Lost in the Margins

28Mar07

So I just have to write a bit about tonight’s episode of Lost, “Exposé.” As I’ve written about frequently, Lost is among the most serialized and complex of American television shows, with every episode adding to the dense mythology and opening up new mysteries (and also one of my favorite shows). It rarely offers stand-alone episodes, or what The X-Files established as the “monster-of-the-week” plot. “Exposé” offers an interesting hybrid between dense serialization and free-standing episodes, but rejecting both in an original way – it’s neither designed to stand-alone (as you need mastery of the series to appreciate it), but it’s not really important for the ongoing story either so dedicated viewers could (seemingly) miss it and not fall behind in the narrative.

[Spoilers follow, so be warned unless you’re a spoiler fan.]

The episode focuses on Nikki and Paolo, two characters new for Season 3 that just appeared amongst the castaways in the fall. Fans have been skeptical of this, as it seemed like a ploy to add new blood (and two hyper-attractive actors) to the cast that disregarded continuity – and the show has even acknowledged that the characters were not among the main gang of regular cast members by snide comments about nobody knowing who they are. The producers have hyped the characters all season in their weekly podcasts, promising that Nikki and Paolo were going to become important and that fans would soon love them.

Or maybe not. The episode itself nearly takes the form of fan fiction – the flashbacks place Nikki and Paolo at key moments throughout the series, peering at key events from the sidelines and even stumbling across new info by hiding in the bathroom – kind of Zelig meets Forrest Gump on the island. The episode plays with conventions by reimagining the canon and placing new characters into the action – none of the replayed scenes change much of the established story, but add a bit of depth and commentary, especially around some other marginal characters like Dr. Arzt, the other character the show has used to comment on the “redshirt” function of guest stars.

For me, the most interesting thing about the episode is that it’s not really designed to be enjoyed as part of the storyworld – it does nothing to move plot forward, develop characters, or enlighten mysteries, only inserting two characters whom we don’t care about and showing you what we already know from their perspectives. Rather, the entire episode is the producers in meta-dialogue with fans: “we know that you know that adding these characters is a gimmick, and we’ll acknowledge our own gimmickry by using them to comment on the series, and then killing them off as if they never really existed anyway (and doing it with another gimmick).” You can’t really enjoy the episode unless you’re thinking about the mechanics of the series itself, which is tied to the notion of the operational aesthetic I’m developing in my work on narrative complexity. Jokes about guest stars, marginal characters, the castaways frustrating inability to share information, and the like abound – in this way, it’s somewhat like the classic Buffy episode “The Zeppo.”

But my guess is that most fans are going to rail against this episode – based on quick glances at a few forums, it’s definitely getting more complaints than praise. I quite liked it – but then again, I’m watching it from a meta-meta-perspective, enjoying the level of commentary on the storytelling because I’m studying the way that contemporary television displays its storytelling machinery! So I thank Lost producers for delivering an episode whose tone of address seems designed particularly for me, a profound example of narrowcasting.

UPDATE: Just some further reading after-the-fact. The TV critics at The House Next Door seem split on the episode, although the comment thread is quite interesting on the pros & cons. South Dakota Dark is a bit more positive, hitting the appeal of the self-contained aspect of the episode. And the Fien Print highlights a parallel I didn’t mention last night: Rosencranz & Guildenstern are Dead. While I’d considered the R&G parallel, I thought it didn’t quite work because R&G just stand around waiting for something to do, while N&P actively try to do something, just not what they should be doing. But it’s worth mentioning…



5 Responses to “Lost in the Margins”

  1. 1 mrtetley

    Like you, Jason, I liked how we had a sort of fanfic tale going on, writing the two characters back into all sorts of elements of history. There was even the playful insistence that they have been there all along, as shown by the semblance of either reshooting many pivotal scenes, with all the recreation of sets and bringing back of actors that this entails, or of additional “found” footage. Of course, Forrest Gump-style, CGI could be and probably is behind it, but even then, the producers not only went to great lengths to place these characters in the text, but, importantly, they went to great lengths to *show us* that they were putting these characters in the text.

    Which then in a meta-way underscores and doubles up on the night’s theme of futility: Paolo and Nikki went through all this to end up buried alive(ish), and the producers went through all this just to kill them off. It reminds us that this is not only a diegetic environment, but also a production environment, in which such cruel things can occur. Which can then reference not only fans’ gripes about the adding of two redshirts, but also their worrying about whether they’re engaging in long interpretive, deductive processes about Lost with no reward at the end. So the meta-commentary is laid thick(er than the sand on their graves).

    Finally, too, I also like how Nikki and Paolo saw things like the Pearl or the risk of the falling plane long before their fellow Lostaways. Which screws with a longstanding principle of storytelling — that the story follows the exceptional — to suggest that maybe there are others on the island who know more than do our heroes.

    Hence, if you’re right that the fans may not react so well to this episode, I’d pose two additional reasons: (1) simply, Nikki showed herself to be an atrocious actor, and often ruined otherwise good scenes; but more to my point (2) like very edgy satire, the episode spoke to a whole bunch of fears and anxieties that the fans have — namely, that much of their work may be in vain, and that the answers may be lying out of the frame or in the background of a shot, with the camera and the storytelling in the “wrong” spot.

