Monday, May 24, 2010

The Mythos Wall

Interesting question (well, I hope it is...) At what point does a series' mythos become an impenetrable barrier to attracting new viewers?

Obviously, I ask because of a certain television series that has just recently reached its conclusion. I'm pretty sure that it's a bit late now for me to start watching 'Lost', seeing as how it's not actually airing anymore; but even before last night's series finale, I was already getting the feeling that if I wanted to watch the show, I'd need to do it by buying DVDs and starting from Season One. There are plenty of other shows like that, as well: The X-Files, Babylon 5, even the Stargate serieses tend to get pretty deeply into their backstories by a few years in. (Doctor Who, a show that's in it for the long haul, tends to resolve everything and start over every five years or so, but it's the exception to the rule.)

So how long does it take for a show to become something that "you really have to start at the beginning" to watch? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing? And when did it start?

Taking the latter first; as a science-fiction trend, I'd say the push for longer and more involved story-arcs arrived alongside the home video market. Before that, we had soap operas, which obviously involved a lot of involved backstory...but we'll get back to that later...but really, the episodes of most sci-fi shows before Babylon 5 could be seen in any order without confusing the viewer too much. Occasionally, you'd find a new doctor on ST: TNG (or a new Doctor on Doctor Who) but for the most part, producers didn't think they could do stories with long, involved arcs, because they couldn't guarantee that people would see the episodes that set up the episode they were watching right now.

Home video changed all that. Even before DVD, series like B5 and Highlander were putting out big, chunky season sets that took up whole bookshelves. Sure in the knowledge that people would be able to follow their plotlines for only a minimal $100 investment, they could do longer, more involved storylines. DVD only accelerated the evolution of the trend.

But unsurprisingly, some people didn't necessarily want to shell out $50 (it got cheaper by the time DVD rolled around) to catch up on the show everyone was talking about. Or, for that matter, to invest thirty-two hours of viewing time, either. For those people, comments by the fans along the lines of "oh, you really need to watch it from the beginning to get the full effect" might as well have been saying, "Too late, buddy!"

Which is probably not what the producers wanted. Because let's face it, for all that shows like "Lost" have more involved backstories, it's still not like you're watching one long movie cut up into a couple hundred hour-long chunks. Fans tend to overestimate the impenetrability of their favorite shows and continuities, perhaps because it makes them feel a little more special to know that they're one of the Chosen Few who can understand everything that's going on in their favorite show. They love to start telling people that a show really rewards patient viewers as soon as the second episode, creating an almost self-fulfilling prophecy of confusion. But soap operas specialize in tangled plots that go on for years, and they've been able to consistently attract new viewers. Obviously, if what's going on that moment on screen is interesting, people will be willing to sit down and watch until they've picked up all the stuff they didn't understand.

Unless the series is, y'know, over. Then it probably is a bit too late.

14 comments:

E. Wilson said...

I think there's a fine line; individual episodes still need to be entertaining in their own right. This is a reason I never got that into Lost; the premise of the show basically requires every episodes to revolve around the central story arc. There's really no such thing as a stand-alone episode of Lost.

Which actually differentiates it from the other shows you listed, which, while mythos-heavy, had plenty of episodes that didn't advance the overall arc, and were plenty entertaining in their own right. Heck, in the case of X-Files, I found the stand alone episodes to be infinitely more enjoyable than the jumbled and confusing conspiracy storyline.

Mory said...

I hate to break it to you, but Lost is exactly as impenetrable as we fans think. My father watched the first few episodes of the series, but he walked past as my sister and I were watching the finale and it occurred to me that he didn't know who any of the characters were, even the ones he might thought he recognized, and the plot would be entirely indecipherable for him even if he watched from the beginning of the episode. There's a blog called "The Final Season of LOST As Seen By Someone Who Has Never Seen LOST", and for a good ten episodes he was hopelessly confused not only about all the details, but even about what the basic premise of the show was.

With that said, I definitely think it's worth watching from the beginning. It's an excellent show, and I can say that more confidently now that I can look back at the whole thing and see where it was going.

Mory said...

Oh, and to be clear: Lost is not like Babylon 5. Babylon 5 had a delicate balance between self-contained stories and arc, where each story made sense in itself but was dealing with earlier plot threads and setting up later ones. Lost makes no such effort, it just expects you to have seen everything so far. I can't say how it compares to the arcs of soap operas, since I've never seen a soap opera. But just because Babylon 5 can be watched from the middle doesn't mean Lost can. It's a different kind of show.

Pitrone said...

Let me just rant for a second here...

LOST is the worst show EVER. Holy Smokes, it is bad. I have now watched the first 4 Seasons, starting at the beginning, making the investment of time and mental effort that you are talking about, and it has NOT been worth it.

From the beginning I have been wondering what the hell any of the characters were thinking. (My wife and I now have a rule, if one of us sees a polar bear, we will mention it to the other, even if just in passing.) According to the critics that I have been reading, this is a show about characters. But there are no characters that are human beings on this show. It is a bunch of jumped-up, self-centered, maniacally proud people who, should you ever have the misfortune to be trapped on a deserted island with even one of them, you would have fed to the first polar bear you saw, if only to avoid the inevitable whinging that every single member of this benighted show's cast uses in lieu of human speech.

Genuinely, I cannot fathom watching this show in weekly installments. It makes my head hurt. I feel as if I might just not have adequate sticktoitiveness, but quite frankly, saying, "What the hell was that all about?" every ten minutes is not my idea of enjoyment or pleasurable television watching.

(SPOILERS!) And the fact that the whole things turns out to be some sort of Purgatory experience, (though I was pretty sure that it was just the writers purging previously, all these stories are vomitous) makes it even MORE of an offensive experience. Why bloody bother? It was all a fake-story? For 6 bloody, obnoxious, annoying seasons? Seriously?

