JJ Abrams, Lost, and the state of popular culture

Yesterday, Tim Sullivan and I met to toast the completion of the manuscript for Chief Culture Officer.  It now enters the production tunnel and I will capture only glimpses of it until it appears, officially, in hard covers, in the fall.

And this is when the doubts begin to form.  What mistakes did I make?  What did I over-argue?  What will come back to haunt me?

These doubts spring from two motives: vanity and scruple. 

Vanity asks whether I have made myself look like any idiot.  (I know many critics will hope so.) 

Scruple asks whether I succeeded in transcending my interests and prejudices.  C.I. Lewis argued that investigators have taken,

"[a] tacit oath never to subordinate the motive of objective-truth seeking to any subjective preference or inclination or any expediency or opportunistic consideration."  (in Haack, below)

Those who embrace post-modernism will laugh at this.  Objectivity is an illusion, they say.  Opportunism is inevitable.  Power is the prime mover, the sufficient explanation. It's a very fashionable argument…and now of course the very rocks on which anthropology has impaled itself.  (For myself, I accept we cannot be fully objective.  I also believe that not bothering to try turns scholarship into cant.)

My vulnerability on this issue is complicated by the fact that this book was written over three months, and therefore in haste.  When you are writing virtually "in real time," you reach for the handiest ideas, and these are almost certainly the ones you hold dear for reasons of "inclination" or "opportunism."  (I said some things not because I believed them to be true but because I wanted them to be true.)

The particular argument I worry about is the one that says that contemporary culture is becoming more complicated, more rich and more nuanced.  Did I assume this too hastily?  Do I have a leg to stand on?  (I've been making the argument since 1997.  Perhaps I am a little too invested in it.) 

In the book I rehearse the arguments (or at least the proofs) from Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson.  I quoted the latter as saying,

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common denominator standards, presumably because the “masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want.  But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.

I read the career of David Milch into evidence, especially the writing he did for Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Deadwood.  I noted these recent words of praise by Poulsen for the Fox series The Sarah Connors Chronicles which he described as “a deeply felt and artfully imagined drama with so many unexpected gifts that it’s often hard to believe you’re watching broadcast television.”  

But now that the manuscript is closed, really good stuff is now popping up everywhere. James Poniewozik interviewed Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof and solicited these very useful comments:

[Lindelof] For me certainly, the big game-changer was Myst. There's a lot of that feeling in Lost. What made it so compelling was also what made it so challenging. No one told you what the rules were. You just had to walk around and explore these environments and gradually a story was told. And Lost is the same way. The problem on Lost has always been, no one has told the characters what to do. If you're on Grey's Anatomy, every episode starts out with a patient coming in–you know what you have to do. If you're on a cop show, your lieutenant calls you into his office and tells you what you have to do; in a law show, your client comes in. On Lost, our characters would be sitting around on a beach if we didn't create stories for them, and [like Lost] videogames don't have "franchises" unless you're a spy or something. Grand Theft Auto is the same way. It's more about the exploration of the environment than a self-contained conflict.

Cuse: We also felt that since Lost was violating a lot of rules of traditional television storytelling, including having a large and sprawling cast and having very complex storytelling, we felt that videogames were one model that showed that if audiences get invested, they love complexity. In fact, the more complexity the better, and the challenge of that complexity was an asset as opposed to a liability. Those are the games that people actually respect, you know?

The career of J.J. Abrams offers useful supporting evidence.

Over the past decade Mr. [J.J.] Abrams, 42, has helped pioneer a storytelling style that demands total commitment from audience members, requiring that they keep up not only with complicated single-episode plotlines (can a time-traveling castaway alter past events to help himself in the present?) but also with fiendishly intricate narratives (how did the Oceanic Six [in Lost] get off their mysterious island, and how might they get back?) that can take an entire season — or seasons, plural — to play out.  (in Itzkoff, below)

Very well.  There is some evidence for my argument.  But it looks as if this issue may be at issue.  More on the theme and the show called Fringe tomorrow. 


Haack, Susan.  1998.  Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 7.

Itzkoff, Dave. 2008. “Complexity Without Commitment.” The New York Times, August 24, here.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Johnson, Steven.  2005.  Everything bad is good for you.  New York: Riverhead.

McCracken, Grant.  1997.  Plenitude.  Toronto: Periph. Fluide.

Poniewozik, James.  2007.  Lyst: Cuse and Lindelof on Lost and Videogames.  Tuned In Blogs.  Time.com.  March 19, 2007.  here.

Poulsen, Kevin.  2009.  Urgent: Save Sarah Connor Chronicles From Termination.  Wired.com.  May 4.

See the interview of Milch by David Thorburn in the MIT Communications Forum speaker’s series called Television in Transition.  See especially Milch’s account of his work on Deadwood.  It begins at the 17:55 mark.   The video is here

10 thoughts on “JJ Abrams, Lost, and the state of popular culture

  1. Tim Sullivan

    As a totally disinterested observer, may I say (1) woo hoo! and (2) I think you got any awful lot right, leaving just enough in question for a second book.

