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The Conversation: TV in the 21st Century


“Wait, so is the smoke monster Jack Bauer?” The series finales of 24 and Lost were among the most rabidly discussed and eagerly awaited in television history. But if you weren’t watching from season one, you were probably left out. Or were you? With options like TiVo, the iTunes store and On-Demand, ingesting the first umpteen seasons of a show is a remote control or mouse click away. Have these brought TV and its consumption to a golden age, or watered it down? Here to discuss are Press senior editor Spencer Rumsey, editor Brad Pareso and Editor-in-Chief Michael Patrick Nelson.

Brad


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Lost finale was great; just had to get that out there.

Michael

You know, I stopped watching Lost at the beginning of the third season, partly because I felt manipulated by the writing, and partly because I knew that trying to watch it on a weekly basis was only going to frustrate me: In my experience, the best way to watch Lost was (and is) in rapid succession, one episode after another, over a long weekend. And I think that’s increasingly true of narrative television in general. Mad Men or True Blood or Treme or anything that is considered to be truly great television right now is more or less better viewed in giant doses in a single sitting than in small ones parceled out over a long time.

Brad

I didn’t get into Lost until the middle of the fourth season. I caught a nasty cold from a former staff writer and was laid up at home for three weeks, so I went out and bought the first three seasons on DVD and caught up. Same deal for 24: I raided Best Buy and spent a few weekends at college working through the first four seasons.

Spencer

I wanted to appreciate Lost because of all the mythological claims made for it but it wasn’t  surreal like Twin Peaks and I found it hard to just dip into it without making a full-time commitment. And now that I know the whole thing was a dream it reminds me of the famous Dallas episode when Pam woke up to find her hubby Bobby Ewing in the shower instead of her former fiancee Mark Graison, washing the entire season’s plot line down the drain, all because actor Patrick Duffy had decided to return to the prime-time soap. Critics thought the cliffhanger device turned the whole series into a joke. So now I’m at a loss (haha) as to whether I should immerse myself to catch up when I am ready to hunker down or let it go. As for 24, I enjoyed the intense action and it didn’t matter how often you watched; you knew the season would come down to the last 15 minutes anyway. But when I learned that people in the Bush administration were taking their cues from Jack Bauer’s interrogation techniques, I felt like the show had crossed over a thin line. I do feel sorry for Kiefer Sutherland, though. What can he do to top that role?

Brad

There is absolutely no way to dip into Lost, no questions about it (and since the ending actually was not a dream, maybe you’ll give it another shot). But I think things like Hulu, the iTunes store and On-Demand make the catch-up game obviously a lot easier but also more attractive.

Michael

I agree. I started watching Lost when I purchased a DVD box set of its first season, long after that season had ended. Same with The Wire, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica… but that does present a problem as a viewer. Because, OK, the ending of Lost was not a dream—and everybody knows that (well, everybody except you, Spencer)—but knowing that, and knowing what did happen, why would I go back and watch it now? It’s kind of a Catch 22: Lost was best watched on DVD or On-Demand, but if you waited to watch it on DVD or On-Demand, you probably had its ending spoiled, thus completely eliminating the reward you get for waiting. It’s like, either you watch it in real time, or you wait to watch it in one long sitting but avoid the Internet till you get around to the opportunity, or you wait, and then it’s somehow spoiled for you, and you never get to experience it for yourself.

Spencer

So the ending was indeed Lost on me! Anyway, I’m glad I have the technology to go back in time and start at the logical place, the beginning, which is probably when the series was at its most creative and uncompromising. But it’s kind of like eating sloppy seconds. It won’t be that satisfying, more like doing homework. In the ’80s, the era of Dallas and Dynasty—the first real blockbuster prime-time soaps with a continuing story line—I was a copy editor at Star Magazine, which devoted pages after pages to the stars and plots of those shows, but none of us wanted to stay home, especially on Friday night, watching television. We relied on our copy chief’s mom in the Bronx to stay glued to the tube and keep us from making mistakes. Good thing, she was totally accurate. But those were the days of huge audiences in the tens of millions. With the new technology, the viewing experience gets so fragmented it’s hard to feel the urgency. If you don’t get it immediately, it’s easy to forget it.

Brad

Consumption of TV today is easier than ever and, while it’s nigh impossible to avoid spoilers, the ability to queue up an entire series in minutes is pretty awesome.

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