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The Suspension of Disbelief and Good TV

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Yesterday morning as I was heading to work, I was mulling an article idea in my head comparing Lost to Heroes and why I'm enjoying Heroes more these days. I know the main reason Heroes is faring better with me is that questions are being answered, unlike with Lost. Don't get me wrong; I'll still watch the new episodes of Lost when the time comes.

Last night when I got home from a long day's work, I conked out on the couch and, as the Soup Nazi would say, "No TV for you!" Or, at the very least, no primetime TV for me as I slept through it all. When I awoke at an odd hour past midnight, I channel-surfed and happened upon American Masters: Rod Serling on the New Jersey PBS affiliate. Perfect!

The Twilight ZoneAlthough I was way too young (and possibly not born yet) for his live television plays, I was very young when The Twilight Zone first aired. I admit that I remember more episodes from reruns than the original airings although my parents, perhaps without thinking about the ramifications, allowed me to watch the show.

I recall, at about the age of seven or so, an episode which featured Telly Savalas and a talking doll which he thought evil and kept trying to destroy. At that time, I had my own first-on-the-market talking doll. I was very nice to it because, after all, "if you're not nice to me, I'll kill you, too." I had nightmares for months after seeing the show. Hey, it didn't matter that the doll on the show was Talky Tina and mine was Chatty Cathy. I didn't want it to kill me.

But, what made The Twilight Zone work so well for adults, as well as children? The PBS show touched briefly on the reason (in my opinion) last night — an expression commonly used these days in the graphic novel or comic book medium — the suspension of disbelief. Basically, that means that in a work of fiction, the reader willingly believes that which he knows is indeed not real. To a point, the suspension of disbelief exists everytime we read a book, everytime we watch a fictional television show.

The hardest obstacle to overcome in the suspension of disbelief aren't the fictional cop shows, which are often at least loosely based on real cop-doings. The hardest obstacle to overcome is the limit of imagination. I'm talking pure fantasy stories such as Harry Potter, comic book superheroes, or a boy who can will folks to the cornfield for thinking bad thoughts. In order for these shows or books to entertain the viewer or reader, they must immerse them into the plot and the characters. On a level, it must be believable even though it's just a fantastic journey within the limits of man's imagination.

Lost - ABCAnd that's where I feel Lost is losing it. We're into the third season of the show. Too many questions remain unanswered; too many tangents have gone unexplained. Plot holes exist. The first season was a bold move into the suspension of disbelief genre — a welcome respite from mainstream television at the time. It used the premise so successfully achieved by The Twilight Zone so many decades before. But, now I feel it's become a bit stagnant. It's not moving forward each episode; it's not satisfying me as a viewer. Yes, I'm hooked. I'll watch in hopes that some of the mysteries will be explained. But I'm not as enamored with the show as I once was.
Heroes - NBCThen there's the new show on the market this season, Heroes. Again, utilizing the suspension of disbelief, the show challenges the viewer in a respect. You have to believe there can be superheroes, there can be magical powers. The show parallels the graphic novel medium, but takes things one step further. In watching this show, I get lost in the characters. Yes, I know deep down that the powers are total fiction, but for an hour each week, I believe they do exist. I believe "save the cheerleader, save the world." I believe an excited Hiro can bend time and space. I believe the fantastic.

Why is that? I think it's because the show actually moves forward a bit each week, unlike Lost as of late. Questions are actually answered and each show ends with a cliffhanger making me hungry to devour the next episode. That's how the suspension of disbelief should work. It shouldn't be tossing notes in a hat to have a smoke monster one week and a giant polar bear the next, without an explanation for the existence of either. It shouldn't be a guessing game and tons of theories gone rampant on the Internet. For the suspension of disbelief to work well, a story needs to be believable to an aspect where the viewer (or reader) actually believes, if but for a moment in time.

I believe in The Twilight Zone. I believe in Heroes. At least I do when I'm watching them. Lost and Star Trek, not so much.

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  • http://moviehawk.net Jeff Martin

    But remember, “Heroes” is still in its first season. It’s still new and exciting to us. There’s plenty of time for it to run out of gas, though I certainly hope it doesn’t.

    Thanks for a great article…very nicely summarizes my feelings on both shows right now.