We Are So Screwed: Invasion TV

Invasion

Invasion

Fall network television schedules are among the most revelatory features of industrial cultural production. While they don’t provide a mirror to society, they do offer significant evidence of the industry’s conceptualization of society, or at least of the demographic and psychographic bits of society that it aims to attract. Accordingly, they’re not as much reflection as caricature. Even so, they do provide significant clues about the economic state of the industry and its players, the reputations of particular genres and producers, and, not inconsequentially, the state of televisual art. Well before actual episodes materialize in September, much can be gleaned.

By these standards, the most fascinating trend of the current season, starting when it was unveiled last spring, has been the plethora of series focusing on the supernatural. No less than five new dramas, on four of the six networks, center on episodic encounters with mysterious beings and forces; one of them is actually called Supernatural. Keeping in mind that the network track record of the supernatural, and science fiction in particular, has been generally dismal (despite recent successes like Smallville, Charmed, and Lost), the sudden presence of so many genre series certainly raises a few Vulcan eyebrows. As unlikely as this is, however, the fact that three of these shows represent an even more specific genre, alien invasion, is downright weird.

The critical and popular success of Lost and Desperate Housewives last season has been largely credited with the sudden interest in mystery-laden serials. While these series general influence on network executives and series developers is certainly clear, the question remains: three alien invasion series? The Hanso Foundation notwithstanding, the answer to that question actually owes more to two earlier breakout series, 24 and The X-Files, and their common thematic of apocalyptic threat.

Each of these shows presented dense worlds of secrets and threats, in which our protagonists are seemingly the only barrier between everyday life and Armageddon. Moreover, each also centered on a complex, dark federal government which functioned (often unpredictably) as both guardian and enemy. Aesthetically, each show offered a grim, doom-laden atmosphere of darkened rooms and grisly deaths. The X-Files, at its sparkling best a decade ago, balanced this otherwise unrelenting gravity with a buoyant joie de vivre, variously expressed through comedy, graphic horror, or both simultaneously. Conversely, 24 literally has no time for such side trips, and instead barrels along at white-knuckle speed, mesmerizing viewers with unrelenting action and suspense. While each has been highly regarded by critics and viewers for years, their impact on scheduling and production decisions has arguably never been greater than now. The missing factor until now in developing similar series, aside from the bolstering effect of the successes of the otherwise atypical Lost and Desperate Housewives, is the rising perception of national insecurity.

Insecurity is different than vulnerability. The latter implies blissful ignorance, while the former suggests grim resignation to fate. The national security theme of the past few years has (finally) been revealed as a political prop, albeit one with grave consequences. The Iraq War is a bloody stalemate, and its ramifications are felt across the globe in terrorist acts and military involvement. At the same time, evidence of government incompetence and corruption mounts (not only in the US), and innocents are routinely destroyed, with no remaining logic nor end in sight. Welcome to the post-post-9/11 world, where nothing is safe, and there’s not much you can do about it.

The manifestation of zeitgeist (to the extent that such a thing exists) on television is never quite straightforward, but it can be effective. Even if the timing is often a bit off (24 actually premiered just before 9/11, just as Invasion, despite the centrality of a hurricane to its plot, was produced before the impact of Katrina), it is still possible to connect the dots, to see how particular programming trends emerge, and occasionally, as is the case this year, erupt. Each of the three new alien invasion series — ABC’s Invasion, CBS’s Threshold, and NBC’s Surface — follows this thematic tunnel of national insecurity, upon which characters are pulled along by events well beyond their control, with no apparent light at the end.

The core of insecurity is the idea that nowhere is absolutely safe, that nobody is absolutely trustworthy. While this theme is certainly present in Surface, it is central in Invasion and Threshold. Accordingly, the alien menaces in these series are practically invisible. In Threshold, the aliens cleverly invade through telecommunications, wielding a broadcast signal that rewires human DNA, thus saving them the hassle of actually getting to Earth. The tell-tale clues about alien infection in Threshold are under the surface, as otherwise normal human beings dream about glass forests and have bursts of superhuman strength. In Invasion, the aliens don’t even give this much away. Aside from an odd fascination with water and the occasional paranoid glance, they look and act just like humans. The point in both of these shows is that the outside threat could come from within, just as in Cold War forebears like The Invaders, various episodes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and, most famously, the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Body Snatchers’ protagonist Miles Bennell’s direct-address scream of they’re already here! would easily fit within either of these new series.

