Friday, May 14, 2010

SUSPENSE IS SOMETIMES OUT OF THE HANDS OF THE CREATORS OF "LOST"

Wow, do I ever love the TV show "Lost"! Sadly, it comes to a close this Sunday, May 23. Bummer. And yet, the show's long-planned ending has provided it with real direction in recent seasons. Instead of spinning off onto tangents, they shows producers are looking towards an end-point, and creating suspense because of it. The suspense of the show, however, is not always entirely in its producers' hands.

That's some of what I learned from a spoiler-free New York Times interview with show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. In that article, Times writer Lorne Manly poses the question that friends and readers most ask him (aside from that of the show's meaning): "How much did the writers and creators know going in about how things were going to end?" Curiously, they say that the very "last scene of the show was something that we concocted very early on in the first season of the show." However, that didn't necessarily mean they had mapped out the basic plot points that would bring them from the start to that imagined finish. Early in the show, they had to go season by season, and only once they had negotiated an end-date for the show could they more specifically map out what was going to happen. Still and all, throughout production, the contingencies of life and the process of discovery dictated certain changes.

For example, the writers hadn't originally imagined romantically pairing the characters of Sawyer and Juliet; but they experimented with coupling them in the script (and, I believe, in rehearsal), and found that it worked. You might say that the two characters fell in love of their own accord, organically and quite apart from the producers' expectations. Other times, it was the real-world conditions of the actors that changed the course of the show. Cuse and Lindelof say that they had "all these fantastic intentions" for the character of Mr. Eko, but the actor who played him "hated" being in Hawaii, where the show was shot, because he was 8,000 miles away from his beloved friends. So they had to kill off the character, which as it happens gave them room to open up another character, that of Ben Linus.

As it is in TV scripting, so it is in life: experiments and unexpected turns create suspense in the stories of our lives. That is, such events create suspense so long as we imagine our lives as stories: if life is instead experienced as a series of unrelated incidents, then there's no goal that is being impeded, no hero/heroine that is being challenged, no high-stakes game that is at risk of being lost. Same with the show: if it just presented a series of unconnected and therefore insignificant events, we wouldn't be invested in it in the slightest, and wouldn't care that Mr. Eko got killed off or whether Sawyer gets together with Juliet or Kate or, for that matter, the nearest tree or the island dog. Suspense occurs only because we care about the people involved in a TV show or a life story, and their well-being or their destinies are at stake. 

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