The Real Problem with Mythology in Television

tv mythology

Television mythology.

David Auerbach has a thought-provoking article up at The American Reader called “The Cosmology of Serialized Television.”  Boldly attacking many beloved television shows, Auerbach has considerable ire for shows that develop too much mythology over the course of many seasons:

Most cases are not quite so egregious as Lost. Even The X Files spent a comparatively small percentage of its episodes on long-term mythology, sticking mostly to a “monster of the week” format. But the 15 or 20 percent of the show that was mythology is deeply unsatisfying and downright annoying…

While giving Lost a predictable (albeit well-deserved) drubbing, Auerbach also draws in Buffy and The Sopranos:

As long as there’s a good-faith agreement between creators and fans that mythology is not central to the show, the sins of haphazard mythology are venial. But the more time an Expansionary show spends building and promoting its mythology, the more dangerous the game becomes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes its decline specifically to the mistaken emphasis the show put on raising its stakes to increasingly epic levels (a mistake the better-crafted Veronica Mars never made). Because there was no overarching plan, the show was destined to collapse into aimlessness.

The same goes, albeit less literally, for The Sopranos.

Defining Mythology

The first question I have is: what do we mean by the mythology of the show?  I think this is one of those words we throw around and everyone kind of knows what everyone else is talking about but no one has ever really been all that specific about it.

“Mythology” is almost synonymous with “mystery” in television jargon.  It’s related to the secrets we want answered, and presumably the “mythology” represents the answers.  What is the nature of the Island and its tenants in LOST?  How does the Island connect to the lottery numbers and John Locke’s miraculous recovery and polar bears and the Dharma initiative?  It also seems to be linked to the supernatural elements of a television show.  Take BSG: How did Starbuck return from the dead?  What is the relationship between ‘the music’ and the final five cylons?  What is the Head Six and Head Baltar?

From this, I’d say “mythology” is really the rules of the world in the show, and our knowledge of those rules, once revealed, will ultimately (or presumably) reveal where and how our main characters fit into this mysterious world.  In other words, the mythology should reveal the final destiny of the characters and answer the question of what makes them and their story so special.

This is the problem with mythology: we must uncover a cohesive mythology by the end of the show that provides ultimate answers about the characters and everything we previously went through.  If this is the point Auerbach is making–he is right.  Both Lost and BSG spent far too much time teasing mysteries that ultimately were pointless.  They went too far and irreparably damaged their shows.

But Buffy and The Sopranos are not guilty of this.  There’s an important distinction that writers should take note of.

The Key Distinction

Auerbach seems to be finding fault with television shows that grow more complicated as time wears on and ultimately cannot support the weight of all that’s been set up.  True, Buffy got a bit too big for its britches: seasons six and seven feel more aimless than the previous five seasons.  But I wouldn’t attribute that to a problem of mythology.  What were the unanswered questions we were all dying to know about Buffy by the end of the show?  There were no grand mysteries (at least, not ones that extended over the course of the series).  Each season worked as a standalone story and each season could have easily served as a final season (save, perhaps, two and four).

What was the ultimate mystery that The Sopranos kept putting off?  The question was always: can Dr. Melfi help this evil soul?  The answer was pretty clear early on (“No.”), the question was just: how would this obvious answer manifest itself once finally understood by all involved?

There’s a big difference between a story naturally expanding and a story expanding without ever hoping to satisfy the increasing amounts of questions it has raised.  The Buffy / Sopranos model works because it doesn’t rely on answers; we have them already–it relies on our desire to see the ultimate fate of the characters.  The creators of BSG and Lost liked to shirk their responsibilities towards providing answers by saying “well it’s really all about the characters anyway” but that didn’t work because if it was they wouldn’t have it to tell us.  With Buffy/Sopranos we knew it all along.

J.K. Rowling wisely dealt with the issue of mythology in the Potter series.  The big question was always “why did Voldemort want to kill Harry?”  Rather than leaving this to the final moments of the story, she revealed the answer in the fifth book–and it was slightly disappointing.  But by defusing it as a problem early on, we were able to focus on what really matters in the final books: the characters.  The final drama of the seventh book did not hinge so much on questions like “what will be revealed about the mythology?” so much as questions like “what will ultimately happen to the characters? Can Harry survive?  Will Snape prove to be truly evil or good all along or conflicted?”

The lesson to be learned is not that the expansion of a story is dangerous (a case of what Tolkien referred to as tales growing in the telling of them) but that the expansion of a story in  particular manner is dangerous: one that depends on the cheap thrill of introducing more and more mysteries while ignoring the fact that so many mysteries cannot ever possibly be answered.

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  1. An excellent response to Auerbach. Reading his essay a few weeks ago, I wondered if his issue wasn’t how expansionary narratives collapse under the weight of the mythology but that he just didn’t like those kinds of stories.

    • L.B. Gale

      I got the same sense. It also seems to misread the nature of television; it makes no sense for a showrunner to plan out seven seasons of a show before filming the pilot. It can’t be done. There will always be some kind of expansion brought on by success.

      He praises Veronica Mars for being less expansionary and managing its stories, but the show was a bit tired by the third season because it didn’t have anywhere truly exciting to go.

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