Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The end of an era

Lost began airing in 2004.

24 began airing in 2001.

Two nights. Two finales. And the end of what I call the Golden Age of Modern Television.

It all began around 1999 with the launch of HBO's The Sopranos. Sure, there had been some shows that had pushed the boundaries of censorship on television before (NYPD Blue, which began airing in 1993, comes to mind), but on HBO, The Sopranos were able to do pretty much anything that any R-rated movie could do, and they could do it on TV. And other HBO shows such as The Wire, Rome and True Blood carried on that ability.

And that same "push the envelope" style eventually trickled down to network dramas, such as The Shield (FX), Alias (ABC) as well as Lost and 24. Granted, these shows were on the major networks, so what they could get away with paled in comparison to shows on HBO. But in the end, shows like 24 and Lost pushed the boundaries of what could be done in the hour-long format on television. I mean, the last few episodes of 24 included a disembowelment, a skewering, various head-shots, and a bitten-off ear!

What 24 and Lost represented was viewer commitment. These weren't shows that you could drop in and out of. They demanded consistent loyalty and viewership, or you could find yourself asking "what the hell is going on?" This was especially true of Lost, which routinely puzzled its viewers with elaborate mysteries week after week. Sometimes, just watching each episode of Lost wasn't enough, you needed to research each episode on websites like Lostpedia or on chat rooms and message boards to discuss different theories to stay up to speed.

But the demand for viewer loyalty is where the similarities of these shows ended. At their core, the Lost and 24 couldn't be any more different.

24, which took place in "real time", was all action and adventure; with an endless barrage of double-crosses, major character deaths, and races against the clock to prevent national terrorist attacks.

Lost, on the other hand, dealt with a much more weighty issues: faith, fate vs free will, religion, and redemption. It also relied heavily on symbolism and allusion, referring to numerous books, movies, and other forms of art to entice the viewer and prompt discussion. If the water cooler discussion for 24 usually involved "I can't believe Jack did that last night!", the discussion for Lost was more like a college seminar on mythology and literature, and each discussion could last just as long. And the Lost 101 professor was Jeff "Doc" Jensen, a TV reporter for Entertainment Weekly, who gained fame for his extensive Lost re-cap articles, in which he broke down pretty much every scene of each episode and pontificated aloud for a dozen or so pages every week. The same just couldn't be done for 24 unless it included obituaries for each of the characters killed every week.

That isn't to say that its deep subject matter made Lost better than 24. It's a matter of opinion as to which show you prefer: the breezy, break-neck speed of 24 or the slow-burn novelistic approach to Lost.

What I use to judge the shows is this: How much did I look forward to watching each show? With Lost, I was excited to watch each episode -- from the pilot to the finale -- and then read Jensen's article in EW. With 24, I caught the first three seasons on DVD, and found myself saying "just one more episode" after I had already watched three in a row. But in the end, I felt that 24 couldn't sustain its format. After eight seasons, it seemed like the writers employed the same plot twists each season, with the characters and situations just changed. The "real time" format, which was originally a nifty story-telling device, became redundant, and unrealistic. Characters would routinely be shot, stabbed, have heart attacks or who knows what else, only to be up and about in the next episode, which was less than an hour's time.

And because of this, 24 became somewhat of a chore.

Lost, for me, never felt that way. Sure, there were times when Lost could test your patience (I feel the same about The Sopranos), but that what was so great about it -- its ability to drive you mad with anticipation for an answer to one of its many mysteries: What's in the Hatch? Who are The Others? Who is Jacob? What is the Smoke Monster? What is the island? And by series end, we learned the answer to just about every major mystery, without those answers being spoon-fed to the audience to the point where multiple viewings of Lost become useless. If anything, a repeat viewing of the entire series will be more rewarding than the first, since you know how it all ends and won't be demanding answers.

Unlike Lost, however, the 24 franchise is not over. If the 24 series finale told us anything, it's that there is much more to come. The finale of 24 kept Jack on the run from the authorities and basically left things open-ended for movies, which have been in the works for years. With Lost, the writers were clear, this was definitely "The End". I do think there is an opportunity for a series of Lost inspired books or comic books to spin-off and fill in some of the unanswered questions, but I think the canon of the series is definitely over. And I am glad. There was no more a fitting ending than what was presented last Sunday night. When I think about it, I still get the shivers.

With 24, I expect there to be many more double-crosses, character deaths, and pulse-pounding action sequences for years to come. And I look forward to see that happen on the big screen. I just hope the move to the big-screen gives the franchise a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Actually, it's ironic that 24 is going to the movies. It was 24, and other "boundary-pushers" like it that made me stay at home, and watch a few episodes instead of going out to the movies. The reward with television shows has always been greater, and most of the time, they're free.

In the end, both the 24 and Lost series finales closed the door to what was, without a doubt, the best decade for television, ever. They were often imitated, but never duplicated, and they both leave massive voids for the major networks to fill.

And I doubt they ever will be.

No comments: