How to tell a story

With the new season of Lost beginning on Wednesday, I thought I’d share some thoughts on Lost, what makes a TV show good, and how different tactics by producers and writers can lead to different, but equally worthwhile results.

The Lost Experience recently ended, and I vowed to watch all of the first two seasons of Lost on DVD before the new season starts. Having failed at that (only got through about 10 episodes) I returned to my normal DVD routine, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. I own all seven seasons of ST:TNG on DVD and am about halfway through season five. After I switched to watching Lost and then back, I realized how remarkably different the two shows are, and yet how good they both are, despite their differences. Let me preface this by saying that I think ST:TNG is the greatest show in the history of television, and too bad if you don’t agree. It is iconic, deep, resonant, emotional, insightful, and has more of a legacy than even the original had.

The format of the two shows is very different. ST:TNG tells a unique story with each episodes, and while there are overlying themes and stories, it is easy to simply tune in and watch an episode, because for the most part, they stand alone and are not parts of a whole. Lost, on the other hand, has a continuous story, which means that it is difficult to understand what is going on if you miss an episode. Paradoxically, considering the number of episodes, not as much has happened on Lost as happened in the first two seasons of ST:TNG. Sure, lots of things have been discovered on Lost’s island (am I the only one that think the island needs a name?), but only a few major events have happened.

The explanation for this delves even deeper into the methods of storytelling employed by the two shows. Lost uses characters to show you the story, ST:TNG uses story to show you the characters. On Lost, the majority of the episodes are spent learning more about particular characters, either by flashbacks of their past which are used to explain their present, or by situations or relationships they encounter in the present that show and test who they truly are. Much of the information about characters is revealed either through exposition, or through choices and decisions the characters must make, directly involving us in each character.

ST:TNG is the exact opposite. Sure, there were episodes that focused around individual characters, but where we learned from the most was the way each character acted with respect to the story being told in each particular episode. By making the stories the focus of the show, it allowed the actors to develop their characters more naturally. You learned about each one the way you would learn about anyone in real life, by the way they react in certain situations, with small glimpses into their personal lives: as friends, rather than as observers.

In Lost, we are shown a character, given information from a God-like perspective, where we can see all that is going on, and shown the type of development or traits that the writers want us to see. This allows a deep look into a particular character, almost like dissecting a frog in science class. It makes you try to fully understand each character, and why they act the way they do. In ST:TNG, you also have the pleasure of learning how the frog works, not by cutting it open, but by observing and interacting with it, and appreciating it for its whole, rather than the sum of what you are shown.

Many people look at Star Trek (all versions) characters as easiest terms, the most simple definitions (see The Breakfast Club): the android who wants to be human, the blind engineer, the empathic counselor, the doctor and her son, the Klingon. Lost has similar stereotypes, as pointed out by Sawyer in season one, and the majority of the character development is spent trying to get you to look past all that to see the people inside, and try to get to you to relate. Star Trek shows you the characters, and lets you learn from them. Instead of relating (because it is impossible to completely relate to one character, since we are combinations of all), we get to experience and consider how we would react in a situation, and we learn something about ourselves. Data is the best example, and this is why he is the greatest television character in history. His endless quest to be human, and to understand humans, led us not to a deeper understanding of Data, but a deeper understanding of ourselves. We didn’t relate to him as he tried to understand why we act a certain way, but his quest for understanding showed us why we do. And that, my friends, is what made Data more human than any of us.

P.S. I think many great lessons about ourselves can be learned from Lost too, and many great discussions about life and characters and all the good juicy stuff can come from Lost. I just think that the interesting bits of Lost come from analyzing the characters, while the interesting bits from Star Trek come from analyzing ourselves.

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