Threshold

Threshold

Importantly, these aliens aren’t simply a pastiche of familiar SF cliche they’re calculated to tap in to the zeitgeist. Once upon a time, the aliens of 1980s and 1990s space operas like Babylon 5, Farscape, and the Star Trek franchise, all bore their differences prominently in costuming and makeup in gaudy, yet genuine, attempts to convey multiculturalism (e.g., the standard varieties of head bumps on Trek aliens). The Narn, the Delvians, and the Cardassians were all different and difficult, but the idea was to figure out how to get along. In stark contrast, today’s aliens are hidden and secretive, and we’re no longer boldly going into the final frontier, but fearfully cocooned back at home, wondering where they are, and when (not if, as we’re often reminded) they’re coming to get us.

Moreover, even the idea of home is highly suspect in these series. All three (even the relatively lighter Surface) are set among dysfunctional families and militaristic governments, where military bases, schools, hospitals, and homes are as much trap as haven. In Invasion, the broken marriage of Russell and Mariel serves as the backdrop for an ongoing drama of awkward encounters, petty jealousies, and betrayals between their children, new spouses, and in-laws. The broken family here facilitates alien infiltration, infestation easily dovetailing into pre-existing suspicions. Meanwhile, the protagonists of Threshold have been forcibly removed from their families not by aliens, but by the US government, drafted into a secret war against a viral alien menace. The series highly secretive government agency is a neo-con War on Terror techno-fantasy, replete with scowling, no-nonsense operatives and a situation room eerily (and probably not ironically) reminiscent of the one in Dr. Strangelove. The government is ostensibly on our side, investigating alleged alien sightings and protecting us at all costs, even if that means trivialities like the law and civil rights must be pushed aside. The reluctant draftees sometimes raise questions of the legality and morality of their actions, only to have them dismissed with brazen cynicism.

Each series consistently applies its particular anxieties through appropriate aesthetics: Invasion gives us cramped close-ups and scenes of domestic destruction, Threshold provides jagged dream sequences and stealth technology, and Surface competently channels early 90s Spielberg and Cameron (and, oddly enough, the Star Trek film with the whales). However, they each also lack the key element that the best of their forebears had: reasons to keep watching. While many find 24‘s politics problematic (to say the least), they may still regularly watch for its sheer caffeine-rush energy. Similarly, even once you tired of The X-Files convoluted mythology, you could always relish its wit (if there’s a better episode of any 1990s hour-long series than “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” I’ve yet to see it). Even more recent series that plumb similar anxieties have done so with considerably more panache. Lost’s dense jigsaw puzzle experiment in serial narration, as is well-documented even here on Flow, continues to dazzle and perplex. Meanwhile, the must-see remake of Battlestar Galactica has singularly reinvented SF television with aesthetic verve, a continuously destabilizing narrative, and genuinely disturbing philosophical questions. In contrast, and unlike their respective alien invaders, Invasion and Threshold are exactly what they appear to be: formulaic concoctions with little energy. The formula may be new, and only now meaningful (or at least comprehensible), but it feels stale. Part of the problem in each is the unrelentingly dour atmosphere, which facilitates particularly wooden acting from most of the regulars. Indeed, Threshold is only marginally redeemed in this capacity by the performances of Peter Dinklage and Brent Spiner, whose grouchy scientists present the only apparent signs of life in the joyless government team, while Invasion is livened by Tyler Labine’s tinfoil-hat blogger Dave, who seemingly wandered in from My Name Is Earl.

Finally, in looking back on the merger of zeitgeist and programming strategy over the past several years, it’s worth noting the near disappearance of TV’s ultimate security blanket genre: the four-camera, studio-audience sitcom. Network television was filled with them as recently as the late 90s, but their only representatives now are well past their prime, unremarkable, or marginal. In a landscape of endless procedural crime dramas, cutthroat reality competitions, vengeful ghosts, and, yes, alien invasions, the idea of watching a half-dozen people hanging out and cracking jokes in the same living room, diner, or TV newsroom seems like a distant memory.

In other words, if the schedules are to be believed, insecurity is security.

Image Credits:

1. Invasion

2. Threshold

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Get Lost in a Good Story: Serial Creativity on a Desert Island

“The intent seems to have been to alleviate one of the oldest problems of the continuous-serial form, that of stimulating and maintaining interest in plot points in an acceptable manner — what I will hereafter refer to as the ‘surprise/acceptability problem.'”

