A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #19: Losing the Plot – The Golden Age of Television

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3In this month’s podcast, we look back at TV series before the so-called Golden Age of Television and what has happened since – what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in times of HBO, prestige television and binge watching. Are series the novels of the 21st century or is it all sexposition, soap operatics and narratives dragged out way past their sell-by date? Featuring our theme tune, “Mystery Street Jazz” by Håkan Eriksson (make sure to listen to the very end of the podcast)… and a very special appearance by Trillian the Cat!

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Until all that’s left over is the question mark

I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
— Tom Stoppard,
Shakespeare in Love

Remember the days when we were all wondering what was down that hatch and what the hell those numbers meant? (I sometimes can’t remember what I ate the previous evening, but I will be able to list those damn numbers on my deathbed: 4, 8, 15, 16…) Remember when we were itching to find out more about Jacob, or the Others, or what the hell that black fog creature was? And remember those last couple of seasons that basically mocked us for wanting to know by saying, “Answers? Answers are for dummies. Have a trite, saccharine scene in a church instead.”

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Are we Lost yet?

Yes, once again I’m months behind the real world – but opinions that are full of themselves never go past their sell-by dates! Remember when everyone was talking about that final episode of Lost? Well, they’ve now shown it in Switzerland, so here I am, ready to put forward my opinion at a point when no one’s interested anymore.

A lot has happened since Lost began – and I’m not talking only in terms of polar bear attacks, electromagnetic incidents and casual time travel. Things in my life have changed in certain fairly fundamental ways, and some of my attachment to Lost comes from associating the series with some of these changes. I’ve mostly enjoyed the series, even at its most convoluted moments, in spite of getting annoyed as hell with characters such as Shannon, Boone or Charlie. (At least the series lost its knack of making these characters worthwhile only in time to kill them off.) I was even intrigued when the series stepped up its metaphysical Überbau by introducing the ancient fratricidal conflict between Jacob, the manipulative quasi-deity of the island who’d been ‘touching’ several of the Losties since they were children, and his smokin’ Cainesque brother, Dwight. (Okay, that’s not his name, but the writers were being just a tad too cute when they did their “I only came up with one name!” in-joke.)

When they introduced their flash sideways, with intriguing glimpses of a world where the Losties hadn’t become lost, where the island was at the bottom of the ocean, I was fascinated – at first, that is. I was curious: was this parallel existence the result of the bomb exploding at the end of season 5? Was it the world Smokey (sorry, make that Dwight) was trying to escape to – or was it a world in which he’d escaped the island and Jacob’s words about how this would destroy everything had proven so much, well, smoke and mirrors?

But then the writers fell back onto their old tricks: when in doubt, introduce new ambiguous antagonists (call them Yet Other Others), make the characters re-evaluate their allegiances and have your cast trek from one side of the island to the other. The problem with those tricks is mainly that of diminishing returns: do we care about yet another group of strange people who speak in riddles (the temple dudes or Widmore’s merry men and annoying woman)? Also, if we don’t know what either side in a cosmic conflict really is about, what does it matter whether Jack’s on one side or Sawyer’s on another? And yes, the island backgrop is nice to look at, but after six seasons even that has lost its initial charm.

In the end, this isn’t the major problem with season 6 and the series ending, though. Every season of Lost had its share of filler material that would have benefitted massively from tightening the story. The problem was this: the ending – in fact, both endings, the island storyline and the “is this heaven? – It’s Los Angeles.” metaphysics-for-the-21st-century one – rendered most of the six years irrelevant. The hatch, the numbers, the polar bears, the Others, the Dharma Initiative, Widmore, time travel, basically anything… It didn’t matter for either ending. And it’s no excuse to say, “It’s all about the characters, stupid!” – least of all if you’re writing a series that, week for week, was driven by the WTF?! question. What the fuck was that polar bear doing there? What the fuck is down that hatch? what the fuck is up with those numbers? Yes, you had nice flashbacks fleshing out the characters, but that doesn’t make the series about the characters – because, let’s be honest, would we have watched the series for six years if it hadn’t been for all the weird shit going down? Would we have sat through more than one Jack or Kate episode without them dangling the answer to some of our questions at least in front of our noses?

The series tried to make the finale not only big and loud (betrayals! fights to the death! Star Wars references!) but also meaningful in some ill-defined spiritual way, but the longer the season went on, the less it was able to answer the “So what?” question – in the end the only question that matters in entertainment. Obviously it’s an unfair question, because it can be asked of anything, and in the end no stories are necessary – but that’s where, as storytellers and entertainers, you have to keep the audience interested and distracted enough so they never feel like asking the question in the first place.

