Lost in the Margins
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…
Filed under: Narrative, TV Shows | 5 Comments