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The Mystery Shows

November 14th, 2005

With some of the old series I watched having shut down, I started looking for something new, and sampled several series. There are some good ones out there. Here are a few details on the ones I started picking up, all of them related after a fashion:

The 4400: A show that started a little back, it has gone through two “seasons” already–but nowadays, the term “season” seems to mean something other than what it used to. Shows in the 70’s often ran 30 episodes a season; Star Trek: The Next Generation ran 26. Nowadays, major network shows only get 22 (except for the show 24, for obvious reasons). But cable shows, The 4400 among them, only seem to get 12 or 13 per year. The 4400‘s first “season” was a 6-hour miniseries, which was followed by a second “season” of 12 episodes. Nevertheless, it makes up for in quality what it loses in quantity.

The series began with a comet about to hit the Earth and wipe out all life–except it wasn’t a comet. It slowed down, descended upon Washington State, stopped above a lake, and exploded in a flash of light–leaving precisely four thousand, four hundred people standing on the shore of the lake. The 4,400 people had been plucked off the face of the Earth, one by one, over sixty years. Some sixty years ago, some just a few years ago, most in-between–and none had aged a day from when they were taken. None remembered where they had been or what had happened to them. Kept in quarantine at first, the government could not find anything wrong or changed about them, and so released them into the general population. And then they started changing. Some exhibited strange powers, making the show kind of a cross between Close Encounters, Taken, and The X-Men. At the end of the first “season,” we learn (maybe) where they were, but are no closer to understanding exactly what’s supposed to be happening.

The main character of the show is a government agent whose whose son went into a coma when his cousin (the main character’s nephew) was taken. He and his partner are one of many teams keeping tabs on the 4400, who still cluster around Seattle, as their powers get them into trouble, and the rest of the population start getting scared and suspicious of what they are. The show is pretty well written, and though the characters are good, the mystery and how the show handles it are the key to its success.

The 4400 is one of a new crop of shows that centers around a mystery. The X-Files could be seen as the progenitor of this genre, with its arc of government-hidden alien invasion conspiracy providing a central mystery that the show revolves around–“The Truth Is Out There.” Another recent show in the genre is:

Lost: Now in its second season (this show has been granted 24 full hours per year), Lost is the biggest hit among the Mystery Shows. A plane headed from Australia to the U.S. goes off course then crashes on what seems to be a deserted island. There are more than 40 survivors from the middle section; the forward and tail sections of the plane crashed elsewhere. The main cast of the show is made up of 14 of those people (the others not so clearly defined, named, or countable until they are needed as supporting characters). The 14 include: Jack, a doctor; Kate, a fugitive; Sawyer, a con man; Locke, an older man who seems to know everything; Sayid, a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard; Jin and Sun, a Korean couple; Hurley, a dude whose life has been bizarre lately; Mike and Walt, estranged father and son reunited just before the crash; Claire, a woman 8 months pregnant; Charlie, a rock and roll star; and Boone and Shannon, step-brother and -sister.

Lost is a good show more because of the characters and the incredibly strong writing, though the mystery at the core of the show is a very close third. The ensemble cast each have roles with depth, strong backstories that each get the spotlight in alternating episodes. Every episode centers on one cast member, following the adventures of all on the island while looking closely at one character’s past in flashbacks; the flashbacks are responsible for demonstrating the character’s motivations and feelings, showing why they act they way they do.

The mystery at the center of the show is the island itself. From the very start, it shows itself to be an incredibly weird place. Despite being in the South Pacific, polar bears attack, and some mysterious creature that seems to be a cross between a dinosaur and a piece of demolition equipment crashes down trees and chases people, sometimes catching them and killing them. A strange radio transmission has been emanating from the island for decades. Others live on the island, but who they are and why they are there is unexplained. Strange things are found in the jungle, and strange things happen to the characters–visions, coincidences, all manner of surprises. And oh yeah, the writers have no problem killing off main characters–two have already bitten the dust. But not to worry–more are being added. All good.

While the mystery is very good, the show does have one notable shortcoming, though not too bad: it goes out of its way to avoid looking at certain things. A few times, mysteries arise that seemingly could be solved by asking someone something, but no one asks. Certain characters hold back information for no discernible reason. Things are encountered, but people don’t take as close a look at them as they could. It’s as if the writers are bending the rational behavior of characters so as to dangle mysteries closer in front of us without giving anything away. This is the one frustrating weakness to an otherwise excellent show. But one gets the impression that the show can only go too far before the tension of not revealing enough goes beyond the breaking point. Hopefully, this show will not suffer the same illness that The X-Files did, which was to hold back truth and revelations far longer than the believability of the premise could support, so that the show’s concept became stretched and inaccessible. We’ll have to see how Lost does.

There are two more shows in this genre, copycats of Lost undoubtedly; they are Threshold and Invasion. I’ll get to those next.

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  1. Brad
    November 16th, 2005 at 15:50 | #1

    I’ve only seen the mini-series – first six hours – of the 4400, but based on what I saw I chose not to watch the next season. Didn’t appeal to me at all. Some good bits, but the last part just didn’t make any sense (from my hazy recollection). Trees bowing as the black man and his pregnant girlfriend drove away from the multi-millionaire? Other things that I thought was just a lot of mystical hand-waving with little science-fiction substance underneath.

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