To be fair, the final episode had its share of emotional moments. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, and yes, I did feel moved by Sun and Jin’s moment of revelation at the hospital, or by Hurley’s realisation that the weight of Jacobhood was going to be placed on his shoulders. But with every new burst of flashback-revelation, with every montage of people falling in love, giving birth or staring down holes on the island, our old friend, Diminishing Returns (Dimi to his mates), struck – and by the end of it, what struck me were two things: a) how quickly the sideways universe unravels if you think about it too much and b) how little it ties back to what we’ve been watching since the beginning. It was a story that didn’t need the island – and that made the series as a whole ever so slightly pointless. Basically we got an ending that said: “You know, everything you’ve been watching over the last couple of years? You enjoyed it, right? Well, beyond featuring the same characters it’s pretty much unimportant to this story we’re telling about the afterlife.” The characters weren’t in sideways LA because they had been on the island, because of Jacob and Dwight, or because of the nuclear bomb. They were there because they all had, at some point or other, died. Their island adventures were pretty much incidental to that whole storyline – all that mattered was that they had met and played important parts in each others lives.

If a series’ ending tells us that, in the end, almost everything leading up to it is irrelevant, we’re in a bit of a quandary: do we dislike the ending, reject what it seems to imply and remember the series for the bits we enjoyed? Or do we embrace the ending and in the process come to realise that the series has more or less rendered itself pointless?

And for old time’s sake, I’ll end this blog entry without answering any of those questions. Cue credits!

P.S.: I love this reply to some of the misunderstandings of the final episode:

Fringe dwellers

Remember the old days, when Lost was one of my favorite non-HBO TV series, a tasty snack in between the substantial but demanding Sopranos, The Wire or Deadwood? And Fringe was basically an X-Files knockoff for the 21st century – fun enough, but flimsy and without much of a voice of its own apart from having a gooey, gorey imagination?

Well, we’re now watching the final season of Lost on TV (Switzerland may have the cheese, chocolates and watches, but we get TV series late since everything has to be dubbed), and I’m afraid I’ve lost most of my interest. Sideways universe, shmideways universe, added to which I have pretty much had my fill of Jack, Kate et al. Yes, they obviously know where they want to take the series for the finale, but so many of the answers we get for the mysteries built up in the previous five seasons are banal, boring and not particularly convincing. Case in point: how did the Black Rock end up in the middle of the jungle? Big wave. Never mind that it smashed into a gigantic statue hard enough to smash the statue, but the ship’s still mostly, well, ship-shape.

But no, the series writers tell us, Lost is not about the mysteries – it’s about the characters! Obviously! I mean, it’s not as if the series’ main driver was that what kept the series going was questions like: What is the hatch? What are the numbers? What is the black smoke? Who are the others? Yes, Lost also spent a lot of time on its characters, especially in the flashbacks (and flash-forwards, flash-sideways and quite possible flash-upside-downs), but the impetus always, always came from the mysteries.

Fringe, on the other hand… It’s still frivolous entertainment, and like so many US series it suffers from the need to do 20+ episodes per season, but they’ve definitely shifted the overall mythology up a gear or two. They’ve become much more confident with their storytelling, to the point where they play with the format and the audience in delightful ways. To give just one example, consider the usual intro of the series:

… and now check out the intro they did for one episode set roughly 30 years earlier:

There’s a winking self-awareness that Lost has, well, lost if it ever had it (well, perhaps in “Exposé”, Nikki and Paolo’s final episode). There’s an awareness that this is silly stuff, but let’s just roll with it. And most of all, while the mythology is being built into something riveting and surprisingly poignant, it is never as convoluted as Lost has become. For all the heavy-duty plotting in Fringe, it’s the characters that keep the weirdness grounded – and enjoyable. Bring on season 3 of Fringe, and finally bring Lost to an end, so we can go back to remembering its early days when it was fresh and exciting.


As I’ve written before, I like The West Wing. Admittedly, season 2 lacks some of the urgency of the first season (except in the double episode that starts off year 2 of the series), but it’s still a witty, well written and acted, greatly enjoyable 42 minutes per episode. I appreciate its politics and the idealism of its characters, tempered as it is by an appreciation that there’s a gap between ideals and reality that needs to be negotiated almost constantly.

Every now and then, though, the series does something that strikes me as uniquely American, and it annoys the hell out of me: it goes into Pledge of Allegiance Mode. A typical example of this is at the end of the season 2 episode “Midterms”:

To give you a bit of context: after an assassination attempt by a white-supremacist group Toby, perhaps the character on the series who is furthest left-wing (and one of my favourites, the grumpy old Eeyore that he is), spends most of the episode desperately trying to find ways of legally restricting the constitutional rights of such groups. Obviously the Constitution is sacrosanct, this being the United States, but Toby’s take is that there may be things more important than a piece of paper, however old and revered that piece of paper is. By the end of the episode he comes around to believing that perhaps it isn’t all that bad that the government protects the rights even of those who try to bring it down. His “God bless America” is earned, it comes out of a process. I may or may not agree with the sentiment, but Toby’s not made this easy on himself.

