Monthly Archives: May 2010

We Save Each Other: Humanistic Soteriology in Lost vs. Supernatural

In some ways, I really wish I could avoid this post.  Everyone’s talking about the Lost finale and offering these incredibly eloquent reviews and retrospectives on the series.  I love that so many people love to discuss this show; I think it’s a wonderful sign for television criticism (both academic and not) and especially for the evolving relationship between “quality” and “genre” labels.  I, however, am somewhat intimidated by the cacophony of voices in the discourse of Lost, especially in academic circles, and am trepidatious about discussing a show that so many people love but that I only like.  But I am a television scholar focusing on religion and genre television, and once I commented on Louisa Stein’s take on the finale, I realized I had to do it.

I watched the Lost finale live with a friend who loves the series, so I tried to curb my less-than-favorable reactions to the final scenes in the church for her sake.  I understand what it means to mourn a series, and I didn’t want to tarnish that, but alone moments later all I could do was compare “The End” to Supernatural‘s fifth season finale “Swan Song,” and the former suffered from the comparison.  There are quite a few interesting parallels between the two, but there seems to be so few people who are invested in both, that Stein’s comparison is the only one I’ve seen.

Looking for an actor to play a powerful, plot-driving being who is always three steps ahead? Mark Pellegrino: Lucifer on SPN and Jacob on Lost

Lost and Supernatural operate on vastly different scales: Lost is an epic with an enormous cast and sprawling sets and locations, while Supernatural had no standing set until the third season and a cast of regulars that has grown from two to four over five seasons.  Yet they share similar ambitions, especially regarding their overall worldviews.  Both shows frame their narrative mythology in Christian terms but leave plenty of room to play with non-Christian and sometimes non-religious symbols, themes, and messages.  The ultimate concern of both series seems to be that salvation can be achieved through humanity and its expression through love and communitas on earth.  I must first–admittedly briefly and, for now, through broad strokes–analyze the Christian frames to the shows’ mythologies in order to argue why Lost (perhaps unintentionally) denies its ultimate concern by focusing on the afterlife in the last 15 minutes of the series.

Both Lost and Supernatural may make gestures to a more Universalist idea of religion, but these gestures are contained by Christian symbols.  This containment becomes clearest in Supernatural‘s “Hammer of the Gods” and in Lost‘s “The End.”  In “Hammer of the Gods,” Kali tells the Winchesters, “Westerners, I swear — the sheer arrogance. You think you’re the only ones on Earth? You pillage and you butcher in your God’s name. But you’re not the only religion. And he’s not the only god. Now you think you can just rip the planet apart? You’re wrong. There are billions of us, and we were here first. If anyone gets to end this world…it’s me.”  Kali seems to act as an acknowledgment of other religions’ importance and their own apocalyptic narratives and prophecies, but the episode culminates in Lucifer easily decimating the gathering of non-Christian gods, implying that the Christian figure of the Devil is more powerful than Norse, Taoist, Greek, Hindu, and animist gods.  Christianity is the frame for this particular narrative, giving Lucifer the power over other gods, but not over humanity.  Lucifer is ultimately himself contained by the willpower of Sam Winchester because of his brotherhood with Dean and their shared human experiences in life.

Similarly, Lost visualizes other religions within a church that acts as a way-station to the afterlife.  In the quarters of the church, Jack encounters symbols of almost every world religion, most clearly in the stained glass window that acts as the backdrop to his emotional and revelatory discussion with his father.  While the stained glass window does contain symbols of (from top left to bottom right) Islam, Judaism, Hinduism (and other Indian religions), Christianity, Buddhism or Jainism, and Taoism, the symbols and the window are all contained within a church.  Architecturally and symbolically, Christianity holds all the other represented religions, a point further supported by the character Christian Shepherd leading the castaways into the white light over the church threshold that is flanked by two angelic fonts.

Jack and the "Universalist" window in the church

The problem is that Lost contains these religions in the afterlife.  It may be a creation of the characters inhabiting it, but its nature as “the afterlife” ties it to a larger, transcendent power.  This sanctions the containment in a way that Supernatural doesn’t.  In the latter, Lucifer may appear to cut a swath through the other gods, but the episode is ultimately a Trickster episode, signaling that there may be alternate explanations, that everything may not be as it appears.  Moreover, Kali, the character who acts as voice of the ignored or minimized non-Abrahamic religions survives.  She still exists to prove that Christianity is “not the only religion.”  I read Lost‘s afterlife church as a statement of Christian “Truth;” all of the castaways, regardless of creed, gather in a church to “move on,” presumably to heaven as the heretofore “sideways-verse” had been mostly happy and positive–and the whole being led by (the) Christian Shepherd past the gates bit.

