Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tired cliché

Lost and Friday Night Lights both got stiffed when the Emmy Award nominations were announced last week, which is both 1.) idiotic and 2.) unsurprising.

These kinds of awards, they're better as period snapshots than contests about merit. Voters have to judge quality in real time, and as a result, the winners of these things are works that satisfy traditional criteria extremely well. The Sound and the Fury didn't win the Pulitzer Prize -- something called Scarlet Sister Mary won instead, and the year that The Great Gatsby came out, the award went to a novel called So Big. The Rolling Stones never won a major Grammy; with a few exceptions, any list of Grammy winners reads like an encyclopedia of bad taste. That phrase about genius never being recognized in its own time is a trite cliche, but its true: most great works are initially received as abrasive, strange or profane.

I'm too big of a man to give a shit about these things, but still. Lost is about halfway through its run. It's the most complicated and ambitious television show ever, more than even The Sopranos or Twin Peaks. It will be tough to judge the series until it wraps -- it's established so many complex storylines and characters that a botched ending could ruin the whole project. There better be boatloads of resolution.

John Locke doesn't care about your award.

The problem, I think, is that Lost is told more like a novel than a weekly TV drama. Some individual episodes can seem boring and inconclusive, when in fact they're setting up a slow-burn payoff or detailed character exposition that leads to something bigger. The rewards are enormous. This incredibly ambitious show is frustrating in small doses, and then, after a couple dozen episodes, you learn how to watch it. I've been re-screening the first two seasons on a loop for the past few months, consistently impressed by how small moments foreshadow a payoff 20 episodes later. It is set all over the world: African rebellions, the first Iraq War, Siberia, modern hospitals and the rural South. The final episodes of the most recent season -- with massacres and executions and heroic self-sacrifice -- were at least as impressive as The Sopranos' excellent last chapter. The problem, I think, is that a lot of people view it as a serial drama like 24, not a long-form accounting about free will and science.*

On NBC, Friday Night Lights is more conventional. Its cast of attractive teenagers playing football in a small town would do fine on the WB. But instead this is a show about loss and isolation. Dates, games and teenage sex are things characters do to pass the time and distract themselves from the divorces and isolation and the feeling that whatever is in their future, it probably isn't good.

Coach Taylor doesn't care about your fancy award == only winning state.

This is a marketing problem for NBC. The show isn't light enough to appeal to Laguna Beach types, but a show about football in rural Texas isn't a natural sell to West Wing viewers. Critics love the show but confuse the issue even further by insisting that it isn't actually about football. Obviously, it is. Sports means something more than scores, and here's a show that understands that. Your dad may be serving in Iraq, leaving you to care for your mentally ill grandmother, so that game on Friday is your chance to be in control and find vindication. Everything about sports is the collision of biography and escapism.

Friday Night Lights is subtle and detailed, as specific and observational as Lost is broad and symbolic. They're both unconventional television, executed extremely well. Instead, this year, the Best Drama nominees include two medical shows (Grey's Anatomy and House -- I've never seen either), Boston Legal (never seen it), Heroes (never seen it; no use for it) and The Sopranos. Except for The Sopranos, these shows come from a long lineage going back to Marcus Welby, M.D., The Defenders and George Reeves. The may be fine, and never having seen them, I can't say anything negative, except to note that Lost and Friday Night Lights could be as great as any novel or movie this decade. Conventional stories, told extremely well, have their place.

More of the same, probably executed extremely well. Insert trite cliche.

Additional resources and trivia Lostopedia; The Lost Community; 59th Annual Emmy Nominations; and online streaming of Friday Night Lights episodes. Hilariously awful Grammy winners for Record of the Year include Olivia Newton-John for "I Honestly Love You" (1975), Captain & Tennille for "Love Will Keep Us Together" (1975), Kim Carnes for "Betty Davis Eyes" (1982), Toto for "Rosanna" (1983), "We are the World" (1986), Bobby McFerrin for "Don't Worry, Be Happy" (1989), and Shawn Colvin for "Sunny Came Home" (1998), and many, many others.

