Previously, on Really Stupid Television: With the Beverly Hillbillies, we saw how the very premise of a television show could be, simply put, stupid, leading to stupidity in every other aspect of the program, and raising questions concerning audience motivation. We’ll try to make this matter more precise discussing another example, a science fiction action thriller that was broadcast on the ABC television network during the 2009-2010 season, Flash Forward.
This discussion will concern what I will refer to as the problem of meta-stupidity in our popular entertainments (although it can show up in more sophisticated arts as well, and can be frequently found in politics and economics). But let me explain.
There are four layers of stupid to be uncovered in the popular arts. Popular reviews or more refined forms of criticism generally deal with three:
Local stupidity: usually revealed in dialogue, pertaining to the experience or inadequacy of a single character, small group of characters, or situation. In one scene from Flash Forward, Agent Noh admits to his fiance Zoey Andata that he has slept with his lesbian colleague Janis Hawks in order to impregnate her because in her flash forward she was pregnant. This is probably among the stupidest excuses for a one night stand one can give to one’s supposed beloved – and it’s not clear why anybody would be stupid enough to have such a one night stand (beyond desperation, which is not Noh’s problem); nor why anyone would be stupid enough to admit such an affair to one’s fiance if an admission was not needed. I suppose this is what passes for ‘responsible sex’ in Hollywood.
Regional stupidity: pertaining to technical misjudgments raising questions concerning the competency of the production crew or the actors, or of the characters in the narrative itself. Inane plot devices are the most glaring example of this: There’s the more local sequence when someone in an apparently empty house, forewarned that danger is lurking, responds to the creaking of a door in the floor above, chooses to climb the stairs, calling out, “is anyone there?” and the inevitable terrorizing that follows. My favorite moment of this in Flash Forward is when the hero, Benford, is interrogating a villain, and the bad guy tells him that, having lived through this encounter in numerous Flash Forwards, he knows that after continued interrogation, Benford will simply lose control and start beating him up, afterwards losing his job and everything he loves. Presumably, Benford is interested in changing the future, so we can easily suppose what he might do to prevent the realization of this prophecy – but this being a stupid television show, we know what really happens next. We could have written it ourselves – in our sleep.
And then there’s the big gaping hole in reasonable expectations: in Flash Forward, we’re supposed to accept that a super-secret organization, with apparently unlimited funds (from sources unknown) could build bizarre relay towers (6 stories high) – to amplify energy generated in a super-collider (huh?) – across the globe, with absolutely no governmental or journalistic suspicions being raised. We used to say, “inquiring minds want to know;” apparently no such existed in the world of Flash Forward until catastrophe happened.
Global stupidity: manifesting in basic problems of plotting in the stories themselves, either in the per-episode narrative, or in the story-arcs linking through the episodes. Critical complaints against Flash Forward have largely surfaced two prime instances of global stupidity: too many characters, and too many side-stories. In one episode, a preacher chats up his flash-forward in religious terms. Nothing much comes of his appearance, and I don’t believe he appears in any later episode. So, why? Because somebody in the production team probably remarked, ‘well, we probably need to address the religious angle at some point; let’s get it done and over with.’ Except that, in a science fiction story, no! you don’t have to address any religious angle! So all you’ve done is fill up time with insufferable twaddle.
Or, again, one story arc looping throughout the show involves a surgeon (Bryce) who (flashforward) sees himself meeting a beautiful Japanese female (Keiko). He becomes obsessed with her, so of course we have to have her back-story as well, and in the last episode, they do finally meet, and, as all too predictably, romance blooms.
Except that Bryce is a vacuous character with no charm; Keiko is charming, but her back-story is implausible and occasionally silly; and the whole story-line reeks of psychopathology. And what does any of it have to do with the search for the cause of the Flash Forward?
But all of this so far has to do with whether the telling of the story is effective – or not. There’s still the question of whether the story should be told at all.
I want to go beyond standard criticisms of stupid dialogue or plot points. What concerns us here is meta-stupidity. This is reference to problems in the very concept of a narrative or dramatic entertainment, or in the assumptions underlying that concept. (The concept is how one briefly describes the plot to reveal its themes, without direct reference to the characters of the story. So: “son avenges father on murderous uncle married to widowed mother,” is a reasonable facsimile of the concept that Shakespeare works through in Hamlet, which also suggests that the thematic of the play concern vengeance, family relationships, and a young man’s struggle to accept his responsibilities.)
We can now turn to the fundamental premise of Flash Forward to consider just how stupid a concept for a fictional story can be.
