In defense of ‘Lost’

I’ve hesitated to post about Lost because it’s such an insanely popular phenomenon, and it’s easy to get, well, lost in the frustration of unanswered questions, or in the masturbatory game of speculating about their answers.  I can empathize with Thumbu Sammy’s declaration of “bullshit” yesterday, but I’ve also watched the show pretty faithfully since it debuted, during my second year of grad school.  So, for one week only, I’ll reluctantly assume the mantle of a doctrinaire Lost apologist.

The show’s primary source of value lies in its escapism.  For reasons of personal psychopathology, the fantasy of crash landing on a mysterious tropical island with an ethnically diverse group of potential sexual partners holds massive appeal for me.  Last month, though, Lost was awarded a Peabody for “rewriting the rules of television fiction.”  The bizarre implications of “rewriting the rules” of fictional narrative give me pause, but I do think the award was well-deserved, especially if we qualify its justification to refer more specifically to prime time network television.  If we can ignore some of its more infuriating devices — most notoriously the Misdirective Cutaway, the Overly Literal Cutaway, and the characters’ wholesale refusal ever to respond straightforwardly to even the simplest of questions — we should be able to appreciate that Lost has indeed accomplished narrative feats that no other network series has ever dreamed of.

(Spoilers ahoy, for anyone who’s not entirely caught up.)

I’ll make my case by way of a double analogy.  When I describe The wire to the uninitiated, I often echo an observation that a friend of mine once made about the show: it manages to turn televisual seriality into a means of achieving what Victorian novelists set out to do back in the day; namely, to represent the modern polis in its totality, from the bottom up.  In order to do so, its purview broadens with each season: while season one focuses on the politics of a single long-term police investigation into an exceptionally well-organized drug racket, the scope of season two also includes the chain of supply.  Season three implicates the city- and state-level politics that oversee said supply; season four analyzes the inability of the inner city public school system to respond to the pyramidal, generational structure of drug distribution; and season five indicts the print media’s complicity in these processes.

Lost operates by an analogous narrative logic (to much different ends, obviously).  Each season imposes a paradigm shift, and these shifts have effectively re-landscaped even the most fundamental premises of the show.  Season one posited a relatively limited set of narrative conflicts: the survivors of Oceanic 815 had to get off the island without starving to death, and without getting killed by a shadowy monster or the island’s mysterious indigenous population of Others.  If they could get some action while they were waiting to be rescued, all the better.  While season two opens a dialog of sorts between the various survivors of Oceanic 815 and the indigenous Others, season three radically shifts perspectives to show us some of what has been going with those Others during the timeline of the first two seasons, thereby complicating our assumptions about where our sympathies should lie.  At the end of season three, in a brilliant twist on the show’s characteristic flashbacks, we learn (via the now much-abused flashforward) that our heroes do indeed get safely off the island.  Resolving the inaugural conflict of a series halfway through its run takes brass balls.

If we imagine this progress in cartographic terms, it’s clear how Lost‘s scale broadens with each successive season.  A map of season one would be confined principally to the island’s beach and the caves.  Season two includes “the hatch,” the other survivors’ camp, and a select few other points on the island. Season three brings us to the Others’ settlement; and season four to the rest of the world.  The only possible territory into which the show’s empire could continue expanding by season five, then, is time.  As difficult as it was for me to swallow the newly undeniable science fiction elements of seasons four and five, I had to concede that this was another brass balls move: Lost‘s own diegetic logic has been totally overhauled.

J.J. steals a page from Links book.
J.J. steals a page from Link's book.

Halfway through season five, I do think the decision is paying off.  The entertainment value of time travel has unhinged the series from any social-critical prerogative.  I’m dubious, though, of what season six might have in store.  The primary conflict of the show now seems to revolve around the restoration of linear time; if said conflict is resolved by the end of the season (which I’m assuming will be the case, thanks to 2009’s amendments to the Televisual Laws of Payoff* — amendments prompted in no small part by Lost itself), what lies in store for the series?  If it already includes the 3+1 dimensions of spacetime, where can season six logically go?

*Explanatory post forthcoming.

