Like so many of us, I’ve been trapped in my apartment for the last year. Trying to keep from losing it when your home and your office have folded into one nightmare has been an interesting challenge.
In order to pass the time, I’ve been watching old TV shows. Seeing as Hulu generated around $4.4 billion in revenue last year, it would appear I’m not alone.
Two of my favorites have been Cheers and Lost. Both are extraordinary shows and were massively popular when they were on the air.
But as I watched these shows, I began to realize something.
Each tells a different story about the societies that made them. Comparing them is a revealing exercise.
I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, I love you madly, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows)…
Cheers is set in the early 1980s in Boston, at a moment when society was at a crossroads. The old reforms of FDR were beginning to crumble. A new, economic sun had risen. It was global, and it was reckless.
Cheers was an escape from the turmoil of these changes, and a way to cope with them. At Cheers, “everybody knows your name.” It was a place people could turn to for support, and to discuss the changes happening in the world.
At Cheers, people talk about social class, alcoholism, sexuality, and gender. Many patrons need help understanding these demanding issues, and there is always someone around to help them out (usually Diane).
Cheers represents the end of an era. International capitalism had grown stronger than ever. Unions were rapidly loosing their power. Mom and pops were being eaten alive by large corporations. People were scared and confused by these monumental affairs.
Sam Malone owns Cheers. Yes, it’s a business, but Sam doesn’t think of it that way. Cheers makes money, but it’s also the place where everybody knows your name. It’s your family.
Because Cheers represents the values of a dying social democracy (soon to be replaced by neoliberalism), it attempted to foster cohesion between the classes. Not only do the patrons of Cheers recognize class, but they are forced to deal with it.
Cheers takes place during a time of high social mobility, where the children of the rich and the poor often mingled. Sometimes they even fell in love.
There is an emphasis on struggling together. Sam’s alcoholism is seen as a problem for the community and not one that Sam could overcome alone.
At Cheers, your friends have your back when you’re down. I think we can all understand the appeal of such a place.
The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently.
To understand Lost, we have to abandon the world of Cheers, the one where “everybody knows your name.” From there we sail into the black hole of postmodernism. Here, we are an island to ourselves.
Stranded on this island are the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815. They don’t know if rescue is on it’s way. They don’t know if they are alone, and they must fend for themselves in a strange and dangerous land.
The first clue that the island represents the postmodern is the concept of the others. These mysterious strangers are always lurking just out of sight, serving as conceptual counter-weights to the survivors.
Our sense of time is lost as well. There is no single plot, no overarching plan. We are left with fragments and pieces of individual lives, some of which may not even be real, or part of an alternative reality.
Characters like Jacob and the smoke monster are symbolic of infinities: they are an ouroboros of good and evil that never resolves.
The characters in Lost are forced to work together to survive. They are faced with the harsh reality of rugged individualism, where it’s “every man for himself.” They turn against one another. They are necessarily always suspicious, forming temporary alliances that soon fall apart.
Alliances and rivalries swirl. Like Hamlet, Jack searches for the ghost of his dead father in the dark. On the island, time is always out of joint.
Even as the island’s new inhabitants struggle against nature, and against each other, against THE others, strange things happen. Radio signals from the past are confused with glimpses of the future. Impossible coincidences reveal themselves.
Eventually, the show starts to blend flashbacks with actual time travel. Several of the survivors are sent to the 1970s, where they create a black hole that splits the universe.
But even splitting time doesn’t save them from the island. They continue on, now lost in a multiplicity of alternative realities, like a fun-house mirror of cosmic proportions.
Somewhere in the 1970s, we lost the plot. The modern truly gave way to the postmodern and we entered a fascinated, but fragmented, and oftentimes frightening, world. Here, Time feels like it’s standing still.
In this world, we are each fractured individuals holding onto whatever little coincidences we can find that make our journey seem meaningful.
Like Jack, we are looking into Jacob’s mirror and asking why we see our childhood in there.
Why are we here if there is no greater purpose?