LOST and Loving It

This week was made in heaven.  A snowstorm, a day off, a historic inauguration, and today -- the season premiere of LOST!  I actually woke up this morning at 4 and couldn't sleep.  I had a stack of papers to grade, but instead I made up a game in honor of the day: LOST Bingo.  The spaces say stuff like "Sawyer coins a nickname" and "emotional reunion" and, simply, "Dude."

LOST is the only show Rob and I watch (outside of hotel stays, when we mostly end up watching HGTV or the Food network.)  Some friends basically coerced us into the fold of devotees when they gave us Season 1 to borrow during Christmas break two years ago.  We were hesitant, seeing that most fans we knew were more than a little obsessed, but we reluctantly turned it on one evening around 9 PM.  We watched the first episode.  "Seems okay," I said.  "I'm not sold," Rob said.  We watched another one, shrugged and went to bed.

The next afternoon, we were puttering around the house, and somehow we ended up turning it on again.  We watched episode after episode until around 4 in the morning.  A few days later, we borrowed Season 2, and when it was over, we immediately logged onto iTunes and bought the first six episodes of Season 3, which was currently underway.  By the time we returned to school in January, waiting a month for the next new episode seemed impossible.

We were really turned off by the experience of watching the show on TV, however.  Commercials punctuated every intense scene, and our friends' chatter was distracting.  I think we were spoiled by the ease of watching TV the way most people watch movies -- no commercials, pause and rewind if you didn't hear a line.  We preferred to wait until the next evening when the show had downloaded from iTunes, dim the lights, and enjoy the unpolluted experience.

The summer after that season, like any good converts, we won converts of our own: my parents.  The amazing thing was that as we re-watched every episode with them, we discovered more and more interesting pieces of the puzzle -- clues left in forgotten places, connections we hadn't realized existed.  The web of the show is amazingly intricate, which is why it's such a great one.  A great show has you thinking about it days later, wondering about ambiguities, looking for themes.  A bad one makes you feel ugly inside, unhappy with your life, like you've just spent an hour you'll never get back.

Returning to school after my conversion, I was thrilled to have some kind of pop culture knowledge to share with my students; they knew I didn't watch TV, and I couldn't bring myself to listen to much that was on their iPods.  But when I told them I had started watching LOST, they rolled their eyes.  They had watched the first few episodes with interest, apparently, but it was just "too confusing" now.  Some even called it "boring," which I think means "I don't understand it, so I'll use the most derogatory word I can imagine to describe it."  The few fans left were basically holding out for long-term romances between the characters.  What entranced me about the show -- its focus on the past as an influence on the present, its study of concepts like regret and forgiveness -- had gone completely over their heads.

My good friend Terry is a journalism professor and longtime writer who focuses on media and its influence on our faith.  I've heard him say some fascinating things before, but none more than this: he once gave a class assignment  which focused on television watching.  He wanted to divide the class into four groups for a week: the first three could watch anything they wanted, but had to submit to various forms of documentation -- recording the channels and programs they watched, or taping ahead of time to watch later.  And the fourth group would have to turn the TV off completely.

He said he learned the most from this experiment before it was even carried out.  Everyone wanted to be in the fourth group.  They would rather avoid the television altogether than analyze what came out of it -- even the barest of analysis was too loathsome to contemplate.

This is why I jumped at the chance to develop and teach a semester-long Media Studies course at my school.  Its first run ended last week.  We would read a scene of a classic (Jane Austen's Emma or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five) and then watch the movie version.  Over and over, I asked them to look carefully for the differences.  They found them.  But when I asked, "Why do you think they're there?" they were stuck.  Why does it matter that the Emma in the book is penitent, while the Emma in the movie is petulant?  They couldn't see it until I spelled it out.  In their papers, when I asked them to analyze themes, I got, "Elijah Wood is such a great actor" or "I didn't like Kate Beckinsdale's costume."  In-depth analysis doesn't come naturally to a generation raised on, and steeped in, visual media.

The great thing about teaching, though, is that I get another shot, beginning tomorrow.  A new class.  A new opportunity to show them what's important.