How “serialization without destination” may form the next age of television

It’s August 15, which doesn’t mean a lot to many of you, but means it’s “8/15 Day” for fans of “Lost.” Eight and fifteen were two of the six Numbers that occupied a non-small part of that show’s expansive mythology, making today simultaneously a time to celebrate that show’s run and a fresh opportunity to state how Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are the hackiest hacks that ever hacked a hack.

I don’t buy into the latter argument, as many of you whom have read my takes on “Lost” over the years, but the schism described above offers up a timely opportunity to articulate something that’s been percolating in my brain for a while. “Lost” was the first show I covered extensively: not only did I write up reviews of every episode, but I spent three years writing four to six blog posts about the show a week. I analyzed hieroglyphics, scoured Lostpedia, read books that were featured on the shelves of The Hatch, and generally went down the show’s mythological rabbit hole looking for any scrape of textual evidence that could potentially unearth knowledge about the show’s future.

Then, around the start of season six, something strange happened: I ceased to give a crap about any of it.

Part of this was analytical burnout, to be sure: there’s only so much blood to be drawn from Easter eggs hunts. But a large part had to do with the exponential increase in warring camps, each with its own opinion about what would happen in the show’s final year, and how that was the only way in which the show could end successfully. It got so frustrating to try and bring people to the same table in that final season that I basically gave up. Whereas I had once spent tons of time in the comments arguing in good faith with likeminded people, I stopped wading into the chum-infested waters where commenters wanted to simply have the last word. There was no way to “prove” they were wrong, which wasn’t the point. But anything that existed outside their sphere of prognostication turned into heresy that needed to shouted out of existence.

Was this the fault of “Lost”? Did the show create this type of online monster? In part, sure. The writers didn’t HAVE to invent a narrative with so many mysteries, several of which were completely unanswered (at least overtly) by the time the finale ended. On the other hand, the show completely tipped its hand at the end of the third season, the shocking inversion of an established narrative device that simultaneously blow audiences’ minds but more importantly blew the lid off what the show could be about. And that shift is what I want to discuss, both in terms of “Lost” but also the type of television I find myself increasingly preferring over any other.

(At this point, I need to get into some “Lost” spoilers below. It’s been three years since the show went off the air, but if I don’t say this here, some will undoubtedly cry foul, because I forgot the internet was built for their specific life experience. We good? Good.)

jack-lost-we-have-to-go-back.jpgThe “We have to go back” scene at the end of “Through The Looking Glass” worked on two levels. One, it used audience expectations of off-Island scenes against it, deploying a flash-forward instead of a flashback. It was a gaudy, one-time-only move made at exactly the right time in the show’s history. We can now see it as the literal divide between what came before it and after it in the show’s overall story. But more crucially, it shifted the show away from the single quest/question driving the show’s narrative: “How can these people leave The Island?” Revealing that Jack and Kate had indeed left it at the end of season three replaced a fairly prosaic query with a much more complicated, much more fascinating one: “If ‘Lost’ isn’t about these people getting off the Island, then what the hell is it actually about?”

When I talk in terms of what “Lost” was “about,” I’m talking about its organizing principle as a piece of popular entertainment. “Lost” as a series about people trying to get off a weird island is fine. But “Lost” as a series about the examination of making connective social bonds in fractured 21st century world? That’s a far more fecund topic, and one that was introduced with the bait-and-switch of “Looking Glass.” That shift may or may not have always been in the minds of those creating the show, but nevertheless once overtly introduced onscreen took the show away from being a series of puzzles to be solved and turned it into an examination of what choices define a life.

That shift from “specific goal to achieve” into “time spent looking at why people do what they do” doesn’t mean the endeavor devolves into mush. Rather, when applied to rigorously structured episodes, shifting towards the latter approach opens up storytelling in ways the puzzle-solving shows simply can’t hope to achieve. To use a more modern example: “Revolution” started out as a show about people trying to turn back on the power during a global blackout, rather than as a look at how people might live without power. The former SOUNDS more exciting and propulsive. But there’s a reason movies to plot better than television: there’s really only so much freaking plot in any story, and plot-driven television tends to work feverishly to delay story in order to serve the episodic order. (The fact that networks are starting to shorten certain season orders is a financial decision in some cases, but also a dawning understanding that it’s probably good business to not produce 22 episodes if 15 are nothing but plate-spinning.)

If the characters in “Revolution” were interesting, maybe the delay tactics wouldn’t matter. The same goes for a show like “The Event,” whose series-ending cliffhanger featured a scene that probably should have been the final shot of the pilot. The same goes for the first season of “The Killing,” which many have noted failed not because it didn’t wrap up the mystery but because learning the identity of the killer was the only thing of interest at that point in the show. Time and time again, shows fail not just because of stall tactics, but because the people stuck in stasis are as flat as cardboard. Just presenting people with interesting choices and seeing what they do sounds less sexy than a season-long hunt for a serial killer, but it’s also the foundation of almost everything interesting about television at the present time.