  2. 2 cbecker34

    What I’ve been most fascinated by in the fan commentary on this episode is the extent to which people are debating whether or not the Lost brain trust had originally planned to kill off Nikki and Paolo all along or not, and if they hadn’t, then that fact alone makes this a lousy episode. This fits with a larger issue in constant circulation with Lost and other serial-heavy shows like 24 — are the writers just making it up as they go along? So many people seem to feel that if the writers are making it up from week to week, then the show hasn’t earned their pleasure (which seems to fit in an interesting way with your ideas on the current popularity of meta-storytelling, Jason).Can a good story turn into a bad story simply based on your external knowledge of when/how it was pre-planned? I gather that most people feel cheated because of things that seem like cheap plot contrivances and unearned shortcuts, but I’m not sure I feel the same way.

  3. Oy vey –

    Prof. Mittell, your response to the ep is interesting but I think you’re wildly overselling the show’s seriousness and complexity. (To make what I consider a very important distinction: it’s a complicated show, no question. In no way is it complex, academic critics’ fervent wishes notwithstanding.)

    You said:

    Jokes about guest stars, marginal characters, the castaways frustrating inability to share information, and the like abound – in this way, it’s somewhat like the classic Buffy episode “The Zeppo.”

    The major difference between this week’s empty genre exercise and ‘The Zeppo’ – a favourite Buffy ep of mine – is that as was always the case with Whedon’s shows, ‘The Zeppo’ approached its formal experiment (switching the hour’s A and B stories) as a response to character logic, a way of serving the existing emotional content of the show, i.e. Xander’s status as dufus/heart-of-the-group. It also advanced one of the major relationship plots on the show; his liaison with Faith set up one of Season Three’s most painful payoffs, when Willow later learned about their hookup. Same with ‘The Body’ and ‘Restless’ and the musical, etc.

    ‘Exposé’ served no such purpose; its genre spoofery and overwrought self-referentiality were ends in themselves, further testaments to the show’s Asperger’s aesthetic. That’s why the complexity/complication distinction is so important when talking about Lost (and why e.g. Stephen B. Johnson is so far off the mark about contemporary genre TV drama): the production logic of the show is interesting to fans at the moment, and will make for swell trivia questions a few years from now, but the actual episode doesn’t hold up without that extrinsic justification. Who are Nikki and Paolo? It doesn’t actually matter; nothing in the world of the show compels an answer.

    Comparing the episode to Ros and Guil Are Dead is even further off-base; that play (along with its ponderous, dirgelike film adaptation) represented – along with a clever play on Godot – an exploration of questions of authorship, narrative, et joyously cetera that remain interesting in themselves. ‘Exposé’ clearly had no such interest; its flashbacks provided no new content and were expected to engage the audience because of what they represented and not in any way how, while the new story, about N/P’s deaths, was Twilight Zone homage boilerplate working on a Comic Book Guy level. It’s not particularly bothersome that this hour was middling drama, which offends me but is par for the course from this weirdly underwhelming writing staff. And while this is true…

    So many people seem to feel that if the writers are making it up from week to week, then the show hasn’t earned their pleasure

    …a well-written schlock drama where the writers were obviously winging it would remain engaging if it showed verve and inventiveness, which Lost has lacked since the middle of Season Two at least. What bothers me most is found in here:

    I’m watching it from a meta-meta-perspective, enjoying the level of commentary on the storytelling because I’m studying the way that contemporary television displays its storytelling machinery!

    Let’s talk about that machinery, then. What did you learn from this episode? The plot was boilerplate. Formally the episode was a retread of work from earlier in the show’s run, not to mention countless twist-ending flashback stories; surely the writers have seen (e.g.) Memento and know by now that there’s a more complex reaction to be drawn from viewers than ‘Look, it’s Boone! We’ve seen this scene already, wow!‘ Did the self-referentiality of ‘Exposé’ deepen our understanding of anything about the show, the characters, the world of the narrative? Nope. This rush of wings was purely self-motivated – a filler episode exuding more than a whiff of contract-fulfillment, and the references to other events in the series either underlined the show’s slapdash logic (e.g. N/P finding the Pearl – again, the characters are uncommunicative not for characterological reasons but because the form of the show, an unfortunate holdover from the razor-thin pilot script, demands Lack of Information – Drew Goddard among other people should know better!) or rewarded cleverness at the expense of coherence (we know that Arzt resented the cliques forming on the island, but the writers have no interest in dramatizing that resentment, only asserting it in order to spoof ‘redshirt’ practices on TV drama).

