Friday, August 9, 2013

Doing a Lost...

By Russel D McLean

I still have one more episode to watch of Supernatural French Drama, The Returned.

I loved it so far. It was a spooky, bizarre and quite brilliant first season for the drama, and I'll be intrigued to see how they wrap it up and what happens when The Returned... returns.

But its been interesting to hear people's reactions to the series. They've been loving it, but have expressed reservations about it "Doing a Lost". In other words, they're scared that it will become such a hit that it will drag on for years without providing any answers and only dragging up questions that can never be answered.

Its a big problem for TV shows. Lost is, of course, the most guilty-as-charged. From what I remember, it was meant to be five seasons and proved such a surprise hit they wanted more. And more. And more. So they started dragging things out, throwing in impossible questions. The initial thrust of the show was based on its mystery, so they started throwing more mysteries at us until they couldn't possibly answer any more. First time round, I gave up midway through the second season, bored of being teased for while episodes about getting an answer and only winding up with more and more questions. I didn't care what was down the hatch or what would happen if a button wasn't pressed because the questions were dangled in front of me without resolution for way, way, way too long.

The X-Files suffered from similar problems, but unlike Lost, at least the show wasn't created during the age of sweeping narrative arcs - it was trying to do something a little different and mostly just lost its way due to the need to outstay its welcome. Its important questions got lost in its own mythology and it wound up offering fifteen different answers to every question in an attempt to keep the viewer hooked (every time Mulder had an answer to what happened to his sister, another possibility was thrown up until the point where - when I think we did have an answer - no one really cared any more). The thing that kept people watching The X Files, by the end, I think, was that it still had a number of stand alone stories that could be accessed by anyone, where Lost was utterly dependant on you watching every episode and yet you still had no idea what was going on.

Sometimes you just have to know when to stop.

Its ironic that I should talk about shows going on too long when I'm a fan of Doctor Who, of course. But then the beauty of Who is that every time its getting a bit slow, or when the lead actor is bored, the show can inject a fresh blood and style in the way that other shows can't. Over the years, Who has been a horror show, a sci-fi show, a historical show, a politically driven fantasy series and so much more. By changing the lead - and yet keeping him the same - they are able to avoid the trap of most shows that just always feel like history repeating.

And of course I loved NYPD Blue, but Blue was never about arcs so much as it was about standalone stories every week with nods to arcs here and there. But it was a show you could tune in to having missed a few weeks and understand. That was the secret to its longevity and the secret to the longevity of a million and one pre-2000 TV shows.

But back to The Returned and the question of how long a narrative arc should be. About four or five seasons usually seems right for a looser arc. Babylon 5 and The Wire are perfect examples of this in two different genres. They set out with an agenda and they carried those agendas through before getting out (although Babylon 5 carried on in spin offs which got increasingly worse, unfortunately). Sometimes even one or two seasons is all you need. I mentioned, last week, Life on Mars, which worked perfectly in two seasons and had no need for any kind of continuation or spin off. Everything you could need was contained in those two short seasons of quality television. Yes, we were left wanting more, but that's as it should be. A show should never be allowed to limp on into infinity, losing its drive, its reason, its very reason for being (although in some cases, a bit of stumbling is allowable - but it works better for non arc-led shows).

I'm looking forward to the last episode of the Returned. I'm looking forward to its second season. But I hope its creators don't fall into the trap of dragging out the central mystery. Viewers don't return to be asked questions. They return because of characters and intrigue. They return for the hope of a satisfying narrative. They return because they trust you to tell them a story.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

Oh, yeah. American television would be much better if the seasons weren't so long, and the networks didn't try to wring every penny out of the shows. Twelve or thirteen weeks seems to be about a good season length, especially when you're using a season-long story arc. (THE SOPRANOS, DEADWOOD, THE WIRE, JUSTIFIED, LONGMIRE come to mind immediately.)

How many season is always going to be an issue, just as it is with writers. The networks--as do many authors--don't want to give up on a cash cow until the public has made it clear they've had enough.