December 17th, 2009
In an interview with GQ this week (where they were joined by J.J. Abrams and the rest of the Bad Robot crew), Lost co-executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse spoke candidly about their anxieties going into Lost’s sixth and final season (if not so candidly about what that season will involve, as per their spoiler policy leading into the much-anticipated swan song for the series). And in the span of that conversation, Lindelof shared their concern regarding what message viewers will take from the upcoming season:
“But in a lot of ways, the storytelling this year is just us telling people that they were wrong. They’ve built up theories for five years. When a show like this gets to a certain point and then it’s “Oh, man, we were cancelled,” people get to bring their theories with them to the grave. With us, it’s basically like, “No—you’re wrong.” And some people may have been right. Who knows?”
Questions, after all, beg answers, and only those of us with extraordinary will power have managed to avoid hatching an elaborate theory (or two, or twelve) about the island or guessing at where certain characters will end up by series’ end. But what happens when the show has built up five seasons worth of fan-generated answers, only to systematically disprove 99.9% of them over the course of the sixth season? Their job has, as a result, expanded to not only providing answers that satisfy plot or character, but also answers which are so satisfying that they also convince the audience that being “wrong” is not something to be ashamed of.
Because people don’t like being wrong, as a general rule, and they can often respond negatively (likely with “No, you’re wrong!”) when a show seems to be dead set on devaluing their theory, or ignoring a relationship they “ship,” or eliminating a contestant they cheer for. And reading that GQ interview, and witnessing the a Big Bang Theory fan community over the past months, and finding myself responding to tonight’s So You Think You Can Dance finale as if it were “wrong,” I’ve realized that we shouldn’t vilify being wrong; in fact, it’s probably one of the most powerful emotional connections we have to television.
[Spoilers for the So You Think You Can Dance Season 6 finale, and extended ruminations on the question of “wrong,” after the break]
Reality television is built to breed subjectivity, to convince the audience to begin rooting for a favourite contestant. Of course, for those shows which are entirely pre-recorded like Survivor or The Amazing Race or Top Chef or Project Runway, the audience has no control over the outcome; as a result, there’s a certain distance (not a complete one, mind you) we have from the results, building attachments to certain contestants but also realizing that it is entirely out of our hands. For these reality shows to seem “wrong,” there needs to be something like a cruel fate befalling a team/individual (like Zev and Justin losing a passport and being eliminated on this season’s The Amazing Race) or the game becoming unfair (like this season’s Project Runway with its revolving panel of judges, which robbed the show of the consistency required to make objective decisions). Something needs to go “wrong” which goes beyond our favourite having a bad week, or our favourite losing in a close battle to the end.
But on shows which are live, and shows in which we are encouraged to actively participate by voting for our favourite contestants, the increased democracy increases the propensity to believe a decision is “wrong.” So You Think You Can Dance loves touting its champions as “America’s Favourite Dancer” (okay, they’d say favorite, but I’m Canadian damnit), a title which means absolutely nothing but sounds very democratic and very patriotic. I want us to separate the two qualifiers in the title, as they have contradictive effects on the audience’s perception of the eventual winner of the contest.
Obviously, “America’s” reminds us that other countries have their own versions of this competition, reminding us Canadians (and other potential international viewers) that we’re disenfranchised in this instance. It also, however, reminds the audience that they, and not the judges, collectively pick the winner of the competition. But, every now and then, host Cat Deeley will look directly into the camera and tell us that we’re going to find out “your” favourite dancer. And at that point we, the audience, become America; although in reality our vote is only one of eight million, the reason we should be voting is because we are going to “own” that dancer when the contest is over. And we don’t think about the other six million people watching when Cat looks into our eyes and speaks with her sultry British accent: we are thinking about ourselves, and how our vote is the only one that matters.
And yet, “Favourite” is a more purposeful qualifier, an out for the producers should a dancer who is clearly not the most talented (like, in fact, Season 6 winner Russell) win the competition. It exists because people often vote for who is the most attractive, or the most charming, or the most heartwarming, or the most hilarious, or the most elegant, or the most quirky, or the most emotional. So for those of us who felt that Jakob, perhaps the best technical dancer the show has ever seen, deserved the $250,000 cash prize that goes with this silly title, the show already has its answer built into Russell’s victory: who, after all, can argue with the democratic might of America choosing based on whatever criteria they feel fit to utilize?
