exec's in-boxes across the world. I for one hope Lost's current malaise in terms of viewers (now down by almost half on Season One here in Australia) causes a lot of those me-too's to be aborted before a penny is spent.

J.


8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I was surfing through the countless blogs by up and coming writers I just happened to stumble across this interesting blog and couldn't resist posting a comment.

For starters I am not a dedicated fan of this show but I do understand it and can appreciate it. Lost is not a plot driven story. It is a character driven story. Yes viewers there is a difference. From what I have understood (in reference to your back story issue) is that everything contained in the flash backs ARE RELEVANT. Therefore the narrative is moving forward despite your claim. At some stage during the show you as the viewer make the connections. This 'making a connection' idea is clearly one of the many aspects of the show which generates anticipated discussions amongst fans in social environments. That is clever writing mixed with a touch of clever marketing. Your claim that it is a show for stupid people whilst providing no evidence for it is outrageous. You brought up Alias as an example of good writing. Since the demographic of that show is clearly prepubescent boys and the whole putting on a bright red wig is sufficient enough for a disguise is gripping TV for you then what else can anyone say. As a writer I simply don't agree with your opinions towards Alias. It is just a fun show for a young audience and that is all there is to it. Sorry.

Now back to Lost. I had heard a radio interview with one of the cast members not long ago and they couldn't give enough praise to the writing team. The whole cast look forward to reading the new scripts before each shoot. Now when you have a large ensemble cast motivated by your writing then you have clearly tapped into a vital ingredient in the writing process. There seems to be a lot of hype on the hidden aspects or the significance of certain items in the world of Lost too. This denotes thorough planning during the early writing stages. I must admit to being confused about your "Next Week: You'll finally find out the big secret of the monster on the island!" quote. Must be something which is broadcast in Australia. That sounds like a TV network promotion and not something from the show itself. Your inability to distinguish the input between a Network and the show itself is disconcerting. It appears that it has all gone over your head and you have "Lost" the point of this show.

Just remember that Lost won the Emmy for Best Drama Series and for good reasons. I think you owe PK (the person from England) an apology.

2:39 PM

 
Blogger James said...

Thanks for your comments. There is truly nothing I like better than disagreeing with people over something I have strong feelings about, so here goes...

I think you have totally missed the point that I was making. My opinion is motivated totally by a deep understanding of the screenwriting craft and how Lost is a bad example of that craft. I spent time in my post trying my best to explain that reasoning in terms non-writers like yourself would understand. It seems I was unable to achieve that in your case.

The fact that the cast like Lost is irrelevant. You would hardly say something disparaging on a syndicated radio show about the people that pay your wages, would you? Even the Emmy award isn't exactly a glowing tribute, influenced as they are (and I speak about pretty much ALL awards) by many subjective factors. By your reasoning the Oscar for Best Film every year goes to the actual best film made that year? I think that's up for debate.

I'm glad you like Lost. I'm also glad that I don't. Freedom of speech combined with the magic of the Internet allow me to express myself, even to people who seem intimidated by my opinion. Please, continue to watch, enjoy and chat about Lost. I'll continue to dislike it.

I look forward to disagreeing with you again in the future.

J.

P.S. Apologising for having an opinion? Why, when most people are too scared to have one themselves?...

10:16 PM

 
Blogger Grubber said...

bugger me(well not really) you posted! Bugger me, I'm still checking!?

I enjoyed the first season, but lost it in the second, as whilst I think anonymous is absolutely correct about it being character driven and the reasons for the flashbacks, etc, I just don't have the time for it. It just seems to drag on and on. Enjoyable, but it drags a bit for me.

I know he is the nice guy character and leader and all that, but Jack does not really do it for me as a leading man either. Give me Locke, Sawyer or Sahid, much more interesting personalities IMHO.

cheers
Dave.

12:08 PM

 
Blogger James said...

Glad you're still checking, Dave!

I certainly agree that it's character-driven, and that some of the characters are pretty good, but the fact that you've gone off it due to it dragging on proves my point. Forward narrative movement is the ONLY THING that keeps interest.

Off topic: I know I've said this before but I fully intend to post MUCH more often than I have been recently! Keep checking back, you might be surprised!

J.

10:21 AM

 
Blogger Grubber said...

Checked back, no new posts yet :)

How is the writing coming along?

cheers
Dave

5:21 PM

 
Blogger Grubber said...

no pressure....... :)

1:22 AM

 
Anonymous Amy said...

Well well well..... here is word from the occasionally mentioned 'Partner Amy'. I have finally got round to reading J's latest post on 'Lost'. I am indeed, one of those unlucky people who has entered into deep, unresolved conversation with my love about this much talked about TV series.

What do I think about this post? well, to be quite honest I am finding myself starting to agree with him, as much as this annoys me. It's well into the second series, and I am beginning to get frustrated. To be honest, I started to get frustrated long ago but for some reason I'm still watching it. Yes - it is character driven, but the comment from 'annoymous' about the flashbacks being 'relevant' is rubbish. Sure, they can be quite entertaining, but I've learnt enough about Jack. I don't want to know any more about him. What's more, I don't NEED to learn any more about him. Or any of the others come to that. We have learnt enough about all the characters now - and the fact that Abram is STILL using these flashbacks is telling me that he has simply run out of ideas. I don't think he has any idea where he is going with this show. If you ask him how this is going to end, I bet you he doesn't have a clue and that alone - is bad practice.

Shouldn't a well-written script be able to develop the characters without relying on flashbacks? Shouldn't we be able to learn more about them through their developing relationships with each other? Flashbacks are the easy options. They're a cop out. I find myself rolling my eyes everytime we're faced with another (and dare I say it reinvented) one.

Give me more of the here and now. I don't care what happened in the past.

I want to know how they're REALLY feeling about being stuck on this island. I want to know what they REALLY think about each other. I want to know if any of them think they're ever gonna get off this island???!!! They don't even appear to have any plans right now. How ridiculous. If I was stuck on a desert island, I don't think I'd be able to adjust or accept this new life nearly as well as they seem to be. The past is irrelevant. Worry about the present is what I say.

I'm going out on Thursday night. Will I video it and watch it later? I have been doing this - and every week it's taking me longer to get around to watching it. There is not much left to tempt me. We know who the 'others' are, we've seen the monster, we're inside the hatch. Hmmmm. My interest is definitely waining.

I'm not a writer. (Clearly). But I am one of the thousands who have been watching this show. The figures REALLY tell us about the success. They have dropped DRAMATICALLY during this second series.

My final word is: If you can't keep your audience, what is the point?

Thanks and goodbye.

10:18 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, but you're forgetting that Lost is tv, not a film. Different rules apply. While flashback isn't commonly used in tv, the way a series goes on and on, with plenty of time to take side trips here and there, is a bit more like a novel. When reading a book, we don't stop and go "wait a minute, this is a flashback", because books are commonly non-linear - establishing information briefly upfront, then going back to fill in the details. As long as we have a clear sense of time and place, we accept that.

I've been on and off with Lost. I hated the pilot. Jack was just waaay too much of a hero - unbelievable. And while he's been painted as such, he is the least interesting character. For a while I hated them all. But, the backstory has frequently been the part that interests me most - because it fills out the characters and helps me understand these otherwise unlikeable people. I'm not someone who HAS to see every episode, but it has grown on me - and I actually like the 2nd series better because I get the characters more. [And there is less focus on all that boring love triangle stuff.]
Luci

12:56 AM

 

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