This is quite fitting since I’m reading Infinite Jest and in the book there’s an experimental movie called, incidentally, “The Joke” that represents a metalinguistic experiment with an audience (where the audience isn’t simply spectating, but actually the object of spectation).
Now you expect I draw a parallel between what I’m reading and the TV show I’m watching, but the truth is that I only see even more evidently, and am convinced of having been right and to the point, what I write down after the very 1st episode I watched, back in 2006 when Lost began airing here. Comments particularly interesting because warning about “premature” judgment, and “giving it some time” in order to “be surprised” since “it’s not what you think it’s going to be”.
Four years and six seasons later I can now declare that I’m now even more convinced that: it’s exactly what I thought it was.
Actually during the show I started to think that maybe it was going to be something more than I thought, but now that the end approaches I’m more and more convinced that my first interpretation was the very best and more precise.
This is how I rephrased it even before going back to read the old blog post:
Was its worth 100% dependent on payoff?
Season 1 was a big metalinguistic joke about TV series. It was the american Battle Royale, filled with gratuitous spooks and illogical plot twists to show that you could make a good show out of nothing just through good execution of technique.
Then they saw it worked, grew attached to it, and decided to add a plot that would somehow give a sense to what was actually built for the purpose of being senseless.
Lost is basically an exercise to show how much writers can be in control and use their own audience as a joke that the show is ultimately about.
Quoting the 2006 post:
It has the exact same scheme and feel, the exact same use of narrative structure and expedients, like the mix of different characters that don’t know each other and then the use of neatly placed flashback to reveal part of their stories just before the character is involved into something in the main plot. Making the audience connect & sympathize a moment before something horrendous and life-threatening happens to them.
Basically there’s nothing original if not a nearly infinite list of stereotypes and references (across all forms of media). Borrowing hands down from sci-fi and horror expedients to “conceal” and keep up the tension. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is another one, the expedient to never let you “see completely” to build up the tension (also “Alien”) and the shaky camera + “close up” of a terrified face taken right from “Blair Witch Project” (the trick of not-showing, or seeing an horrified face but not seeing the object of horror).
So what’s the deal with the polar bear?
Not something brought there to be the object of some sort of scientific experiment, but just a dissonant note used to amplify the effect of a spook. “A polar bear in a tropical island”, that’s the correct way to see it. It’s something unsettling and mysterious that is shown not for a logic reason or external purpose, but solely for its properties of being unsettling and mysterious through the univocal act of being shown, so made to be, existing. Everything on screen in Season 1 (and the exact reason why each following season failed to recapture both the mood and the ratings) appears solely for its effect and never for its meaning. It’s use of (visual, cinematographic) language not for its meaning, but for what it is. It’s the use of language applied to language. So metalinguistic, or the property of the language to describe itself.
Put in another way: it’s a joke that the authors played on the audience. A game whose object is the audience itself and its reactions. Where the audience’s theories are part of the puzzle. A recursive game and sort of annular relationship between audience and showmakers. One feeding the other in recursive fashion of obsession.
It also says: we have the power of doing everything. We have control even when there’s NO control, because it is language that represents the perimeter of what can be experienced and it is through language that we can manipulate what is perceived/true, and change it, overturn it, every time we want. They tried to push this to the point that the relationship writers-audience was so bent that it was on the point of snapping: in Season 3 they introduced two new characters (the loved Nikki & Paulo) that have always been there but never seen, put in place through an elaborate ret-conning exploiting plainly the “perimeter of what can be experienced” represented by the limited and finished space that comprises a filmed shot. You can’t see what’s behind or what’s at the far margin. With the purpose of showing the audience that they could be shown everything and they would still fall for it. “Open wide and wait for the spoon”. Only that the relationship was so bent that this didn’t actually work out and the writers had to stagger back and reappraise the power of their egos.
This means that “Lost” is a study on language, its power and its effect on the broadest audience possible. A use of medium not to convey a message, but a medium that feeds on itself and is self-aware. A study on the production of meaning or its absence in favor of form.
Ultimately, whatever “plot” or “ultimate meaning”, that the show may or may not have, is entirely secondary and tacked on. That’s why up here I wrote: “Was its worth 100% dependent on payoff?” It’s not. The payoff is supplementary in order to not delude the audience and entirely break the relationship of love. It’s akin a spectacular action scene that serves no real purpose beside amusing & contenting (also called fanservice). But the truth is that the true experiment is involving the audience in the same way one Dharma experiment involved observers being observed. Which is exactly the type of mockery they love the most: they show you exactly what they are doing, in a slightly refracted context, and yet you fail to put the pieces together.
I think it worked perfectly.