— J.C. Freñán

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TubaTV’s Thursday Night Highlights

Last night’s Parks & Recreation stole a page out of the mid-80s Jamie Lee Curtis-John Travolta aerobics classic, Perfect, and reminded us never ever to sleep with a reporter who’s writing a story on you. But if you must, make sure you say “off the record” before you whisper your sweet nasties. Never seen Perfect, you say? That’s what TubaTV is here for.

I don’t know if it’s possible – or even necessary – to go on after that, but here’s an attempt anyway.

So, after what feels like a year of cameos (a month of Idris Elba on The Office, and several months of Salma Hayek on 30 Rock), the guest stars have finally left the building, and NBC sitcoms can now return to whiter pastures. I’m still a little peeved about the wasted use of Idris; Charles’ dismissal from Dunder Mifflin-Scranton was colder than Stringer’s dismissal from Barksdale-Baltimore, and the writers didn’t even have the courtesy of equipping the man with one memorable parting shot. (That’s an average of zero jokes out of the past six episodes, for those of you counting). On the other hand, 30 Rock‘s Salma Hayek, aka La Viuda Negra, got a brilliant exit despite her consistently awkward performance as Donaghy’s querida. Gracious writers that they are, Fey and company gave Hayek the best line of the night:

Lemon, isn’t there a slanket somewhere that you should be filling up with your farts?

No wonder everyone’s signing up for guest roles on 30 Rock (The Chicago Tribune reports that Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, and a whole bunch of musical guests, including Elvis Costello, are set to appear in the next couple weeks). Stay tuned.

– Thumbu Sammy

David Simon meets the Big Easy

David Simon Meets The Big EasyIt’s been a year since The Wire ended its brilliant, five-season exploration of the post-industrial American city, a little less since Generation Kill took a crack at Iraq, and now, sources report that David Simon got the go ahead to shoot his pilot for Treme, a proposed HBO series that will look at New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, through the lives of musicians affected. When news broke earlier last year, I was thinking we’d get a North American version of the Buena Vista Social Club, but, Simon (of course) promises something much more complex: “It’s basically a post-Katrina history of the city. It will be rooted in events that everybody knows. What it’s not going to be is a happy stroll through David Simon’s record collection. It should not be a tourism slide show. If we do it right, it [will be] about why New Orleans matters,” Simon tells EW. After five years of showing us how Baltimore mattered, do we really expect anything less?

Details are sketchy but promising, and it looks like a bunch of the old Wire vets will be back for a second round. New Orleans-native Wendell “Bunk” Pierce will play Antoine Batiste, a struggling trombonist in the city (echoes of Buddy Bolden?); Clarke Peters (Freamon) will play the leader of a Mardis Gras Indian tribe “trying to get members of his tribe back home”; and a surprising cast member, Steve Zahn (of Reality Bites fame) looks like he’ll be the new Prez, playing a “dancer, DJ and band member with anger management issues.” Here’s hoping that Nola’s finest, Jay Electronica, might pull a Method Man, and land a role.

Between this and Milch’s Last of the Ninth, which started casting last year, HBO looks like it may ring in the new decade with a lineup that could rival its mid-auts heyday.

– J.C. Freñán

Mexico and the televisual war on drugs

This month’s triumphant return of Breaking bad — hands down the smartest, funniest, most poignant show on television at the moment — has me wondering whether we aren’t currently experiencing a sort of hangover from the media’s intoxication with all things Latin in the 90s. To wit: when the Botwins trade Agrestic for Ren Mar in the fourth season of Weeds, the previously unproblematic Mexican origin of Nancy’s product suddenly becomes an abiding concern. What troubles Nancy isn’t so much the product itself as the other kinds of commodities being smuggled into the States along with it: namely, underage Central American sex workers. Likewise, the successful production of crystal meth in Breaking bad is represented as being potentially dangerous, but ultimately a matter of how well one understands chemistry. The problem with meth, then, is not on the supply-side: the source of Walt White’s woes is the infrastructure involved in distributing an illegal drug in New Mexico.  Latino gangs, that is.

(A quick aside: for all its brilliance, The wire only really alluded to the port of Baltimore as a choice position within a larger, international system of contraband circulation during its second season.  The geographical — not to mention material — origin of West Baltimore’s drugs was left un-interrogated. Again, it was the confluence of human trafficking and drug trafficking that prompted the Baltimore PD’s scrutiny of the docks.)