Half of the sixth season was devoted to events in the “sideways” realm that is revealed to be the afterlife; thus, the focus in the final season retroactively shifts from the relationship between two alternate earthly lives to the relationship between a life on earth and the afterlife beyond earth.  On the island in “The End,” Jack insists that “All of this matters,” but in the church afterlife that becomes patently untrue.  To a degree, the characters’ experiences on the island matter–and certainly matter from a character standpoint–but including relatively short-lived characters like Boone, Libby, or Ana-Lucia (who may not have been “ready” but is still existing in the afterlife-anteroom reality) emphasizes for the narrative the event and survival of the crash over the life led thereafter.  We know nothing about Sawyer, Kate, or Claire’s lives after they left the island, nor do we know how Hurley and Ben governed the island after Jack’s death.  I would be fine with not knowing these things except for the knowing about what happens after they all die and subtly insisting that knowledge is what really matters.  The reunions, the recognition of love and communitas, that had previously made me giddy with happiness now seem hollow because that happiness now seems only possible after life.  The choice is no longer “Live together, [or] die alone;” instead, it’s “Live together in order to die together.”  The tragedies and victories of life become important only in that they lead to a happy afterlife.

The Winchester communitas: Sam, Dean, and the Metallicar

Supernatural takes the opposite view.  Any glimpse of the afterlife is always directly connected back to earthly life.  Dean goes to hell so that Sam may live, and Sam jumps into the Pit to contain Lucifer, save Dean’s life and the world.  Both Winchesters briefly visit heaven in “Dark Side of the Moon” but find it full of memories from life and lacking as a result.  Dean says, “That’s not Nivana; that’s the Matrix;” Heaven is many simulations of life with each individual existing separately from others, and it’s anything but pleasurable to the Winchesters.  Every visit to an afterlife is used to cement life on earth as the most important realm of existence.  Earthly tragedies and victories mean everything on Supernatural because life is where it all happens.  Winchester brotherly communitas may extend beyond life–instigating both brothers’ trips to hell and shaping their shared axis mundi in heaven (an exception to the separation rule)–but on earth and in life their bond is formed, cultivated, tested, and affirmed.  If Lost ultimately undermines salvation through humanity on earth by shifting emphasis to communitas after life, Supernatural has continually underlined salvation through humanity on earth by minimizing the power and possibility of communitas beyond earth.  If salvation is to be found, it is through human bonds on earth, and it is all the more precious for being limited to one lifetime.

Image Credits
1. Mark Pellegrino
2. Lost Church
3. Winchester Communitas

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The Problem of Gerry Grgich: Pity and Comedy on Parks and Recreation 

In the fictional Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, IN, Jerry Gergich [misspelled Gerry Grgich in “Telethon”] is THE object of ridicule, but Jerry differs from his kin in other NBC Thursday night comedies.  His closest cousin in sad-sackery might be Toby Flenderson from The Office, but Toby only had to face unsubstantiated derision from Michael, not the entire office.  He may be the “Pierce” of the Parks and Rec workers, but unlike the title-holder on Community, Jerry seems almost preternaturally kind and considerate instead of meriting derision as the group scapegoat.  And yet the characters surrounding him have created the idea of Jerry as “the worst”  that far outstrips his actual bouts of bad luck, which admittedly can be pretty epic.

While Jerry’s use as a comedic character is almost entirely comprised of the slapstick performances of his bad luck, much of the comedy surrounding Jerry emanates from his role as a somewhat tragic character within a comedy show.  Jerry invokes pity in us because of the almost pathological lack of empathy shown him by his fellow characters.  In the most recent episode, “Telethon,” Jerry beautifully and emotionally plays the piano:

You know he's playing well because his eyes are closed.

But his friends and colleagues react as if they just witnessed and alternate reality where Jerry’s piano-playing was aurally offensive:

"Okay. Alright. Enough of that racket."

