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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

March 11, 2007

Is "Lost" Lost?
The problem with TV story arcs

Okay, so I kind of touched on this in an earlier editorial -- but, hey, I'm working to a deadline. And though I've got some cool ideas for editorials...they need a bit more thinking about. So, this week, this is what ya get!

I saw an article recently claiming the TV series Lost was dropping in the ratings, and that fans were starting to grumble. Lost is of course the TV series about a group of castaways on a mysterious island where strange things are afoot and hints of a grand conspiracy are, um, hinted at. For fans of "genre" fiction -- ie: SF, fantasy -- it was the little show that did. A science fiction series on a major network that instead of being an ill-fated experiment, or a downright embarrassment, was actually proving a critical and -- more to the point -- ratings hit. Maybe, just maybe, SF had a chance at mainstream respectability. And its success no doubt led to the greenlighting of Heroes -- the super hero/SF series that is one of the current season's surprise successes.

So what happened? Why are fans grumbling, and ratings starting to slump? Well, Lost is another one of those series where it's all about the story arc, the cryptic clues, the oblique hints of a master plan...and some fans are beginning to question whether there's ever going to be an answer. Apparently they feel that the same questions are being bandied about after two or three seasons.

And I wish I could say I was surprised...but I'm not.

See, I started watching Lost at the beginning, and sort of liked it, and sort of didn't. Strangely, for an SF/fantasy fan like me, I tended to more enjoy it for the flashbacks to the characters' pre-island lives. Why? Because those tended to be cleverly plotted, complete-in-one-episode stories, whereas the stuff on the island, with invisible monsters and mysterious others, seemed too much of the one step forward, two steps back school of plotting. It just didn't seem to go anywhere (and, indeed, as the situation became increasingly bizarre and impossible, I wasn't convinced it could go anywhere -- than anything could really explain it all; save maybe revealing it was all a dream in the end). As such, instead of finding it intriguing, I began to find it a bit aggravating. Worse, by the second season, even the flashbacks began to become part of story arcs, so that even they seemed vague and inconclusive.

See, the thing is, story arcs are great -- but the audience has to have faith, faith there is a masterplan, faith the writers can deliver. Otherwise cynicism sets in as, apparently, it has for some fans of Lost. They begin to wonder if there really is a story arc...or whether the writers are just playing musical chairs, hoping when the music stops they'll be able to find a seat at the last moment.

Fans and critics seem to love the new Battlestar Galactica, even though I get the impression fans often feel when long running plot threads resolve, they do so rather awkwardly or unsatisfyingly. In that case, I believe the writers themselves freely admit that they often throw in plot ideas without having any idea where it's going to go -- and I guess it shows. Fans still love the series but, me, I need more than a good beginning, followed by a flabby, meandering middle and a weak ending.

I've often wondered if a lot of modern TV series are, in fact, written on the fly. Story arcs are so much a part of modern TV, one suspects you can't pitch a series if you don't claim it's a "novel for TV". I wonder if a lot of writers, therefore, pitch the beginning to a story...and hope their series gets cancelled before anyone expects them to deliver. TV is full of cancelled series where fans moan and speculate how brilliant it would've been if the creators were only allowed to complete their "vision"...but you wonder, was there really a vision to complete? Or was it all a shell game?

And you can sympathize -- sort of. After all, the creators are expected to come up with a story arc that, theoretically, can run indefinitely; at least as long as the series. But people like to believe there is a goal, an end zone, to the narrative. Which is why it's often better if a series can come up with a finite story arc that, then, can be followed by another.

TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed that formula of introducing a new threat/arc each season, that would then be resolved in the finale of that season. Sure, character threads carried on from season to season, but at least there was a sense of closure, a sense all the clues and cryptic hints really were paying off. (Buffy, of course, also interwove its story arc with stand alone adventures which, again, helps reassure the viewer that the creators know how to tell a beginning-middle-end plot). It was recently announced that the current Heroes is following a similar plan, that the season finale really will bring an end to the current story arc (whether that's true, or not, only time will tell). And just hearing that has reignited my interest in the series, when it was starting to wane a bit.

