Friday, April 25, 2008

Comprehension is for suckers.

After watching “Lost” last night, I’ve been mulling over the question of comprehension. How important is it, really, for me to understand what the hell is going on in a show or movie? Does it lessen my enjoyment of the thing or does it just liven things up by forcing me to continually turn to my husband and ask, “What the hell just happened?”

Those “what the hell” moments have been happening to me a lot lately with both “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica.” I should point out that I never miss an episode of either show and am geek enough to frequent the Television Without Pity boards and eavesdrop on all the conspiracy theories. So it’s not like I’m not doing the homework. I just don’t always get it. Like physics or the appeal of radishes.

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry about it. There have been plenty of things in the past that I enjoyed without fully understanding what was going on. Adolescence, for one. I don’t get James Joyce but I like reading his work because the cadence of the language and indecipherable imagery appeal to me on a sensory level. I like Dadaism but maybe that’s just because I know it’s supposed to confuse me. I’ll watch a Wes Anderson film any day of the week even when I’m not quite sure what I’m meant to get out of it. Of course, I’m not sure Wes is either.

But I feel like I should have a better grip on TV. Isn’t television supposed to be the 20th century’s non-denominational opiate of the masses? I thought so, but these days I feel as though my opiate has come in a child-proof bottle that I’ll never, ever get open, let alone get all that packing cotton out of. At the same time – to extend the shoddy metaphor – I’m equally sure the kid down the street has opened the bottle with ease and is nodding his head in thoughtful agreement to everything on the screen. I feel more and more as though everyone is getting it but me.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t need to understand everything right away. I like to be challenged. I like to have to work to decipher a story. I’m just worried that my brain has reached saturation point. I know it’s bad when I’m watching “Lost” and can’t remember Ben’s daughter’s name and can’t remember the other hot time-traveling dude (Desmond! How could I forget you and your well-groomed scruffiness?). It’s bad, too, when I have to do math to figure out if something is a fast-forward or a flash-back. (“Okay, Ben’s trip to the Middle East is set in 2005. ‘Lost’ has been on for four season? Which means the plane crashed in 2004. Carry the one, subtract the two, find the square root of something…okay, it’s a flash-forward!”) How do the writers keep all this straight?

And don’t even ask me to figure out “Battlestar.” How did Baltar’s transformation into Hugh Hefner turn him into Jesus? Is it the hair? And the cylons make my brain hurt. There’s Sixes and Eights and Fours and some are working together and some aren’t and some are Dean Stockwell and some are making out with Dean Stockwell. And oh, did I mention a bunch of them look alike?

The thing is, these shows are all so well done that I trust this is an issue with me and not with the story telling. And I trust that eventually, all will be revealed and I’ll finally be able to go, “Ahhh, so that’s the answer. I knew it all along.” (Yes, I will lie when that moment comes.) In the meantime, I’m just going to accept that full comprehension is not important and embrace the belief that it’s all going to make sense someday. Otherwise, I’m going to start thinking that watching 100+ hours of confusing TV might have been a mistake.


Kathe said...

Here's something to blow your mind on Lost. My hubby sent this to me today and while it kind of helps, it kind of doesn't. I'll let you be the judge.

It's long so get ready to dig in!

I lost track of all the Eights (Is it Boomer, is it the one who is with Helo and had Hera or just a copy???) ARRRGGGHHH!

onepinkshoe said...

I could have written everything you said... I feel the exact same way. I think the hardest part for me is that I've given up trying to figure things out. I've been burned in the past with the X-Files. I REALLY tried to figure that show out, only to learn that they didn't even know what they hell they were trying to say. So now I just go along for the passive ride and hope that the re-cap at the beginning of the episode is all I need to know and the final episode will explain everything!

Will said...

It seems like I read an article recently about how to enjoy LOST withougt really understanding it. BSG isn't nearly as bad. They both require lots of patience, which is hard to muster sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I can't really help you with any of the BSG stuff, since I don't watch the show, but I can help you not have to do math wrt Lost: the flashbacks are preceded by that wacky whooshing sound; the flashforwards are not. Easy as pie!

Kirstin said...

For a strictly academic perspective, I could say that television is finally moving into the modernist era.
The whole notion of modernism is that things are more complicated than they seem. Literary modernism came about because so many people were becoming literate. Woolf and Joyce and many others were concerned with making sure that people knew that just because they could read it doesn't mean they can read. It's totally elitist, but true.
It seems to me that television is finally trying to do that now. They're trying to make people realize that they're only watching TV passively. Battlestar and Lost require active comprehension. It's TV for people who don't want to be fed drivel on a plate.

Wow, I should totally write a paper on this.

And if it's any consolation, I wrote my thesis on Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Ulysses and I still wouldn't claim to understand it.

I really applaud your willingness to let yourself not fully understand things. If only more people would do the same.

Anonymous said...

Lost I think is meant to be incomprehensible, and tries to present more questions than answers. Battlestar...well, I think some things are ambiguous but there's a limit to the number of reasonable conspiracy theories. Keeping track of who's frakking who (and who isn't! Kiss the woman already, Adama!) does take a lot of energy, though.

I guess perhaps I'm a bit of a masochist, because I love not understanding everything. A typical TV show states everything so clearly that there's very little reward for figuring things out. I also love the technique, used on both shows but more on BSG, of leaving scenes on an unresolved note. You have to make some assumptions, draw your own conclusions on how the scene ended, and I really like that.

Liz said...

I think it depends on the show. For example, I realized recently that I'm not totally clear on the Gormogon plot on Bones...but that it's Bones, and I'm not really in it for the plot anyway. So...*shrug* on that one.

For Lost, I think it's possible to watch and enjoy without knowing/remembering the details of the plot--but it's not as much fun and it's not as satisfying. I mean, there's so much we don't know, and the things I do know seem to dribble out my ears if I stop repeating it to myself ad nauseam, so I think there's a certain amount of acceptance about not knowing (which is also what makes the big reveals so satisfying). But it becomes so much more fun, imo, to try to notice the details and piece things together (even though it breaks the brain). That show was made for the internet era, where we can all mull things over together, and it's such a great participation show, that I think the quest for comprehension is part of the experience of it.

Yay, serialization!