Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
especially welcome to extensive readers

Friday, April 20, 2007

On the Shelf with J. Wood

While I may not be a fan of Lost,it would be foolish of anyone interested in the pop culture scene to deny the strong impact the show has made upon television audiences,not only drawing in sci-fi followers but attracting a broad spectrum of viewers not only intrigued by the ongoing mysteries of the show but tuning into the many literary and cultural references that give Lost it's unique accent.

One of those folks exploring the pop culture signifigance of Lost is J.Wood,whose
Living Lost blog at Powell's Books website has earned him praise from Entertainment Weekly's Doc Jensen,calling him"the best Lost Blogger out there". His collection of essays on the show,Living Lost: Why We're All Stuck On The Island,came out early this year and looks like the go-to guide for insights on where the story may ultimately take it's faithful fans. Wood holds degrees from both the University of Wisconsin and Trinity College in Dublin,Ireland.He is currently working his PH.D in English at the University of Virginia,where he also teaches a course on media literacy.

I was fortunate enough to get a moment of his time,to discuss not only Lost but a few other observations on the pop culture/media scene:

1) What inspired you to blog about Lost?

The interest originally began in a media criticism class I taught at the University of Virginia. The first season had begun, and I'd not watched any of it, but knew about it. I suggested my students could write about how Lost was the first dramatic television series to be based on a reality TV show (only in the loosest sense). No one took me up on it; those who were watching said it was too complex. That summer when the first season DVD came out, there was a deal at a local video store; rent any new release and get a Lost disc for three nights free. I got the first disc, and within about four or five days, had been through the entire first season. I've done editing work for the Garrett County Press for some time, and the publisher contacted me about doing a book on Lost.

I was just on the project; we didn't know I'd write the book until I drafted out an intro as a kind of framework for a possible book which we'd look for someone to write. It turns out the folks at Powell's Books are fans of the show and they liked the book. They often have authors keep a blog for about a week when they write a new book. They tried something new with me – and I can't thank them enough for this; rather than blogging for a week, after each new episode, I'd write a blog column about that episode's literary, philosophical, historical and narrative links. We missed the six-episode miniseries at the beginning of this season (timing; the book wasn't out yet), but since then, I've been writing for every episode.

2) Did you share Stephen King's concerns about Lost being dragged out past the point of suspense of disbelief just to keep the ratings/revenue going?

Not so much, not anymore. I think it was a legitimate concern about a year, year and a half ago. King was right – no one wants to see this die an ignoble death like X-Files. The head writers/producers, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, have stated they had a definite beginning and end mapped out from the outset. How they got from A-Z was flexible, as long as they hit certain letters along the way. But they knew early on that this was a narrative, so it required an ending. And they had the examples of previously-failed series with a complex mythology to warn them. It's a demanding show to write and produce; even the actors want to see a clear end, so they can appropriately pace themselves for consistent performances and not burn out.

This year Cuse and Lindelof's contracts were up, so they've had some considerable pull as to how long this show can go on, and it looks like they're going to try to cap it at four seasons. The only people who weren't on the same page was the execs at ABC, but I think they don't want to be seen as the suits who killed a magnificent thing, and are starting to come around. They have to kill the golden goose, or it'll be worthless. Besides, the Cuse and Lindelof have also hinted that if ABC wants to extend it out past where they (the producers) think it should go, ABC can do it without them.

3) What do you think of shows that openly embrace pop culture references, like Gilmore Girls, Heroes and Veronica Mars?

It's a bit of a metanarrative. I've not seen Gilmore Girls or Veronica Mars – I'm a grad student and lucky to have the time to see Lost – but I've followed the phenomenon a bit. Television shows are by definition part of pop culture; television shows that embrace other elements of pop culture are starting a conversation that requires a certain kind and level of audience awareness in order for them to fully participate. In that sense, they're doing what literature has done for decades – creating a subtextual web of reference that serves as a kind of shorthand for creating meaning. Buffy the Vampire Slayer went as far as to have hip bands just playing in the local club where high school students hung out (I remember an episode where Cibo Matto was there in the background).

