Welcome back to the Showrunner Series, an occasional TVS feature where I discuss the work of one or more major television voice(s).
When a great, popular television series says goodbye, members of that series’ writing staff are going to be hot commodities. They’re going to be asked to run their own series, pitch their own pilots, move into film, whatever. Relatedly, those writers are going to be under something of a microscope, as critics will be looking to see if individual staff writers or producers can swing it without the safety net of a major series. For example, Richard Rusfield wrote a really great piece not too long ago chronicling the systematic failure of the dozens of former Friends writers who have been given – and continue to be given – opportunities to run other series. For those of interested in television so deeply, we know about the great writers rooms – Hill Street Blues, Buffy, The X-Files, you name it.
Lost and its writers room is an interesting case (partially because the series has only been off the air for a short period of time). Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had a major handle on that series’ narrative and were given a lot of the credit (and blame) for what happened on-screen. Some of the best writers to work on Lost didn’t stay very long. David Fury didn’t last past the first half of season one, Javier Grillo-Marxuach was gone by season two and the glut of great writers that were part of the season three staff (odd that the season most-derided by fans had the best room) like Jeff Pinker, Drew Goddard and Brian K. Vaughn moved on to other, bigger and depending on your opinion of how Lost turned out, better things relatively quickly. In the final few seasons, the writing staff turnover was minimal. Lindelof and Cuse ran the ship, while Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis top-lined a group that also included Elizabeth Sarnoff, Melinda Tsu Taylor and script coordinator Greggory Nations. Taylor now works on Falling Skies, Nations apparently doesn’t work anywhere (according to IMDb) and Sarnoff was booted from Alcatraz late last year.
This leaves us with Horowitz and Kitsis, who wrote the script for Tron: Legacy and then quickly brought Once Upon a Time to ABC (under the general guise of Lindelof, though I have to assume he’s working in the same kind of capacity J.J. Abrams did after a few episodes of Lost and by that I mean basically not at all). After watching the first dozen episodes of Once Upon a Time* (and seeing Tron: Legacy in theaters, although that won’t be a primary focus here), I started to really think about Horowitz and Kitsis’ approach to storytelling and how it is related to their time on Lost.
*Again, this is the part of this feature where I point out that obviously, not one person or duo singlehandedly creates the script, or even the quality and direction of a television series. Horowitz and Kitsis are the creators and showrunners of Once and they are credited writers on four episodes of the series. But for the purposes of argument, we can at least assume that they have some sort of final say as to how each episode comes out. Well, sort of, just follow my argument.
There are a lot of things that Lost is going to be remembered for as time passes (and if you angry people on Twitter have your way, those “things” are going to lean more and more towards the negative side, unfortunately). It was an once-in-a-lifetime kind of television program that will likely never be replicated for so many different reasons. But one of the things that I thought would be forgotten amid the sea of discussion about Smoke Monsters, mishandled resolutions and not-purgatory purgatories is the series’ structure, specifically the flashback structure.
Although they could sometimes be boring depending on the character they focused on and eventually drew tiresome and needed to be swapped out for something else, Lost’s use of flashbacks in each episode made a heck of an impact on its narrative and character development. Flashbacks obviously worked to fill in important (or sometimes not-so-important) blanks in the lives of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 and to sketch a larger picture of the series’ fascinating world. But they also did a really fine job of evoking thematic and emotional symmetry between the on- and off-island lives of the survivors. The combination of scavenger hunt and emotional punch resonated with audiences from the get-go.
I was afraid this was going to be forgotten. However, it is now apparent than Horowitz and Kitsis will never let the Lost flashback structure be forgotten because they are over-reliant on it to power the narrative of Once Upon a Time. Instead of running away from the central conceit of their former series, the duo have embraced it tighter and in the process, stripped away many of the elements that it made it so effective in the first place. Once Upon a Time takes short-cuts. It, like Lost, is a scavenger hunt; it just happens to exist almost solely as a scavenger hunt. It, like Lost, tries to use the symmetry of between its two worlds to evoke emotionally powerful moments; it just happens to not really earn any of those moments.