*And many other things. I'm on board with this excerpt from a book called Living Lost by J. Wood: "Lost draws on a specific sense of 21st century isolation and distress; it taps into some very here-and-now concerns, and speaks to the audience’s deeper lizard-brain psyche as it weaves its sophisticated tales. The pilot begins with a close-up of Jack’s eye as it opens and the pupil contracts, drawing the audience in, and drawing our attention to the importance of perception; from the outset, scenes are framed through detailed, personal lenses. As Jack’s eye opens, the plane has just gone down, leaving a number of survivors stuck on an isolated island unable to communicate with the wider world. Something unseen on the island seems to be hunting them, and they don’t know when the next attack may come, in what way, or by whom. At first this “ghost fear” of an impending attack seems to come from something monstrous, then becomes more tangible with the arrival of the Others, characters a lot more pirate-ish than dinosaur-ish. By the second season, new threats emerged from within their own group, and the specter of an unknown disease requiring quarantine loomed in the background. These story elements, which continue to be written on a week-by-week basis, are phantom parallels to our real concerns since September 11, 2001. What Lost does so successfully is take these very real concerns straight off the front pages, abstract them into their psychological impression, and then crystallize that sense back into the framework of the narrative. These characters aren’t being threatened by otherworldly aliens or vampires, creatures normally only seen on the screen or in pulp fiction; this situation involves the psychodynamics of terrorism that the contemporary audience experiences in the everyday world and plays it out on television 24 times a year."

9 comments:

dmbmeg said...

I get really angry with people who watch Lost who say the show has declined. You're right about it showing like a book. You don't stop halfway through a book just because the pace has slowed down. You finish, dammit! Just because a smoke monster doesn't chew people alive in every episode doesn't make the other episodes any less brilliant.

The details in the show are fucking unreal. Every time you watch the show, you pick something new up. Lostpedia will be the death of me.

I don't watch Friday Night Lights. I had too many shows to watch last Fall, but I've cut some loose so I may have a spot open in my lineup.

crimenotes said...

Each season of Lost has gotten successively stronger, just more unconventional. People who think it's declined are the same ones outraged that The Sopranos didn't end with a shoot-out. Both shows have rewritten the rules and put together something much more complicated.

Shorty said...

LOST had a rough start to its most recent season as the first 6 episode arc did not live up to the hype...bu the last 8 episodes of the season were probably some of the best television ever produced...the season 3 finale was everything you could have hoped for and more...best show on television bar none...gr8 job...keep up the gr8 work...

dmbmeg said...

I would 100% agree.

Not sure if you saw Heroes or not. You might like it. It certainly isn't nearly as good as Lost (nothing is), but it does have a story line aimed at those with an attention span longer than the normal 21 minutes.

dmbmeg said...

4 sure. I 2 agree. Gr8t job. Hi 5.

crimenotes said...

Shorty -- I think I'm going to get Season 3 on iTunes and assess start to finish. I remember being frustrated with Season 2 at the time, and now it looks like genius. It's not out on DVD yet and ABC isn't rerunning them right now, but I want another look. iTunes will have to do.

dmbmeg -- Make fun of your own commenters. L8er.

dmbmeg said...

Did I hear a 9er in there?

Crunk Raconteur said...

The fact that Boston Legal was nominated but not The Wire is an absolute travesty.

And while I'm on the subject of The Wire, 4 of the 5 nominations for best supporting actor should have gone to the 4 kids who played Randy, Namond, Michael, and Dookie. They were absolutely amazing.

All that said, I'm pulling for the Colbert Report to win, because I feel like the hijinx that will ensue if he beats Stewart will be something to behold...

Hellafied said...

I'm going to start reading your blog for the photo captions and asterisked notes alone.