Friday, November 13, 2009

BTWs... about Heroes... + Why FlashForward Is Better Than You Give It Credit For

Pretty sure I changed my mind from before; I haven't bothered watching Heroes since like the third episode and probably won't bother to continue. I just hope it dies soon. NBC seems to be fizzling out all its other dramas too, so why not this tired and never-going-to-improve one?

My ulterior motivation in doing this is to eventually remake the series better. I doubt I would ever actually do that because there are other things I'd rather do, but I would totally blow up New York and hire some better writers.

And... House. I feel bad because I actually do want to keep watching House, but there are just so many other shows I'd rather be watching these days so I am not up to date on that show either. I'll try to catch up one day... but not now.

Oh and Dexter too. I still haven't finished the third season. Oops! >.>

On another note, although most people don't seem to be in love with FlashForward, I have a couple things to say in its favor. The reason I think that I personally am getting so invested in this show has to do with a literature class I am taking right now called Narratives of Suffering. In fact, FlashForward and my class overlap in ways enough that I wrote it into the conclusion of my midterm paper for the class (my professor actually quite liked it and thanked me for bringing the show to his attention; I had a paper conference with him earlier this week, just after (**SPOILERS**) Al offed himself and I told him about that and how interesting it was).

My paper was about the idea of suffering and human agency in regards to it. In many ways, we do not have control over the suffering that is given to us. Depending on who you ask or your source material, it might be that suffering is randomly assigned to people who undergo tragic experiences that plague them or cause suffering due to a complete removal or one from one's comfortable life. We've talked about this in class in relation to an identity within a frame that we create for ourselves. And then something comes along and while we suffer, we are removed from our frames and all that we felt we could control before is taken away from us and we are left in the infinite space of the universe, the wall we built up around ourselves as a symbol of who we are is suddenly taken away from us and we are lost. It could also be said that this natural, part of being human (something that can be taken away in particular from the poetry of Emily Dickinson or that seems to be implied in Samuel Beckett's play, Endgame). Or a condition of our being in a certain state (the focus of my paper was primarily on Harriet Jacobs' narrative of her life in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl). Either way, when we suffer and we are removed from our place, there is a sense of nothing we can do, that we have to give into our eventual fate and let suffering take us where it will.

Or, we can make a choice. Even if there is nothing physically that we can do to overcome our suffering, we can make a mental choice that we want to survive. In Owen Chase's narrative Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, although he and his companions are starving on a boat far away from land, unable to even move at points because they have been so physically reduced, it really it the mental state that each man takes on that controls whether or not they will survive. Chase writes, "all was dark [Isaac Cole] said in his mind, not a single ray of hope was left for him to dwell upon; and it was folly and madness to be struggling against what appeared so palpably to be our fixed and settled destiny. I remonstrated with him as effectually as the weakness both of my body and understanding would allow of" (pg. 67). Although Chase fails to convince Cole that his destiny was not fixed as a dead man, here is the beautiful demonstration of human agency even when it seems we have none left. So many of the characters that we explore in this class make a conscious choice that, despite their state, they will fight it somehow. Mary Rowlandson in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God stands by her bible even while in the hands of the Indians, keeping her faith strong as she suffers, choosing to believe that God will deliver her from it, and he does. Chase eventually survives to tell the tale (although it is rumoured that he went crazy from the cannibalism they had to employ to survive and the long-term starvation and suffering each survivor endured). Jacobs manages to escape to the north after several years in a tiny space where she hid before she could leave the south.

But then, at the same time, none of the characters truly finds happiness in the end. As I said, Chase goes crazy, and when Jacobs goes up to the north, she finds that the world up there isn't a whole lot better to black women than the south was. We also watched a couple films in the class, The Sweet Hereafter and Leaving Las Vegas (which is why I was more than a little pissed off when Owen Gleiberman describes Nicolas Cage's character as someone who is "full of longing and regret" neither of which ever seems to cross the character from the perspective I watched the film). But I want to focus on the former film. In the closing narration, Nicole, the only child who survives the tragic bus accident, comments that in the process of moving past the grief and coming out of suffering that the town didn't exactly return to happiness, rather, they were now in a "strange and new" world, as she describes it. One of Dickinson's poems goes as follows:

"I shall know why-when Time is over-
And I have ceased to wonder why-
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky-

He will tell me what “Peter” promised-
And I-for wonder at his woe-
I shall forget the drop of Anguish
That scalds me now-that scalds me now!"

No matter what comes later, anguish will leave its mark. Suffering will leave its mark. There is a chance of removing yourself from suffering, but you will never reenter the world you had before it came.