— Marc Dolan, “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks

Creator JJ Abrams

Creator JJ Abrams

In a column in Entertainment Weekly entitled “Lost’s Soul, Stephen King offers some fascinating speculations on what lies ahead for a series he has touted as the best on the small screen. “There’s never been anything like it on TV for capturing the imagination,” he insists, “except The Twilight Zone and The X-Files.” And yet he fears Lost might succumb to the same serial narrative fate as the latter, a great series that ended badly because it violated the Nietzschean dictum to “die at the right time,” remaining faithful instead to what King deems “the Prime Network Directive: Thou Shalt Not Kill the Cash Cow.” “I could have throttled the executives at Fox for doing that, and Chris Carter for letting it happen,” King rants, and he has no desire to experience deja vu all over again.

As ABC’s Lost continues to be a mainstream top ten show and an international cult phenomenon, engendering enthusiastic fan behavior, the extraordinary tests faced by the Lost castaways may pale by comparison to those J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and company have and will face. Not since Lynch and Frost’s Twin Peaks, another rule-breaking, genre-defying ABC series that started strong but flamed out in its second season, and Carter’s X-Files, a Lost ancestor text with a perplexing mythology that perpetually promised but seldom delivered solutions to the myriad puzzles it raised, alienating its fans in the end, has an episodic television series been required to navigate a more dangerous narratological Scylla and Charybdis.

How can Lost sustain its suspense while retaining the good faith of and credibility with a deeply inquisitive viewership, determined to puzzle out its mysteries? Can it become a “long haul show” (Sarah Vowell’s term) while maintaining immediate water cooler buzz? How can Lost‘s creative team out-imagine its obsessed, ingenious fan base? (“People who post online — they’re infinitely smarter than anyone working on the show,” J. J. Abrams effused on The Jimmy Kimmel Show.) The conundrums, and pitfalls, of “serial creativity,” as Marc Dolan has cogently articulated them, “are enough to intimidate any narrative genius.” Must Lost, of necessity, eventually disappoint? A “serial killer,” if you will, is loose in the medium of television. Will it claim Lost as its latest victim?

When given the opportunity to colonize the dream space of a South Pacific island, Abrams and fellow prime mover Lindelof both felt the need for it to be something more than Gilligan’s Island, Cast Away, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, Survivor, Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland, The Stand, A Wrinkle in Time — all identifiable Lost ancestor texts. To a question about why his new creation needed a monster and all the other mysteries of the island — why it couldn’t just be a drama about survival — Abrams replied:

“It wouldn’t work for me. Personally, [the monster is] what interests me. Someone else I’m sure could do the show with that absent from it entirely, but it wasn’t the version I was interested in. . . . Increasingly it became clear that it was about adding an element that was, for me, hvper-real. . . . It’s just my tendency. Whether it’s smart or successful storytelling or not, it’s just what interests me” (qtd. in Gross, 36).

Lost, of course, is not just a series about a monster, and its ongoing enigmas are not just island-specific. It’s an anthology series, as well, with the complex, fecund, multi-genre pre-crash backstories of fourteen characters (fifteen, if we count Vincent the Dog) to tell.

Despite such narrative potential, Lost‘s ongoing development has nevertheless faced challenges from both above and below, from network doubts as well as fan demands. Both before and during Lost‘s first season, ABC made its concerns about the show’s course well known. A Daily Variety story reported in July 2004 that the network had expressed alarm over the series’ fear factor, evidently worried too much of the scary might drive away viewers, especially in Lost‘s early evening time slot. In mid-season, Joss Whedon-alum David Fury, who had been a major contributor as both writer and director for both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, reported in an interview in Dreamwatch that network interference had intensified.

Damon Lindelof

Damon Lindelof

“We didn’t run into [it],” Fury would admit, “until roughly around episodes nine [“Solitary” — written by Fury] and 10 [“Raised by Another”]. We were starting to make some choices that definitely terrified the network. There was a feeling on our part, particularly Damon’s, that we need to goose things and take it a bit further. So in terms of “network interference,” there were a lot of meetings at that time about the direction of the show” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41). Why would a network that once had the audacity to air Twin Peaks, one of the most bizarre series ever to air on the small screen, be apprehensive about the plans of Lost‘s creative team? Had not the greatest puzzle TV had proffered since the question of “Who shot J. R.?” in 1980 — “Who killed Laura Palmer?” — been satisfactorily answered right there on ABC? Laura, it was quite clear, had been killed by her father while under the control of BOB, a psychopathic supernatural parasite emanating from the ghostly Black Lodge which manifested periodically in Glastonbury Grove outside the town of Twin Peaks! As Twin Peaks finally began to disclose its “answers” in its second season, such as the identity of BOB, the ratings had, of course, plummeted.

