Wednesday, November 03, 2004

TV's hits and myths

I overlooked this article last week in The Boston Globe; luckily, Florida's Sun-Sentinel reran it today: TV writer Matthew Gilbert looks at the popularity of so-called "mythology shows," such as The X-Files, Carnivale, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now J.J. Abrams' Lost. What's a mythology show, you ask?

"On a mythology show, everything you know is suspect -- a cigarette, as The X-Files made all too plain during its 1993-2002 run, is never just a cigarette. Mythology TV writers aren't in the business of selling certainty. They're all about pulling viewers into the guesswork and paranoia of a giant mystery, leading them on with a trail of cryptic clues. Abrams may have titled his series after the castaways, but he wants viewers to feel a little lost, too.

"Mythology shows tend to attract lively, game audiences. Nighttime soaps such as The O.C. and Everwood require a similar commitment to ongoing plots, but they don't ask viewers to do a lot of work along the way. They explain themselves. A mythology show, however, makes its viewers into cosmic Sherlocks who must keep finding the hidden truths in an only partially recognizable universe. Mythology writers expect rigorous, un-couch-potato-like viewing -- and they get it, sometimes in spades. ...

"... And, the best mythology shows are truly about unique vision. Usually tinged with the supernatural, if not out-and-out science fiction, they are to the medium what Star Wars is to the movies, or what Ursula K. LeGuin novels are to literature, or what comic books are to the magazine rack. They look altogether different from the rest of television, with highly stylized set designs that suggest distant, even surreal territories. Carnivale is a visual masterpiece that takes you far away in time and place as it showcases the catastrophic tension between the preacher and the outlaw. It's set in an evocative, alien location -- a world invented by show creator Daniel Knauf, who had far less fortune with Wolf Lake."