Lost Issue: US Television, Elsewhere

A really old issue of Radio Times

Yesterday, at the local supermarket, a line on the cover of Radio Times caught my eye: “The new Desperate Housewives is here!” Since Housewives was the last—come to think of it, the only—dramatic series I had been following since moving here to Britain from the US, I was sufficiently intrigued to do a double-take. Yes, that’s what it said. Then I scratched my head in momentary puzzlement: A new season already, I thought, how could that be? As it turns out (and I tend to read carelessly at times) the line referred to the series Lost, which is being touted, somewhat misleadingly, as the newest US ratings champ in search of a British audience.

Lost, indeed! That show had its US premiere in September 2004. What took Channel 4 so long to land it? This might have meant smooth sailing in the days of Gilligan’s Island; but in an age of online piracy and file sharing, when motion pictures are tossed into the market in near-global simultaneity to counter ticket sales erosion, eleven months at sea seems a dangerously prolonged journey. It’s already been regurgitated on the web and neatly logged for me over at TV.com. So, why hop aboard now?

I grew up with second-hand culture. A TV-crazed kid in my native Germany, I very rarely watched any locally produced programs. Cartoons aside, my earliest memories include watching Hoppla Lucy (Here’s Lucy), Familie Feuerstein (The Flintstones), Lieber Onkel Bill (Family Affair) Die Bezaubernde Jeannie (I Dream of Jeannie), Raumschiff Enterprise (Star Trek), and, somewhat later, Drei Jungen und drei Mädchen (The Brady Bunch). All shows were dubbed, of course, but the production values—the home of the Bradys alone—told me that these shows had not been thrown together in my backyard. Although the Bradys were notoriously unfashionable, I took these hand-me-downs gladly.

That didn’t change much during the shoulder-pads decade, when Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter vamped herself to the top of the ratings in Denver Clan (as Dynasty was known in Germany). What did change was that I began to realize I was looking at preserved goods not quite as fresh as they were advertised to me (no, I’m not talking Joan Collins here). The tabloids were already giving away plot developments and cast changes for the months to come and what was left for me to do was to speculate just how the convoluted storylines would end up where I knew they would eventually go.

Melodrama thrives on foreshadowing and you-know-it’s-coming signposting; but these inside scoops were no markers woven into the fabric of the plot. It was almost like watching Psycho after reading Truffaut’s seminal Hitchcock interview—it was impossible for me really to see it for the first time. The experience was second-hand and I was almost forced to be distant and analytic in my reading, rather than engrossed. The feeling that I was untouched by something millions elsewhere had reveled in began to irk me.

Watching US television in the US, I experienced a sense of sharing, of participating in broadcasting events as they were unfolded to the public, even though the fictions I followed were no longer televised live. Now, I once again get the impression that I’m being dealt seconds. Pouting, I decided that, next week, when Lost comes along I’m not going to stand on the pier to watch this inaugural-seasoned vessel dock or sink.

So, when I got home from the market, I put aside the Radio Times, picked up a DVD, and settled down to watch The Shanghai Cobra from my Charlie Chan collection. Old hat and third rate, to be sure, but at least it wasn’t peddled to me as dernier cri.

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