Friday, May 21, 2010

"LOST" v. "Fringe"

In his recap of the season finale of Fringe, Noel Murray offered some fascinating LOST-rich ruminations on the success and failure of long-running series:

Thought for the future…

With Lost ending, there’s been a lot of talk about whether network television will ever see another show of similar ambition, either in terms of the show’s sprawling narrative or its spare-no-expense approach to casting and location-shooting. On the latter count, I’d say the answer is probably no; the returns just aren’t great enough anymore to justify spending what ABC/Disney spent on Lost each week. (Then again, with digital effects, it’s possible to make shows look more expensive than they are, so I could see another studio/network launching a series with a globe-hopping bent.) On the former count, I’d say… maybe? The problem in the years since Lost debuted is that too many creators have taken the wrong lessons from Lost’s success. They think it’s all about freaky reveals and teasing out a mystery, and too many head writers start their shows thinking that they’re going to improve on Lost, by having a clearer idea from the start where they’re headed. The end result are shows that have five-year-plans but don’t last ten episodes, because they’re too dull and/or confusing in the early going.

Lost, by contrast, nearly always tried to deliver an entertaining hour of TV, first and foremost. And perhaps to the show’s ultimate detriment. It could be argued, persuasively, that in the effort to make every episode dramatic and haunting, Lost left its fans expecting more from its endgame than its creators have been able to provide. But if Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse hadn’t gone in that direction, it’s doubtful that Lost would’ve lasted six seasons—or even two. And it definitely wouldn’t have left behind so many hours of television that fans remember just from their titles alone. Lost’s greatest weakness—a lack of clear, unwavering focus—has also been the source of its greatest strength. The writers did what they had to from hour to hour to keep viewers guessing—and, more importantly, interested in guessing.

Can Fringe be the next Lost? Probably not. Unless it shows a marked ratings improvement next season, Fringe is probably only to going to have one more year on television, or maybe two, but not enough to expand the story as it currently exists to anything like Lost’s epic scale. Fringe has fewer characters and fewer mysteries, and a premise that’s more limiting. Lost could be a romance novel one week and a science-fiction story the next. Fringe, by-and-large, is just cops-and-monsters.

But I think there’s a lesson for future TV writers and producers in the way Fringe has developed. J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci had a bigger story in mind, but they were willing to let it simmer while they delivered stand-alone episodes to build audience interest. And then they were willing to expedite the mythology a little when the hardcore fans and critics complained that that the monster-of-the-week episodes were getting stale. Something similar happened with Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, which started out too goofy and then deepened magnificently by the end of its second (and final) season. Neither of these shows has gotten the balance exactly right, but they’ve lit the pathway for others to follow. If you want to make the next Lost, you can’t start out planning to make a show like Lost. You’re better off planning to make something like—oh, I don’t know—Castle, or The Mentalist. And then just see where you end up.

No comments: