‘By the Numbers’ – how TV learned to sell Weird

I have a good friend who used to tell me that I was wrong about Lost (2004-’10).  He used to encourage me to watch it, insisting that you had to give yourself time to become immersed in the characters and setting to understand the show’s genius.  He stopped trying around the start of the fifth season, shortly after which I found him collapsed on my doorstep, a broken shell of a man, managing to mumble between sobs about time-travelling donkey wheels, and exploding hydrogen bombs.  It seemed the show’s enigmatic façade of unanswerable riddles and allegorical innuendo was finally peeling back to reveal what I had always suspected was at its core – absolutely nothing.  I was one of those skeptical spoilsports who dismissed the show after only a couple of episodes’-worth of teleporting polar bears, mystery numbers, and central characters facilely named after famous philosophers, and so took smug pleasure in reports that its tantalising surrealism, which had kept my friend and so many others watching for so long, was  dissolving before their eyes into a series of unbelievably crude, literalistic reveals.


I’m happy to report that today my friend has started to regain something of his old swagger, partly due to my innate therapeutic influence, but also as the result of the renewed enthusiasm and coherence which seems to be preceding the show’s imminent, self-enforced termination. I still haven’t watched Lost properly, and considering what a commitment catching up now would be I probably never will.  However, I have seen everything it does done elsewhere and better, and the memory of my friend’s haunted eyes during the bad times, filled with disappointment and disbelief, urges me to speak out against what I see as a cynical televisual ‘shellgame’ – the practice of efficiently synthesizing, packaging and mass-marketing esoteric individualism as a slickly superficial gimmick.


Lost was hardly the first show to profit from an openly eccentric style.  In fact its writers have openly stated that they had a business model in mind in the form of Twin Peaks (1990-’91), the creation of David Lynch and Mark Frost, which had brought cinematic production values and a surrealist edge to television drama over a decade earlier.  Of course there’s no connection between the two in terms of setting, storyline or quality – rather, what the Lost producers took from the earlier show was the simple but lucrative realisation that ‘Surrealism Sells’.  Co-creator and bald-headed man Damon Lindelhof has talked admiringly of the show as proof that television can be “a mystery and a game that [spawns] hundreds of theories”, helpfully adding “that’s a fancy way of saying we ripped it off”. The phenomenal success of Twin Peaks, which for a time commanded nation-wide attention, was partly due to the misguided faith of viewers who eagerly expected this bewildering plethora of mysteries to resolve into straightforward absolutes.  Why is that lady talking to a log?  What’s with all these shots of traffic lights?  Why is the midget from the future dancing?  And, of course, ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’ – the question became a topic of frenzied ‘water-cooler’ interest at the time, despite the fact that creator Lynch initially intended to leave it unanswered.


Instead of following the familiar ‘question-and-answer’ route of a typical murder-mystery, the show’s early episodes focus on creating a general sense of unease and, like much of Lynch’s work, exploring the unsettling darkness beneath the wholesome facade of small-town America.  Largely as the result of executive pressure Laura’s killer was eventually revealed, after which the director departed to work on Wild at Heart (1990) and the show’s subtly composed atmosphere dissolved into a pantomime of sub-soap opera ‘romance’, contrived wackiness, and evil woodland spirits from a parallel dimension.  Most viewers had understandably lost interest by the time Lynch returned to direct the show’s final episode, a 45-minute tour-de-force which immolated all its stale tropes, and several of its characters, before ending on a jagged cliff-hanger which its subsequent cancellation has left eternally unresolved ((Pictured.  Possible ‘spoiler’, depending on how close you look))

As Lynch’s finale and its bitter movie prequel Fire Walk With Me prove, Twin Peaks at least had a genuine artistic aesthetic to lose.  While it eventually descended into a cycle of hollow self-perpetuation, the writers creating an endless series of puzzle-boxes, meaningless riddles and bizarre cliffhangers to try and keep the viewer interested, it didn’t start there as its successors often seem to – it’s telling that Lindelhof identifies precisely that proliferation of empty mysteries as the show’s greatest attribute.  The difference here, a matter of style versus substance, is nicely illustrated by another series – or rather two versions of the same series, aired over forty years apart.  The Prisoner (1967-’68) was the creation of Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein, who had previously worked together as the respective lead actor and script editor of long running secret-agent romp Danger Man (1960-68).  At first the latter show might seem like a continuation of its successful predecessor as McGoohan’s government agent, having furiously resigned, is promptly gassed into unconsciousness and wakes in an isolated ‘Village’ from which he attempts to escape while sinister forces conspire to break his will.  Pitched in such prosaic terms to its executives, and unsuspecting viewers, The Prisoner ultimately emerged as something very different.