The others, though? They’re basically joining in the choir, cheapening the sentiment. It’s not idealism in the face of ambivalence and reality: it’s facile, slogany patriotism. Now, I have to admit that patriotism is something my brain fails to comprehend in general, but I can accept that the main characters on The West Wing are patriots. At the series best I can almost grasp that when these people talk about the United States of America, they mean an almost mythical construct, a symbol of perfect democracy, and that they’re aware that there is, and always will be, a huge distance between the symbol and the reality. But when they go into cheerleading slogans, with everyone in the round repeating the words, there’s something disturbing about it to me. With every repetition it’s stripped of the self-awareness, meaning and complexity that a character like Toby brings to it and becomes something insultingly, childishly simple and chauvinistic. It’s this belief that the ideal, the symbol and the actual country are close enough to one another that allows for crusader-style action around the globe – hey, if your country is the embodiment of all that is good and just, then your actions must be good and just by definition, right?

To be fair, those moments on The West Wing are just that: moments. By and large, the series remains firmly aware of the clash between ideals and reality, and of the fact that it is practically impossible to negotiate the two without despairing that you’ll never get to where you’re going, that you’ll always be compromising your ideals in the end – but that, in the face of compromise, you can still keep fighting for your ideals and achieving small victories every now and then. I just wish they could do without the “Rah, rah, USA!” moments altogether, because they just feel tacky.

Okay, and after all this heavy stuff, dude, here’s a fun little something for those of you waiting for or already watching the final season of Lost. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers.)


Heh. Okay, I lied, if only by implication. This update is not about Lost – it’s about Evil Uncle Disney. Cracked has a fun (though somewhat crude) look at the most violent deaths in recent(ish) Disney films. While I like some of these films, the hypocrisy is quite striking: in most of these cases the good guy is allowed to defeat but not kill the bad guy because, after all, he’s good – but the villain still has to be punished horribly, ideally by dying. Mercy’s all fine and dandy, as long as the baddie gets the horrible, painful death he deserves! Kill! Kill!

Click here to be reminded of just how gruesome your childhood favourites were. Somewhere the Brothers Grimm are shaking their skulls in envy. (And check out some of the other features – such as the best instances of racism in Walt Disney’s oeuvre. It’s almost as if Cracked has it in for the Waltster!)

Putting them darkie centaurs in their place, one hoof at a time

Whys and wherefores: hot monkey love for Brian K. Vaughan

I’ve been re-reading Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man over the last week or two, in preparation for the last volume to come out. (It shouldn’t be much longer than another month or so.) In the last few years, Vaughan has become one of my favourite comic writers. He’s no Alan Moore and he’s no Neil Gaiman (then again, these days Gaiman himself is no Neil Gaiman, it would seem), but his appeal is entirely different from those. In style, and in quality, he’s much closer to Joss Whedon – Vaughan knows how to tell a good story with wit and people it with characters you care about.

Like most of the Vaughan comics I’ve read, Y: The Last Man is a great example of high concept: the story’s premise is that every male mammal on Earth dies under mysterious circumstances, except for one Yorick Brown, ex-literature major and hobby escape artist, and his monkey Ampersand. However, it isn’t the premise that makes this a fun, exciting, witty ride. The world of Y takes a sketchy starting point and fills it with credible detail. (Well, mostly – I’m still not sure I buy the S/M intervention staged for Yorick in volume 4…) And, just like Whedon at his best, it’s just great fun to listen to his characters. This is one of the comics where much of the action is in the talking – but when there is action, it means something more than the nth installment of Super Guy vs. Evil Dude.

There\'s a monkey on your back, dude...

There’s perhaps one thing that I dislike a bit about Y, and it’s no coincidence perhaps that Vaughan also writes for the TV series Lost: at times the narrative meanders, goes zig zag. Most detours are fun enough to follow, but like Lost this is a series that at least pretends to have a plan, and just like Lost this pretense isn’t always very convincing. Without a plan, it feels like the story is arbitrary, which weakens the central mysteries and unanswered questions, such as, “What killed all the dudes?”, arguably a bigger question than “What exactly is that Smoke Monster?”. At times, if it wasn’t for the writing and characters, you’d be tempted to say, “So? Where exactly is this going?” I don’t mind some element of making it up as you go along, but arbitrariness is poison for a plot-heavy narrative.

