“I watched it for a little while / I like to watch things on TV.”

Mystery-Science-Theater-3000-silhouetteIn The Not Too Distant Past: The Last Great Cable Access TV Show of The Golden Age

For most of us these days, our exposure to the kind of localized television that Horror Hosts grew out of was an incredibly idiosyncratic, mid-western program that was as difficult to describe as it was to see early on.  When I first heard about it in 1994, there was essentially one video tape – Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, recorded by a friend of mine – that I could use as a reference point.  In spite of searching (and finding) plenty of people online who each had scores of these kinds of tapes in their personal collections, the idea that this was a show, and was on week after week, absolutely perplexed me.  

It wasn’t much later that the local FOX affiliate in Eugene, OR ran The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Hour on Sunday’s, not only giving me a chance to actually see this show, but to become a fan, too.  By the time the Movie came out a bit later, I was hooked.  But I came into the show nearly at the end.  By the time I was seeing new episodes as they were being aired in the late ’90’s, Mike was the host, the voices of all the bots had all changed, and the Mads were a whole new group of characters I was sort of unfamiliar with.  And the clock was running out.  Their riffs and jokes were not only so insular as to make it slightly impenetrable for people unfamiliar with the show and their many running gags and jokes.  (Not to mention the rapid-fire pace they would lob jokes at you.  It wasn’t long before they would be canceled, not even able to make it into the 21st Century, let alone to the 2990’s.  

imagesStill, MST3K managed to synthesize all the lessons of localized television and brought us a show with that kind of sensibility, which not only made it to cable and, to some degree, mainstream acceptance.  It owes everything to the home-spun aesthetic that was pioneered by people like Ghoulardi & Vampire, but with their own sci-fi take on what is funny about shitty movies and TV.  The sets were laughable.  The robots were made out of junk-store parts.  There were essentially three people making the show for most of the time it was on the air, with a handful of writers and crew members to make sure there were scripts and props and whatnot.  This hand-made quality not only endeared fans, but spoke to the heart of the show: we are going to evoke huge, sci-fi concepts with a few cheap sets and a whole lot of imagination, just like the movies we show.  In a sort of post-modern version of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, MST3K (somehow) managed to last for 11 seasons, almost 200 episodes, and spread out over three broadcast homes.  It’s an impressive feat for such a unique show, born directly out of Horror Hosting and late night features.  

While MST3K is not a Horror show in particular, nor is it even that scary of Halloweeny (their holiday of choice is Thanksgiving, where you can sit around and gorge yourself on bad movies), there is a long tradition of Science Fiction getting lumped in with horror, and I usually try to squeeze in at least one “invaders from space” movie ’round this time of year.  Their dedication to the same kind of aesthetics and ideas of a Horror Host, however, are present in every aspect of the show, and they may well have been the last of their kind to start in cable access and make it to the big time.

For those who have not seen it, it’s premise is a sort of hybrid of Silent Running and Robinson Caruso (in Space).  “Joel Robinson” works for Gizmonic Institute, a place largely managed by Mad Scientists, who then launch Joel into space in order to inflict terrible movies on him, in a search for the worst film imaginable, with which they can use to take over the world.  Joel, to help beat the loneliness, has built four robots out of various things he found around the spaceship, tenderly named the Satellite Of Love.  Joel turned this dire situation into a weekly show for the audience at home, and joining him are Crow, Tom Servo, Gypsy & Cambot.  

MST3k_Scrapbook_pic_1Each week, the Mads send a movie, and Joel and the bots watch it, cracking wise as the movie plays on from their silhouettes in the corner of the screen, using the occasional breaks they’re given to sing songs, act out skits, or otherwise pontificate on their plight and the movie they’re watching.  People like Ghoulardi used to insert himself into movies he was showing, and people like Woody Allen were experimenting with a version of interacting with movies, to various degrees of success.  But it was the MST3K crew that developed this style of “riffing” comedy, based on the idea that Joel and the robots would be hanging out together while the movie played, in the same way a group of friends would make dumb jokes as the movie went on in the same room.  It was the crew at Best Brains that realized that the Horror Host was there throughout the whole movie, so why not have them joke around with the film?  After all, who’s really watching the terrible movie that closely, really?  

While certainly inspired by the kinds of Shock Theater! duds that would fall between the cracks of Frankenstein and Dracula, by the time the ’80’s had rolled around, an entire culture of people dedicated to “Bad Cinema” was starting to crop up.  Kids raised on the kinds of late-night, drive-in style films that were being made in the ’60’s and ’70’s had grown up into a group of connoisseurs that understood what make movies truly bad.  Filmmakers caught on, and production companies would rush something that might get a reputation for being terrible, and thus, might be a back-door into Hollywood for a desperate creator.  And, for many, it worked; one only need to look at the work of people like Roger Corman – and the stars that grew out of working with him during his 60+ year history in cinema – for evidence.  You might be in a real stinker today, but tomorrow you might be directing The Last Picture Show, and could become a creative sensation.  