In fact the show did for spy drama what Lost has tried to do for survival realism – inject it with a concentrated solution of complete insanity until it dies and is reincarnated as something more interesting.  ‘The Village’ is no stark prisoner-of-war camp but a lush and colourful seaside resort, complete with cutting-edge luxuries like lava lamps, striped blazers, and cordless telephones the size of radiators.  Each episode enacts the same rigid cycle as the titular prisoner attempts escape by sea, land or air, and his captors endeavor to break their captive’s will using drugs, science-fiction mind control or, in extreme circumstances, a giant, inflated condom. The conflict’s endless repetition ultimately turns from engrossing to absurd, and the show certainly shares some of the superficiality of its successors – the various nods to A-level ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ in Lost are hardly more callow than the ‘revolutionary’ political allegory contained in The Prisoner.  It’s easy to get carried away and overstate the depth or importance of such an ambiguous piece of work, as its ‘Six-of-One’ appreciation society convenes to testify on an annual basis.  Yet even their questionable antics are evidence that the series had a resonance not present in its descendants – it’s hard to imagine fans of Lost getting together on an island in forty years’ time, dressed up in . . . you know . . . khakis?  Khakis and backpacks?  Erm . . .


What sets the show apart and makes it so much more watchable, aside from a design palette containing more than three colours, is the unmistakably personal significance it had not only for its viewers but its creators.  Patrick McGoohan, whose then-meteorically rising career the series seemed specifically conceived to kill, became not only the writer/director of occasional episodes but the driving force behind the show itself and the source of much of its memorable eccentricity.  He portrays the beleaguered ‘Number Six’ as an oddly dandy-ish sociopath, typically to be seen stalking back and forth compulsively snapping his fingers, or barking terse commands during one of his encounters with doe-eyed female inmates – all of which, out of a puritanical respect for his wife Joan, are smothered by a bizarrely asexual tension.  Born out of McGoohan’s genuine frustration with Danger Man‘s popular but derivative simplicity, the show attempts to send up the conventions of the Bond-esque spy drama by making it the overloaded vehicle for a sprawling mess of increasingly abstract ideas, and only piles more on along the way.  This escalated to extremes as it neared a finale which caused an enraged viewership to temporarily hound McGoohan from the country  – there are moments in the final episodes of the series which only its most devout followers could call anything other than utterly ludicrous.  In fact it follows a similar trajectory to Twin Peaks: from inspired opening, through concentric circles of weakness, and finally self-destructing in an outrageously anti-climactic finale – if you watch the first seven or eight episodes you’ll get the idea, and if you skip to the end you won’t have missed too much.  However, to me the fact that its convoluted structure ultimately collapsed in on itself is evidence for, not against, the series’ value, which will endure long after Lost has arrived at a blandly coherent conclusion, and proceeded into oblivion.

It will no doubt find waiting for it The Prisoner (2009), AMC’s unsuccessful “re-imagining” (“remake” seems to have gone out of fashion) starring Jim “The Christ” Caviezel.  From McGoohan’s eccentric central performance, to the unforgettable Italianate setting of Portmeirion which served as ‘The Village’ itself, the original series  was in every respect a unique and outlandish specimen.  Bill Gallagher’s miniseries is, by contrast, as familiar as an old pair of shoes – ones you’ve long since outgrown, that rub your feet in all the wrong places and squeak when you walk.  Watching a khaki-clad Caviezel smolder about an isolated wilderness, spliced with partial flashbacks ((or are they?!)) to his life in the real world, while a series of surreal, mysterious dangers present themselves and then go away again, it starts to feel more like a remake of Lost than anything else.  The entire production colours safely within clearly marked lines, lacking any trace of originality or substance – even ‘The Village’ itself has the look of a gated community assembled from an Ikea flat-pack.  The same applies to the show’s narrative which ends by decisively betraying the spirit of its supposed model, neatly wrapping up all its more bizarre elements within a framing device comprised of science-fiction and pop-psychology, otherwise known as The Matrix (1999).  The difference is nicely summed up in its end scene, one of a few effective moments in the six-hour run: Number Six’s individualistic will finally broken, he conforms to the needs of a brainwashed community, docilely contemplating his new role as a member.  Not only is the scene poignant in its own right, but strangely apt in the context of a show which, as a whole, seems to represent a similar surrender in popular television.

All that said, I’m actually watching an episode of Lost now, and quite liking it.  I mean it’s not life-changing or anything, but as a bit of casual entertainment it’s very well done, acting and everything.  Maybe I’ll pick up a box-set on my way to the MINISTRY OF FEAR, FOR MY BI-WEEKLY INSPECTION BY THE THOUGHT-POLICE BEFORE I INFORM ON MY FAMILY FOR CRIMES AGAINST CONFORMITY, DO YOU HEAR ME THOMAS?!!

By Tim Kelleher


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s