The purported premise of Flash Forward opens with a catastrophe, presented in a title (read voice-over) that began 20 of its 22 episodes: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future.” That is, 7 billion people went unconscious, wherever they were (which led to 20 million deaths in the US, according to the show), and when the survivors woke up, they had a memory of events they would experience six months from then. This is not the complete premise, since there is no reference yet to any characters engaged in action, so we’ll flesh the premise out as it unravels in the first two episodes and thus sets the real story (or, rather, stories) into motion: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future. Now only a handful of FBI agents can determine the cause and prevent it from happening again (while their friends and families try to come to terms with how to live with the future they saw).” But to really get the full flavor of this premise, we must remember that this catastrophe was global, so the premise should remark the global response to it; and here it is: “On October 6 (etc.). Now only a handful of FBI agents (etc.). Meanwhile, 7 billion people talk about it sometimes, and go about their daily business, while governments hold committee meetings to decide who’s responsible for it.”
Here’s the mind-numbing stupidity of it: A planetary catastrophe happens (and yet the only deaths mentioned are those in the US, BTW), and there is no emergency response from any government or charitable agency; the international community of scientists engage in no research into possible causes or solutions; there are no riots or mass immigrations; no new political or religious movements are engendered; psychotic breaks are limited to those who can be pursued by the heroic FBI team. I mean, yeah, there are occasional news casts and a speech by the President, and the head of the CIA suspects the Chinese are involved with it (because “they slept through it” – a stupid claim to make about 1 billion Chinese, that they could both terrorize the world and sleep through it all, but there we go)…. But really, it all comes down to that team of FBI agents.
Well, almost. Because as the series goes on, the premise begins accumulating clutter: Although the scientific community makes little appearance in the series, there are two scientists who are revealed to have invented the gadgets that may have caused the event, and one of them just happens to be in for a possible romantic relationship with the wife of the FBI agent who concerns us most, and the other just happens to be involved with the secret organization that did cause the event; which organization happens to have two FBI agents on its payroll (albeit one’s a double agent), and happens to have connections with a gang of terrorists, not to mention another gang of terrorists in Afghanistan that may be covertly funded by the US…. And anyway, a lot of people get shot, and things explode, and there are sex scenes, and endangered children, and –
(Oh, let me stop there, because I just have to remark, as side-bar, that the two starring children in the series are the most annoying child characters, played by the most annoying child actors, that I have ever had to suffer with in order to follow a story.)
Now, it sounds as if I’ve wandered into the terrain of the regional or global stupidity of this series, but that’s the problem I’m trying to surface: The basic premise is not only stupid, it is thin, very thin. For instance, it doesn’t suggest any thematic of the plot; it could never sustain a weekly television program for more than, say, three episodes. (A similarly thin premise – even with similar added on subplots – could not even sustain the 3 hour TV movie Supernova from 2005 – truly a disaster of a movie.) So what the writers have done is to layer concept over concept in order to generate supposed ‘dramatic moments’ even when these do not add up to any real drama. This is one reason why so many characters, irrelevant to the main narrative, can drift in for an episode or two and then disappear. Example: One added-in concept is: “FBI agent lives with lesbian lover but desperately wants a child.” This gives us a few scenes with the lover, who disappears after a couple episodes. Meanwhile the agent herself is used to flesh out another add-in: “fatalistic FBI agent has affair with lesbian colleague, because he believes he will die soon, and his fiancé is not around” (his fiancé being a lawyer who just happens to represent the suspected terrorists).
Do we see what’s happening here? The show-runners, confronted with the evident weakness of the original concept, rather than finding ways to flesh it out in a manner at least suggestive of reality, have layered it over with concept after concept, all equally unbelievable (because dependent on Hollywood stereotypes), all paper thin (because never fully realized), and all equally stupid.
Finally, one must really comment on the science here, since this becomes another layer of concept by the series’ mid-point. A super-collider supposedly generates enough energy to send 7 billion consciousnesses into the future and bring them back. This assumes, not only that super-colliders do anything like this (they don’t), but that we have ‘a consciousness’ (which is still debated) – an entity detachable from our bodies, that can be moved temporally by some form of energy, and returned to our bodies whole. This also assumes that the future happens completely deterministically, so that variance is dubious. However, this would moot any possible action by the characters. So by episode seven, it is at last revealed that the future can be changed, when an FBI agent, who knows that he will be responsible for somebody’s death in the future, commits suicide. This is where the theme of the program finally reveals itself. No, it’s not simply an argument for free-will. Rather, by the last two or three episodes, it becomes clear that even if you know the future and can change it, you shouldn’t do that, because of the “balance of energies in the universe” – which balance will realize itself whether we want to or not, anyway. (The person the FBI agent thought would survive once he’s killed himself does herself get killed in a completely unrelated accident.) So the series that didn’t need to address religion (but did so anyway), sneaks ‘spirituality’ in through the back-door: pantheism. But a particularly muddled, banal, ‘feel-good’ variety of it.
Although there’s much more stupidity to exhume from the corpse of Flash Forward, I’m going to stop here before my mind explodes. In my next post I’ll go into how I was able to survive exposure to this series, and lessons one can learn from such an experience.