Lost in the Lives of Perfect Creatures

Over at Slacktivist, the weekly discussion of the Left Behind series, in all it’s horribleness, has devolved, as it often does, into other topics, this time a discussion as to whether or not Lost can pull a satisfying ending out of the murky depths of it’s atrocious story telling. Obviously, I’m in the camp that says it can’t and because I’ve decided to write about nothing but TV shows on this blog, here’s why…

I used to really enjoy Lost. But I stopped watching after season 2 because I realized there was no way they could ever tie everything together convincingly without an awful lot of hand waving and/or magic green rocks being involved. And from what I’ve read, the writers haven’t even tried to answer any of the questions brought up since day one. Magic Polar Bear? Black cloud monster? Numbers? Way too much coincidence interlocking the lives of these random people on a plane? Meh. Let’s just keep going forward and if we add enough random weird stuff to this island, no one will notice that none of it makes sense.
Left Behind and Lost suffer in different ways from the same problem: the writers started out with a checklist of things to write about and set out to include all of them, whether they fit the dramatic structure of basic story telling rules or not. Polar Bears on a tropical island and street preachers that everyone pays attention to in spite of more interesting things happening are just manifestations of the same sloppy attention to detail.

Left Behind also suffers from the fact that the writers of that series are unspeakably awful at the craft of writing and, from what I’ve heard of Tim Le Hay’s theology and world view, they aren’t exactly decent human beings either. Not that you have to be a happy hippie to be a good writer; Celine was a noted misanthrope and Hunter S. Thompson‘s cracked view of the world and the people living on it was notably weird but at least they and other writers with a skewed perspective have an interest in human psychology and motivation. They are deeply interested in the hows and whys of people; what motivates them, inspires them or gives them the fear and loathing. Neither Le Hay and Jenkins (if you can believe it, Left Behind required two people to completely mangle the writing) nor the myriad writers of Lost seem all that interested in what makes the characters tick. Sure, the Lost writers like to pad out the script with highly detailed flashbacks showing how each and every person on that plane got there, but once they reach the island, none of this seems to matter much, unless and until it becomes the inspiration for Something Weird to happen. And because all the island survivors seem to have brain damage, not one of them thinks to remark aloud how curious it is that everything seems to be so connected. So the fact that Jack, while hallucinating his dead father, stumbles onto the waterfall which in turn leads to further mysteries involving a shipwreck and the crazy French Lady doesn’t really matter. None of it matters. It’s all window dressing. And since there’s just so much of it, the only explanation that there ever could be that would encompass both tropical polar bears, invisible monsters, numbers that make people crazy and a sociological experiment run amok would be some sort of global enchantment. Magic green rocks, again.

This is a fundamentals issue. The authors had a checklist. “You know what would be cool? if the kid sees a polar bear and then jack and sawyer have to fight it!” “Ooh! That’s good. And Magic numbers. we need more with the magic numbers. and Lock can’t really be a paraplegic, since the wheels of his wheelchair will get stuck in the sand so let’s have the island heal his spine.” “Great idea! Now we also have the crazy French Lady, the Mysterious and deadly Others, and then there’s mystic African guy, and we need to bring back the smoke monster…” The producer, who, in a TV Land serves the same function as an editor should have said, “No polar bears. No smoke monsters. You can have the Others but first you need to explain the numbers. Show your work.”

But no one stepped in and told the writers to limit themselves. Now, three seasons in and three more to go and we have the opposite of writing yourself into a corner. They’ve written themselves into a wide open field. We can go anywhere and do anything. Aliens? Sure, why not? Wouldn’t make less sense than a psychic smog monster.

I ran into a similar problem in the early stages of the book I’m writing. It’s called The Lives of Perfect Creatures, which comes from a quote by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: “All the universe is full of the lives of perfect creatures.”

He meant it literally, as far as I can tell, while I’m using it ironically, as the lives of the characters in the story are not exactly perfect.

The story is centered around a young woman who comes into posession of an umbrella belonging to a mysterious man with a mustache. She sets out to find him and return the umbrella. Along the way, she meets other people, gets invovled in their lives and finds that, like her, everyone is looking for something, usually silly, pointless or imaginary but still meaningful to them. These range form her best friend’s attempt to flirt with the person she has a crush on, to meeting an astronomer who has discovered a comet. Early on, I was presented with a large number of possibilities. I could have gone way out into left field. Some of my early ideas invovled aliens living inside the comet who are sending secret messages to people and the umbrella acting as a receiver and so it was guiding the main character. There was also an old man who was trying to filling for God with a super computer, a secret society of men with mustaches who were all Phantom Cosmonauts and a subplot involving a lesbian love triangle with an artist with wooden hands. All these things sound really cool and like they’d be lots of fun to write about. But all in one story?

I realized that while some of these ideas would work together, not all of them would. I didn’t really need aliens; they distracted from the characters and made what was a subplot more interesting and important than the main plot. All of it did. So I threw most of it out and just made the story about people trying to figure out their lives. I kept the umbrella, and the comet and the guy filling in for God, which has turned out to be plenty for one story. But the important part was realizing the story was about the characters, not necessarily wacky stuff happening to them. The every day lives of people, the most perfect of imperfect creatures, is interesting enough, and maybe putting them in odd circumstances will enhance their character flaws and motivate them to move in interesting directions but all the rest is just window dressing.

A series about a bunch of people who survived a plane wreck only to find out that the desert island is the site of a failed sociological experiment gone awry would be an interesting story. Shades of Lord of the Flies and Swiss Family Robinson, with a little One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for good measure. It would be a great enclosed space for some real, human drama, with room for social commentary about the nature of civilization and the lengths people go to separate themselves form the natural world. But that’s not what Lost is about. Lost is about magic numbers and whatever other cool shit the writers could think of.

Likewise, a novel about the Rapture would be interesting, even to a dedicated nonbeliever like me. What if the Bible were true? What would that look like and more importantly, how would it change the lives of people who had to live in a world where faith was not just a pastime for religious kooks and widows but a cold, hard fact of the world? Well too bad, no one’s yet written that novel. Instead, we have a series of books with cardboard cutouts spouting inhuman ideas for the emotional gratification of people who wish the world would end for real.

The good news is, since no one’s written these stories well, they’re still fair game. Though I call dibs on the desert Island story. I’ve always wanted to write one of those.