1980 saw the introduction of both The Golden Turkey and The Golden Raspberry Awards, born out of this same class of filmmakers who were willing to make things on a shoe-string and with no discernable stars, and by the ’80’s had rolled around, the US was steeped in Sci-Fi disasters, monsters where you could see the zippers, cheaply made thrillers, teenage schlock, and everything in between. 

Kukla_fran_ollieWhile the work of “horror hosts” had an influence on MST3K, there are three specific pre-cursors that are worth mentioning, as they had conceptual bits that this crew would use as the backbone of their work.  CBS Children’s Film Festival ran from the late ’60’s to 1984 (in some form, often under a different name), and showed terrible movies (edited, of course), hosted by Kukla, Fran and Ollie (a puppet team).  Still, no one was making fun of the movies full-time until Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection in 1985, which used the sort of Woody Allen style overdubbing to mock the duds they found.  (Hosts would mock the films between the reels, but the LA Connection made jokes while the film was running).  The Canned Film Festival in 1986 managed to feature comedic skits woven into (and between reels) of a longer film, another element that MST3K was particularly good at.  But in all three cases, these elements were not used to their full potential, and more pointedly, only CBS Children’s Film Festival was actually seen by any of MST3K creators.  

hqdefaultThe essence of MST3K was born out of Joel Hodgson’s stand up routines, where much of the background material of Sci-Fi gags and prop-comedy elements were already at work.  Joel was building contraptions and robot-type characters to use in his act, largely out of junk store bits he found here and there.  When Joel met Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Jim Mallon and Kevin Murphy at KTMA, it was clear that his hare-brained comedy might be able to find a home at their station.  

Joel had a number of ideas that were difficult to explain, and ultimately shot a pilot with them – The Green Slime – which involved a rough approximation of what he (and, now, they) had envisioned MST3K could be.  The station was impressed enough by the cheap budget and the amount of time a show like this could fill, and give them free reign to make 13 episodes, all produced in house, to be shown when there was little else to interfere with their other programming.  With a premier on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, there wasn’t much else to compete against, and KTMA didn’t see the harm in letting them air two episodes, back to back, as they had little else to offer.  The show was an immediately hit, and grew to be so popular that what started as an experiment was expanded to 21 episodes.  By the end of their first year on air, the show was being courted by cable TV.  

The Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) picked up the show, to be retooled for a first “official” season, with a modest budget and actual writers joining the team.  As time wore on, Joel and the gang hit on a formula to maximize the jokes-per-episode ratio, and ironed out the production side of things to a well-oiled machine that lasted for a number of years.  Their dedication to interacting with fans, keeping everything in-house, and making props themselves added to their reputation as something special, and even after Joel left and Mike transitioned from head writer to host, they managed to keep their grass roots (and fans), becoming one of the hippest shows on TV.  Tapes were incessantly traded among fans in a pre-digital world, and with a movie contract on the horizon, it seemed as if they were on their way to an eternal hit.  

mst3k-behind-the-scenes-writers-roomIn 1996 when Comedy Central canceled the show, it was clear that the future of the program was becoming uncertain.  Fans rallied, started a letter writing campaign (in the tradition of other canceled Sci-Fi shows), and soon enough the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) showed interest.  But this relationship did not start off well.  Sci-Fi gave notes on the show – and the changes that they insisted on making signaled that there wasn’t much of a future for the team.  Part of the problem was a dedication to the craft; the writers and producers – even at the very end – wanted to keep doing what they had been doing well, knowing a good thing when they saw it, playing to their strengths as the show changed and evolved.  The Sci-Fi Channel, however, imposed a number of demands, scheduled the show at strange times, insisted that the bots have story arcs from episode to episode, and in the end made it difficult for the crew to work on MST3K the way they wanted to.  When the word came down to cancel the show (again) in 1999, it seemed like a very natural place to end what they had begun, with almost 11 years of work under their belt.  

While it has been a tough time learning to live in a world without new episodes of MST3K being made, the influence and impact of this show is immeasurable.  We now live in a world where things like Sharknado are not only made, but celebrated, and our culture’s dedication to terrible movies has only increased in the years since.  Both Joel and Mike have their own spin-offs – RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, and there are even rumors of a MST3K revival at some point.  (Fingers crossed.)  

16663More importantly, they kept alive this idea of home-made TV, something that could take a cable access aesthetic and bring it into the rest of the world.  This persists now in a number of outlets online, and YouTube is littered with DIY type endeavors that are direct descendants of the chaotic (and charming) world.  The technology has changed the way we see and interact with these kinds of shows, and their formats are very different than they used to be, for sure.  But without seeing their dedication to both the idea and to the campiness of their craft, these creators and DIY makers would have had few inspirations available to help them see that any idea – no matter how crazy, could work.  Your idea may be silly.  It might even look ridiculous.  But with a little love and care, that thing can be as hilarious as Tom Servo, and that’s an incredible feat for anyone.  

