Books & Film

Long live the penny dreadful

I’m happy to see that the dime novel—known in the UK as the penny dreadful—is alive and kicking in the form of TV’s Lost.

Penny dreadfuls embodied cheapness, in both their content and production, which is not a trait Lost shares with them. No, Lost is penny dreadful because it’s so incredibly bad and contrived, but utterly irresistable. Addictive, even.

A logical dramatic extension of Survivor, Lost borrows heavily from X-Files, Twilight Zone, Jurassic Park, Alias, Lord of the Flies, and, thanks to the brilliant casting of Terry O’Quinn, Millenium. It’s got some of that American Gothic creepiness and enough melodrama to make Pedro Almodovar feel proud. Filmed almost entirely on location in undeveloped pockets of Oahu, the scenery is a character all its own. Strong if overwrought writing, solid direction, and great camera work give Lost a much richer lustre than TV deserves.

Happily in year 4 of my broadcast-TV boycott, I come late to shows like this. So I’ve been watching the DVD edition of Lost season 1. Am I enjoying it? Yes. Is it any good? Maybe.

When it’s not incredibly boring, talky, and self-indulgent, Lost is undeniably great entertainment. It’s just trashy enough to make you bark at characters and plot points, mysterious enough to addict you, clever enough to make you admire it, and dumb enough in its dogmatic insistence on obfuscation and deception to infuriate the living hell out of you. It’s packed with pretty actors, better-than-TV-deserves character actors, and did I mention the scenery?

Since I’m watching season-1 episodes back to back, it’s easy for me to keep all the overt and subtle story-arc bits fresh in memory. I can’t imagine watching this show only once each week over 20-something weeks. In some regards, this is a great experiment. Can you continually tease (and I mean the most infuriating cock-tease you’ve ever experienced) and set-up circumstances without delivering any meaningful payoff for an entire season? This is where Lost‘s X-Files lineage is most apparent. The key difference is that X-Files was flexible enough in its universe to take all kinds of detours from the “big bad,” as Joss Whedon would put it, without losing steam. Whenever Lost veers too much from its central premise, its cracks and flaws are as clear as Cling Wrap.

Think about the traditional model of episodic dramatic TV (d0n’t worry, it won’t hurt). There is always a conflict, perhaps 2, and everything is resolved in about 40 minutes. That’s the funk Star Trek fell into and never seemed to surmount. Then consider how Stephen Bocho revolutionized dramatic TV by rejecting the instant gratification impulse and telling long, involved stories that spanned several episodes of Hill Street Blues. Chris Carter came along and reduced Bochco’s model to an easily transferable formula, which Joss Whedon then injected with stellar writing in Buffy’s seminal run.

What will Lost taste like after the last bite, that bite being the 2-part season finale that I’ll watch this evening?

So far, I find the show far less “brilliant” than its hype, but far more entertaining than most TV trash. Its glossy cover, beautiful people, and pop-culture surrealism are a nice mix. I just hope to hell that this is all going somewhere. Because if it’s not, I’ll most definitely have more to say.

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