You're better off, Mate. Give the whole damned thing a miss.

Voodoo_Ben said...

I have to completely disagree with everything Mory said. I only watched the first season, then skipped the entire thing except until the last one - and only then watched random episodes. I sat down to watch the finale and made it through with only a couple of little questions to my girlfriend, who's been following it all along. I deeply enjoyed the finale, even with only the minimal knowledge of the show I had.

Anonymous said...

The same thing occurs in sitcoms, though on a lesser level. I think it has to do with your idea of Storytelling Engines. When a sitcom first starts off, it is presenting the story telling engine to us, and many individual stories that were created before the creation of the storytelling engine for that episode. As the series progresses (say, season 2 or 3) the writers are no longer creating stories, but they are relying on their storytelling engine to produce stories for them. So funny things that were created to enhance a story in season 1 will be revisited and most likely complicated further in Season 3, and maybe that element of the character will become a recurring feature, so that the show is a different animal than it once was. Rarely do you see a sitcom (and probably, any ongoing show in general) that is the same thing that it was when it first started.

chiasaur11 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KAW26 said...

response to Pitrone's spoiler: No, an alternate story that takes up half of the last season is Purgatory.

John Seavey said...

Um, guys? While I enjoy the fact that commenters are willing to chime in and talk about my posts, and love that they're willing to get into actual discussions with each other, I'd kind of prefer that you not refer to each other as "dumbasses".

Politely suggesting that a fellow commenter might have wanted to quit watching "Lost" earlier, if he disliked it so much? Just fine. Calling him a "dumbass"? Not so much. Let's try to keep it civil. In the immortal words of MST3K, "Just repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show, I should really just relax.'" :)

chiasaur11 said...

Sorry.

Thought it was a bad idea, pushed the button anyway, and there's really no excuse. I am very sorry for the unwarranted insult, Pitrone. There was no call for that kind of language.

I also need to appologize to Mr. Seavey, because, really. He runs a classy blog and here I am mucking it up.

Sorry.

Jason said...

@Anonymous: Actually, I think this is unrelated to the storytelling engine issue. With a well-crafted engine, the status quo gives you an easy way to generate stories, and you don't really need to explain much.

Consider - a story generated by the status quo/engine:
Jimmy Olsen is snapping photos of a meeting of crime lords. He is captured and Superman has to save him.
New reader: "Why did Jimmy Olsen try to get those photos?"
"He's a photographer for a major newspaper, those dudes are crazy about getting the shot."
New reader: "Why is Superman so worried about Jimmy Olsen?"
"They're good friends."

I've just explained the story, it's 100% understandable even if it's your first Superman story.

Story based on the continuity:
Jimmy Olsen is kidnapped by a drug cartel because he is the only person who saw all those other crime lords in person (see previous issue), but he's also got a small bomb in his stomach that will explode if he leaves Metropolis (see issue 246), and the gangsters have a sliver of purple paisley kryptonites (see issues 74, 138, 237) which will turn Superman into a supermosquito if he gets too close, but fortunately Batman owes him a favor (see Batman #138) and so he'll try to stop the criminals with the aid of Hal Jordan, who happens to be in Metropolis at the moment (see GL #231) - unfortunately, Hal's power ring hasn't exactly been reliable lately (see GL #225-230)!

New reader: "What... what the hell is going on here?"
"You really have to read it from the beginning."

The point of the storytelling engine, as I understood it, was to suggest plausible plots for relatively simple stories that spring naturally out of the characters and setting. By definition, they should be pretty simple to explain. The continuity that builds up around those stories, however, isn't really implied by that engine. If you look at, for example, Gilligan's Island or I Love Lucy, I don't believe you ever have to know the plot of a previous episode to understand the current one. All you have to know is the basic setup of the show.

Mory said...

I would like to retract my unequivocal statement that LOST is worth watching from the beginning. Over the past few days I've been digesting the story of the show, and the more I think about it the more I realize that nothing that ever happened made sense or had a point. Actually, the overall plot's kind of terrible. It just seemed good as I was watching it.

Jeremy said...

Thankfully Al Gore invented this thing called the "internets" which has a series of "tubes" through which you can download entire series of television shows. Paid services like Netflix have a lot of whole seasons available, including the first five seasons of Lost. Or, if you have a certain moral flexibility, bittorrent makes available just about anything you can think to type into the Googles.

Being a cinephile I have felt the need to go back and watch whole series of shows that I missed on a weekly basis. It's hard to describe which way I like better. When I watch all episodes of a show back-to-back I absorb a lot more of the story line and nuances that the writers undoubtedly and sometimes unwittingly included. Plus every episode cliffhanger is immediately resolved by clicking on the next file.

On the other hand, when I have to wait for a show each week it adds to the excitement of watching it, especially for shows like Lost which are basically serial in nature. It also gives me more time to think about each episode, explore it online, and time to discuss it with coworkers. However, it should be noted that in this post-on-demand world I would never choose to watch a show weekly if I could watch it all at once.

All that being said about the general case, in the case of Lost I watched the first five seasons back-to-back and I can't for the life of me imagine how anyone who watched it over a five year period could keep up with the myriad plot lines. Trust me, you're better off starting it now. Plus, even if someone spoils the ending for you it won't matter; in the case of Lost it is truly the journey and not the destination.

Karen El said...

I watched the first season of Lost, then sometime around the beginning of season 2 I lost access to the channel that showed it.

When season 5 started I watched the catchup episode and was intrigued enough to start watching it again. I also got hold of season 4 and watched that. After that I was hooked and watched it through to the end, but I still haven't seen most, possibly all of season 2 or season 3.

I don't feel like I missed anything substantial.