And here is where FlashForward comes in. FlashForward has characters who see firsthand the suffering they will go through, or their flashforwards cause suffering upon their sight. Olivia is terrified of her eventual adultery. Mark is scared of returning to his alcoholism and losing his family. Nicole is frightened of a world where she finds herself deserving of being drowned to death. Demetri is, unsurprisingly, unpleased by the prospect of being murdered. Aaron is fraught by all kinds of despair when he sees his supposedly dead daughter alive. And Al, poor Al, wants to stop himself from being the cause of death for a single mother.

Yet, the agency that these characters employ? It's pitiful! The show seems to endorse the nonsensical concept of determinism, which Lloyd calls Simon out for using in yesterday's episode. But there are little things that characters do. Mark burns the friendship bracelet his daughter makes for him... all while constructing the board he sees in his future. Olivia throws away the lingerie she sees in her flashforward. Nicole tries to be the best person in the world, one who hardly deserves her death. And Al... kills himself.

I give Al two gigantic thumbs up, as well as the writers of FlashForward, for that game-changing decision. I cried, not only because it was so sad, but also because it was a much-needed remonstration of how the future is not set in stone (didn't we learn this lesson in Terminator all those years ago?). I had been waiting since the beginning for someone to jump off a building or take a gun to their head. It seems such a depression alternative, but in this case, it is a form of agency, better than the efforts the other characters have been making. They obsess over their futures rather than trying to live their lives as if their futures are still within their control. They are thrown out of whack, out of their comfortable little frames of lives, and forget that they have any control whatsoever. They are acting like Chase's companions and admitting defeat, that there's nothing to be done, the destiny has already been prescribed, there's no way out.

But there is, and that is what is so interesting and frustrating and beautiful about FlashForward. It provides us with this amazing study of how we all can react to a loss of control. It's not the same as being lost on a tropical island, not about finding that you have super powers, not about supernatural beings and powers. But all of these scenarios, they show new potential by being removed. But this... FlashForward, is so unique. It's not a change of what's already happened that leads this people to make their new choices and to arrange their new lives. There was a big dramatic event, the blackout, yes, but that's not all. Not only is there that bookend with the deaths of millions and the destruction of many places, but there's a future seen too. The potential is lost when people see the future and find themselves bound to a destiny, lost from their control, not just from the life they've already had, but the life they wanted or planned to have.

FlashForward isn't perfect. But I am so tired of hearing it labeled as a Lost knock-off, as too slow-moving or whatever else people find bad about it. FlashForward raises some of the most interesting questions and observations about human nature in regards to this loss of control, in regards to suffering, both of which I believe to be so important and central to human life, than I have seen in a while.

I will close this lengthy argument with the closing paragraph of the paper I wrote for my class. It was written before the latest two episodes of FlashForward were aired and therefore before Al's suicide. It may be repetitive of what I've already said, it may not be as articulate or clear or as in favor of the show as I am trying to be here. But it is an example of how truly fascinating this is:

"As an extension of this particular concept of human defiance versus submission to the fate’s commandment of suffering, there has been something tugging at my brain for some time now. This subject consistently reminds me of a new television series by the name of FlashForward. In the series, each of the characters is privy to a two minute and seventeen second “flashforward” (a vision with the clarity of a memory but of something that hasn’t yet happened) to a point approximately six months in the future. What people see brings them to do many things they may not have done had they not seen their future, especially those who see negative things in their flashforward (reverting to alcoholism after seven years of sobriety, having been murdered prior to that date, being in an extramarital affair with an unknown man, etc.) But what really surprises me is how some of the characters follow the strings, allow themselves to be drawn into the web of destiny or fate or whatever leads them to that place in the future, to that place where they would rather not go. Of course, the solution is not to simply kill oneself, although that would surely defy what is seen in the future. But when the woman avoids the man she will supposedly have an affair with, when the girl who sees herself as being “deservedly” murdered resolves to do absolutely no wrong in her life that would allow her such a fate, it reminds me of the strength of humanity to fight against what is to come. Here’s to hoping that some of them are actually capable of defying fate. Otherwise, the argument for humanity’s ability to use our small portion of agency to fight back will have been smacked down as completely false. If we can’t even stop the things we have been forewarned of, what hope is there when we don’t get that opportunity to see where the road goes?"

...the only thing I'm worried about? I'm only worried that FlashForward won't realize how smart it is (Heroes style... but I think FlashForward is already a lot stronger than Heroes was in the beginning) and ruin the beautiful study is has presented to us. Maybe I can even hope some of the dudes involved read this and realize what I'm getting out of it! ...but I doubt that. So the end.

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