Sunday, January 31, 2010

why "Lost" is like the Cheesecake Factory

Back in July, Ezra Klein wrote this lovely column, "Is The Cheesecake Factory Gross?", riffing on someone else's experience of the chain restaurant The Cheesecake Factory.
A week or so ago, the food writer Michael Ruhlman mocked Kelly Alexander for praising The Cheesecake Factory on NPR. In response, Alexander laid down a wager: Ruhlman had to go to The Cheesecake Factory, order the miso salmon that so impressed Alexander, and try it. If Ruhlman could honestly say "it doesn't rock," Alexander would purchase 15 copies of his new book.

Ruhlman lost.

The upshot is that yes, this food is awful for you: 1673 calories for the miso salmon in question, which lines up with the 1200+ calories Mom and I saw for the "light" entree at a rare outing to T.G.I. Friday's some years ago. But of course it tastes good, because it is designed, in the most literal and explicit sense, to be so. My friends and I had a similar argument a couple of years ago in response to an article about a small Midwestern town's excitement over the opening of a new Olive Garden. (I think it's fine for what it is; some friends insist it's gross; we reached consensus on the fact that we're all a bunch of over-educated, over-privileged foodie white people, except for the one or two Asians in the group, who weren't around for the discussion.)

Now, I've been watching Season 1 of Lost, the very popular TV series about people plane-wrecked on Oahu a remote island in the South Pacific. It interrupted my watching Journeyman, which was a harsh transition back and forth because Journeyman is a genuinely good and awesome TV series, with depth and emotion and narrative.

What is Lost, you ask?

Lost is The Cheesecake Factory. It is the television equivalent of food engineered to be immensely appealing, to keep you engaged and above all wanting more, but being ultimately superficial, soulless, lacking any but the most shallow emotional impact. It is masterfully done, as though all the writers and sound designers and film editors and cinematographers got together and decided to weave every cheap trick together into an integrated piece. It's remarkable, really, and a lot of fun. You can just imagine them doing the storyboard.
"Spooky music!"
"Scary music!"
"Mysterious fade-out!"
"French horns warped out of tune!"
"Sudden scene cut to startle the viewer!"
It's a postmodern enterprise, the elaborate construction of suspense for its own sake. Because it's not in the service of a greater story--the story exists as a vehicle for the emotional manipulation of the viewer--all the effects are pretty obvious and they get repetitive (especially the out-of-tune horns leading to a sudden blackout). I'm very excited for more characters to get killed off, because while I realize they're under a lot of stress with having survived a plane crash and being marooned on an island, they're mostly morons with the common sense of a watermelon.

There's a lot of episodes, so while I'm happy enough to have watched it, I'm going to cut it off at Season 1, and maybe someday in the future I'll see the rest. As for anyone who actually has a job...I can't recommend it. It's too much time for too little reward: there's just more mysteries, and if you grab onto it, it's just like any other cycle of endless desire in search of ultimate oh-my-god-this-is-eternal-happiness-for-sure satisfaction (sex, food, money, possessions, experiences).

Journeyman, on the other hand, is a mere thirteen genuinely fantastic episodes, available for free at Hulu. Go watch that instead.

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