And that's great. What it does is reward a certain way of reading. I'm coming from an English lit background; I'm in the PhD program at the University of Virginia English program, and believe we're all always performing acts of reading, whether we realize it or not. Shows that actively embrace different elements of pop culture and work them into their narratives cultivate a kind of visual reading that is relatively new ground. It depends on what the shows do with whatever pop culture they're taking on; Seinfeld showing Superman on his shelf and making inside comments about DC comics is just a kind of surface level embrace that only gets you so far.

But take Heroes; it's clearly drawing on the comics form, but it takes it a few steps farther with establishing shots, shot sequences, and narrative moves derived from printed comics. And their use of the web to develop these intertextual themes is also something new; Heroes put out a web comic that develops the story through ancillary storylines (much like Battlestar Galactica's webisodes, or Lost's alternate reality game). In the final analysis, a contemporary viewer picking up on the X-Men subtext of Heroes or following the literary references in Lost isn't doing anything all that different than a reader who follows the Homer or Rabelais subtexts of Ulysses.

4) Which do you think is the lesser of two evils; reality lifestyle shows (The Osbournes, The Real Housewives of Orange County) or reality competition shows (Survivor, Project Runway)?

One is less evil than the other? If I'm ranking these, I'd say the lifestyle shows are less evil, if only because they're innocuous; there's nothing really at stake beyond voyeuristic entertainment, if you find that stuff entertaining. All reality shows are appealing to some part of audience vanity – the “this could be you” idea. The competition shows bring in a level of cut-throatness that just seems unnecessarily puerile. Let's face it, the only reason these shows got going and are anything like a success is because they're so easy to produce; there are no actors part of any guild, no Hollywood hassle, they're cheap to make, and you could produce them non-stop (isn't there a reality TV station on cable now?). But they also point to the bankruptcy of creativity in television.

This is one of the reasons why I think narrative shows like Lost and Heroes and a handful of others are proving to be such a success now; they're filling the creativity gap reality TV left. We'll see how long that lasts; the one thing that tends to happen is that once network execs catch up with the success of such shows, they'll try to get their fingers into them in order to make more money out of more shows that match a certain model, and that leads to a stifling of creativity. (Interestingly, the ABC exec who first greenlighted Lost wanted to do a show that was a mix of Survivor and Cast Away; no one had any idea what it would turn into, but that was because J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof got as much control over the story as possible from the outset.)

5) Who is your favorite character on Lost and why?

That's a hard question, because it changes about every three episodes (which is a testament both to the writing and the acting). Very few of these characters are flat. And as the third season has developed, so has the acting. One of the features of Lost is thinking you may know what's going on, and then being whiplashed around in a new narrative move that was being set up right in front of you without you being able to parse it. The actors themselves are only a couple of scripts ahead of the audience, so they're as much in the dark as we are. What their challenge has been – and it's a challenge they've lived up to – is to convey the sense of partial-confusion and partial-awareness necessary to make the narrative work. They've reached a point this season where their characters are now inscrutable; the scenes between Locke and Ben in “The Man from Tallahassee” were extraordinary.

Elizabeth Mitchell has ramped up her characterization in the same way, and so has Josh Holloway and Jorge Garcia; when you watch these characters' faces, there's about six things going on at once, and it's nearly impossible to pick out which “thing” is the right one.

On a strictly gut-level reaction, there's a few characters I dig. Mr. Eko was great for the mystery and depth he brought. In some ways, he reminded me of a kind of counterpoint to the Judge from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Locke is such a tragic sap, with such an awful story, that he's of inherent interest, and the more we get to know about him, the less we really know. That creepy smile in the pilot episode with the orange in his mouth said it all. Ben is a fantastic mastermind; following his character is like playing a game of chess, and trying to second-guess Ben and his motives has become a fun online pastime. I'm intrigued by Desmond, in part because he's become a walking, talking philosophical experiment in free will vs. determinism vs. compatibilism. And lately Hurley's character is proving to be a jokey, cuddly counterpart to Ben – he can be just as manipulative and calculating, but doesn't thrust himself into any leadership roles, which is interesting.