His every achievement–from artistic pursuits to his off-camera happy and loving family–is completely undermined by every other character in the show.  Whatever little happiness he finds is taken from him almost immediately, but more than that, he understands his piteous position and only reaches for appropriate goals: he has a time-share vacation home, but it’s in Muncie, IN; he makes up a story about being mugged to cover up a more embarrassing tale of falling into a creek in an attempt to retrieve a soggy breakfast burrito; and he looks forward to an all-male hunting weekend because it means he can pee standing up (presumably unlike his female-crowded home), a joy crushed when the other Parks and Rec workers join the trip.  But Jerry never languishes in self-pity.

Somehow, Jerry continues to put himself out there for his coworkers despite their cruel treatment of him.  He offers to play the piano for the telethon even after he is stymied in his offer to perform magic when Leslie breaks his only prop, an egg.  Jerry’s mild tenacity is the heart of the character.  No matter what happens to him, he still tries, still reaches for the little happiness he can.

Even after a busted arm and humiliation, Jerry can raise a glass to himself.

In another setting, in another genre, Jerry could be the workaday everyman character that the audience is supposed to identify with.  There’s a certain nobility in his willingness to take his emotional punishment and not let it change him.  He continually treats others as he would want to be treated: offering help unsolicited, treating his coworkers with respect, politely asking them not to tease him, and appreciating their work.  In “Telethon,” he is the only character who wears the Pawnee Cares t-shirt Lesley spent eight hours making for her staff (I don’t count the two extras working the phones).

So is it okay to laugh at him?  More specifically, is it okay to laugh at everyone else’s cruel treatment of him?  This blog post was inspired by a twitter exchange between @memles and @crsbecker regarding how much cruelty they could handle seeing Jerry withstand.  I aside more with Myles McNutt in that as long as the show itself is not especially cruel to Jerry (making the viewers complicit in mocking him), I think the dynamic works.  Then, the question is why and how does it work?

Full disclosure: I haven’t done much research into comedy and am mostly terrified of it as an object of study.  Having said that, I want to try to understand why I find the mockery of Jerry so effective and how it differs from other cringe-inducing cruel comedy like in The Office.

Let’s begin with some analysis through difference.  I’ve already touched on the difference between Jerry’s treatment and Toby’s and Pierce’s on their respective sitcoms, but I think it will be useful to expand on that.  Toby Flenderson is an Eeyore character: the object of undue ridicule and bad luck who internalizes that negativity and accepts the sad-sack role as his lot in life.  We pity him for bearing the brunt of Michael’s hatred, but his complete pessimism makes it difficult to empathize with him.  At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Pierce, a racist, bigoted, sexist,  privileged old man who seemingly deserves any and all mocking he gets. He is to be laughed at by both characters and viewers alike.  He is not to be pitied, but you can sometimes empathize with him because he at least owns his agency in life, unlike Toby, for whom life is perpetually occurring in passive voice.

I'm not the only one who thinks of Toby as Eeyore; this composite was the first google image result.

Between the two, there is Jerry.  He warrants both pity and empathy because he is a victim without being helpless.  The drive to do more, be more, and be seen as more–even if it’s just a little bit–keeps Jerry from Toby’s internalized pessimism and abdicated agency, and his consideration of others keeps him from Pierce’s overbearing offensiveness.  Jerry may be a sad sack character, but he avoids the extremes of these other characters, making him more accessible emotionally.

But if I both pity and empathize with Jerry, why do I laugh when others taunt him?  The key point–at it is hinted at by McNutt in the above twitter conversation–is that I am laughing at the characters mocking Jerry, not really at Jerry.  Though I may laugh at a good Jerry pratfall or an inopportunely timed fart, the true deep mine of comedy is the increasingly ludicrous levels the staff goes to justify Jerry’s awfulness.  The funniest parts of the following clip are not Jerry’s mishaps but instead the reaction shots, especially Donna’s unbridled joy at Jerry’s split pants.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The comedy, in my mind, truly lies in the delusions of the other characters, their stubborn blindness to any of Jerry’s actual achievements in favor of maintaining Jerry as the butt of all jokes.  They choose to focus on Jerry as the guy who said “murinal” instead of the guy who created a beautiful–in both sentiment and execution–mural idea.  But far funnier than a slip of the tongue is the other characters’ refusal to let such a minimal joke die.  They are the joke.  Jerry’s just the poor schlemiel/schlemazl who instigates the joke.

Jerry's "murinal" idea: a collage of all the faces of Pawnee. You're beautiful, Jerry, no matter what they say!