Are You Ready For Shock Theater?

hqdefaultIn 1957 Television Was Transformed By 52 Horror Films That Found Their Way To The Small Screen.

If you were a young kid in the mid 1950’s, the world around you was changing faster than the cars that breezed down the Highway at the then-incredible speed of 50 miles per hour.  WWII was still fresh in the minds of your parents, but the sheen of suburban life was showing a world mired in pleasant, quite communities that spanned every inch of a country that was completely civilized at this late mid-century date.  Rock ‘n’ Roll was taking the country by storm, comics had moved to war, love, western and horror stories, movie theaters had double and triple features that lasted all day long, and Television pumped a constant stream of entertainment into your home all day long.  When you weren’t riding your bike around with your friends or hanging out in a tree fort, you were collecting baseball cards and going outside to “play.”

It was into this world that Universal Pictures dropped their “Shock Theater!” package on America, and in many ways, the world has never been the same.  Imagine waiting until your parents were asleep, and then coming downstairs to explore this Television, this appliance in your home that provided a near endless font of things to watch and talk about.  Imagine turning on the screen, late at night, to find The Frozen Ghost or Night Monster coming at you on this glowing, flickering box.  It isn’t that kids were not familiar with horror, or even scary TV shows.  But these films were always on late at night, when the moon was high, a cold fog had rolled in around your home, and everyone else in your house was asleep.

While there were plenty of reasons to lie awake at night, trembling, after 1957, at least you could point to Shock Theater! and know that they were at least sharing the same cultural nightmare.


shocklogo1Who isn’t afraid of ‘The Wolfman’?  

As Universal Pictures began to compete with the Television in terms of making money, it was clear that the company would need to have an entire division – nay, separate business entity – to manage this new market.  Companies were sending their films to up and coming TV Stations with the hope that their films would get more air time than anyone else’s.  But most production companies didn’t understand this new technology, and learning how to navigate broadcast times and on-air “packages” was something better left to experts.  Universal turned to a little business called Screen Gems, who not only specialized in selling films to TV, but had been doing into since the earliest days.  Universal handed over the keys to their back-catalog, and asked that Screen Gems get them a good deal, an help them retain the foothold on the market of Horror Films.

While most TV Stations had a packed schedule that filled nearly the entire day, there were huge swaths of time – late at night, when most stations went “off the air” –  that was difficult to program.  Most “average viewers” were asleep during these hours.  In most film-to-TV deals, the station would pay the film company for the “rights” to air something, and then run ads against the film to offset the cost.  What kind of ads could you sell for late night shows, where it wasn’t even clear if anyone would be awake to watch it?  Anything that you were going to show had to cost next-to-nothing, and yet couldn’t just be complete crap… could it?

With this “buy the rights” / “run ads” methodology to airing movies, another problem was coming up: no one wanted to buy potentially “bad” movies.  This problem had been circumvented by movie theaters in the old Studio System days, when a studio would force a theater to buy a whole package of unrelated movies, with a couple of great films, and a huge slew of z-list garbage that they were all required to run.  But TV Networks were a little too smart for this to work at first.  If they wanted King Kong, they wanted to pay a price that was going to make it worth their time to air King Kong.  The knew who was really helping who.

Screen Gems thought they could use this old tactic again, and combined the “package” sales idea of crap with few pieces of gold, and dropped the price incredibly for a 52 movie set.  The Shock Theater! package included a number of really great movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy & The Wolf Man, and wrapped it all in an instantly marketable name.  The basic idea of selling a shitty movie with a good movie was still at the core, but by marketing this package in a unified manner, and by counting on selling it to a larger number of stations at a dramatically lower price, Screen Gems stumbled upon an instant hit that paid off because of the bulk nature of the deals.  Almost every station was interested in low-cost programming that could be cheaply recouped with only a few ads.  And, with 52 movies in the initial package, you could run a weekly movie almost without any audience, and still make a killing.


tumblr_n98hxeVmQW1qdj321o1_500And With That, An American Institution Is Born.

With the success of the initial Shock Theater! package, Screen Gems assembled a new one – Son of Shock – which included 20 new films to complement the original 52.  Within the year, Horror Hosts of every variety were bringing you late night movies, all within the comfort of your own home.  The success of Shock not only solidified the idea of late-night movies on American television, but in the 60’s led to the development of Creature Features, which spread to even more stations across the country, and built upon the work that the Shock packages of the late ’50’s had laid down.

imagesWithin 10 years, midnight movies – usually hosted by a local talent that dressed up like a monster – went from unheard of to a standard at nearly every Station, a pretty radical shift in the landscape of American culture.  The influence of Shock is really immeasurable.  An interest in monsters not only launched magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, but gave American kids an appreciation of movies from the ’30’s that they would have never seen elsewhere, that in turn drew them into the theater for all sorts of revival shows.  Bands like Frankie Stein & His Ghouls, The Cramps and The Misfits seem entirely born out of growing up on Shock Theater! broadcasts.  Connecting late night TV with Halloween now gave everyone a reason to stay home at night, hopefully curtailing the problems that were developing as a result of Devil’s Night in the mid 20th Century.  (City officials in Cleveland actually claimed that crime went down when Ghoulardi was on the air, something impossible to verify but absolutely believed.)

