02 February 2010

Because it's On TV: LOST, Heroes and the Rise and Fall of Overly Complicated Nerd Dramas

There's been a good amount of "Rise and Fall" posts lately around here, but that's really just because a lot of good stuff tends to turn shitty pretty fast. In honour of the Sixth and Final Season of LOST premiering tonight, I thought I'd take a look at the interesting Sub-Genre of Dramatic Television it has spawned in this decade, which I have no real better word for other than the Overly Complicated Nerd Drama. Let's start where it started:

Precursors, '67 and '91:

The kind of show I'm talking about is the intensely convoluted, sometimes existential, other times incomprehensible live-action drama that almost shuns casual viewership in favour of a necessarily devoted following to extract all possible meaning. LOST (2004), while popularizing the genre in the mid-to-late 2000s was certainly not the forerunner. I'd give that honour to the British series The Prisoner (1967). Not only was much of the plot and setting downright surreal, but it was also one of the first shows with production values (in both set design, acting and writing) to rival most films. It's an incredibly good show with a lot to say about just about anything you could think of, from mind control and free will to love and big bicycles. From there we don't have much else in this specific genre (feel free to argue in the Comments Section) until David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990). Twin Peaks, like The Prisoner had incredible production value with the addition of an intensely sequential method of plotting. The first one and a half seasons contained a whole arc rather than an episodic structure (The Prisoner was largely episodic with a generally connecting narrative). It mostly fell apart when its second arc couldn't compare at all with its first one, losing a lot of what viewers and critics felt was the core of the story. Thus Twin Peaks operates almost more like a long mini-series rather than Primetime drama. Thus while these shows were revolutionary, neither could sustain their complex plot structure for much more than one or two seasons. Then LOST comes around.

Apex, 2004 - 2007:

LOST was the most expensive pilot ever made (between $10 - 14 million). Everything about the show was cinematic, but to a very high degree. Twin Peaks had the movie-level production of an acclaimed drama. LOST was like an epic studio tentpole film. Combine this with a plot structure that rewarded repeated viewership (this show was made for DVD collections) and close attention and ABC had a ratings giant its first year. It also won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, thus at the apex of both the critical and commercial community. While its ratings have steadily jumped around since then, and for some reason Mad Men (2007) has continually beaten it at the Emmies, LOST remains one of the most solidly written shows on television, rewarding that close viewership with genuinely significant parcels of information that add to its depth rather than leave a bitter aftertaste. The only other franchise that I've seen to be able to do this is Harry Potter.

In 2006 we had another freshman entry into the Sub-Genre, the very promising first season of Heroes. Its premiere was one of the highest for any NBC show all-time. Although any comic fan knows its basically a continued rip-off of X-Men, the initial hook of Heroes was simply what would happen if these disassociated people across the world suddenly found they had superhuman abilities. From this relatively simple premise the show spun some really cool conspiracies, character growth and a very satisfying conclusion. It was likely that conclusion wrapped up too much, as its second season saw a heavy decline in all-around quality. The only interesting characters left is Sylar and Parkman, the rest tend to either re-hash the same problems (HRG and Jailbait) or make stupid, incomprehensible new ones in order to limit admittedly godlike powers (Masi Oka has brain cancer, wtf). After its first season, Heroes tended to write itself into a corner with some of its characters, and then proceeded to dig its way out (See Peter Petrelli's case of James Franco-like amnesia, always convenient) in terrible fashions. Thus we start to decline.

Excess and Downfall, 2007 - Present:

The limitations of the Overly Complicated Nerd became readily apparent during the later part of the decade. The sheer failure and absentia of ideas for Heroes Season 2 was very disappointing, and hinted at the fact that the genre could not be performed on a Season-to-Season basis, similar to the failure of Twin Peaks nearly twenty years earlier. The genre only really works well as a whole, that is, a consistent driving idea from start to finish, regardless of Series length. Thus, LOST with its supposed overarching plan emerges as the only series that appears to know what its doing. That is, although its driving idea is as of yet hidden from view, there is still faith that it remains consistent, that every moment IS working towards SOMETHING.

There have also been some recently spectacular failures in the genre, namely ABC's FlashForward (2009) and V (2009). Both these shows are faring in somewhat opposite directions. While FlashForward is clearly the better show critically, its ratings have been slipping, and without strong viewership in March when it returns from hiatus it will be gone. V is an abysmally terrible show, but currently has a very good Renew / Cancel Index, which might lead to its renewal (again, still dependent on its Spring performance). Regardless, neither of these shows can begin to compare to both LOST and Heroes freshman seasons, which both earned huge critical acclaim and astounding ratings. As you can see, Heroes hasn't come close since. A severe problem with this sort of genre is how the writing must conform to the ratings and whether or not the series will be renewed.

LOST is the only series to manage this (although during negotiations in Seasons 2 and 3 things got pretty hairy) by determining during Season 4 that the Sixth Season would be its ultimate. This allowed LOST to plan its arcs with a finite goal in mind instead of just buying time developing random storylines until it sees its cancellation. Currently FlashForward is in an an interesting position - if it is indeed cancelled after this year, will it be able to wrap up its plot ties that satisfies its audience? If it was expecting at least a second season, will it have enough to maintain its mystery or lose its mystique like Twin Peaks and Heroes have? It's a tough call to make, but one that comes with the ground of the Overly Complicated Nerd Drama. 

LOST Season 6 premiers tonight at 9 pm EST.

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