During their time on Lost, Horowitz and Kitsis were known for the series’ lighter, but not-so-secretly emotionally satisfying episodes. They wrote a number of great Hurley-related episodes, including “Everybody Hates Hugo,” “Dave,” “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead,” “The Lie” and “Everybody Loves Hugo.” So, actually, they wrote all the Hurley-centric episodes from season two on except season four’s “The Beginning of The End.” They also penned the lovely “Exposé” and one of the series’ all-time best efforts that no one talks about enough “Greatest Hits” (I dare you not to cry).
Lost used the flashback structure, especially in the first season, to constantly surprise the audience and subvert their expectations. We all remember the flashbacks in “Walkabout,” or even “Tabula Rasa.” The flashback device was built to induce shock and create dramatic ironies or inversions as much as it was built to point out symmetry. In that regard, it is no surprise to see some of the writing choices Horowitz and Kitsis have made while working on Once. But what is curious about many of the episodes I just listed is that they rely on characters who were self-aware and who recognized the symmetry of their circumstances.
Despite the initial mystery surrounding his pre-island life, Hurley often directly discussed how he wanted to change things or how a certain island situation reminded him of a certain “real world” situation. And in “Greatest Hits,” Charlie’s diegetic experience of the scenes we experience as his flashback isn’t that different from our own. As he thinks back on the best moments of his life, we see them. He is engaging with the series’ narrative device without being meta in an Abed-like way.* You could argue that Hurley and Charlie’s “awareness” made them easier to love, but also made it easier to build an episode around more light-hearted symmetry. The emotional payoffs of a Locke or Juliet or Desmond episode might have been more wrenching, but the sense of temporary fulfillment for Hurley or presumed-final calm for Charlie had a different impact.
*”Exposé” is, of course, the series Abed-like moment.
On Once Upon a Time, Horowitz and Kitsis use the flashback device in basically the same way, structurally. But the purpose of the flashbacks and how they relate to the series’ overall narrative and perhaps most importantly, the characters, is not the same and it is in these differences that the issues with Once start to manifest.* On the new series, Horowitz and Kitsis’ characters lack the self-awareness that Hurley or Charlie had on Lost – outside of Henry, but since he’s not part of both worlds he often becomes an afterthought anyway – and when combined with the inherent reason for the flashback structure to exist in the first place, the resulting series is odd to say the least.
*There’s no question that Once has a lot of problems. The characterization is random and the visuals are sometimes hard to stomach, but I think what I’m talking about today reflect the biggest problems. And despite all this, I still kind of like it. I don’t understand myself, at all.
In theory, it is fine for characters to lack self-awareness. Most of the characters on Lost seemed to lack self-awareness at all times (Jack and Kate were particularly stubborn) and perhaps that’s part of what made Hurley and Charlie so charming in the first place. But even though characters like Jack sometimes failed to see that off-island lessons could be re-learned on the island, he was still aware of both “timelines” that we saw, at least when Lost used flashbacks (flash-forwards and flash-sideways are completely different animals). He lived his flashback life.
So although the experiences were new to us and helped us learn more about Jack or Kate or Sawyer, the characters themselves were aware, in some way, of the things that had already happened to them. The mystery appeal of the flashback structure of Lost was appealing for us, not for the characters. Sure, they kept secrets from one another, but those secrets were part of typical on-island tensions. Knowing that Sawyer hung out with Jack’s dad or that Boone and Shannon hooked up didn’t fundamentally alter what was happening on the first 45 days on the island. Being self-aware like Hurley helped, but it wasn’t necessary.
Once Upon a Time, however, is devoid of self-awareness (in so many ways). In fact, the narrative is defined by the characters not knowing the connections between the two worlds that we see every Sunday night. The ultimate payoff is supposed to be that Henry convinces Emma who convinces Mary-Margaret and so on and they do know, but getting there, especially in the way that the series is trying to get there, is more than a chore. In the interim, the audience is left to point out the dramatic ironies in the lives of Snow White and Mary-Margaret or David and Prince Charming. While there is some value in that and Lost certainly took a similar approach, the lack of “real” connection between the two worlds creates a situation where we in the audience know that something is ironic or symmetrical or whatever, but the characters themselves do not – and might not ever because the series has done such a bad job of really explaining what could happen if they “wake up.”
