Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Ratings are Lost!

With the mini-season of Lost wrapped up, we can now look back at the biggest story about Lost. No, not that Eko is dead or that Jack is attacking very erratically, but that for the first time in two and half seasons, Lost lost the ratings race with Criminal Minds, the procedural that runs against it on CBS. It was not more than a year ago that Lost was a ratings juggernaut. The show, along with Desperate Housewives, was credited in saving ABC from the bottom of the ratings heap. But since about mid-season last year, Lost’s ratings have been slumping. Why is this?

In the spirit of Lost, I have a number of theories:

1 – The Hatch Disappointment: I did not watch the first season as it aired. I caught up later on the DVDs. But I remember at the end of the first season, there were a number of weird theories about what was down the hatch. Some thought it was the gateway to Hell. Others thought it was a passage way to a parallel universe. The hatch definitely lead to the rest of the spacecraft that the island was a part of, some cried. However, it was revealed that the Hatch was nothing more than a bunker where Desmond lived, pushing a button for something called the Dharma Initiative. All those wild theories were disproved, and I am sure some people left because of the rather mundane function the Hatch served as opposed to those other ideas. But was this reveal such a bad thing?

Think about it. If the Hatch did lead to some place mystical or science-fictional, I am sure more people would have left. The show is built upon a foundation of some reality. But the second season being about entering Hell, or exploring a spacecraft would be such a radical departure from the first season, I am sure people would have jumped ship a lot quicker. So a more fantastical Hatch would probably not have kept the ratings up.

2 – More Flashbacks?: In the second season, those who watched the show and write about it started to complain about the repetitive nature of the flashbacks. Why were there flashbacks showing us stuff we already knew about Jack, Kate, and Locke? What purpose did the Sun/Jin flashbacks really serve? Critics called for the discontinuation of the flashbacks. Unfortunately, the flashbacks are an integral part of the show. They show parallels, and yes, they can be repetitive. But they also show us a history. While showing us Kate as a married woman and not merely telling us, it informs us about what type of life our castaways led. Sometimes that life is boring.

There should be more diverse flashbacks though. Did we really need two Jack flashbacks last season, where the only important part of the second flashback was that Jack’s wife left him for another man? While showing that the island healed Jin’s infertility (apparently) was a nice episode, it does not make for an interesting flashback. While there are stories to tell with the main characters, sometimes these stories are boring. That drives off a lot of people. But maybe new characters can help, right?

3 – Unpopular New Characters: Ana-Lucia was brought in serve as a romantic foil for Jack. She was hated. Nikki and Paulo, two new characters this season, are reviled. While Libby was tolerated, she never got more than a C-list, B-list at most feeling. Henry Gale and Juliette show potential, and are generally liked, but they are in the unfortunate position of being the enemy and who knows that shelf life? Desmond is liked, and may be the break out character of this season.

So why do viewers cry out for more interesting and new flashbacks, and then shun the newbies? Sure, their introductions might be awkward, but the story takes place on an Island, and there is a very few story excuses to bring in people. If the story only focuses on the original survivors of the crash, then you run the risk of getting repetitive flashbacks or stale storytelling, as a character’s arc reaches either a plateau or has to resolved in a manner to write them out of the show.

It seems like critics and viewers themselves grew bored with the original survivors, judged the new additions too critically, and was left with nothing. Why were the left with nothing? Well…

4 – Deaths: Nobody likes seeing their favorite character go. Boone’s death in Season 1 was the first inclination that the show was willing to kill of its characters for the sake of storytelling. But also, on a show that takes place on an Island, where I said it is hard to write in people, it is also hard to write people out of it, if they want to leave. The actor who played Eko wanted to leave the show. So they killed his character. Why did they have to kill him? Well, he was such an important part of the show, they couldn’t just have him disappear into the ether. Look at the departure of Michael and Walt. Surely, people are wondering when they are going to show up, but by all accounts, they aren’t going to come back this season. It is not easy to write people off the show.

Even when a character is hated, like Ana Lucia or Shannon, their death heaps criticism upon the show. Nevermind that it could be argued that the creators of the show were listening to its fans when it offed Ana Lucia, some people felt her death was uncalled for. The writers felt there was no where else to go with Shannon’s story arc, so she was sacrificed (a fate I fear might befall Claire). But by now, viewers should realize that the show is an ensemble piece and any character can be sacrificed if the story calls for it.

5 – Deconstruction of the Characters: Locke last year and Kate this year have dramatically seemed to change in character. Where Locke was confident in Season 1, he was the Button’s lackey in Season 2. Where Kate was self sufficient in Seasons 1 and 2, she is now weak. The writing hasn’t made it clear enough whether or not these were planned regressions or sloppy writing. I, for one, believe it was a planned regression. But I can see how others would not see it that way.

Another complaint about the characters is what I call the “I would do this” syndrome. A lot of message board critics wonder outloud at the stupid things the survivors seem to do. The viewer would obviously see that choice a) is better than choice b) or ask question x), but they forget that they are privy to more information then the characters on the show. The viewer has not crash landed on an Island full of strange happenings. Who says that the sheer shock of what’s been going on has made the survivors numb to the surprises the Island seems to offer up?

6 – Unsolved Mysteries: This is probably the biggest complaint and cause of frustration and dwindling ratings. The piling on of mysteries confounds people, especially when nothing seems to be answered. Though we now know why the plane crashed, who the Others are, what the monster looks like, etc. people are clamoring for more answers. However, it is easy to forget that the fundamental questions posed in the first season can’t really be answered until the end of the series.

The newer mysteries are supposed to sustain the show until the time that the bigger mysteries can be answered. Smaller mysteries like what the button truly did were answered in time. But it wasn’t answered in the next episode. People seem to get fixated on the latest mystery and forget the last one, until that last one in answered, usually to some unsatisfactory answer (see The Hatch). They see only the piling on, not the slow removal. One also has to realize that there are just some small things that will only be answered in terms of a larger mystery (see what the 4-toe statue will probably be, what the Others are ultimately trying to accomplish, etc.)

But it is no surprise that the mystery aspect of the show drives away people. Lost is also a very hard show to attract new people. If you have missed out on Seasons 1 and 2, it is very hard to watch an episode in Season 3. Contrast this to a serial like 24, where the episodes are interconnected, but from season to season there is very little informative continuity. There is also a glut of Lost clones that cut into the time that the show demands.

With Lost going on a 3 month hiatus, I fear that the returning ratings will continue to slide. It is possible to me that next season will be Lost’s last, or at the most, Lost will only last 5 seasons (though it was originally planned to go only 5 or 6). The bloom is definitely off Lost’s rose.


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