From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Jeremiads: The Mainstreaming of Science Fiction on TV?

The ABC series Lost is, quite possibly, the most broadly successful science fiction television show yet. While ratings have been on a decline in this, the fourth season, the season’s premiere pulled in 16.07 million viewers. Now, these are Nielsen numbers, which I consider suspect at best, but it shows that the show is very popular, and almost certainly not just with traditional SF fans (those numbers cannot be accounted for purely by fans). Current episodes have dealt openly with science fiction tropes (which I will not name exactly to avoid spoilers). You could argue about the true classification of the show, but it most certainly falls into science fiction, as well as maybe a couple of other genres.

When the show first started, fans knew something was unusual, but that was a bit subtle. Dozens of people had survived a horrific plane crash, landing on a strange island. Compasses don’t work. There’s a weird radio transmission. And there’s a monster in the jungle that nobody can see.

Still, I suppose, many audience members disinclined to like SF could make the case for the show being in the thriller/mystery genre. And it did have a heavy human, more dramatic element in the form of each episode’s character-centric back story arcs. It wasn’t until late season 2 that things really began to take a turn for the speculative. And even then, it was subtle, just a few elements. But as the show has progressed, it’s become clear that the entire foundation of what the show is about is science fiction (or at least science fantasy).

But as each season has gone on, it has been increasingly impossible for even the most determined to deny that Lost is, at its roots, a science fiction show. You could call the techniques they used to grab their audience bait-and-switch, because the show creators introduced the heavy speculative elements slowly. I’d also call it the frog in a pot of boiling water acclimation method.

My coworker, the Lost fan

An anecdote: I have a coworker who hates science fiction. In his words, he likes “real things.” He despises superhero movies, and pretty much everything a SF fan loves. Early on, the show creators of Lost said in an interview that everything presented on the show had a grounding in real science (something that at this point is highly debatable). Still- my coworker clung to this statement like it was a life preserver. It allowed him to keep watching the show no matter how fantastic things got, because it was still somehow “real.” At this point in the fourth season, he’s pissed off, because he realizes that statement was total bullshit. But he’s still watching, and still hooked.

The reason? A good mystery is compelling no matter what other genre tropes you add to the stew of your story. The characters, after 3 complete seasons, are sympathetic and well-known. All the foundations of a good story are there, to the point that, despite my coworker hating everything there is to hate about science fiction, he is still a huge fan of the show.

This is a good example of how genre is becoming the mainstream. For those fans who would like to see the genre remain distinct and separate, I think this turn of events is going to be a massive disappointment. Reviewing the past events of the show, it almost looks as if the show creators deliberately plotted out their introduction of SF tropes to create the frog in a pot of boiling water effect.

What’s especially fantastic in my mind is that Lost hasn’t given us SF-lite. It slowly introduced the elements, yes, but they are not watered down to be more palatable. We have full-fledged weirdness here. This is a show that Charles Fort would watch and clap his hands with glee.

The potential for new fans

By the time Lost completes its arc, there is going to be a whole new audience primed to accept our stranger ideas. New TV shows will come along to take advantage of this, but maybe, just maybe, SF publishers can lure some of them in too. Frankly, you could do worse than adding even 1% of Lost’s fanbase to your readership. You could do a hell of a lot worse.

I’m sure there are downsides to the mainstreaming of SF tropes. It makes us feel less special and unique, maybe. But as a working creative, I will just have to swallow my pride on that one. With this kind of potential for fans out there, it gives me hope that we could actually make a good living telling genre stories, and not just the ones marketed to an aging, increasingly conservative SF fanbase.

But then, maybe I’m all wrong

But then, the decline in ratings that Lost is suffering right now might be an indicator that the broader audience of Lost has been alienated by the speculative aspects of the show. For the week of May 4, the show didn’t even break the top 20. There may be many reasons why this show is falling in the ratings. And even if it is popular by genre show standards, it pales in comparison to reality shows involving dancing and singing.

Reprinted by permission of the author, from jeremiahtolbert.com

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