I knew all of this ahead of time, of course, but yet for some reason all of the results felt “wrong.” Not just Russell’s victory, either, although it was perhaps the most blatant (and not helped by Russell’s over the top celebration in which the magic of adrenaline eliminated the injury that moved him to tears not sixty minutes earlier); eliminated contestants like Kathryn and Ellenore felt equally “wrong” in leaving when they did, even if I thought Jakob deserved the win in the end. And I quickly realized that it felt “wrong” because something has been off all season (as I’ve written about on two separate occasions, in fact), and it finally reached its climax here in the finale.
It felt wrong because America didn’t have all of the information they should have had. A truncated schedule meant dancers performed less and had less weeks of “voting” in which fans could exercise their democratic rights, and that instead of four dancers making their way to the finals a full six competed for votes. Not only does this increase the amount of people who were “wrong” (as there are two more losers than in previous seasons), but it also meant that contestants who might have built more of a fan following with more time (Kathryn), or might have revealed more of their limitations (with all due respect, Russell) or had more time to connect with audiences (Ellanore) or had more time to separate themselves from the pack (Jakob), were not given that chance. It creates a scenario where not only do we have the usual disappointment over “our” choice losing, but also the sense that the show’s carefully groomed democracy was in some way tainted.
Now, obviously, the recourse here is non-existent: you can’t overturn the results, and in many ways people who felt as if they were “wronged” have only themselves to blame if they didn’t vote for their favourite (I have an excuse in that I couldn’t vte at all). But when people make powerful emotional connections to a show like this, they can’t help but be disappointed, and because each season introduces a whole new set of characters it’s not as if they’re given time to accept their disappointment: next season, unless they happen to pick the winner from the beginning, they are going to be deemed “wrong” all over again, and the most you can do is accept it – which, as we’ve discussed, isn’t easy.
This might not seem encouraging for Lost, considering that the show has a lot of rabid fans who have invested years of their life to the show and have an emotional connection with the characters that go far beyond what anyone felt for Jakob or Russell. But what’s interesting in television is that being wrong isn’t always something that is seen as fundamentally negative. Sure, it’s hard to overlook the disappointment when your favourite contestant loses on a reality show, but that you became so emotionally attached in the first place is the power of television.
And for a fan community like the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon/Penny shippers, who even in their moniker (Paradox) acknowledge how bizarre such a relationship would seem considering the series’ status quo, that emotional attachment exists beyond concepts of right and wrong. Because the producers have been very clear that such a relationship will never happen, and that the chances of Sheldon ever finding love at all are miniscule, those who choose to “ship” this couple are always going to be wrong*. And yet, they’re fine with that: while there are some who still hold out hope, there are others who accept that it will never happen (and that many fans and critics, myself included if I’m being honest, don’t think it should happen) and yet choose to do root for them anyway because it is how they emotionally connect (in online discussions, in fan fiction, etc.) with the series.
So as Lost enters its final season, we have to ask whether or not being “right” has ever been a concern for the fans, or more accurately whether or not solving the show’s mysteries has served as an emotional connection about which being right is important to viewers. And for me personally, that couldn’t be further from the truth: the show is built on its characters, and my connection is with Jack and Kate (okay, not so much Jack and Kate) as opposed to Smokey and the (Polar) Bear. In the great roundtable discussion with critics Maureen Ryan, Alan Sepinwall and James Poniewozik, they discuss the end of the Lost and emphasize that it’s not mathematical (there’s going to be no QED) and that getting answers (in their minds) should be secondary to the characters reaching satisfactory ends (I particularly agree with Alan on this point, in that the fate of Desmond, Penny and young Charlie is my greatest concern as well).
Yes, Lost suddenly shifting into a show that provides answers is running into a brick wall of audience expectation wherein some of them will be proven wrong about what the smoke monster is, or what the four-toed statue represents, or some other crackpot element of the island. However, most viewers have emotionally connected with the show in ways which go beyond being “right” (I don’t know many just dying for an “a-ha!” moment), and one would hope that those who do end up being “wrong” will recognize that their emotional response to being disproven is one that reflects the show’s craft (drawing them so far into the show’s mystery) as opposed to any sense of disrespect or failure on the part of the writers (which is problematically common, but more often than not blown way out of proportion).
Of course, in the end it could come down to the fact that people truly don’t like being wrong, so one hopes (and, considering their track record, expects) that Lindelof and Cuse will deliver answers that make wrong the new right for even the skeptics.
- Ryan and Ashleigh got a deserved early exit from the finale, but they perhaps got the biggest boost from the finale: getting to do a dance they choreographed themselves on a national stage is basically an informal audition for Dancing with the Stars, where the pair could end up in the future (presuming that show doesn’t die soon, which we both know is just wishful thinking).
- Linda Holmes at NPR also had a nice piece on Lost, considering it as the most important show of the decade, today, so it’s been a great couple of days for Lost-centric pieces.