Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lost: Twin Peaks of our decade?


ABC’s hit series Lost has become a highly fascinating cultural phenomenon over the last four years. Currently in its fifth season, this show has taken viewers on a spectacular supernatural thrill ride, constantly raising questions, the very first of which was asked by Charlie Pace at the end of the Pilot episode: Where are we? This is not merely a story about plane crash survivors on a remote island, as it seems at first glance. This mysterious island is disconnected from the rest of the world, supposedly undetectable, and inhabited by strange natives and supernatural elements. During its first season, many critics referred to the evident influence and similarities between Lost and Mark Frost & David Lynch’s series Twin Peaks (1990-91). Both of these multi-genred, postmodern serial dramas keep viewers on the edge of their seats, causing them to realize that not everything is as it appears. Both programs depict strange utopias that we, the viewers, can’t really get our bearings of. They both feature a large number of characters, all of whom are brought together by a tragedy. The one thing that connects the characters of Twin Peaks is the murder of Laura Palmer, and the thing that connects Lost’s characters is the crash of Oceanic Flight 815. The survivors (along with viewers) struggle to learn the secrets of the island, just as the residents of Twin Peaks (also along with viewers) became immersed in a desire to find out who killed Laura Palmer.

However, Twin Peaks jumped the shark too soon, after only two seasons, and many were afraid that Lost would do the same. For series like these with elaborate mythologies, staying on the air successfully is a challenge. Peaks co-creator Mark Frost said, "The trick of these series is you've got to keep all of these balls in the air, resolving some stories while revealing others. Our problem was we really just had one truly compelling storyline." Once Laura Palmer's killer was revealed partway through the second season, all that was left was the show’s campy self-awareness, which turned out not to be enough to carry a show alone. What has kept Lost going, apart from its elaborate and complicated mythology, is its compelling characters, which are far more relatable than those in Twin Peaks. Lost, like Peaks, is about the desire for answers and the search for human connection in the disconnect of the postmodern world – in Peaks, specifically post-Cold war, and in Lost, post-9/11.

Yet beneath the Douglas Firs and beyond the edge of the jungle lurks a supernatural evil. BOB, Laura Palmer’s tormentor and killer, is a supernatural entity who represents the dark side of our Freudian unconscious, which is capable of possessing us and controlling our behavior – in this case, Laura’s father Leland and eventually Agent Dale Cooper himself. Lost fans likewise have many speculations about the smoke monster, a similar supernatural entity which is believed to serve as a sort of security system for the island, guarding its secrets. We still don’t know exactly what it is, but it sounds like a credit card receipt machine, and whenever a character comes too close to learning the secrets of the island or achieving some sort of personal redemption, the monster kills them off. Many also believe that the monster has the ability to transform itself into physical representations of various demons the island inhabitants grapple with. Some speculate it is a symbol of judgment. Regardless, both of these supernatural evils represent a manifestation of not only our internal fears, but our cultural fears as well – in an earlier form, communism, and in a more contemporary form, terrorism.

The man of science & reason and the spiritual man of faith are archetypal characters that often appear in supernatural fiction, and Peaks and Lost certainly don’t overlook them. Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper is intuitive and spiritual, unconventionally allowing his investigation to be guided by dreams, visions, and practices of Eastern religion to help him solve the murder. (“Break the code, solve the crime.”) He falls in love with the strange utopia of Twin Peaks and wants to stay there once he has finished his investigation. Likewise, Lost’s John Locke (named for the real John Locke, a philosopher who was interested in the relationship between civilization and nature), who was paralyzed, could miraculously walk again once he crashed on the island. Thus, he feels a deep spiritual connection to the place and feels as though it was his destiny to come there. He does not want to be rescued; he wants to stay and learn about the island’s secrets, and on his quest for these answers, he too allows himself to be guided by dreams, visions, intuition, and supernatural forces. He is the “man of faith” to Dr. Jack Shepard’s “man of science & reason.”