But that was so last century. Surely ABC couldn’t be worried that its new Goose That Laid the Golden Nielsens would be destroyed by the “goosing” Abrams, et al., were contemplating. Weren’t the fans anxious to be goosed? Fury, who has since left the show, admitted to “a frustration . . . as a viewer, in that I’d like some clearer answers [to Lost‘s mysteries], but those answers were resting in the area of sci-fi and that’s where we had to draw the line” (qtd. in DiLullo).

Using a metaphor drawn from one of Lost‘s genetic ancestors, Fury even managed to find a way to make this triangulation sound like a good thing: “We are respecting the network’s desire to not make the show too “out there” too fast. . . . We were trying to approach the show from the Scully perspective and always try to have a reasonable explanation for everything, despite anything that seems out of the ordinary. That was our self-imposed mandate because the networks are scared of genre television” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41; my emphasis).

Hyper-conscious of the classic “surprise/acceptability problem” Marc Dolan identifies (see the epigraph above), Fury knew very well that such a situation, as King, too, has reminded, has inherent risks: “there is the challenge of how long an audience will be invested in the show and in these characters without getting enough concrete answers.” If, Fury thought, “we answer some of these questions, and if we do it in the most reality based way, I think people will feel cheated.” On the other hand, supplying answers to Lost‘s enigmas “in the most interesting sci fi way” could well result in “alienat[ing]” — a telling word choice — “the core audience of the series” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41-42). Did I mention that Fury is no longer with the show?

Now, at the beginning of its second season, with Lost the most-imitated show on television and all the networks, judging by this fall’s offerings, no longer concerned that SF/fantastic story lines might drive viewers away, the series remains firmly perched on the horns of its indigenous creative dilemma, though we have at least now gone down the hatch. Lindelof and Cuse’s three-part finale last spring gave with one hand and took away with the other. We were left wanting to know more about the crash itself, but only saw the survivors boarding the plane and learned nothing new about the flight itself or the crash. We longed for insight into the mysterious numbers, and though the proliferating 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 had repeated cameos, they remained inscrutable. We saw (and heard) more of The Monster than ever before, and yet it still dwells in the mystery. We met The Others (we think) but still have no idea who/what they are and why they were wearing winter clothes. The hatch was opened, but we still had no idea until this week where or to what it lead. And, by all indications, the fan-base was not entirely pleased by the lack of answers. Entertainment Weekly reports that throughout the summer of 2005 the cast had to endure “the brunt of fan angst” (Armstrong 2005). David Fury had insisted last season, after all his laments about network interference, that Lost “is and always will be an unfolding mystery” (qtd. in DiLullo, 41). Did I mention he’s no longer with the show?

From the outset, Abrams and company have insisted the story they want to tell is complex enough to take years to tell (Nelson, 12). ABC Entertainment President McPherson confirmed that “We have a good sense of where a lot of the bigger arcs and mysteries are going well beyond this year” (Hibberd). We could be Lost for a very long time, but if we remain at the same time completely “lost,” then the series will have failed to triumph against the intimidating challenges of serial creativity on a desert island.

Bibliography

Armstrong, Jennifer. “Love, Labor, Lost.” Entertainment Weekly 9 Sept. 2005: 28-32, 41.

Dilmore, Kevin. “Of Spies and Survivors.” Amazing Stories 608 (2005): 20-24. (Interview with J. J. Abrams)

DiLullo, Tara. “Deepening the Lost Mystery.” Dreamwatch 5 (2005): 40-43. (Interview with David Fury)

Dolan, Marc. “The Peaks and Valleys of Serial Creativity: What Happened to/on Twin Peaks.” In Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, edited by David Lavery. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1995. 30-50.

Gross, Edward. “Man on a Mission.” Cinefantastique 36.1 (2005): 34-36. (Interview with J. J. Abrams)

Hibberd, James. “‘Lost’ Finds Top Spot.” Television Week 3 Jan. 2005: 19.

King, Stephen. “Lost’s Soul.” Entertainment Weekly 9 Sept. 2005: 150.

Nelson, Resa. “Television: Lost Breaks Out as the Cult Hit with Mass Appeal.” Realms of Fantasy Apr. 2005: 8, 10-12.

Vowell, Sarah. “Please Sir May I Have a Mother?” Salon.com 2 Feb 2000.

Image Credits:
1. Creator JJ Abrams

2. Damon Lindelof

Links
Lost‘s Official ABC Television Site
Lost‘s Internet Movie Database Page
Lost‘s TV Fansite
Oceanic Air Website
Lost‘s Media Fansite
The Fuselage

Please feel free to comment.