6) Do you think that media literacy has gotten better or worse during this past decade?

I'm going to try to keep this relatively short, because this is something I designed a course around. First, in general, I think it's worse. A functional democracy goes off the rails without a functioning media and an audience that can critically interpret that media. Despite the explosion of media in the past thirty years, our critical faculties haven't caught up. And I think there's a reason for it: In the early 1980's, Reagan deregulated media. It used to be that every radio station was federally mandated to have a news department if they wanted a license. The TV networks were required to have top and bottom of the hour news breaks, and certain areas of news had to be covered. The local nightly news was an hour long. This was all to keep the populace as well-informed as possible, and it implicitly demanded an understanding of how to interpret information that was transmitted via the different media at hand (television, radio, print).

When the deregulation hit, radio stations no longer needed to keep a news department, and the vast majority were axed. The regular news breaks ended. Local news was cut from an hour to about 7 minutes of news, 12 minutes of sports and weather, and some lifestyle fluff. In effect, news media was forced to compete with commercial entertainment media, and the two began to merge. At that point, our media literacy started to slip. You don't need to look far to see how the two have collapsed into each other; the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith's baby overtook any media regarding one of the most important constitutional crises since Watergate, the prosecutor firings. If the market decides what media we'll have, and they've decided that celebrity gossip deserves more coverage and resources than a constitutional crisis, that doesn't say much about that market's media literacy nor how the media frames its stories. But that's a broad generalization; if that were true all the time, there'd be no Daily Show or Colbert Report.

That said, there's some places where media literacy has jumped exponentially, and that's with the community jacked into the web. New forms of media have emerged, and the jacked-ins understand it because they're developing it – maybe not writing the code, but finding new purposes for that code. The recent Youtube Hillary Clinton/1984/Obama video is a good example; it drew on the Apple ad, the 1984 theme, conflated it with current politics, and with a simple shot of a T-shirt made a broader political statement out of that context. That gained traction because people understood how to read it.

And the jacked-ins are a savvier audience; the typical news and advertisement presentations of the past 50 years just don't cut it with them. David Foster Wallace writes about the problem of people having their interpretations determined for them, rather than people getting to develop their own interpretations. The jacked-ins want to develop their own opinions, and don't get easily suckered by people or groups trying to manufacture opinions for them. And now the mainstream press is slouching, year by year, into that online space. They don't really get it right, not yet. The media terms are altered online. Just look at what happened with John McCain's MySpace page – you don't bring a stiff, family-values political campaign to a virtual wall of graffiti and expect not to get tagged. So there are media illiterates online, but they're generally not the ones creating content and development by adopting new forms of media for new purposes. Brave new world, baby.

7) What is your favorite TV character/show?

That's hard to say. Until Lost, I really didn't watch too much TV because I'm in grad school and just generally crunched for time. Watershed shows, for me, were Northern Exposure and X-Files. I'm generally always impressed with South Park and The Daily Show/Colbert Report material, but that stuff is red meat for a media cynic. My guilty pleasures are Good Eats (that guy, Alton Brown, did some of the early REM videos, and I love how he approaches cooking like hacking), and I'm a pushover for those quickly-produced hyper-nerdy documentaries on some of the geekier cable stations.

My thanks to J. Wood for his time and if you'd like to check out his Lost blog at Powell's,please click the title link above. You can get a copy of Living Lost from Powell's Books or directly from Garrett County Press by visiting www.gcpress.com .


Robin Brande said...

Wow, Lady T, I can't believe this interview! All of us Lost fans thank you!

darby said...

this is a great inteview. thanks so much for the coverage.

lady t said...

You're welcome,folks. We fangirls and boys ought to stick together.