“Some way out of here” has real appeal in 2009
Confession: I’m like the last person in the country to get on board the “Lost” train. I only started watching the show a few months ago, and we’re up to season 3 by watching it through Netflix. I mention this, because it was fascinating (and due credit to Marc for pointing this out) to see how the last hour of “Battlestar Galactic” was really evocative of the way they film “Lost”. And really, the ending episode borrows from the same fantasy that made “Lost” a big hit, which is the fantasy of stripping away most of the accouterments of modern society and starting over. Viewers get to ask themselves if they could really cut it under these circumstances, which is part of the appeal, but it’s worth asking if there’s something about the current state of affairs that makes the fantasy all the more appealing.
I took a long walk and spent a lot of time thinking about the direction this thread about the “BSG” finale took, where people debated whether or not people would be able to survive the dramatic shift to a combo hunter/gatherer and simple agricultural lifestyle. I do think some folks exaggerated the implications of the ending—they divided supplies up, so it’s not like people had no technology, and Lee makes a speech about bringing the best of their world to this new one, including cultural innovations that surely involved agriculture and some kinds of technology. There’s also talk of farming and house-building, and so in no way was it meant as a literal return to the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. But it did make me think that the writers would have been smart not to put the issue of choice out there, because it meant so many audience members would get stuck on that and not look at the fact that it was a symbolic return to Eden. It would have been easy to write it as not a choice—their ships were falling apart, they were nearly out of fuel, and people were desperate to eat real food for the first time in years. But there’s also something powerful in the idea that they had earned the right to determine their own fates, so I guess it’s a matter of being unable to please all the people all of the time.
But it made me realize that the question of whether or not you could hack it if you had to survive under these conditions has a powerful pull on people, and so does the fantasy of really leaving the modern world and going back to some kind of basics. Which is why I think “Lost” is so compelling (as well as “Survivor”, I suppose), because even people who find the dialogue and plot twists to be faintly to utterly ridiculous find themselves sucked into the show. While the characters state, over and over again, that they want to go home—except for Locke, of course—I think that there’s some ambivalence built into that. After all, what do they have to go back to? Most of them have shitty lives in the real world, and some of them have nothing to gain by going home. On the island, they spend their days fishing and picking fruit, and while they miss things like music and TV and soft beds, they can’t miss credit ratings, office jobs, and commutes. Things are tipped into the “let’s go home!” region only because there’s constant lurking dangers and poor access to medical supplies, but if that wasn’t an issue, it would be hard to see why they’d want to go home, especially those who have such shitty family lives they’re better off without their families. And, at the point in the series that I’m in, The Others are clearly characterized as bad guys (I suspect that will become more ambiguous over time), and part of what makes them so distasteful is they want to have it both ways. They have all the creature comforts of modern life—the houses and the TV sets—but they also get to live on this island where the modern world doesn’t touch them.
This escapist fantasy has many historical incarnations, with the Noble Savage being one. It’s no wonder that it’s popular now, and has been for awhile. It first showed up as a right wing thing, with survivalist nuts who think/hope the world is going to come to an end soon who stock up on guns and canning supplies. Or they just read “Left Behind” and hope for the Rapture. But just because they’re idiots doesn’t mean their responses aren’t the result of sincere fears and stress points. The fact that an apocalypse or getting stranded on a desert island would erase your debt obligations alone makes it enough to be a powerful fantasy for a solid percentage of Americans (a majority?), and hell, even the realization that you may never need to use an alarm clock again would be enough to get many people to sign up. Now you see it showing up in more liberal incarnations, such as the ending of “Battlestar Galactica”. Unfortunately, you hear some people going a little too far and suggesting that it was somehow easy to be a sustenance farmer or a hunter/gatherer, as if “more simple” equals “easier”. But even many those who accept that it would be hard feel the pull of the fantasy. Until thinking about this, I never realized how much the story of Noah’s ark was a fantasy as much as a warning, but perhaps it was a variation of the same fantasy for ancient people.
And now our economy is going down the toilet on a sea of bad investments and bad credit, and the urge to just wipe it all out and start over is just going to get stronger. Smart TV producers and writers would key into that and make more of these fantasies, and watch the money roll in. Perhaps in the 30s, the money was made putting on elaborate and fancy displays of wealth that people could take in for a nickel. But I think this time around, people feel so stuck and so complicit in the system that they just want a door out.