A principal theme that Peaks and Lost seem to harp on is the fine line between good and evil – you never know who to trust or whose side to be on. The first time we ever hear the word “others” uttered in Lost, Jin is not referring to “The Others” we come to know and hate in the second season; he is referring to those who turn out to be passengers from the tail section of the plane. Once again, things are not as they seem. Later, as we learn more about the real “Others,” we realize that they are not the DHARMA Initiative as initially thought, and in Season 4, we learned that the new arrivals to the island from the freighter were potentially even more dangerous than The Others themselves. To the people from the freighter, the castaways are what the Others once were to the castaways when they first arrived. Lost does a great job of constantly making the viewer reevaluate the social structure of the island, each time twisting the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy even further; a clear social commentary on the American attitude towards terrorism. Likewise, in Twin Peaks, everyone was suspect of evil doings (read: communism); everyone led a double life. On the island, almost everyone has a valid point of view; it’s hard to say who’s right and who’s wrong, and it is entirely subjective. The writers pose a question to the audience: If you were in this situation, who would you choose to follow if you wished to survive? Jack or Locke? The absence of a right or wrong answer in the text itself makes for a rhetorical and interactive viewing experience.

The postmodern, supernatural themes and mythologies of Twin Peaks and Lost “frustrate the demand for simple and unequivocal answers." The writers keep you hooked by raising questions, but as the public learned with Twin Peaks, if you don’t answer them or promise to answer them eventually, you will alienate your audience. Lost has done a good job of raising questions and later providing answers to those questions, thus raising new ones. “Audiences compulsively desire, even demand, answers. But reveal too much, too soon, and they might just bolt, as Twin Peaks discovered in the early 1990s." Because it hopes to cater to a more commercial audience, Lost can sometimes be just as obvious as it is mysterious, but it balances the two well enough that it avoids going into overly ambiguous territory like Lynch did.

Since Twin Peaks, we have seen other similar serial dramas like The X-Files and Lost bring along similar cultural phenomenons. These shows unite an audience with a common interest, feeding them information to process. It’s an interactive, postmodern experience that comes equipped with supplementary texts for further research, like the published diary of Laura Palmer and The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Dale Cooper. Lost has alternate reality games (The Lost Experience and Find 815) that serve as interactive cross-media narratives that tie in with the show and provide further clues to its mythology. The most prolific form of reception to these programs and their interactive postmodern supplements are the theories that fans formulate about what they think is really going on. “Each case made against a possible suspect represented a different formulation of Twin Peaks' moral economy, a different emplotment of its events, that necessarily changed the meaning of the whole." Different theories are grounded in different assumptions about the themes of the show.

So if they’re so similar, what makes Lost more likely to last than Twin Peaks? Showrunner Carlton Cuse has said that Peaks serves as a cautionary tale to him. “The mythology sort of overwhelmed everything else, principally the construction of believable, plausible characters. It's constantly a presence in my mind about something we can't get sucked into doing on this show." Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost has said, "An audience will put up with being toyed with for only so long, but if the audience responds to the characters, the rest will take care of itself." Lost has certainly done its job so far of making its characters just as strong as its mythology.

But perhaps the main reason that a show like Lost can survive now is the proliferation of new media outlets for discussion made possible by the internet, which was only in its beginning stages when Peaks was on the air. Our culture is now saturated with blogs, online forums and networks, message boards, Wikipedia (even Lostpedia), and supplementary texts like The Lost Experience and Find 815; these provide a perfect outlet for fans to discuss their theories about Lost. The writers use this to their advantage, paying close attention to the response they receive, and then writing specifically for their audience. As long as they know what the audience wants (answers!) and keep Twin Peaks in mind as a cautionary tale, we as an audience can have faith that showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof will draw out the show to a more rewarding conclusion than “How’s Annie?”. They’ve done well so far in Season 5, giving us answers while simultaneously raising new questions, keeping us both satisfied and hungry for more.

1 comment:

Josh said...

I think the point about the role of the internet is so paramount to the success of LOST. I think ten years after Twin Peaks aired, all the stars were aligned to make another "cult" show, and networks were more on the bandwagon with regard to embracing nontraditional dramas. Twin Peaks sticks out like a sore thumb when you think about 90s television, but in today's world of sequels and spinoffs, a lot of shows ( are attempting to) do what LOST is doing. Non-linear, weirdo-sci-fi narratives that beg discussion hours after the credits roll. If Twin Peaks had aired now, I wonder if the support from the droves of fans on the internet would have coerced CBS into letting Lynch and Frost handle the world as they wanted instead of forcing them to reveal Laura's murdered sooner than they had intended.

This makes me just a LITTLE more incline to eventually start watching LOST...after this last season is available on DVD, of course.