At its core, Once Upon a Time is a story defined by one large mystery device that the audience already knows. We know, more or less, what the Evil Queen did, we know why she did it and we know that the characters themselves are going to take a long time to catch up with us. Lost was a series built around a certain air of mystery, but the characters, despite their ignorance, were actively trying to solve those mysteries. Locke wanted to know what was in the hatch. Charlie asked “Where are we?” Those characters were active participants in the mystery, Once’s characters are not.
Horowitz and Kitsis use the flashback structure to conjure symmetry and emotional responses from the audience, but don’t really do anything to earn it. The two sets of characters are only “the same” because the series inelegantly tells us they are through obvious, sometimes sloppy storytelling. Henry tells Emma about how this person is actually that fairy tale character and then, golly, wouldn’t you know it, he’s right. Mary-Margaret and David are together now? Well here is how they got together the first time! Instead of methodically using subtext and theme to draw parallels and feelings together, Once just throws it all out there and expects you to care. And to make matters worse, Horowitz and Kitsis have the full use of recognizable characters, which makes their approach even “easier.” Therefore, when MM and David kiss, you’re supposed to care because duh, that’s Snow White and Prince Charming. The series doesn’t earn it, though.
It is no surprise, then, that one of the series’ strongest episodes is “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” In that episode, Graham gained an awareness of his place in both worlds and acted accordingly. It created a certain level of dramatic tension, but also made the character relationships more intriguing. The schism between the two worlds brought on by the narrative device wasn’t as pronounced in that episode and it felt like Once could tell stories where characters learn from past experiences to change the present. I don’t think the series earned whatever relationship they were trying to establish between Graham and Emma, but there were some individually powerful moments within “Lonely Hunter.” So of course, Graham had to die and the series had to go back to its basic structure and exploration.
Again, I understand that the series is fundamentally built around the characters not knowing the things that the audience knows and the flashbacks exist to point out how tragic or moving or funny that lack of knowledge really is. And it is readily apparent that Horowitz and Kitsis keep broadening the scope and bringing in new characters so that they can keep playing with this flawed structure (and keep hooking in people who have random allegiances to Belle or Cinderella or whomever). However, if that is how the series is built at a fundamental level, then it is simply fundamentally flawed. The characters cannot be that devoid of awareness and the flashbacks can’t keep just pointing out just how devoid of said awareness they actually are. It is inarticulate, but it also sucks the emotional punch of the series, at least until characters actively embrace the possibility that the two worlds we get to see might be related.
If the emotional payoffs aren’t there and the character depth is there, what’s left? A scavenger hunt. In Lost, the scavenger hunt was about finding out how the people were connected as well as answering the larger, mythology-like questions. In Once Upon a Time, we already know how these people are connected and there isn’t really much of a larger question outside of “When will these people wake up?” Like there is no real emotional punch, there is no true grand mystery to Once and yet, the flashbacks present new information as if it were part of some impressive unknown.
What remains is a scavenger hunt on a smaller scale, wherein Horowitz, Kitsis and the rest of the staff change the traits of or the relationships between characters that the audience already has a familiarity with in the first place. I’m sure the duo would argue that there is a purpose behind why they crafted a love story between Belle and Rumpelstiltskin this week, but in the short term, it sure feels like they did so because it subverted expectations about Beauty and the Beast. Undercutting audience assumptions is fine and can often be fun for a series like this one, but only when there’s also more of substance going on as well. Thus far on Once Upon a Time, there isn’t.
Horowitz and Kitsis might not live in the shadow of their work on Lost forever, if only because people don’t automatically remember them in the first place (no offense to their work, we just remember Lindelof, Cuse and unfortunately still, Abrams, despite is lack of real involvement for the duration of the series’ run). However, their reliance on the flashback structure* exemplifies the kind of approach we expect writers in their position to take: They borrow from the great series they worked on before, but don’t quite know how to make the things they borrow matter in the same way in the new context.
*Oddly, the one project they’ve worked on recently that didn’t include tons of flash-somethings is Tron: Legacy (which had a few flashbacks, but wasn’t powered by them) and arguably, that’s the story that could have used them the most. The flashbacks to what happened on the grid were much better than the horrible scenes of characters just didactically explaining what happened. I don’t want to suggest that Horowitz and Kitsis don’t have skills because I think they do, but if Tron fails because they can’t craft a good story with flashbacks and Once struggles because its over-reliant on flashbacks, I’m not sure what that says about their abilities.