And this might out me as the biggest closet case in history (which would come as a surprise to myself, really), but… Why is it that 90% of the women in Y are hot, slim, curvy babes? For once, we can’t blame the comic artist – Pia Guerra, the series’ co-creator and lead penciller, is very much a woman. So, for once, don’t blame us XY types!

P.S.: Other Brian K. Vaughan comics that come with the Goofy Beast Seal of Approval: Runaways, Ex Machina and the one-shot Pride of Baghdad.

Pride of Baghdad

No more House calls for a while

On Monday, Swiss television showed the season 3 finales of both House, M.D. and Lost. We haven’t seen the latter yet, but it probably says it all that the best moment of House, at least for me, was the Chase/Cameron kiss. That scene was sweet, but the actual medical case was too vague and the character interaction not very interesting. The House vs. God angle had also been done previously. All in all it felt like the series could do with a couple of months off. Seeing as season 4, cut short by striking writers, is just about over in the States, we might get it fairly soon…

Gregory House, looking dark and depressed in between snarky quips

… but first, we’ve got the grand return of Grey’s Anatomy (at a point where I sometimes feel that if I have to watch McDreamy be a self-righteous, self-infatuated git for another minute, I’ll find the actor and put his face through a meat grinder), doubled up with Private Practice, the Grey spin-off that got started in an atrociously written and at best adequately acted two-parter on its mother series.

How’s a man to cope – especially when this man knows that there are only six more episodes of Deadwood? Like, ever? Come to think of it, I’d like to see a cross-over where some select characters from Grey’s Anatomy and perhaps Desperate Housewives stop by the picturesque little town of Deadwood. Derek Shepherd could open a practice with Dan Doherty as opthalmologist. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here, unless you’re still hoping to watch season 3 of Deadwood.)

Six Feet Under is also almost over – two more episodes. What next? We’ve got a fair choice of series: Rome, The Wire, Carnivàle, season 6 of The Sopranos. Then there’s more escapist or pulpy fare: Heroes, Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Dexter. I’ve heard very good things about the latter series, especially season 2 – which came as a bit of a surprise, as the second Dexter novel was quite a bit weaker than the first. I guess that sometimes film and TV can improve on books…

And to end this very meandering blog entry, here’s a YouTube clip – the very effective opening credits for Dexter, a show whose ‘hero’ is a serial killer… who is intent on only killing ‘bad guys’:

A death in the family

Phew. He’s dead. And even though I knew it was going to happen – heck, I’d seen it before – it’s still amazing how much it got to me.

Rest in peace, Nathaniel Fisher Jr. You were often frightened, stupid, self-righteous, passive-aggressive (and lately just plain aggressive) and self-centred… but I’ll miss you.

Before Nate died, you did WHAT to him?!

We also watched another episode of Lost yesterday, namely “The Man Behind the Curtain”. It seems that the series makers have realised that you can’t just keep heaping mysteries onto the viewer without also revealing a thing or two, and the series definitely benefits from it. Also, I definitely like John Locke, Zealot more than the dithering Locke in the latter half of season 2. Hey, sometimes you just need to knock out a one-eyed Russian to make your point!

Also, note to all fathers reading this: Never, ever forget your son’s birthday every year – because otherwise he might just end up gassing you to death on some mysterious Hawaiian island. And some con-man from down South may just end up popping the skull off your dessicated remains to make the audience laugh.

Confessions of a sneaksy, thiefsy crash test dummy

Well, for once I won’t write about last night’s episode of Lost (titled “Catch-22”). Why? Because it wasn’t very interesting – but neither was it so horrible that I have to share my eye-gouging terror with the world (and the Keira Knightley fans who may want to eviscerate me after yesterday’s entry… Just kidding!).

So, instead let me regale you with my current PC gaming choices: Colin McRae DIRT (which I’ve mentioned here before) and Thief: Deadly Shadows. The latter is a game that I originally played when it came out, but now, two computers and three videocards later, it runs much, much smoother than it ever did. However, the game bears sad witness to who I really am: someone who gets a kick out of skulking in the shadows, waiting for people to pass, and then hit them over the head with a blackjack and rob them blind.

Yup, that’s me. I prefer crouching in the darkness and waiting, and then knocking out my enemies. With almost any shooter game, if I have the option to put my opponents to sleep, that’s what I’ll do. There are few things as satisfying in a game as a totally non-lethal headshot with a tranquiliser dart and then dragging the motionless body behind a wall or some rocks… and then waiting for the guy’s buddy to turn up, looking for his mate – and do it all over again.

Now, as far as DIRT is concerned… I’m not bad at it. Not totally bad, at least. But sometimes… well, sometimes my driving looks pretty much like this – and (moving) pictures say a lot more than words in this case: