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August 21, 2005 - "Lost" In Transmission

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill.

Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

Lost In Transmission


Here's another all-American triumph for you. Not withstanding the start of the Edinburgh Festival, the biggest cultural event of the week on this side of the Atlantic was the triumphant launch of the television series Lost.  For weeks, British viewers have been bombarded with an exceptional level of pre-show hype and hoopla, and not just in TV ad breaks: a lavish and expensive trailer, shot by photographer David LaChapelle and featuring the series' main players, currently graces the wider screens of UK cinemas.


The investment has paid off.  Lost's opening night viewing figures were the highest for any of broadcaster Channel 4's American imports, beating the first-night ratings for both E.R. and Desperate Housewives.  The news must come as some relief for C4 bosses, whose channel's standing as the home of quality American imports has come under threat of late from rival broadcaster Channel Five.  (American readers will note the vast levels of creative imagination employed in the naming of British television stations.)

Five, a relative newcomer to British screens (it launched in 1997), has made a concerted effort to strengthen what were initially flimsy schedules with its "America's Finest" strand: all the CSIs, plus all the Law & Orders (excepting The Simpsons' seminal Law & Order: Elevator Repair Unit), The Shield and the underrated Boomtown.


Channel 4's reputation has, in the meantime, suffered a downturn, as reality programming (the insidious Big Brother especially) swamped its schedules. The American shows that once formed C4's standbys (The West Wing, Scrubs, NYPD Blue, Six Feet Under) have been mistreated, even while the station persisted with putting weaker imports (Sex & The City, the dwindling, put-it-out-of-its-misery E.R., the aforementioned Housewives) in peak prime-time slots.


After Big Brother was (thankfully) packed away for another summer this week, the station's schedules are returning to some kind of normality; the eyes will, for a few months at least, be spared surveillance camera footage of a young woman masturbating with a wine bottle in the middle of a garden or exhibitionist dullards frolicking in swimming pools full of their own germs.  (Well, not unless Lost takes a turn for the very weird.)


Watching television over here at the moment, one is inclined to think we're fortunate indeed to be witnessing a golden age of American broadcasting.  Rupert Murdoch's Sky One gives us The Simpsons, 24 and Deadwood.  BBC2 offers Arrested Development.  This week has seen HBO announce the new season of The Sopranos will air in March 2006.  DVD box sets of all these, and more, are the new hot property in home entertainment, allowing fans to enjoy the twists and cadences of each show in their own time and at their own pace.


And yet, and yet.  I remember sitting in a New York hotel room as recently as the year 2000, with the rain lashing down outside my window, bemoaning the fact that out of 24 hours' scheduling available to me on my hotel television, 23 hours were all but unwatchable.  (I spare The Simpsons and The Daily Show.)  Of course, the laws of import programming insist we only get the very best, the cream of the crop; there would be very little point, I would suggest, in bringing Regis and Kelly, or anything involving Carrot Top, to a British audience.  (Sorry, Regis. I still have fond memories of watching you dance to The Thong Song on a show I caught in early December 2000, if that's any consolation.)


Likewise, the reverse scenario is true.  I'd wager that, however good, bad or indifferent we Brits think our television is (and I think it can not unreasonably be categorised as "better than most"), visiting American viewers will have to channel-surf a lot of dreck to get to anything especially compelling.  While I could name ten to fifteen great British comedies and sitcoms of the last few years (off the top of my head: The Office, Peep Show, The League of Gentlemen, Black Books, Spaced, Grass, Brass Eye, The Day Today, Knowing Me… Knowing You, I'm Alan Partridge, Look Around You, and Extras, the new and very funny Ricky Gervais project, a BBC co-production with HBO), I'd be harder pushed to give you the names of five comparable dramas in that time.


The truth is that, in most cases, British TV drama lacks the expansive qualities of much American television.  The Sopranos, 24, Deadwood and Lost could just as easily work as cinema as they do TV, yet we just won't (can't?) do that type of thing.  Shameless, the most highly acclaimed (and, in my humble opinion, grossly overrated) show in recent British broadcasting history, is a comedy-drama about families getting by on a squalid housing estate.  You can't imagine the popcorn-rustlers getting too excited about that.


Lost hasn't yet reached must-see status, at least not in these particular square-eyes.  The English rock star played by the minor Hobbit, with his Kurt Cobain sweater and Pete Doherty drug habit, reminds me of Les McQueen, the failed and bitter 70s rocker of The League of Gentlemen ("Sh*t business").  And the male and female leads are so bland they might well fail to exist in future episodes.  (Evangeline Lilly is no Elisha Cuthbert, let alone a Sherilyn Fenn.)  That may, of course, be as much of an advantage to the show in the long term as the horror film which casts no recognisable faces; if everybody's paper-thin, anybody could get shredded at any moment.


But essentially, it's an extended shaggy dog story, and has the look of something which could keep flinging out new pieces of information without any responsibility to tie any of these disparate facts together.  In fact, the entire series seems very shrewdly conceived for those obsessives amongst us who start petitions on the Internet when their favourite shows are axed.


Much of the chatter in the wake of Lost's debut was about what the show actually represents.  (Readers who come out in hives at the merest suggestion of metatextual significance are advised to skip the remainder of this paragraph.)  Is it, as some commentators wondered, a post-9/11 allegory in which a community of all races, creeds and colours come together to rebuild from scratch in the wake of seismic events?  Is it yet another advertisement for American isolationism?  Or is it so popular precisely because it's so far removed from current events, exactly nothing to do with what those of us in the real world are currently living through?


Maybe.  The show itself deliberately avoids giving too much away; it is, to use the language of therapy, a distinctly withholding piece of work.  To me, Lost currently looks like a similar set-up to those science-fiction universes in Star Trek and Babylon 5, shows simultaneously of this world and a million miles away from it, exploring human priorities and prejudices at some considerable distance from home.  No wonder it's become as big in the UK as it the hype insisted it has done in the States. 


A footnote: of all the rumours and conspiracy theories circulating in the wake of Lost's UK debut, by far the most intriguing was the one which maintained that the actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, formerly known as prisoner Simon Adebisi in Oz, would be joining the show for the second series.  Given that Lost already has one former inmate of Oswald Penitentiary (Harold Perrineau, formerly Augustus Hill) amongst its cast, the least surprising Season Two development would be if everybody on the island got themselves shanked or addicted to smack.



Mike McCahill

August 19, 2005.




Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm







Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Paris readers add nine hours....