With Shock Theater! there a homogenizing effect on the US.  Now, no matter where we lived, we were being exposed to the same movies, the same TV formats, and a sort of prurient access to narrative that was not the standard kind of thing we saw during the day.  Horror Hosts presented these horror movies like a ghost story, framed with the same kind of logic and humor.  It was a sort of unspoken agreement that we would all do this unacceptable thing late at night, and return in the morning tired, unnerved, but part of a shared experience we could discuss with our friends.  (“Did you see The Hypnotic Eye last night?  Crazy!”)

Where the ghost story connected us with the supernatural, Shock Theater! connected us with each other.

Not Just Rockford’s Phone, But The IDEA Of A Phone Itself

Phone05.) The Universal Telephone Ring

For the majority of my life, I was bothered by the sound design in a scene in Ghostbusters, when Dana answers the phone in her apartment.  There is near silence, then a slightly distorted, very loud ring.  It sounded so out of place, as if it was obviously artificial.  When I heard the film was remastered, I was hoping they would fix this, not at all piecing together that it was the same ring tone in Tootsie, The Sting, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, WarGames, and most tellingly, the intro to every episode of The Rockford Files.  You may even recognize it from elsewhere:

maxresdefault-1I didn’t even realize this sound effect had a name until I found myself going down a Wilhelm Scream wormhole one day online, when I found this to be the runner up in terms of audio sound gags that are inserted in films to the delight (and horror) of sound designers everywhere.  Unlike The Wilhelm Scream, the origins of this telephone ring effect seems to have been lost to the ages.  It seems to have been first used in early Leave It To Beaver episodes, but most likely was used then only because it was in the Universal Studios sound library at the time.

k11230325By the ’70’s, the effect became ubiquitous in Universal’s dramas, and you can hear it all over Six Million Dollar Man, The A-Team and Magnum P.I., along with countless other Universal Productions.  In the ’80’s, the tone of television began to shift, and sound designers became much more sophisticated, making custom effects for most projects.  A few jokes here and there slipped into the overall body of television and film, creating a sort of intra-designer code through the use of sounds like this one.  As with all codes, it was only noticed by other sound-nerds, and much like razor tape editing, is largely unnoticed by the average listener.

Something about the Chickenman universe just screams for this kind of sound effect as part of its landscape, and since there are a number of phone-call conceits to the structure of the show, it seemed like the right move for this presentation.  Something about this just feels right.

Super-Hero TV & Film

I just picked up watching The Cape again, now that I can stream it all from Hulu for free.  I caught a few episodes when it was new, and was excited to see more.  Of course, before I could really remember to get caught back up, it was already canceled.  So much for that.

Still, a short and sweet 10 episodes should be a nice break until I can find my next televisual obsession.  You can expect a longer post, with more detail about it’s varying qualities, when I make it through all the episodes.

In the meantime: I’m considering a longer essay on the nature of Super-Hero TV and Movies, especially given that there is a glut of them in the here and now.  I’m thinking of a long overview of the “genre,” how it has evolved, what sets it apart from other film genres, etc.  It seems that, like every other genre, there are certain things happening in this genre that are not happening in other films, and it may be worth investigating.

My question becomes: what would you consider “essential” Super-Hero TV and Film?  What shows and movies cannot be omitted from such a project?  What are your favorite Super-Hero TV shows and Movies?


Eureka on Syfy
Eureka on Syfy


Syfy Channel

Available on netflix.com (streaming), hulu.com (streaming), and Syfy Channel.

Leave it to the universe to cancel a show moments before I manage to discover it.  This morning, before I sat down to watch the most recent episode, I noticed a buzz on Twitter, than pretty much sealed its fate.  After checking with a few sources, it seems official: Season 5 will be the final season.  Say it ain’t so.

Well, actually, I’m pretty okay with that.  For all that Eureka is, at the center it is a dramatic comedy that depends on a fresh cast that can play off of each other to produce the jokes.  A sci-fi version of The Andy Griffith Show, where hometown logic and an old-fashioned sensibility can solve even the most sophisticated dilemma that this particular sci-fi geek-fueled techno-babble can create.  True, on one level you can use the formula ad infinitum, and there will probably be an audience that will follow.  But there are only so many times that Henry and Jack can put their heads together and find a conventional solution to an unconventional situation.  Sooner or later, you’ll have exhausted the gags.