So what Jenji Kohan and Vince Gilligan discover when they unveil their respective commodity-fetishes is not a system of social relations structured around the rational exploitation of productive forces, so much as a series of unproductive corpses. Behind these, a different kind of fetish: the well-worn stereotype of the Mexican bandido.  When Weeds begins asking itself where Nancy’s grass comes from, Guillermo transforms from wise-cracking machista to sociopath in under half a season.  Similarly, when Walt wants to start wholesaling his meth, he has to deal with Breaking bad‘s resident vato loco, Tuco.

Qué camisa, ¿no?
¿Memo Herdez el grande?

What’s so interesting about this stereotype, though, is that it’s not the exclusive prerogative of xenophobes north of the border. Here’s just one particularly uncanny quote from Ignacio Altamirano’s late 19th century novel El Zarco, which remains a classic of high school curricula in Mexico to this day: “The lowland bandits were cruel, above all. Horrible and superfluous though a cruelty might be, they would commit it, out of instinct, out of brutality, out of the sheer desire to augment the people’s terror and delight in it… [Their] character was extraordinary and exceptional, an explosion of vice, cruelty and infamy the likes of which had never before been seen in Mexico.”

This comparison, restricted though it may be to the level of homology, suggests that the figure of the narco/bandido poses something more than a strictly racial threat, something more than a threat to the national (b)order.  I suspect this threat, when coupled to the ego-reducing effects of illegal intoxicants, is rather that of irrationality, in both economic and psychological senses: that is, the unproductive (intoxicated or assassinated) body.

I’ll close these preliminary observations with a challenge: I think it’s time — high time, even — that American television unequivocally cross the US-Mexico border.  Rather than being transfixed by the grotesque figure of a Pablo Escobar (as in Vincent Chase’s dismally over-acted vision of “Medellín,”), rather than seeking morbid titillation in the flayed corpse of an American FBI agent (a la Weeds), I think the (liberal, educated, premium-cable watching) American public is ready for a more thoughtful analysis of the political economy that actually sustains international drug trafficking.  If you’re reading, HBO, TubaTV has a teleplay for you.

– J.C. Freñán

Stringer Bell Joins Dunder Mifflin and Heads Roll

My partner J.C. has been pretty good this past year at tracking the mighty cast of The Wire plunging headfirst into the tepid waters of network television – first, we lose Daniels to Lost, then Marlo to Heroes, and then the brightest star of them all, Michael, to a fucking 90210 rehash. But you can’t blame the actors, really, so much as the casting directors, or writers, or head writers, or whoever decided to squander the talent and rich intertext of The Wire and its players.

So, anyone who caught last night’s Office got to see the latest installment in The Wire meets network television, when one of the most sacred characters in Simonian pantheon made the trek from Bodymore to Scranton, and transformed from Adam-Smith-reading, corporate hard ass pusherman, Stringer Bell, to Adam-Smith-reading, corporate hard ass, paper pusher, Charles Minor. The results? Probably the most unsettling Office this season. Stringer spends his first day trimming the fat at Dunder Mifflin, denying Michael his fifteen-years-at-DM party, dissolving the PPC (Party Planning Committee) and quietly conveying his disdain for his new colleagues, enough so that an unhinged Michael turns in his resignation at headquarters in New York. Experts agree, it wasn’t all that funny. (And here, I’m not sure I ever figured out how much of Michael’s weekly breakdowns were meant for quick laughs or to get at some broader corporate pathos). Still, there is something satisfying about watching just how quickly the white-collared whiteys on NBC buckle under the cold, managerial presence of Charles “Stringer” Minor, and it’s hard for any fan of The Wire not to project that show’s themes onto the jokey capitalism of The Office. The VP of Dunder-Mifflin and the VP of the Barksdale organization: how far apart are they, really?

You know they got the same schooling.

