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Narrative Perplexity

I’ve spent the past couple of days of this long Thanksgiving weekend streaming Heroes, courtesy of NetFlix.  The remainder of the afternoon will be whiled away with Volume 5, but there are a couple of things I’d like to mention before making the final drive toward the last several hours of plot reversals, adrenal effusions and bizarre surprises.

Richard Stallman’s paraphrasing of Stewart Brand’s pronouncement (that “…information wants to be free…”) starts with this:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.


and goes here:

I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses… When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.


The Brand proposition attributes intent to data that people value, while the Stallman revision restates the original premise as a personal committment to people.  The difference is enormous, and Heroes manifests that disparity in the form of a contradiction.  (Many contradictions strike a precisely negotiated balance between extreme terms in continuum.)

Heroes is a television show that was born in the midst of media-industry transition from old-school TV to new.  It led a captive audience through a first season of exciting revelations concerning fictional characters that were designed to resemble our friends, our families, ourselves.  It did this by cleverly withholding thematic information selectively while supplying visceral thrills, moral questions and an intimations of overarching mystery, season after season…without ever actually satisfying the audience hunger to know why Heroes exists as a compelling, fictional metaphor for ordinary human existence.  And ultimately, it doesn’t.  As the seasons roll on and on, the thimblesful of insight into the human predicament afforded by this television show don’t adequately feed the appetite of the information-hungry audience it created.

Ordinary people are elevated in the fourth season to places of importance that rival the super-able stars of the show.  These ordinary people,  like Annie the anal roommate become grist for the mill of Heroes plot lines and kill themselves, are incinerated, disemboweled or are otherwise sacrificed to the penurious dispensation of truly-useful information that’s held tight to the bosoms of writers, while the audience’ attention turns elsewhere.

The barrage of visceral thrills, intriguing moral and intellectual issues, character studies and evolutions…don’t justify waiting around for four years for the persistent denial of service to the fascination that turned us on to Heroes in the first place.  What happens when several ordinary people discover special abilities in themselves?  Eventually the layers of perplexity surrounding a television show that asks that question loses its impatient audience to less ambitious questions…because Heroes doesn’t provide much information that’s particularly useful to (ordinary) people, let alone us real folks who aren’t een remotely ordinary. 

 Heroes hasn’t changed my life, and I don’t feel any wealthier, but do I find myself resenting its persistent refusal to service the premise that brought me to Heroes in the first place.  There’s a point at which narrative complexity gets lost in narrative perplexity.  Each of the seasons I’ve explored this weekend reaches that crisis by episode 5, when the Previously…On Heroes presents a ridiculously labyrinthine montage of memorable mysteries that always leads me to snort derisively at my stupidity in watching a show that promises to resolve straw-man mysteries it fabricates without ever resolving dick that’s truly meaningful beyond the fanciful confines of the show.  Heroes is about Heroes.  It’s bearing on real life is negligible compared to the investment of time and attention required to find it valuable weekly over several seasons, given that I’m having trouble staying interested in the course of a four-day weekend.

Jason Mittell’s landmark essay on Narrative Complexity needs rereading; the write environment DVD (featuring Joss Whedon and hosted by Jeffrey Berman) arrived in the mail yesterday, along with the Whedon/Jones Dr. Horrible prequel comic; Tim Minear on Breaking the Story and Joss’ remarks in The Master at Play…these things offer greater promise of deeper satisfactions between now and Monday than the balance of  Heroes episodes remaining before me in Volume 5 of Season 4; a perplexing numbering system, too.

“My favorite procrastination is working on the sequel of the work I haven’t finished.”

— Joss Whedon to Jeffery Berman for The Write Environment

28 Nov 09 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

1 Comment »

  1. […] Narrative Perplexity […]

    Pingback by My Oldest Posts « Scott Ellington's Blog | 10 Aug 14 | Reply

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