In full disclosure: I’m not even fully sure how I feel about this show.  Since Lost ended, it has been hard to find a new TV show to sink my eyes into.  To me, Lost had everything I didn’t even know I wanted in a TV show, and many things that I’m a complete sucker for.  So to follow up something so brilliant with just about anything is going to leave the new thing a little lacking.  So, for some time I wandered.  Circumstances led me to this and that, and many recommendations were made but few were followed to the bitter end.  I had a brief affair with Mad Men, and may well return, but something was missing.  But through my roommates, I managed to catch one or two episodes of Eureka, and it seemed like a harmless – if nothing else, mind candy on my way to something else.

While modern technology does afford us amazing opportunities, it is the ability to watch many episodes all at once that has ultimately spoiled the show for me.  The comedy millieu requires a certain amount of the formula to be in effect, and repetition becomes particularly apparent one after another.  In making the effort to quickly catch up, the elements that made the show work became far to obvious to continue to be charmed by it.  Smaller doses would have been great, and I can see now why it would have paid off to have watched from the beginning, as these were coming out.  But, what’s done is done, and I now have to pay the price for being impatient.

That being said, there are some wonderfully great moments in this show that make it worth watching.  In keeping with the episodic nature of the show, they don’t make it a point to create a sprawling narrative.  In that regard, character development, and the interactions between the core members of the group, tend to supersede plotlines, sci-fi gimmicks, and the elements that I find particularly attractive in television.  Occasionally, they will diverge into a developing story that will last several episodes.  But even then, it would build using the old Stan Lee A story, B story, C story model.  As with many things in the world, the subplots in Eureka are often the best parts of the show.  The secret military bunker from the late ’30’s was getting great, until the literally sealed that plotline in concrete.  The Artifact subplot was interesting, but ultimately went nowhere.  The Organic Computers were interesting for a while.  Etc.  Everything comes to a close, and moves on.  The story is about characters – and comedy – and not sci-fi.

This is probably a good place to mention the role Twitter has played in all of this.  As a recent convert, I started following some of the Eureka  cast (@wilw & @neilgrayston) to see what it was all about.  To my complete joy, they are very hilarious, as 140 characters also happens to be exactly joke-length.  But this only endears me to the show more, in that I can get this close to the people I’m a fan of.  And for a character and comedy driven vehicle, this can only reinforce things for the good.

So, in the end, this is why I’m okay with the show ending after Season 5.  I don’t want to see the formula become so watered down that it no longer works.  Already, Eureka has used two of my least favorite conventions (Christmas episode and, urg, Clip Show), and having finally written a story to explain their own opening credits, they may be getting so self-refrential as to be bordering of incoherent.

Yes, I can see a good final run, and if you pace yourself and get caught up, you’ll probably enjoy it, too.  Because, in the end: the jokes are really funny.


10 August 2011 Update:

It appears that there has been a lot of inter-web buzz about this cancellation, and on some sites it seems to have been reported that a sixth season was also ordered for this show, with a possible ongoing status that may never end.  However, this seems like optimistic speculation on the part of many fans, and more to the point, the cast has all made announcements that Season 5 will be the last one.  I’m sure there will continue to be rumors about a sixth season until the bitter,  bitter end.  Personally, I still think that it is time to wrap it up, and move on to other things.  Perhaps some of the cast can move over to Warehouse 13, while others can move on with their lives.

It’s Finally Over

Goodbye... Until The Next Rewatch
Goodbye… Until The Next Rewatch

It is no secret that I am a Lost fan, and in spite of having watched all of the final Season live, as they were being broadcast, I can’t say I’ve been watching since the beginning. I picked up the show around the end of Season 3, and it wasn’t until part way into Season 5 that I started watching them as they were coming out. Even then, as I first sat down to watch Season 1, I wasn’t even sold on the show until Episode 11 – when they first find The Hatch – that I was really hooked. That alone probably explains quite a bit about meas a fan; rather than the characters, the actors, stuff like the DHARMA Initiative and the monster were much more interesting to me.

Anyway, I’ve been resisting the urge to write about the Series Finale until today. Part of me feels like I’m still unpacking things here and there, thus making an overall interpretation of the show incomplete, or at least, moot. Part of me also feels like I can’t really offer much more insight than the show does itself; sure, there are a few unsolved mysteries that were swept under the rug here and there, and I can certainly understand why so many people are suffering from a case of the WTFs, but to me, it works as an ending. I don’t feel cheated, and I don’t feel like it was bad in the least bit. I was definitely entertained.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

I also felt a little vindicated, when it turned out that I was onto something when, over two years ago, I wrote an essay about the use of sound in Season 1. (Here’s the link.) While I made no predictions about the future of the show (Why would I? How could I?), the overall thrust of my essay was that Hurley is important to the show, because he is our in-show proxy, that helps us understand the mysteries of the island because we’re more like him than anyone else on the show. This comment has particular significance now that it has been revealed that Hurley is the protector of the island. Not only was that very satisfying, personally, but makes total sense, meta-textually. Think of the writers as Jacob and Jack, and the fans as Hurley, and the analogy works. While the writers must move on, we as fans will protect the island through being emotionally invested fans of the show itself.

