Monday, February 28, 2005

I Killed Laura Palmer

In light of the drubbing I’ve taken for criticizing Lost and Carnivale (no worries, it’s the liveliest this blog has been in months!), I’ve been thinking about some TV of yore, trying to figure out why I’ve become impatient with these two shows that I do like. Maybe it’s that, 15 years after David Lynch opened my eyes to what TV can be (good and bad), I’ve just come to expect so much more? I like slow, complicated storytelling that rewards the careful viewer. I like feeling like I’m in on something, like getting a Dennis Miller joke the studio audience misses.

But I have to admit I’ve also gotten lazier. I find myself frequently criticizing movies lately with a simple "I'm bored," or "I didn't care about the characters," which might mean there are a lot of boring movies out there, or it might mean that I have a real problem seeing things after they've been overhyped, or it might just mean that these days I need to be more actively entertained. While I don't think I want to be spoon-fed my entertainment, I also often have some other background activity happening while I watch TV, be it folding laundry, eating dinner, groping my boyfriend or, well, blogging.

Except when I don't. Alias always gets my full attention, as did Buffy. So there's something about Lost and Carnivale that hasn't grabbed me in a way that makes them worth my undivided time.

(Before I get fully into either show, I must mention that I'm a week behind on Lost, and two on Carnivale, so, given the nature of both shows, it's entirely possible that everything has changed. I also ask you to avoid spoilers in the comments, please.)

I criticized Carnivale for its apparent reliance on ancillary materials (which, now that I'm temping, I may spend some time with), but later I remembered that in the summer of 1990, much to my mother's dismay, I spent my allowance on The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Diane: The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper (hey, it won a Grammy!), and even The Access Guide to Twin Peaks. Of course, I was 15, and these days a) I don't have that kind of time and b) would feel like a big loser if I subscribed to, say, The OC Insider.

Twin Peaks was, at its core, a fairly straightforward murder mystery for its first 18 episodes. Granted, Laura's killer turned out to be an evil spirit named Bob who was possessing Laura's father (a fact that probably only made any sense to me because I had read the Diary), but much of the fun of the show lay in trying to solve the crime with Cooper, learning everyone's secrets, and realizing that they meant anyone might have done it. And even in weeks where we learned little about Laura, there was so much going on, and a level of faith that it would all connect eventually (and it sorta did, though sadly without a satisfying ending).

Carnivale is kind of like that for me, only the carnies are the Packard Mill and the hotel, and I don't really give a crap about Ben/Laura (I guess Ben would really be Cooper in this shaky analogy). Maybe I'm slow (and as much as I like smart TV, I don't want my pop-culture to make me feel dumb), but it's because I don't really have a clue what the stakes are. Sure, it's a classic good vs. evil thing, but the tone of the show makes me feel like I should know more than I do. And talking to other people, I'm pretty sure that's true. I remain baffled by references that I think I'm supposed to understand by now. The dreams/visions are pretty to look at, but edited so choppily that I never really know what's going on or who anyone is. The structure of HBO's schedule is partly to blame – with almost a year between seasons, how is anyone supposed to remember anything?

I was very patient with the show last season, but this year, every time Management opens his (her? its? Linda Hunt's?) mouth I feel like I've missed something. I simply don't know who some of the people they talk about are. And that's fine when it's Management and Lodz and Sampson, and we're obviously not supposed to know, but we're supposed to be on this journey with Ben, the clueless outsider, and he now clearly knows things that I don't. Again, I freely admit that I haven't been paying enough attention, but the show – at least that end of it – has lost me. Hello, it's television – I shouldn't have to read an episode to understand it! I'm perfectly happy whenever we're in carnie-land, especially with the Hooch family, and poor sad Sophie and her poor sad ghost mom.

Lost, to its credit, is very straightforward and doesn't confuse me at all, but I'm getting annoyed at the lack of clues. It's impossible to "play along." I'm all for sprawling mythologies, but there's a real art to revealing information in a way that's slow and tantalizing, versus one that's just slow. For the first four (maybe even five) years of The X-Files, Chris Carter was a master of answering a question, only to ask two more in the process. But the point is, he was answering questions. Lost seems to be all questions. On X-Files, on Alias, on Buffy, I always felt like their creators knew exactly where they were headed, even if they actually didn't (paging Nadia Sloane...). Lost feels like a bit of a free-for-all. There's a monster in the jungle! Nevermind, no there isn't. There's a crazy French woman who might have all the answers! Yeah, but why would we want to go visit her again, maybe get some of her food? Polar bears! Psychic children! Hatches in the ground! Step-incest! Ah, we'll get to it later. Now, knowing JJ Abrams' work, I'm pretty sure I'll eat my words and this will all come back with great importance later, but for now it's bugging me. And I fear it may all end with some kind of sub-Shamalayan twist, and we'll learn the shadowy, dark-suited figure in the foliage is Rod Serling.

I like the structure, generally, and the way the information about the castaways' motives and, probably more importantly, their interconnectedness, trickles in. But I do get frustrated when, for example, we get yet another flashback about Charlie having been a drug addict and bastard, things we already know, instead of any new information. (And if Driveshaft is supposed to be so big, shouldn't they have more than one song, and shouldn't it not suck?) Or weeks when nothing happens on the island at all. Come on, where's Hurley's flashback? What's the deal with the sensible black woman who's in every five episodes or so? Have Kate and the Korean woman had a conversation since Kate learned her secret? Where has the dog disappeared to? They've created a very rich, well-populated world, but they don't seem to be using it to its full advantage.

There's a fine line between "clever structure" and "monotonous formula" (see 24). You can't make a series out of No Exit. X-Files, Alias, Buffy and even Twin Peaks were smart enough to break up mythology episodes with standalones – though those too helped the characters develop and added to the growing world. And they were often very funny. I'm not saying we should have a slapstick golfing episode of Lost, or a Very Special Carnivale where Justin meets Dracula, but something to break the mood would be nice.

I like Lost a lot, and maybe that's why I'm so critical – I want more out of it. I like the characters, the actors, and the premise, and past experience makes me trust Abrams and company do eventually bring it all together. But it's been weeks since I've had a real "Holy shit!" moment, or a cliffhanger that I've cared about. I expect better of it. I want to be grabbed from the edge of my seat. I want to, you know, care.

Oh well. My log likes both shows just fine, but then, my log does not judge.

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