The Sandbox

Over on his blog, John Rogers is schooling us in story mechanics:

If you want to know what the creators intended a show to be “about”, you can usually go back and watch the last scene of the pilot.  In E.R., it’s Noah Wylie sitting on the sidewalk, exhausted but changed.  It’s going to be a show about how people survive this tumultuous, draining situation, and how it changes them.  I won’t spoil the last scene of the Breaking Bad pilot, but it’s stunning in its prescience right down to the final line of dialogue.  (Seriously, it makes me want to kiss Vince Gilligan on the mouth.)  The last scene of Leverage is Nate explaining the physics of Crime World, and how he and his crew are going to fuck up The Man.  This show is about those people punching rich guys in the neck.  Because they have Sinned, and Deserve It.

What’s really kind of interesting is to go back and watch the Lost pilot. (Remember, the end of the pilot is the end of Ep 2*.)  It ends with Charlie asking “Guys … where ARE we?”  That sets up the mystery of the show.  But is that really, eventually, what the show’s about?

I’d argue that’s what so infuriated many people about Lost by the end of it. (Full disclosure: I really dug the show, and am show-business friends with a fair chunk of the ex-writers).  Was Lost “about” the people on the island (emotion), or “about” the mystery of the island (the system)?   I’d guess for the writers it was about unravelling those castaways’ stories every week.  And sure, for a big chunk of the audience, that’s what got them emotionally invested.  But mysteries demand solving, and as soon as the system of the island was set up as a mystery it became part of the contract with the audience. “Oh, there are mysteries!  Puzzles!  I’ll pay attention over here, too!”  But if you don’t then satisfy the puzzle-solving part of the relationship — God help you.  Audiences are hella-smart.  Even if they’re not conscious puzzle-solvers, the lizard brain knows it isn’t getting what it wants.  That frustration feeds back into the character side, and before you know it fans are frustrated with both parts of the equation, because they’re feeling that …

… ahh … you know the best thing I ever heard, the thing I wish someone had told me when I was 20?

“Every criticism is the tragic result of an unmet need.”

He goes on to talk about how what his show, Leverage is about differs between him, co-creator Chris Downey, and Executive Producer Dean Devlin. And that the show works not in spite of this, but because of it.

The thing that makes Leverage work, is despite the differing views as to what the show is “about”, Rogers, Downey and Mr. Devlin have enough of a common ground in agreement. That common ground becomes the sandbox of the Leverage verse, in which there’s enough elbow room for them each to explore their own version of he show and have it still be Leverage. This is because they each agree on what the show is not as much as they agree on what it is.

I don’t think that was true for Lost. I think at some fundamental level, no two people running that show were able to create a common ground. The sandbox of that world had no boundaries and so the story got muddled because it could be whatever who was writing this week’s episode wanted it to be. So we got labyrinthine mysteries without satisfying answers, layer upon layer of character moments that ended up going nowhere and because no one had ever said Lost is A, B and C but not X, Y and Z, the overall story wallowed in its own potential to be anything and so was nothing. *

Tangentially, I just watched The Man With the Golden Gun the other night, which is one of my favorite Bond movies. And it occurred to me that The Man With the Golden Gun is one deeply weird movie, in a lot of ways that no other Bond movie is. But however silly and strange it got, it never became a parody of a Bond film, in the way that Casino Royal (1967) was. It stayed within the sandbox of Bond Films, it just unearthed a strange corner on the fringe full of psychadelic tropes and weirdness that most other Bond films ignore.


* On the up side, there’s enough material in the six seasons of Lost that, with some judicious editing, someone could probably turn it into a dense, weird, little miniseries that could be satisfying. All it would take is someone deciding what the island is and is not.