A serial debate

Two critics tackle the relative merits of TV’s supernatural-themed serialized dramas, ABC’s Lost and NBC’s Heroes

Josh Bell, Spencer Patterson

Josh Bell: We’ve been watching Lost for almost three full seasons now, and a lot of what was great about it at first has grown tiresome—the flashbacks, the cryptic references to the mystical power of the island, the mysterious new characters who pop up unexpectedly. We’re weary of hints and intimations; we want answers. We’ve been watching Heroes for not quite one full season, and it seems like it’s doing everything that we wish Lost would do—questions are answered, actions are taken, the plot moves forward. When there’s a flashback, it’s for a specific reason. We get a few hints about a mysterious person or event, and a few episodes later, we find out what it is.

But is this approach necessarily better, or ultimately even more satisfying? Although I’ve been annoyed with Lost plenty of times this season (and last), I still think it’s the better show, with better writing and acting, and overall more rewarding. Heroes may be offering us a short-term jolt, but 10 years from now, which one will have the lasting impact, be regarded as an important work of art? To me, there’s no question that it’ll be Lost, regardless of the direction they take in the coming seasons. But I imagine you’d disagree.

Spencer Patterson: Who said anything about art, not to mention 10 years from now? With precious few exceptions, television is a disposable medium to me—I want what entertains me most, at this moment, without regard to legacy. I felt that way about Lost in the beginning, when I couldn’t wait for Wednesday nights and the chance to learn something new about the characters in the island. But somewhere between the tailies’ appearance (anyone remember Bernard?) and Hurley’s auto show (Cheech Marin ... really?), I stopped caring so much what was going on, probably because it seemed like the show’s creators’ did, too.

Heroes, meanwhile, is a show on a mission: Introduce characters, develop them within the framework of a linear plot and, some time within our lifetime, culminate the adventure. With only two episodes left this season, it’s entirely possible the whole will-New-York-blow-up-or-not? scenario will resolve itself, leaving us with nothing to fuss about this summer, and that would be just fine. Without the aid of tiresome serial flashbacks, Heroes’ heroes already feel as developed as Lost’s survivors, and having the former return next year to take on some new challenge would be enough to bring me back. And, by some weird circumstance, were the show to end after just this one season, I’d feel far more fulfilled than I do after nearly three seasons of Lost.

JB: I agree that a lot of the sheer excitement of Lost has dissipated, but I think that happens to almost any show over time as its initial novelty fades. I doubt Heroes will be as fresh and revelatory as it is now by the time it reaches its third season (which isn’t to say it won’t be good). It’s hard to keep up the shock and surprise over time, and to me the mark of a good show is that it’s able to replace those things with depth of character and involving storylines. Certainly Lost hasn’t always done this, but I don’t think the creators care any less about what is going on (even if you or I have lost interest). And I would say that the show does still have the ability to surprise, although for me it’s not so much with recent answers to long-standing mysteries as it is with the tangents, like the much-maligned Nikki and Paolo episode, which had virtually nothing to do with ongoing plots but told a clever and suspenseful story in a single hour, and entertained me more than almost anything Heroes has done all season.

As for Heroes, you’re right, it’s on a mission, and it’s getting things done. But I don’t think the characters are nearly as well-developed as those on Lost (although I find the flashbacks just as tiresome as you do). Most of them remain rather one-dimensional, defined by their powers, and come off like chess pieces being moved around to further the plot as it barrels forward. Personally, I kind of like having something to fuss about over the summer, to anticipate, and a show that could end after a single season and not leave me wanting more is not a show that I would consider a success. I, too, would feel fulfilled if Heroes ended after this season, but I don’t know if that’s a compliment.

SP: There’s probably a happy medium between Heroes’ reveal-all-as-you-go tack and Lost’s hold-everything-back-as-long-as-humanly possible strategy, but if given a choice between those ends of the spectrum, I’ll go with instant gratification. It’s not that I require the answers to Lost’s most fundamental questions anytime soon; in fact, I suppose I’d be disappointed if they actually explained the island’s true nature at this relatively early juncture. But what I don’t need this far in are a series of new problems to solve when so many are already in play. We still don’t know anything (for starters) about Walt’s special powers, where he and Michael went, how Libby ended up in a mental institution, what the “smoke monster” consists of or why the “Others” steal children, yet, over the course of four recent episodes we were suddenly also left pondering 1) whether Sun is destined to die; 2) where the parachuting newcomer came from; 3) if and when Juliet will turn on the survivors; and 4) how Locke’s dad came to be on the most isolated, unfindable island in the world. Enough already!

An argument can be made that Heroes keeps it too simple, but I say each character features enough built-in intrigue to keep it interesting, all while key puzzles are being unraveled. They could have held Sylar’s identity back for a season, but why? They could have dragged out the secret of Claire’s real parents for years, but to what end? If they’d really wanted to, they could have withheld the nature of the many heroes’ individual powers from us (and them) for a while, too. But, as if Heroes’ writers watched Lost and purposely opted for the exact antithetical approach, the show moves from Point A to Point Z with pace and deliberateness, giving its viewers what they really want when they really want it.

JB: Although you’re right that there are 1,001 dangling plot threads still hanging around on Lost, I’m actually finding the new mysteries more compelling, because they seem to have more immediate resonance for the characters. And things are being dealt with a little more swiftly—I was worried for a while during last week’s episode that Locke’s dad would escape into the jungle, and we wouldn’t see him again until halfway through next season, but the characters actually confronted the issue and resolved it.

I’d love to learn about those other things you mentioned, but I feel like in the meantime we are getting substantive developments that are just as interesting.

I also think that “giving viewers what they really want when they really want it” is a highly overrated quality when it comes to TV shows (or any works of art). I don’t really want to see TV producers, or musicians, or filmmakers catering to the perceived desires of their fans. Not that I’m accusing Heroes of pandering, but letting the audience drive the direction of the creative product seems to me a poor way to create something genuine and exciting. I don’t want shows to do exactly what I expect of them, even if what they actually do is very frustrating. As much as I appreciate Lost’s recent tendency to give answers, I do worry a bit that they are a little too cowed by fan complaints, and rushing to offer what they think the fans want, rather than following their own internal plan.

SP: Agreed that the new Lost plotlines are intriguing; I just think I’d enjoy them more if there wasn’t so much old baggage hovering just beyond our range of vision, stoking my fear that the show’s writers are going to pull a few Sopranos-Russian-in-the-forest dropped threads before all is said and done. Not to mention, I wonder what it might be like to see a full episode without—perish the thought!—a dawdling, ultimately unrevealing flashback awkwardly chopping up the few moments of actual new activity we’re served up each week.

As for Heroes, if pandering results in an lively, engrossing television series that gives me (and millions of others) a compelling reason to wake up on Monday morning, I say pander away. Caring what your fanbase thinks might not be arty or hip, but it’s real, and right now the flying man, the time traveler and the girl who jumps off bridges and lives to talk about it are by far the realest, and coolest, things coming out of my TV set.

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