The circular nature of the show was also an inspired ending. The loop feels so complete, that the Pilot episode of Season 1 makes an excellent follow-up to the Season Finale. (Try watching them back to back. It really, really works.) I think this particular ending signals a number of things to us. First, this ending was planned from fairly early in the creative process. (How early is fairly irrelevant; the fact that they even TRY to answer as many questions as they did illustrates that the end was a consideration at a number a stages while the show was being made.) Second, all the imagined Prisoner connections I was seeing extend further into the show than I thought. And lastly, for a show that toyed with Time Travel as a narrative device (both literally and symbolically through narrative structures), it only makes sense to end where it begins. Flashbacks, -forwards, and -sideways seem particularly appropriate for a show that is going around in circles the whole time anyway. (Considering that there is strong evidence to support the notion that this is not the first time the island has had to gather forces to help destroy a Smoke Monster like this, again, helps suggest that this really is the only ending that makes sense, anyway.)

As with anything, there were some things that I did not like. But, as I’ve said before (and will say again), there are very few stories that I’ve read that are completely flawless anyway. I can’t think of many things that I’ve enjoyed 100% (with the possible exceptions of four albums), and it would be ridiculous to suggest that Lost should have been held to such a high standard, too. More than anything, I would say that the extreme emphasis on religion and religious themes really started to bog the show down at times. I am not religious, and find a lot of religious themes completely lost of me (no pun intended).

I was especially frustrated with the Sideways Universe acting as a sort of afterlife for the characters, which seemed very unnecessary. However, upon reflection, this notion of the afterlife does not fit (exactly) any of the religious concepts I’m familiar with, and in fact, seems to be an amalgam of a variety of notions. The Lost version of the afterlife doesn’t appear to suggest that any particular faith is the correct one, but rather, the relationships and friendships that we forge in the real world entirely determine what happens to us when we die. It isn’t quite enough to convince me to adopt religion (specific ones, or just a general sense thereof), but it does seem to suggest that even if religious faith is onto something, it is more motivated by what we do here and now, than by what happens to us before and afterward. It’s not a perfect fit for me, but it is certainly better than most television world views, that’s for sure.

Etc., etc. I could go on and on, and I’m still sorting through all the things I noticed / liked / observed / connected with throughout the entire Series. Let’s just say that I really, really liked it. But there were two details in particular from the final show that, for me, really exemplified what I loved about the show overall:

As Desmond (now immune to severe electromagnetic discharges) is lowered by Jack and Flocke into The Heart of The Island, he wanders past a few different human skeletal remains. Nevermind that The Heart of The Island is supposed to either turn you into a Smoke Monster, or kill you due to the extreme electromagnetic forces. Somehow, at some point in the past, a few people have gotten in. Who, and how? Clearly, that’s another show. It makes the cuneiform script found on the stone plug itself seem almost irrelevant.

Wait, cuneiform script? You mean there were people on the island BEFORE the Egyptians, who already pre-date Jacob, the Smoke Monster, and their mother? Really?

It just goes on and on like that. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier. I haven’t been hooked on a Network TV show since High School, and while I can’t say that my faith in Hollywood has been completely restored, I’m more than happy to know that someone, somewhere, can come this close to getting it right.

Well done.

Against The Law, I’m Sure

Secretly Hot Girl
Secretly Hot Girl

I seem to recall a bill that was passed some years back that stated that there would be more hot people on TV, for the general well being of humankind. While it was delayed for some time due to W’s stint in office, and then the writer’s strike, and then the economic downturn, I distinctly remember that things had finally been settled once the election had been settled, and that we would be slated to see the results, “No later than the end of the 2008 – 2009 broadcast season.”

So, where have all the hot people gone? I have been completely unable to find any hot people on TV, and not a single current celebrity has managed to do anything for me since the Secretly Hot Girl from Freaks & Geeks. (Busy Philipps, pictured above, though I was horrified to discover that she is decidedly not hot in just about every other role she’s played.)

Take, for example, Lost. A huge ensemble cast, and every one of them is Hollywood Hot instead of using that large cast to explore the vast expanse of humanity that comes in various shapes and sizes. They were getting a little closer with the introduction of Charlotte (intelligent female Indiana Jones type with an accent and red hair), but in many other ways she was just more of the same old, same old when you get right down to it. (It didn’t take long to bore me with the uncomfortable budding romance between her and Daniel, or her unnecessarily conspiratorial attitude.) While the smart thing goes a long way, I could see her dumping you the moment there’s another Dharma Polar Bear skeleton to dig up.

