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From Comedies to Cliffhangers

Analise Lipari | Wednesday, October 11, 2006


So says the stark, sprawling script across the television screen at the conclusion of each week’s episode of ABC’s smash hit. “Lost,” however, can describe more than simply the plight of the show’s marooned characters. This show uses a formula only recently re-introduced to visual media: the concept of the serial, rather than episodic, television show. Unfortunately, the fallout between the two types of programs can leave the casual viewer both confused and frustrated.

The first appearance of the serial goes back to times before the advent of television, when cinemas showed weekly serial programs featuring a protagonist whose adventures always ended in a cliffhanger. Each installment of these stories, like those of Hopalong Cassidy or Flash Gordon in the 1930s and ’40s, influenced subsequent episodes in a manner not unlike “Lost” or “24” today.

With the advent of television came a formula so familiar to modern audiences that it needs no introduction – the episodic sitcom. Shows like “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show” and others profiled the weekly exploits of a set group of characters, with each installment’s action closing off neatly at the episode’s conclusion.

“Friends,” “Two and a Half Men” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and are heirs to this formula today, as they profile the ongoing lives of characters through the lens of episodic, encapsulated narratives.

What “Lost” and its co-creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have done so thoroughly is bring television back to its roots in the serial films of the ’40s and ’50s. While most television dramas contain serial elements like general plotlines that arch over multiple episodes, they tend to have some degree of the episodic in their execution.

“Lost,” in contrast, gets down to the true roots of serial programming by incorporating complex, multi-episode plotlines, integral details and cliffhangers into its structure – tactics that require a significant returning audience week after week.

It is this aspect of serialized storytelling that draws in legions of fans. An aware audience might logically seek something intellectually challenging in its entertainment, and serials require some level of smarts in order to simply keep track of the plotlines involved.

Serials also allow for extensive creativity and character development. Imagine if “Saving Private Ryan” or “Forrest Gump” were 22 hours long – the sheer scope of narrative and artistic range in the original two-hour films would be exponentially multiplied.

Serials, unlike episodic television, have this rare opportunity to continue and extend their mythologies. “Lost” in particular serves as a prime example. ABC recently launched an interactive website, the “Lost Experience,” which features multiple puzzles, clips, links and character profiles in order for viewers to become further engulfed in the show’s mysteries. It would seem as though there was no way for a serial’s dedicated, returning audience to get enough.

The problem, then, lies with the patience of that returning audience. Watching “Friends” is simple enough for the casual viewer, even with outstanding plot elements like Rachel’s pregnancy or Monica and Chandler’s infertility. A brief recap at the opening of each episode is all that a first-time viewer would need, as “Friends” and other sitcoms work and thrive in that week-to-week context.

Shows like “Lost” and “24,” however, require a bit more effort for those trying to jump on the bandwagon. As any devout fan of either program will tell these “newbies,” it is nearly impossible to simply sit down and decide to start watching. An understanding of previous episodes, if not whole seasons, is essential in order to come to the table prepared for each week’s new revelations and developments.

Fixing this discrepancy can require hours of effort beyond watching the actual show, such as renting previous seasons on DVD or looking up episode summaries online. In truth, this process seems curiously counter-intuitive when considering television is by far one of the most sedentary of pursuits. Should TV require this much effort?

“Lost” especially plays into this dichotomy between obsession and casual pastime. The world of “Lost” has become an ever-expanding phenomenon and an increasingly complex web of information. Passing references can return later as critical bits of information, and it seems that every facet of the show’s universe is rapidly evolving and changing.

For example, one item discovered after the fateful plane crash, a fictional, unpublished manuscript entitled “Bad Twin,” has recently been published as an actual book, further adding to the show’s already complex mythology. If “Lost” were an episodic program, these possibilities simply would not exist.

Issues arise for the networks when choosing to invest in serialized programs – particularly in light of ratings. From one angle, developing a show with a complicated history and mythology locks in a loyal contingent of fans, which spells out successful ratings and a guaranteed audience. “24” is another such program to find success in this way, as the serialized exploits of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) are followed from season to season almost religiously by its dedicated viewers.

Conversely, the accessibility of such programs to new audiences becomes increasingly limited as the show continues its run. Fewer and fewer audience members make the effort to stick around when something like “Lost” becomes too complicated to handle. This kind of problem inevitably limits the capacity for the show’s audience to grow and, more practically, for its ratings capacity to increase.

Advertising – dependent on successful ratings – is a central factor in the fate of any television show, making this is a real issue with serial programming.

The serialization of television is, as “Lost” demonstrates, a chance for a formerly maligned medium to thrive creatively and stretch its wings. It allows for a complexity of narrative storytelling and a sense of artistic, aesthetic and thematic achievement is now available for the taking.

However, viewers – the ultimate capital of a television production – can be lost in the shuffle. How networks will determine the balance between creative storytelling and accessibility remains to be seen.