When characters make decisions that inform plot, rather than the other way around, what often unfolds is the phenomenon I’ve taken to calling “serialization without destination”. That doesn’t mean the show doesn’t eventually move to a certain point. It’s that said point isn’t the guiding principle to the show’s narrative design. As much as I praised “Lost” earlier, I’ll confess to not being a fan of the Oceanic 6 framing device in the following season, nor am I a fan of the brief glimpses into Walter White’s future on “Breaking Bad.” Why? Because they both limit possibility, and serialization without destination embraces possibility at every instance. It allows for the fact that plans are make to be broken, that better ideas will come along, and celebrates a person rather than a mystery as the thing most worthy of exploration.

“Serialization without destination” isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for creating compelling television. (My preference for it doesn’t mean “Breaking Bad” is suddenly a bad show because it doesn’t adhere to this rule.) But just as we’re coming to the (hopeful) end of the anti-hero parade on television, we also seem to be coming to the end of seeing shows filled incredibly dense mythology. Some of these shows are nearly impossible for the hardcore viewer to comprehend, and the casual fan doesn’t have a prayer of what’s going on. “Sons of Anarchy” is a show that’s wrestled with both a heavy mythology as well as the type of character-based serialization I’m extolling here. When it leans into the latter, it’s a pulpy, well-drawn drama that draws blood. When it dives into the former, it’s an unruly mess that keeps viewers at a distance. It’s just one of many shows that Mo Ryan once astutely noted, complication is not complexity. An insanely Byzantine plot is meaningless if we either can’t understand why a character does something, or don’t believe they would except the plot needs him or her to do so.

If there’s no destination towards which you’re aiming a show, things can meander and run in circles as easily as any show that has established signposts up ahead. And to be sure, it’s much, much easier to come up with that overarching goal and then work out how to get there. There’s a reason people use GPS rather than wing it when driving somewhere new for the first time. But once everything is in service of getting from point A to point B, everything else has to serve that journey. Serialization without destination understands that people change over the course of time, and follows those changes without tipping its hat towards where those changes might lead the overall show. “Orange Is The New Black” used Piper Chapman a as Trojan horse to introduce the audience to a world that contained a multitude of interesting characters. The show isn’t about Piper surviving prison, or even transforming within it. It’s about her and the audience understanding that she’s far from the only person worth knowing, and far from the only story worth telling. The stories in “Orange” seem small on the surface. But the depths of character on these show are seemingly infinite. Getting to know these women is the point of this show, and that can stretch on far longer than any plot you can possibly think of.

Serialization without destination won’t please those that watch TV to have puzzles solved. But it will please both writers that feel trapped by multi-year mythological narrative as well as those seeking to simply spend time with interesting people. Simply tracking the lives people lead, and the choices they made to get from where they were to where they are, is more than enough serialization to sustain long-term interest. (”Parks and Recreation,” as its peak, did this better than any other show, and “Mad Men” is going into its last season with the ability to go in ANY direction it likes.) When people ask me to sum up “Lost,” I usually give this response: “Life is what happens when you’re busy being chased by smoke monsters.” The external goal of leaving the Island fell away as the show progressed, even if the characters on the show were often slow to see it. The sideways world didn’t offer redemption, so much as a chance to continue to learn the lessons started when Oceanic 815 crashed. Like us, those characters asked the wrong questions and looked in the wrong places. Instead of looking down hatches for answers and inspiration, we should be looking to each other.

One Comment

  1. exiledjerseyite
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been saying this (to myself) for years, without a neat phrase like “serialization without destination.” That’s a useful way to think about kinds of storytelling.

    It’s the reason why, of all the shows around, JUSTIFIED makes me happiest to actually watch. Because it’s not about a Mythology. They’re not really driving to a Final Destination. Or, technically, they’re doing it in season chunks instead of trying to sustain a single story for six years. The show is “US Marshal moves to Kentucky and shit happens.” It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

    I’m a genre fan, but I didn’t watch LOST. I caught a few episodes in the first season and just didn’t care. And network genre television has been pretty terrible since LOST. Did LOST ruin everything? It wasn’t the first show with a complicated mythology (Hey, there, X-FILES!), but it seems to be the one still in recent memory and, thus, an easy comparison. I suppose a better way to phrase this question is: When did everyone start thinking that heavy mythology and serialization (without character or world-building) would equal instant awesome ratings and why haven’t people realized that it hasn’t worked in, like, five years?