  2. srp

    The only two problems with JJ Abrams are 1) he flat-out doesn’t care if things make sense, even in terms of internal logic, and 2) he ruins every story by making all the major characters end up being related (see Alias, Chuck). Even in the new Star Trek he manages to mute the impact of the destruction of the entire planet Vulcan by making it a minor episode in Spock’s psychodrama with his Mom and Dad.

  3. Rick Liebling

    I don’t know the answer to this question, but it seems to me that the main difference between now (last 30 years) and then (everything before that) is that now, rather than rejecting the previous pop culture standard bearers, new pop culture simply mashes everything that came before it together. Where Nirvana and N.W.A. were strong reactions to New Kids on the Block and The Fresh Prince, now Girl Talk takes all four of these sounds and creates something new (often in the same song)that by its very nature is going to be more complex.

    I think it’s easy to decry the decline of contemporary culture by looking at shows like The Real Housewives of New York, but it’s far more interesting to look at the Mad Men on Twitter experience where consumers independently ‘hijacked’ fictional characters to create new storylines.

  4. John McCreery

    I can’t help wondering if the use of evidence is a bit too selective, i.e., everyone generalizing from a handful of things with which they are familiar, probably because its stuff they really like or hate it. I think about the difference between the three-network world in which I grew up, where if you watched TV at all you were watching pretty much the same stuff that everyone was watching and the the dozens of channels (and that doesn’t count the Internet) world in which my grandkids are growing up. You’ve got to figure both that if people are producing content for dozens, even hundreds, of different tastes, most critics will never see most of it. Their generalization will, thus, reflect an increasingly blinkered view of what is out there.

  5. Virginia

    I agree with my husband about Abrams, but Abrams has nothing to do with Chuck, which makes perfect (if loony) sense.

  6. Paul Snyderman

    I agree that we need to be careful in reviewing past culture, without consideration of some of the underlying dimensions (the limited number of media outlets, the population mix and the impact of major national-political-economic events). The causal sequence is also problematic. Is it more outlets that yields more complexity or the other way around? It’s probably both.

    From an analytic standpoint I’m concerned that what is characterized as the “new complexity” is instead just the “new.” Couldn’t we be really talking about novelty – which is cogntively complex to us?. Both complexity and novelty are attractive aspects of our environment, provided we’re not faced with too much of each, which leads to rejection. With complexity or novelty, in time, both lose their cachet as we adapt to them, and ultimately end up hungering for more of each.

  7. John McCreery

    Good points, Paul. What interests me is that “faced with too much of each, which leads to rejection.” Culture studies theorists like Frederic Jameson suggest that rejection takes the form of low affect, a generalized numbness. Observing my daughter and her family when I go to the States what I see is a high degree of selectivity in, for example, the TV programs they record for later viewing:Battlestar Galactica, Robot Chicken, Mad Men, Burn Notice, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Spiderman (son-in-law is a big fan and watches it with the grandson). These are all tracked with considerable intensity. Other programming, e.g., some cooking and redecorating shows, is barely on the radar. Most possibilities are simply ignored.

  8. Paul Snyderman

    I think what you’re finding in the recording of shows is a recognition that the selectivity is based, to a great extent, on both the time dependency of the story lines and the prior interest/investment of the viewer. The story lines of BattleStar, Mad Men, Burn Notice, etc. have an underlying time-sequence. Miss an episode and you’re missing more than the content of the episode, you’ve cancelled out some of your prior investment (time spent, intellect addressed to it, etc.) in the show that’s gone on so far and potentially ruined the pay off in terms of how you’ll be able to enjoy what will follow. As for cooking, decorating etc., no such time dependency or subsequent payout is in play. You can always learn how to grill talapia (unless that’s what you’ve promised to make for dinner tonight). etc.

  9. John McCreery

    Paul, interesting thought. Sounds plausible to me. But reverting to the main issue I was trying to raise, even if you included the miscellaneous cooking and decorating shows, what the daughter and son-in-law are watching is only a fraction of what is out there. Thus, if we had a (totally hypothetical) meter that measured interest in TV programs and included all the possibilities for which the score would be zero, the average score would be very low, consistent with the Jameson, et al., low affect hypothesis. If we excluded all of the zeros before making the calculation, the result would be quite different.

  10. Scott Ellington

    Star Trek 11 (in the hands of JJ) lets Romulus burn while Nero fiddles with Spock, whose red-matter gambit undestroyed Nero’s homeworld, a fact that Nero failed to notice because he was consumed in a supernova of lust to visit vengeance upon the Vulcan who failed to failed to save his planet, but did. Some licentious filmmakers cannot be trusted with licentious ideas like “the temporal paradox” because their plot holes tend to mushroom like singularities, and their steadicam action sequences shake like oscillating double exposures; punching up violent moments with fashionable nonsense (that JJ helped make fashionable). When Spock cites Federation Commandment 619 to unsettle command of the Enterprise, the film’s one thousand instances of dovetailing warped the fabric of cute retrofitting and exceeded the velocity of Fringe for toying with plausible scientific principles. I’m looking forward to reading your new book, but I’ve reached the unscrupulous end of my Abrams.

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