The past few decades have seen the rise of what might be termed “literary cinema”—that is, films that aspire to the same kind of meaning and prestige attributed to influential works of literature. Whole volumes have been written on this phenomenon, so I won’t go into detail here. For our purposes, it’s enough to note that this concept has so far been contained to the medium of film (and largely to so-called “art-house” films in particular), and has yet to broach the realm of television.
At least, that’s probably how it looks at first glance. Embedded somewhere in the last sentence of the above paragraph, though, are two fundamental assumptions: First, that TV is somehow more popular a medium than film; the fact that, even with the rise of DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming services, people still watch a great deal more TV than they do film, makes watching a TV show a more commonplace, less “special” experience than watching a film.
Second, that the popularity of television and the commercial nature of it1 make it somehow less worthy of careful, fine-tuned storytelling than film. The money involved, the mass audience it must cater to, the fact that every fifteen minutes (on most channels, anyway) sees a commercial break where corporations will hawk kitchen accessories and ED drugs—all these combine to delegitimize TV as an art form. No matter how good a network TV show might be, there will always be something holding it back, keeping it clearly walled off from the literary ambitions now flourishing in cinema.
I think both of those assumptions are about as wrong as you can get, and they do a profound disservice to both those who work in television and those who watch it. The underlying attitude is really no different than that of people who scoffed at the idea of comic books as art or literature (or both, if you prefer), who are now eating humble pie as major universities around the world have introduced M.A. and even Ph.D. programs of study in Sequential Art and related fields.
Don’t get me wrong—a great deal of the criticism leveled against television is accurate, at least in many cases: Formulaic, derivative sitcoms do pander to the “lowest common denominator” too often; unoriginal shoot-‘em-up action shows do borrow a little too much from their over-the-top cinematic cousins. But these are criticisms of particular works in a medium, not the medium itself, and neither is wholly attributable to the popularity of TV.2 And, of course, we can’t forget there are exceptions to every rule, which brings us around to Lost.
Over the past ten years, Lost has been a major subject of discussion and analysis, not only on the topic of its (sometimes confused) narrative structure and character development, but also with regard to the elements of eastern religion and philosophy it incorporates. These influences on the creators become unmistakably apparent with the introduction of the mysterious Dharma Initiative, but if you know where to look, they are already present in the very first episode. By exploring the inner workings of Lost, we’ll help lay to rest the idea that TV is devoid of artistic and literary potential, and demonstrate that Lost, while not perfect, handles elements like subtext, symbolism, and character in ways that resist categorization as anything other than literature.3
In next week’s article, covering the show’s pilot, I’m going to argue that one major theme4 of Lost, particularly in the first half of the series, revolves around one very specific instance of culture clash. Namely, we find a conflict between eastern and western worldviews masked in simple good-versus-evil narratives. What appear on the surface to be struggles among the show’s characters are really reflections of an inner tension between the (western) idea of good and evil as external forces to be harnessed or combated, and the (eastern/Daoist) concept of yin-yang, in which nothing can exist without its opposite.
- Not that film isn’t also a commercial medium, but it is obviously far less so than TV. ↩
- TV is hardly the first medium to tailor its product to a wide audience. Charles Dickens received similar criticism when he serialized novels about the plight of the “indigent masses” of Victorian England in mass-produced periodicals. There is the element of Dickensian social commentary, of course, but the fundamental point is that broad appeal should not and does not disqualify a work from having enduring artistic or literary qualities. ↩
- I’m using “literature” in a broad sense here, and I’m obviously assuming that the term can refer to something other than just written works. In simple terms, let’s think of “literature” as a loosely defined category of fictional works in any medium that pay strong attention to emotional realism and character development in the stories they tell, and have something of real importance to say about humanity or the world itself. ↩
- For the sake of these articles, I’ll use a pair of definitions favored by scholars like Kelly J. Mays and Kelley Griffith, in which a subject is a concept or idea treated by the work in question (obsession is a major subject of Moby Dick, for example), while a theme is an overall message that can be expressed as a propositional statement about that subject (a theme of Moby Dick might be: Obsession can become a powerfully destructive force, for both the obsessed person and those around him or her.). In any case, analysis of theme is often quite subjective; the subjects discussed in a given work may be clear-cut, but the theme is usually open to interpretation, and there’s nothing to preclude even short works from having multiple, sometimes conflicting themes. ↩