Friday, February 5, 2010

'Lost' burnout and the frustrations of serialization

I hate to keep writing about Lost, but over the past few weeks, its return has been the best story that is being covered from all angles.

Last time I discussed the end of Lost meaning the end of well-respected serialization on broadcast network television. Today, let's look at another reason why serialization, especially heavy serialization, might not work so well for audiences in the future.

New York Magazine's Emily Nussbaum recently voiced the frustrations and worries that some long-time Lost fans have as the six-year series begins its final season:

I don’t want to be the viewer who watches with her eyebrow raised; it’s more fun to be a fan. But narrative playfulness isn’t meaningful unless it rests on a something real—the way it did in the great chronology-shuffling movies of the last decade, like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which resonated with deeper ideas about identity and the nature of love. Lost’s creators designed the lovable Hurley (and sometimes the annoying Arzt) as their stand-ins for an audience of demanding nerds. But right now, I’m praying I don’t end up like Locke, that crazy bastard who just wanted to know that the path he followed had some meaning and who ended up instead with the saddest possible thought: “I don’t understand.”
Nussbaum's not the only one. Since the premiere aired, I've talked with a number of different people who are more frustrated now than perhaps they've ever been. And yet, those that are frustrated tell me that they feel as if the final season should be all about the answers relating to the mythology -- which is basically the exact opposite of what Nussbaum's saying.

But either way, it is clear that for all the people that are psyched to see Lost unspool its final act with just as many twists and turns as previous season or interweave characters even further, some are just as psyched to see the whole thing end. Today a co-worker of mine told me that he wishes the writers would have stayed away from such sci-fi or supernatural topics, but he feels like he has to watch because it's almost over and he might as well see it through. 

Not everyone wants to even do that, though. Look here and see how the ratings have declined since the first season (thanks to Wikipedia)

While some of that can be attributed to the general decay of viewership thanks to the DVR and online streaming, that's a steady drop. Loads of people have given up on Lost at this point.

And that brings me to my main point: does serialized television cause burnout?

One could argue that, considering all the canceled series mentioned in my last post. But again, there are a number of serialized series doing pretty darn well on cable, most notably True Blood, Dexter and Breaking Bad and Mad Men to a lesser extent. Perhaps it is because those cable series have such short runs that people are willing to invest the time more intently?

On the networks, there is a need to drive up the episode orders of series that are marginally successful, but for series that need  the audience to do their due-diligence, 22-25 episodes a year for five to six years isn't going to cut it. There will be too much stalling, too much padding. See Lost's third season as exhibit A and the later Sopranos years as exhibit B.

Thus, as usual, perhaps the cable networks have it all correct. Even with the shorter seasons in the latter half of its run, Lost will eventually cap out at 121 hours. With a mythology and story so dense and complex, that's probably too much. Compare that to The Wire, which ran for five seasons, but only 60 episodes. Half as much commitment, still a great story.

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