Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who's your daddy? Lost's sad obsession

I've been an intermittent watcher of Lost for the past couple of seasons. It looked like things were getting better last year, and I started watching again regularly, only to have my hopes dashed this year. 

I've already written about how I don't expect Lost will ever make any goddamn sense at all. Today I'm going to rant about something even worse than the show's total lack of narrative coherence. Today we're going to talk about Daddy Issues.

Here's a brief list of all the characters I can think of who have serious issues with at least one parental unit.

Jack (dad)

Hurley (dad)

Sawyer (dad, plus Locke's dad)

Sayyid (dad)

Kate (dad and mom)

Sun (dad)

Jin (dad and father in law - bonus points!)

Ben (dad)

Walt (dad)

Claire (dad abandoned her, was also Jack's dad)

Miles (time travel dad)

Penny (dad)

Locke (dad - possibly the worst dad in the history of bad dads)

This list is by no means comprehensive. I'm sure we'll later find out that the smoke monster's creator never tucked it in at night, and also that the flight attendant who died on impact had a troubled relationship with her step father, and that the guy who gassed up the plane has always wondered who his sperm-donor father really was (it was probably Christian).

Last week we got the big reveal that Miles' dad had abandoned him, he never knew the guy, blah blah whatever. If I rolled my eyes any harder I'd detach a retina. It's just not interesting. It's not a surprise any longer, not after five seasons of bad dad whining.

John Locke is the standard bearer for this. While Jack's relationship has been given a massive amount of back story, Locke is the only character to lose not one, but two major organs to his father. 

I remember when my girlfriend and I watched the Locke loses a kidney episode. After a while, as his father kept screwing up his life, I started making a joke about it. "If his dad stole his spine too, you owe me a Coke," I said. Damned if I didn't get a Coke a season later. 

I don't hate this contrivance just because it's overused to a truly ludicrous degree. There are two reasons why I think this is more than simple bad writing.

First, I worry about what this says about the writers. Why is the only plot that ever recurs on Lost with any frequency, the only thread never dropped, the plot that suggests you've never really gotten over the time daddy didn't come to your little league game? To me, it says that Lost's writing staff doesn't actually know how to write an adult relationship. They don't have a lot of characters who are parents, or even in stable marriages. The bad-dad trope indicates a show by, and about, immature man-children who refuse to stand on their own. You know what? Some of us liked our fathers. Some of us are actually happy with how we were raised. If we had issues as kids, we've gotten over them. As audience members, we're just fucking baffled.

Second, I think it actually says something about American society at large that this is the sort of plot that not only gets trotted out on Lost constantly, but on a lot of other so-called serious dramas. (Battlestar Galactica was not averse to using it.)

I have a hypothesis that Americans no longer have any ideology. Sure, they think they believe in political causes. But America is one of the most politically homogeneous democracies in the world. In continental Europe, almost every country has far right parties and far left parties, and by right I mean "they have SS uniforms in their closets" and by far left I mean hard line communist. The middle of the spectrum is generally broader, with labour and social democrat parties competing with liberals, neo-liberals and conservatives who'd be more recognizable in the States. This means that there is a larger philosophical spectrum – people may have actually thought once or twice in their lives about the ethics of private property vs. public, about political economy, about nationalism.

Even in Canada, where I live, there is still a shadow of a social democrat movement. Britain also has a wider spectrum of political opinion.

Despite the fact that Americans generally only disagree with each other on a handful of issues, they take sides as though it was Nazis vs. Soviets. The divide is pretty wide. Weirdly so, to an outsider. 

What that means, in practice, is that TV writers don't have very strong opinions on a lot of issues, because on average, Americans don't either. And where they do have strong opinions – usually only on Culture War hot buttons – they don't dare risk slipping them into their stories. So they can't write stories about big ethical and political issues that are invisible to most Americans, and they won't write about the few issues Americans actually care about, because it would alienate too much of their audience.

So you wind up with a strange phenomenon on American TV: no character thinks about ethics. Characters seldom take sides over well-defined moral or religious positions. What are the differences between Locke and Jack, the differences that the writers yammer on and on about in interviews? Faith vs. Reason? Bullshit! 

Whenever possible, the writers use the flashbacks to show us that Character A took Action X on the island because Event Y happened to him in the flashback. Most often, this event was something involving a bad dad. So the characters aren't acting based on ethics or beliefs. They're automatons, mechanistically reacting to what has come before. It's like the whole thing is a giant trick pool shot, with one ball bouncing off another until the plot is resolved. It robs the main characters of agency, choice, and free will.

Do other popular SF shows employ this trope? I've mentioned that BSG does it from time to time, but not nearly as often. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is notable because the main character actually has a deadbeat dad – whom we almost never hear about. Buffy barely mentions him. She's over that crap. Fox Mulder famously had issues with his father, but they were a tiny fraction of his overall fucked up personality, and we didn't get episode after episode in which Scully and Skinner and Cancer Man and Krycek trotted out their daddy issues. The Star Trek franchise barely touches the issue. Deanna Troi's mom is mostly used for comic relief. If the other characters have issues, they're often resolved in the space of one episode. 

Which leads me back to J.J. Abrams again, and the upcoming Star Trek movie.

I swear to god, if Kirk becomes captain of the Enterprise because he's mad at his father, I'm going to burn down a movie theatre.

ETA: It would be unfair of me to not mention Charlie, the only character who we know had a good relationship with his father. In his final episode with flashbacks, one of his favourite memories is being taught to swim by his father. This was also one of the best uses of the flashback structure since we learned that Locke was paraplegic, way back in season one.

1 comment:

midnight traveler said...

i KNEW there was a reason why i stopped watching it. thanks for letting me know there's no point in catching up.