The mystery of TV mysteries

Do you ever get the feeling that TV networks are a little bit obsessed with having an overarching, Lost-style mystery component to their shows? The latest example is in CBS’s announcement of a 13-episode summer series based on Stephen King’s Under the Dome. The latest in the network’s long line of attempts to escape the straitjacket of doing 12 different versions of the same show, this will be a special summer series but obviously could become a regular series if it does well enough. And like Revolution – whose success may have partly inspired CBS to pick this show up – it’s about the mystery of why things are the way they are:

UNDER THE DOME is the story of a small New England town that is suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the rest of the world by an enormous transparent dome. The town’s inhabitants must deal with surviving the post-apocalyptic conditions while searching for answers to what this barrier is, where it came from and if and when it will go away.

So a TV network decided to adapt the story of people who are searching for answers to why they are sealed in a bubble, while Revolution is the story of people searching for answers to why the power went out, and last season we had the guy on Awake searching for answers to why he was living two lives, and all of these TV projects can be traced back to Lost, the story of people searching for answers to what the heck was going on on that island. In all these cases, the people really searching for answers are the viewers: arguing about why things are the way they are, and the ultimate solution to the mysteries, will keep us hooked for weeks, months, years.

Of course much of this started with The X-Files and the famous mythology, but even then, it wasn’t as required for a show to keep us guessing about the reasons behind its mythology. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Most aspects of the show’s mythology are not mysterious at all, at least until the final season. They’re just thrown out there and we accept them: In every generation a girl is chosen to fight vampires; there are towns that are built on an entrance to hell and that makes them centres of evil. If that show were being done today, I think I have to assume that why Sunnydale is a worldwide hub of evil, and why Buffy is the Chosen One, would be essential parts of the show’s fabric.

I think sometimes these mysteries are a little bit tiresome – not so much because they last for the whole series and exhaust the viewers, though that’s part of it, but just because they can wind up attaching too much importance to a plot device that is merely a MacGuffin. The interesting thing about Awake was what someone does when he is living two lives and not sure which is the “real” one. (Update: As a commenter noted, I’m not being completely fair to Awake by lumping it in with these other shows, since it didn’t dwell as much the question of why the hero was in his predicament and focused more on how he dealt with it. Still, it did drop hints that there was a solution.) The interesting thing about Revolution is the idea of a modern world thrown back into a pre-modern technological state. The reasons behind these ideas are basically arbitrary and not really as interesting as seeing what the characters do in this situation. It’s like Groundhog Day was a better movie because Harold Ramis threw out the idea of explaining why the main character was living the same day over and over (an ex-girlfriend’s curse was one early explanation). The “why” question isn’t always bad, but it does have a habit of taking over a show, and, even more, taking over the discussion of a show, to the point that the characters’ situation becomes secondary to the long, long wait for an explanation that may never arrive.

Sometimes I feel like the networks’ love of big mysteries is just a larger version of their love of little mysteries. That is, networks love it when an episodic show has a mystery that’s solved in every episode, because it’s a clear hook, something spectacular that the episode can sell. And networks may also love it when there’s a big over-arching mystery, for the same reason. Sometimes, though, seeing interesting things happen in an episode is more appealing than trying to spot the clues and guess who did it. And on a macro, multi-episode level, the “what” is sometimes more exciting than the “why.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.