– Thumbu Sammy

Proposition Joe the Plumber

Since the election cycle started, I don’t think I’m the only one who slowly tuned out the heavy satire of Colbert, and switched back over to The Daily Show for my dose of fake news. Things have gotten pretty easy for the editors of TDS, who’ve just been splicing together the best of the McCain campaign’s schizophrenia for the better part of two months. There was a time though, somewhere in the middle of Bush’s second term, when Colbert was outwitting Stewart regularly. The climax had to be Colbert deadpanning to a DC audience, a baffled Bush just ten feet away (“This administration isn’t sinking! It’s soaring. The President isn’t rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, he’s reshuffling deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”) The lefties, the liberals, and the other 70% of disgruntled Amrikans were so beside themselves, that Democracy Now, rather than doling out the news, just replayed that speech over and over for a day. It was the one small thing we had. Ever since the Kerry KO, the Republicans had been spending their political capital to roll back the welfare state, keep the war alive, and clown the opposition as a bunch of whinging pantywaists. Jon Stewart’s face was frozen into a permanent WTF. But Colbert was swimming into the belly of the whale, sharp as a squid beak. He was the master of the immanent critique, outbushing Bush, out-riling O’reilly, and for the coagulating funk of American disillusionment, he provided a small poot of relief.

Since the primaries ended, though, things have been different. The Hope Caravan is outpacing the Straight Talk Express. Stewart and gang are the ones hobnobbing with the heads of state – Clinton, Obama*, even Blair, in probably the most cringeworthy Daily Show appearance ever. Meanwhile, Colbert’s muse is hiding somewhere, cutting brush. Cheney is elusive as ever. Condi Rice is interviewing for the Niners. In fact, tonight, after watching a pretty stilted interview with Obama on TDS, I only stuck around for the Report when hearing that The Wire‘s David Simon was gonna be on air.

Homeboy still has it. TV’s greatest tragedian seemed positively awed by Colbert’s off-the-cuff abuse. And the night ended, with not only the best use of The Wire to illustrate a political analogy since this, but the best dig on Limbaugh’s dumbass “Obama Hood” metaphor. “So, Omar Little is sort of like Robin Hood, taking from the rich giving to the poor. Stealing from ‘Joe the Drug Dealer.’ Shouldn’t Joe the Drug Dealer get to spread his wealth however he chooses?” That dude is so quick, I’m not sure who he’s satirizing anymore.

Isn't that the basic tenet of socialism, though, O?
Isn't that the basic tenet of socialism, though, O?

– Thumbu Sammy

Oh, how the mighty have fallen

Fulfill all your wishes / with my taco flavored kisses
Fulfill all your wishes / with my taco flavored kisses

You might think, given the title of the post and the Heroes tag, that I actually give a shit about the show’s villainous turn this season.  I don’t.  (Does anyone even pay attention to this show any more?  Are we supposed to be invested in the virtue of a Peter “Strokemouth” Petrelli, or a Mohinder “The Bod” Suresh?  I can’t even get it up for Claire any more — though, to be fair, Maya has proven to be an adequately fiery replacement.)

No, superfriends. I’m referring to three proud black brothas who have allowed themselves to be emasculated by network television. I’m referring to Lieutenant-Major-Colonel Cedric Daniels, to Marlo motherfucking Stanfield, and to Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins.

Daniels, I could have forgiven you for getting up on the Lost train: after a few close calls last season (“The constant?!”) Abrams has narrowly avoided fucking the show up beyond repair.  And Abaddon does admittedly have some potential for badassery.  But FringePacey fucking Witter?

Marlo, you used to terrorize the streets of West Baltimore, untouchable.  Now look at you: your facial scar is suddenly no scarier than Tina Fey’s -and- you have the same haircut as Walt before he hit puberty.

And Bubs, you were the coolest, most articulate junkie philosopher ever, narrowly beating out Kurt Cobain FTW.  At least you had the good grace to submit yourself to just a single episode (though I wouldn’t be surprised if, strapped for ideas, the writers of Heroes contrived to send Hiro McFly back in time to save you).

Christ, even Batimore PD’s perennial fuck-up Herc has landed a respectable gig on Entourage, replete with Asian baby-mama.  Ziggy Sobotka managed to do OK, too — I’d even go so far as to say that he was *likeable* in Generation Kill, that last little temper tantrum aside.  And Ziggy’s pops, ol’ Frank Sobotka, is doing alright for himself, too, supplying a little comedic relief alongside everyone’s favorite E.B. Farnum in the tepid but entertaining True blood, which is redeemed every single week by Rutina Wesley’s sexy, sexy arms.  (Does Alan Ball think he’s the new Joss Whedon or something?)

Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that David Milch throws Stringer Bell or Avon Barksdale a bone with Last of the Ninth.  I can’t really see either of them popping up in a new season of Big love.

– J.C. Freñán