Tonight is the premiere of The Event, NBC's latest stab at a big, loud, rumbling mystery machine, a hybrid of Lost's tantalizing obfuscation and 24's globe-trotting government intrigue. It's not a miniseries, it's a full series-series. So can it work?
TV's latest serial trend began in 2004 with the huge first season success of ABC's Lost, which was, at the time, a bracing and thrilling mystery about character backstories and grand unknown island terror. It was complex enough to set deep-dive geeks abuzz, but still low-to-the-ground enough to keep more casual viewers entertained. (In the beginning, at least.) Other networks saw this and attempted copycat series — Heroes, FlashForward, Surface, Invasion, etc. They were all admirably ambitious projects, but none could gather Lost's irresistible momentum. The main problem with all of those series was obviously the writing — it was forced, trying too hard. It all reeked of network-hatched plans to cash in on Lost's success, not of an organically grown brain-bender unhindered by outsized network expectations the way Lost began. The copy-cat shows all failed, some more quickly than others, but Lost soldiered on, the single serial mystery that worked. Well, for a time.
By season two, things over at Lost began to go off the rails. But it was still fun! At first. More mysteries were added, and added, and added, threads disappeared for long stretches of time, only to reappear again, but not necessarily be resolved. Characters were introduced and killed off and saved and condemned, etc. Lost was a dizzying, wonderful tapestry for a time, seeing its way through a slump in season three to a dynamite season five. But then season six came. It was time to end the show, as planned by the network and the show's producers. Obviously viewers wanted Answers and Resolution, but from a more zoomed-out TV perspective, a greater question loomed: Could a serial TV show ultimately work? Meaning, after all of that, does the experiment of having a story move further and further forward from season to season (rather than having traditional contained season arcs, a la Buffy) yield positive results in the end? The fate of not only Lost's reputation but also the future of serial TV (I'd argue that's more specifically network serial TV) hung in the balance.
Obviously the ending we did get was pretty polarizing. Some people loved the emotional closure. Others hated all the technical loose ends. I thought it was a perfectly satisfying ending to Lost's final season, but a tragically misfired close to the series. It's not that it didn't answer the questions I had the way I wanted them answered, it's that it barely answered anything at all. Half of season six didn't even really happen in the "real" world. It was all an emotion-laden smoke screen that left the producers, the writers, and ABC free to scurry off into the distance before we could realize what they'd done, grab them, pull them back, and say "Hey, wait a minute!" ABC ultimately failed to deliver a capable, fully realized mystery serial series. It propped the finale up with big theatrics and hoped we wouldn't notice in all that noise that the essential intrigue of Lost — what was the island? — really wasn't answered, and was barely even addressed, at all. You need to look no further than how quickly chatter about the show sputtered out of the public conversation (until now!!) to know that ABC failed to deliver something that appropriately capped a terrific TV series. (In contrast, people talked about The Sopranos ending, perhaps the only equally hyped finale in recent memory, for months and months afterword.) Lost was a failure. It was a wildly entertaining and spectacularly executed show for most of the run — individual episodes were undoubtedly Great Television — but as a mystery serial, in terms of that central conceit, it didn't make good on its contract.
And so we come to The Event, yet another of these bland-looking knockoffs. Sure this one doesn't seem to have the supernatural intrigue of Lost — it's more concerned with politics and conspiracy — but the Lost emulation is certainly evident. And I'm wondering, is it worth it? Not just to watch, but to bother making? Is it at all reasonable to expect a TV series to ever make good on an intriguing initial mystery when there's so little evidence it's ever worked? The X-Files certainly didn't work once it waded too heavily into its mythology. Folks often cite the end of the revamped Battlestar Galactica as a serial that worked all the way through to the end, but I'd argue that that show didn't begin as a show about answering a question or solving a riddle. It was a story about survival that, as the show grew and became more complex, eventually incorporated some shadows and questions. (Plus it was on cable, land of shorter seasons.)
I just don't think that network television can fundamentally sustain a mystery from the pilot all the way through a series finale — a series finale that may be, what? Five, six years away? It's a shame they don't really do miniseries on network TV anymore. Those were the perfect format for the kind of storytelling The Event seems to want to do. Sure you could point to the years-long success of 24, but those were, for the most part, separately contained seasons. Here NBC is trying to start something that, if it clicks with audiences, won't stop moving until some completely unknown date in the future. If the supremely talented folks at Lost, who ultimately couldn't live up to the genre they helped invent (or at least revive), couldn't sustain and deliver on a promise, it seems a bit brash to assume someone else can. Really, in this post-Lost world, it seems a bit crazy to base a television series on a single event.
What do you think? Did Lost ultimately shake your faith in the the TV mystery drama like it did mine? Or are you willing to head down another rabbit hole? (Even if it's not necessarily this one.)