Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lost in the waiting

Alright, we have a new president, so it's time to move back to important topics, like television.

Bookending the inauguration were the return of two critically acclaimed series, Battlestar Galactica (last Friday) and Lost (last night). I watched both premieres live (as opposed to how a lot of TV is seen these days, recorded on DVR and viewed some time later), and now that both are over, I'm left with a totally different experience. And it has nothing to do with the content of either episode.


I should interject here that this entry will not attempt any analysis of these series. That's better left for fan message boards filled with glib conjecture and the capricious dispensing of the term "douche bag"; if that's what you want, we can take this up off-site.

There's no knowledge of either show necessary if you do not follow the shows, or need for spoiler warnings if you do. They're certainly shows that elicit discussion, both having mystery-type elements to be figured out, but here we'll be discussing something else.

However, a bit of personal background is necessary...


With BG, I started watching back with the miniseries that kicked off its reimagining back in 2003. Given the cheesy source material of the eponymous '80s series (which I watched in childhood), I had low expectations, but they were far exceeded. It proved to be quite good, and when the full series commenced in 2004 I watched it each week with anticipation. It only got better.

Viewing each episode either on the night it aired or within a day or two, there was always the better part of a week to wait for the next one. Whether I wanted to be patient or not was irrelevant; waiting was mandated by the particulars of television scheduling. This carried on for the years of its first three and a half seasons, so it was something to which I was accustomed.

So when the premiere of the second part of the fourth season finished airing last Friday night, I looked forward to next week's episode certainly, but the wait was nothing different than what I'd done for the better part of this decade.


With Lost, which started the same year that the BG series did, I did not watch it.

Okay, as any reader who has made it this far is probably screaming "What?!" at this point, I'll offer this explanation for those who must know why Lost didn't make my regular viewing list at the time (and for those who don't care, skip to the next tilde):

When the television series Lost premiered I had been watching J.J. Abrams' previous show, Alias, since its beginning in 2001. However, by 2004 I thought Alias had devolved to the point where it displayed a shadow of the promise it showed when it started. I still watched, perhaps out of habit, perhaps because I wished to give it the chance to rebound. That patience with it was not ultimately paid off, as the show ended weakly; it proved not to deserve any benefit of the doubt.

Fairly or not, I recall attributing this failure to creator Abrams' essentially forsaking Alias for Lost. He was a creator, but he was not a finisher.

I did give the (then new) Lost the courtesy of viewing the first episode (as it premiered on the same night that I was already sitting through the previous series). And I thought I gave it a fair shot. Maybe it subconsciously held the baggage of being blamed for the downturn of Alias, but such is, I suppose, the danger of the network touting who had created it; they didn't want me coming in to it with a blank slate of expectation, and thus I did not.

So I watched the premiere, not necessarily with an open mind, and I specifically recall being unimpressed (by whatever criteria I employed at the time). I didn't watch it the following week; I'd given its creator one chance before, and I didn't feel any compulsion to grant him any further opportunities to disappoint me.

As the TV season progressed I heard the buzz about it. I saw critical acclaim for it in the media. I was unmoved. It wasn't that I doubted it was a good show at that juncture; I was skeptical of it still being good at the end.

Fool me once…

However, this is not a diatribe against J.J. Abrams. That much I offer just to allow the reader to understand why I didn't watch Lost during its first four seasons.


And now back to our topic...

In the late autumn of 2008 my fiancée borrowed the DVDs for the first four seasons of Lost from a friend of hers. She had been discussing the show with the friend at work, and the friend raved about it.

My fiancée only sat through the last couple of seasons of Alias with me, joining the story after Abrams left to focus on Lost; she found it compelling. And it was compelling. I'm not saying it was an altogether worthless piece of crap; the writers knew how to craft a cliff-hanger ending to each episode that made one want to know what happened; they were certainly capable of that much.

(At the end of each episode she would cry out "I hate this show!" It wasn't that she genuinely despised it; she hated having to wait a week to find out what happened next.)

Perhaps she lacked the Abrams' disdain because she came in to Alias after it was already on its downward slide, and thus thankfully lacked the perspective to see it as I did; for her, it never got worse.

So as I was saying, in the autumn of 2008, despite my reservations, we started watching the first season of Lost, four seasons behind everyone who viewed each week when it had aired in the intervening years.


[I feel compelled to explain that I consider a compelling show to not necessarily be a good show; that's one where you watch not merely to see where the story goes but because the story is so well done that you'd watch it over and over, even when you know what happens. (And not merely because, eh, there's nothing else on.) A compelling show can be good, but the one does not ensure the other.]


With the intent to catch up before the season 5 premiere, we devoted a few weekends almost exclusively to watching episode after episode, sometimes viewing half a season in the span of a single day.

When one episode ended, there was no waiting a week to see how the cliffhanger would be resolved; it came up immediately (or within minutes if we needed to change discs). When season 1 ended, there was no waiting months to see what happened next. Heck, even in the middle of the episode there was no waiting through commercials. It could not possibly have fed the need for immediate gratification any greater. (Sometimes my fiancée would cry out "I hate this show" semi-ironically when getting up to switch out discs, in sardonic homage to the Alias days.)

And although I am not ready to let Abrams off the hook, I will admit that part way through watching the first season's episodes I was doing so willingly. Lost does not rely as much on merely being compelling as did Alias; it is clearly a superior show. (Whether it ultimately proves to be "good" remains to be determined after the series concludes. And given that it seems Abrams has little to do with the show at this stage, that may bode well for it.)


And now we have watched the two-hours that kicked off the new season. It was hard enough sitting through commercial breaks, but now the questions posed at the end will not be immediately resolved. We are forced to (gasp!) wait until next week.

Yes, this is no different than what everyone who has been watching for the past four years has had to endure, but they've had four years to get used to it.

We're not ready for this kind of transition. Maybe ABC could sneak the next episode early, and then slowly transition to a weekly schedule so we can acclimate to that.

Perhaps we should have waited until the next two seasons were over and came out on DVD.


Oh, and one last thought: The premieres for both Galactica and Lost were prefaced with recap shows that featured producers talking about the shows in an attempt to allow new viewers to be able to jump in as of the latest season. I found both to be more annoying than helpful, because both shows are ones that are best discovered by watching them unfold, not by being told what you should have picked up along the way regarding what the themes were.

If you haven't started watching either Galactica or Lost, I recommend holding off on starting until the complete series DVD sets are available (and then having a marathon viewing session), but even trying to catch up with the DVDs as we did is vastly superior to just watching these recap shows.

SciFi and ABC need to accept that they're unlikely to get new viewers at this stage, and should simply be happy if the viewers they already had stick with them. And don't put pedantic producers on screen; let the shows speak for themselves.


  1. Thanks Doug. I will hold off. Maybe I'll appreciate both of these series a bit more if I wait for the DVD releases. I have tried every season to give Lost a chance and still... I cannot stand the program.

    So this year, I tuned in for the recap episodes, however I was so turned off by the text at the bottom of the screen that I couldn't hang in for even an entire episode. Too much stimuli, you know? It was like watching one of the 24-hour news networks and nothing turns my stomach more than that.


  2. Galactica is worth the effort. Lost, well, we'll see in two years.


So, what do you think?