I would like to re-initiate the campaign to improve the hotness of the performers on TV. I know that my roommate is on board, and there can’t be that many people out there would would disagree. (In fact, I dare anyone to find a person who would admit, “I’d much prefer to have painfully ugly people on TV.”) Sure, TV’s free. And yes, one man’s hottie can sink another man’s boner. But there were, last I counted, about 200 channels, each with 24 hours of daily programming, and most of those shows have more than two actors each.

Do the math; there is room to improve the overall hotness ratio. Write to your congressman today! Do you want to go one more week hoping that the plot of some crappy show will passably keep you entertained for the next hour, when you know that’s not gonna happen? Wouldn’t it be easier if at least one of those people fumbling their way through their lines was at least pretty?

Lost – Season 1: The Music


Having come of age in the 1980’s, it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine a time when “Silent Cinema” would even be a possibility. The notion that audio and video were, in the beginning, separate makes sense now, but as a kid I would never have thought to think of them that way. Sound in film was so pervasive, so complete, and so ingrained in the experience of watching a movie that I never even paid attention to the way sound functions until I began taking film classes.

Fans are already aware of this, but sound is a HUGE element of Lost, and not just the musical score (though that plays a big part in the show, too). For a show that is as convoluted, sprawling, and interconnected as it has become, the act of watching a single episode often becomes an epic unto itself, sifting through clues and plot-points to try and connect what has happened with what is happening. To help make this easier, sound (and the way it’s used) helps guide viewers through the garbled layers of the show, and encodes the experience of watching it with audio-cues that adjust our viewing experience as we bob and weave our way through any given episode.

Like with many things that I enjoy, the humble beginnings are never perfect, and Season One of Lost is no exception. As the show stumbles to gain solid footing during it’s first cautious outings, it is hard not to feel that something is “off” as the Season progresses. My first impression was that the Season merely started slow. It wasn’t until 11 episodes in that I really felt like the show hit it’s stride, and even then the style, form, and flow didn’t really begin to become codified until near the end of the Season (which is carried over into Season Two, and becomes the dominant form the show takes). With a single viewing, it’s easy to see many of these growth spurts as indicators of the art and artifice trying to maintain the right balance. However, with an ear for the sound and how it’s used with regards to Hurly, Season One manages to communicate to us so much more than what is on the surface.

In the opening scenes of the Pilot episode, Jack is the character we meet first, and for many he is the point of entry when it comes to the world of the show. He is central to most of the storylines, appears in a larger number of flashbacks than most, and quickly becomes the leader of the main characters. But, more realistically, Hurly serves the function of our in-story proxy much better than Jack. Lost fans are, if anything, pop-culture junkies, searching for clues in the referenced media within minutes of the show’s initial broadcast. We connect to his interests because they are our interests. And, unlike Jack, we have more in common with the skillset Hurly has at his disposal. Chances are, we are not Doctors or Leaders of that kind, and when faced with survival on an Island, wouldn’t have many practical skills to contribute to the cause. Instead, we ARE good at looking for ways to relieve stress, pusuing interests for fun, and nit-picking about Star Wars… just like Hurly.

While the mysteries of the Island are not unfathomable, even for someone “in the know” they are extremely difficult to make sense of, an element of the show the writers are highly attuned to. The structure makes sure this does not overwhelm us with regards to this aspect of the show: each little mystery is revealed one at a time, adding to what we already know while never completely illuminating everything. This makes it easier to take, for both the characters and the audience. If first-time viewers were suddenly dropped into the middle of a story involving an Island-Monster, mysterious residents, and a “Hatch” that rapidly becomes the obsessive focus of the weirdest person you know, it would be far too easy for those viewers to change the channel. To keep us tuned in, these plot-elements are revealed one at a time, and slowly. And to help ease viewers into these mysteries, we are guided by the clever use of sound.

utilizes sound in a variety of ways to help direct our experiences as viewers. Primarily this is achieved through the use of diegetic sound, elements that have a source that all the characters can hear and interact with. (Dialog, crashes, explosions, a radio playing, etc.) The show also employs sountrack music to wonderful effect. The score is both creepy and beautiful, compelling and nerve-bending, horrific and mundane, and always at the service of the story. This music is always non-diegetic: the characters cannot hear it because it only exists as a sound-texture to contrast against / work with the images we see on the screen. The effects of this sound, then, can only really be understood in relation to us, and the way we interact with what we see / hear on screen. Nearly every piece of film produced now has at least some diegetic sound elements, and more often than not, non-diegetic ones, too.