But the cynicism over the story arc isn't just fuelled by all those cancelled series littering the schedule, but even by the supposedly successful series.

The X-Files was a series very much wrapped up in its "conspiracy" arc, which was spread over many seasons, and liberally interrupted by the stand alone "monster-of-the-week" episode. As such, I found I wasn't really sure what was happening or why. Then, in reruns, a station decided to run all the "conspiracy" episodes in order, dropping the "filler" episodes. And you know what? It was pretty cool, watching it night after night, "chapter" after "chapter", no longer struggling to remember a cryptic line you saw two seasons ago, because now you saw it last week. But you know what else? Seen in that manner, all together...I still wasn't sure it really held together or made sense.

Around the fourth or fifth season of the X-Files I started to lose interest, only tuning in sporadically. But when the grand, two-hour series finale came, I dutifully sat myself down, to see the series wrap up, all the questions answered.

So what happened? We got an extended trial/hearing sequence, where the characters basically recapped all the stuff that went before and then -- and I'm fuzzy on the details this many years later -- somehow Mulder and Scully end up going on the run, hunted by the conspirators. In other words, after all the hype, after nine seasons...we don't learn anything we didn't know before, and it ends in a way that seems like it's "to be continued".

So much for a story arc, so much for a master much for faith in the creator's vision!

The SF series Babylon 5 was the first series, that I was aware of, to use the phrase "novel for television". It too had me doubting, at first, lacking faith in the creator, as it dropped cryptic clues and made vague hints of a bigger scheme...but then, to my surprise, it began to deliver, answering its questions, proving the hints and foreshadowing weren't just smoke, but really were headed somewhere. But even it seemed to fumble. It wasn't just that the fifth and final season wasn't very good (in fact, as I recall, it was quite bad) -- that can be forgiven, I think, because the creators weren't sure if there was going to be a fifth season, so they crammed some fifth season plot threads into the fourth season (making the fourth season seem a bit rushed) and then, when they did get the okay for a fifth season, they didn't have enough to fill it up. No, my real complaint is that after five seasons, this "novel for TV" still ended with a few plot threads dangling, a few questions left unanswered (perhaps because they were hoping to follow up on them in the subsequent, ill-fated projects like Crusade and Legend of the Rangers). And so despite my enormous respect and awe of the storytelling involved in much of Babylon still left me with a lingering cynicism, a feeling that just because someone promises a "story arc", doesn't mean they will be able to deliver. And if they can't deliver...why should I tune in for two, three, four years?

More recently, the SF series Charlie Jade billed itself as a "20 hour movie" and, like a lot of such series, suffered a bit from a feeling they were so focused on their story arc, they let the episode-of-the-week plotting slide a bit; the series, though not without some interesting aspects, was slow and felt heavily padded (as if it was more a 10 hour movie told over 20 hours!) Still, when you got to the season finale, it did indeed build to a climax, did indeed offer some answers...but also a whole lot more questions. And, of course, the series was cancelled after one season so, once again, we have no way of knowing if there really was a vision...or just some empty nut shells being swirled across a table top.

Of course that's one of the reasons why, at Pulp & Dagger, we don't accept serials for publication unless they're complete. That way, we, and you, the reader, know that if we start running a story, then there is an end, and you will get to read it. I've seen other sites that begin serialized stories...that then stop in the middle. Sometimes I'm sure for legitimate reasons, as the author, despite the best on intentions, got sidetracked by other things; sometimes I suspect, like I suspect with those TV series, the writer never had the story fully realized in his mind, and he quit when he realized he didn't know where the story was going.

I don't dispute that serialized TV series can make for grand, epic storytelling. Watching Heroes, part of the fun is the unfolding of the story, twists and turns occurring that only have their effectiveness because they play on events that happened five episodes before. And suspense is generated because we're waiting to see how such-and-such a clue plays into it all.

But, ultimately, you have to be able to deliver. Otherwise, cynicism sets in. And that hurts the next TV series down the line, the next creator with a vision.

D.K. Latta, editor

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