    Lost‘s commentary on hourlong drama norms is primitive, no matter how extensive (not to say complex) its ‘transmedia’ storytelling ambitions may be. And its labyrinthine plot is no weightier than that of, say, The Da Vinci Code; indeed they basically belong to the same genre, the conspiracy potboiler. The idea that magnitude (not, ahem, to say ‘complexity’) of self-reference is a cardinal virtue is a critical conceit that will hopefully dwindle as fan studies are normalized by cross-pollination with aesthetic evaluation. (Or not. I can hope, anyhow!) It’s surely heartening for (pro and amateur) media scholars to note an uptick in the thorny complications of TV plots – and inferences about the interplay of encyclopedic information technologies and pop narrative forms are well-drawn and well-taken – but the fact that Lost straightforwardly illustrates several theses about contemporary TV storytelling shouldn’t blind us to the bluntness of its instruments. The number of open questions left to viewers is only a number, like the number of steps in an algorithm being ultimately unrelated to its complexity and storage/time measures; everything bad remains, well, bad.

    All this caterwauling aside – this is a provocative blog and an enjoyable read! You came strongly recommended by Henry Jenkins, my advisor as an undergrad and grad student at MIT, and his praise was richly deserved. I just feel some cold water is called for re: Lost, is all. Among other things.🙂

    Cheers,
    –Wally H.

  4. 4 dannyrobs

    Awesome stuff.

    I, too, found this episode quite riveting for various reasons– the least of which, as you pointed out, was the actual plot.

    Basically, we die-hards don’t care about Nikki and Paolo. In fact, many of us are much less passive– we hate them. I personally am indifferent, I resent that the creators seem to feel they can throw in new people at any moment and use the “they’ve been here all along” excuse, but I certainly don’t get all worked up over it. There are those, of course, who do get angry, and will talk your ear off for hours telling you about how they are clearly just there as eye candy (Kiele Sanchez is obviously gorgeous, and Rodrigo Santoro has been nicknamed the Brazilian Tom Cruise) since they realized their error with killing off hotties such as Shannon and Anna Lucia.

    So anyway, I am indifferent toward them– I certainly don’t get angry when I see them but I did notice how blatantly jarring and abrupt/forced it felt six episodes back when Sayid and Locke went to investigate this other hatch they found, (the episode in which they first saw the eyepatch guy on the screen) and Nikki and Paolo came. I mean, for Eko, a beloved and central character, to have been buried in the jungle by the likes of Nikki and Paolo was very uncool. However, the example of Paolo’s bathroom trip (he comes out and says, “the toilet works”) which seemed stupid at the time, now functions, according to this newest episode, which brings me to the reason I loved this.

    Just like you said, Prof. Mittell, the producers really showed here how seamlessly they can integrate characters into already-shot scenes. I loved how this ep was peppered with scenes we know and love, but with Nikki and Paolo worked in, as though they had been there all along. Sure, we know they hadn’t, but it doesn’t matter now, since there’s no reason for us to believe that within the world of the show, they haven’t been. Dig? For example, Jack’s famous “Live together, die alone” speech– Nikki and Paolo were there! Or how about when the plane crashed, and they shot an extra moment of Boone running around, asking Nikki for a pen?! You’d really have to know and love this show to appreciate and understand this moment– my dad has seen every episode and yet, as an old guy, he had to ask me, “Huh? A pen?” and I explained, “Don’t you remember? When Jack caught Boone giving Rose CPR the wrong way, he sent him on a fool’s errand to find a pen with which to poke a hole in her throat, just to keep him busy and get rid of him.” And my Dad said, “Oh, right, I guess…” Very cool, Damon and Carlton.

    Anyway, aside from the technics of the episode and the manipulation of the show’s consciousness and history, which I said I love, another basic question I’m surprised you didn’t mention is the question of whether they are alive or not. You said the creators have now “killed them off” but I’m not convinced. You saw Nikki open her eyes, right? So yes, after that, it zoomed out and showed us that the mound was completed, and, apparently, they were buried alive. Or were they? I suppose we’ll know in 24 hours, but just for speculation, I have to say that I would bet at least one of them is alive. Why? Because it isn’t enough for us, the viewers, to know that they were buried alive. The people who did it– Sawyer, Charlie, Sun– they need to know too, and feel guiilty and awful about it. AFter all, isn’t this show really about emotional scarring and the re-surfacing of past sins and digressions? So I think the best answer would be for just one of them, (let’s say Nikki) to live, and the other die, so that the one who lives can resurface from the sand and scream at a SHOCKED Hurley, “We weren’t dead! Just paralyzed!!! I even said to you, right when I came out of the jungle, “paralyzed” to let you know!! Then we see the remorse and guilt of the other castaways…. PLUS, we see Nikki tear open Paolo’s grave, gathering up all the little diamonds in desperation.

    ANYWAY, regardless, a great episode. I do NOT subscribe to the popular fan opinion that episodes which don’t feel essential to the show are less enjoyable. Maybe for me I just love the characters so much that I enjoy the show no matter what, but I have been satisfied by every episode this season. Or at least, certainly since the hiatus ended. More action, more secrets being revealed– it’s been improving. Here’s hoping the common perceptions of Lost (which unfortunately have been going sour, I know many people who have stopped watching out of frustration) finally improve, and the show finally regains the popularity and respect it held during its incredible first season.


  1. 1 Wax Banks

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