In Lost, sound is used in two additional ways to a tremendous effect, first with non-/diegetic sound sources evolving from one to the other, and second with the “cues” used to indicate the beginning and end of a flashback. The flashback cues are a unique feature of Lost; they are entirely non-diegetic, but rather than working with the images on screen to create an emotional response, their entire function is to telegraph the beginnings and ends of Flashbacks. This sound is never heard by characters on-screen, and while they are heard in conjunction with on-screen images, rarely does this cue work to give us emotional insight into what we’ve seen. This becomes extremely helpful as the show progresses. While the flashbacks in and of themselves are rarely difficult to make sense of, the cue clarifies to us (within an already confusing narrative) what is “real-time” vs. “flashback.” (Or, in the case of the end of Season 3 “flash-forward.”)

In the first 17 episodes of Season One, Lost uses the American Audio-Montage technique to “wrap-up” more than a few of their stories. For a first-time viewer, this schmaltzy ending comes off as extremely corny, like an element of the WB’s / CW’s Prime-Time Soap form of storytelling, where a pop song is used to convey how everyone feels much more effectively than “dialog” or “story.” In three specific cases, these audio-montages in Lost begin as diegetic sound that evolves into a non-diegetic source, and in all three cases, the sound begins as a song that Hurly listens to on his CD Player.

The effect of the use of this convention on-screen works as a means of reinforcing Hurly’s role as our in-show proxy. Through the simple act of listening to a song, Hurly triggers an audio-montage that we are led-through, and summarizes the emotional trajectories of the characters through his careful selection of songs. After all, Lost is not something you can just jump into, and by easing us into the kind of show that it becomes near the end of the Season, we are able to better acclimate to this with Hurly as our guide. Very quickly, when there is a pop-song playing, it works as a “cue” to indicate that what we are seeing is now from his POV.

With this in mind, the ending of the third episode takes on a much more Lost sense of structure than the schmaltzy audio montage would indicate. In the closing scene of the episode, Jack suggests to Kate that everyone on the Island gets to “start over,” and when Hurly listens to his CD Player, everyone appears to be doing just that: the tensions between Jin & Sun, Shannon & Boone, Sayid & Sawyer, Michael & Walt (& Locke), etc., all seem to have melted away in favor of a family-drama kind of closure. The first time through this scene, one is struck with a sense of how much like the rest of one-hour television it actually looks.

However, a closer look reveals that this pop-pap moment conveys something else entirely: we know that Jack is wrong, as the emphasis on flashbacks illustrates that who they were is as important as who they are, now (or, at least, the former informs the later). And while everyone seems to be ending this particular episode “happily ever after,” anyone who watches past this episode (or even past the audio-montage to hear the end-credits theme music) knows that the problems and tensions that everyone faces are nowhere near close to being resolved. It only appears to end that way because, for Hurly, that’s how he wants to see it. His upbeat character and happy-go-lucky attitude manages to affect even the POV of the audience.

When he listens to his CD Player in the sixth episode, we already know that the POV has switched to that of Hurly’s, but the tone is drastically different this time. The song itself says it all, “Are You Sure (This Is Where You Want To Be?)” by Willie Nelson. At the end of a story about making choices about where to live (the caves or the beach), Hurly’s Audio-Montage leads us through a series of close-ups that illustrate the outcome of everyone’s decision. No one is happy, not even Hurly, who is normally able to go with the flow. While the song works perfectly in the context of the episode, it also works to further drive home the point that everyone wants off the island. Our relationship to the show is also aptly summarized, too: the real story is about to unfold, and we are left asking ourselves if this is the kind of show we want to be watching.

Like the set-up of a well-told joke, the third and last time Hurly attempts an Audio-Montage is in episode 17. Much has happened, story-wise, since this gimmick has been used before, and as viewers we have become invested in the mysteries despite the actual amount of screen-time they may have been given. Initially the montage appears very much like the ones we’ve seen before: Michael and Jin set aside their differences to work together on rebuilding the boat. Shannon & Sayid appear to be working on their budding relationship, etc. But we’ve just seen Boone warn Sayid about just that, and we know this is by far the happiest resolution for everyone. Then we see Sun, alone, nervously flaunting a freedom she never had before, as we know that the next chapter of her story will be difficult for everyone. By the time Charlie brings Claire some water, we’ve already connected to the idea that their story will end anything but happy. When Hurly’s CD Player finally starts skipping, breaking the fantasy entirely, we are not surprised when his batteries have run out. Hurly’s last source of escapism is gone, and the mysteries of the island can no longer be ignored.

It is no wonder that the following episode is Hurly-centric, and even takes a jab at these audio-montages when we see Hurly hiking to what sounds like a Hip-Hop track. It’s jarring, and we know his CD Player shouldn’t be working, until we realize that the sound is actually part of the impending flashback, coming out of the stereo that Hurly is listening to in the past. We are also not surprised that from here on out, the pace of the season picks up tremendously, as if the mysteries can no longer be contained and held back through Audio Montages. In fact, in light of Hurly’s connection to the numbers, our identification with Hurly not only seems to be a better way of reading Season One as a whole, but begs the question: why we weren’t more conscious of this the first time through?