What makes a television show believable? What transports it from being mundane scribblings on a piece of paper, to technicolor vibrance that resonates with audiences? Well, if this week’s F-Rated moment is any indication, it’s reality itself that makes TV shows, well–real. And of course, the very real skill of a writer.
The mark of a good writer is undoubtedly their ability to infuse their work with the essence of life’s emotions, pictures, scenes and smells so that they’re as affecting on screen as they are on paper. In this day in age, capturing that quality isn’t too difficult considering the frenzy of mainstream trends we’re constantly bombarded with in every medium. It’s no surprise then that culturally conscious writers have taken to injecting their work with worldly humor that is not only applicable to their own story’s canon, but has recognizable real-life resonance to audiences around. Something as simple as a reference to ‘Googling’ a term on TV show can make characters more relatable, simply by placing them in a situation that most audience members experience daily in their lives.
Allusions are, in no way a new phenomonen–they’re just literary devices that help lead shows to a new level of meaning. Buffy (“I can’t believe you of all people is trying to Scully me!”), Gilmore Girls (Paul Anka, anyone?), and Veronica Mars (“Frak!”) all built their quirk from trend-aware dialogue. It just means that the writers are paying attention, and that nothing they write is by coincidence. In this pop-culture dominated world, a show without references remains undeniably flat.
One of the most powerful examples of allusion in recent television came in this week’s Lost episode. For fans who tune in weekly, the capers of this group of plane crash strandees on mystery island require a bit of suspended disbelief.
Is it psychological test haven or a place in Limbo? What about those random polar bears that were trudging around the island in the first season? And hey, whatever happened to that strange phantom cloud? Shows with as much unexplained and wacky as Lost has can often get looped up in its own superstition–think X-Files, circa the final seasons. One of the ways these shows can humanize thickly-drawn myth is by monopolizing on real-life reference. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as much empathy for anyone on Lost as I did for Jack this week when bug-eyed ‘Benry’ told him what’s happened in America since the strandees crash-landed on the island.
The Red Sox won the World Series, and the American people re-elected George W. Bush, Benry revealed.
It was such a simple reference, but it had enough resonance for Jack to give up his smart-ass avoidance routine and listen up for 30 seconds. The most harrowing was when Benry played the tape of the Red Sox sealing their underdog victory. Any doubt the viewers had about the severity of being trapped on this island, distanced from all non-Other civilization was nailed in with the change in Jack’s expression as he watched that tape. All of his sudden his know-it-all smile was reduced to a simple look of disbelief, his eyes a glassy reflection of the world that had moved on without him. For the audience, the reference was a way to ground us on the same island the strandees have been trapped on for weeks. Because it was based in recent reality, that moment placed us in a time-frame and mindset that we could easily recall. In essence, the allusion made us that much more vulnerable to the story, while doing what any good throwback should do: Enthrall. A very real, deserving ‘E-Rate’ for a very real, deserving show.
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Sir Linksalot: Lost