I've never written about the television show Lost for the same reason I've never written about Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I tend to think of both as being competently made, entertaining diversions to watch while grading papers or chowing down. Plus fans of the former tend to speak in the rapturous, mystical tones I'm only barely able to put up with when they come from devotees of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Wire. "In truth," I hear the French voice in my heading telling all the metaphoric dauphins, "it is a most excellent...horse."
But Lost did something really interesting the other week (I just saw it on DVR). It reran the final episode of the previous season and played little scrolling or pop-up messages on the bottom of the screen explaining the scenes to new viewers or instructing old viewers on how to interpret the scenes. It was sort of like MTV's Pop-Up Video only not played for laughs or trivia.
Anyway, this interested me because when I was in graduate school I was fascinated by Gerard Genette's Paratexts: Threshold's of Interpretation. This book/essay really made me think about our easy assumptions of what a "text" is and how it is experienced, particularly if we've been weaned on the New Critics and have some idea of a text as a Platonic, unchanging, ideal thing that is only represented by any particular printed copy of it. Are the glosses to "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" part of the text? The author's introduction to Leaves of Grass? The dedication in David Elginbrod (which is referenced by the narrator in the primary text)? What about C.S. Lewis's afterword that is included in some editions (but not all) of Till We Have Faces?
Almost two years ago I wrote a paper on the director commentary of the film Dead Man Walking (for an anthology on that work that may someday still see the light of day). I mentioned that I am tempted to see director's cuts of films, and commentary tracks as sorts of paratexts--elements of the work that are often considered outside the work but are used to mediate the work and are sometimes included with the work itself. I noticed in surfing today that this book applies many of the same concepts to film trailers.
Now the interesting thing about the Lost episode, to me, is that it further blurs the line between text and paratext. It is hard for me to look at these comments as revisions, but I think it is important to point out that unlike a film DVD this commentary was not on a separate track that could be turned off or on. (Some pop-up comments included references to other episodes or even to extra-textual writings: "This is not the first time we've seen Jack pull people from wreckage"; "We can't see what is in the story, but speculation is that it is the report that somebody died"; "Easter Egg: The sign on the funeral home can be anagrammed to say 'Flash Forward.'")
Part of the reason for these little epitextual comments seems unquestionably to get new viewers up to speed by filling them in on episodes they missed. Another is to take the place of the Victorian narrator that everyone born after 1920 appears to hate so much--the one that renders explicitly the themes and questions the attentive viewer most likely picked up on: "Say who do you suppose is in that coffin? And why is Jack so distraught even though he says it is neither 'friend' nor 'family'?" But another part seems to me to point the regular/viewer outside the text, and in so doing acknowledging that things like message boards, discussion boards, etc. are no longer just thought of as commentary on the text but an integral part of the experience. Television has experimented with episodes or modes of presentation before that force viewers beyond a self-contained episode to something outside of the text. There have been, for example "cross-over" episodes where, as in comic books, someone had to go to a different text to get the conclusion of or key information about a plot in a totally different narrative. When Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard "This is not a clue. Or is it?" he was making reference not just to the mystery within the text but to the contest outside of it. My point is, by airing the comments with the episode, ABC gives them the stamp of text. They themselves become clues to the authors' intention(s) by acknowledging ways and places where the authors put clues or instructing readers on the sorts of questions or reactions they are supposed to have to the text proper. One can do this in a commentary or critical article or interview, but the reader/viewer always has the option of eschewing or avoiding such interpretive instructions when they are outside the text. When they become epitexts or peritexts (paratexts packaged with the text), they become impossible to avoid and thus become part of the text and not just a comment on it.
It will be interesting when ABC releases the DVD collection of the current season of Lost to see whether or not the paratext episode is viewed as simply a repeat of the episode from season three or as a different text. (Not interesting enough to actually buy the DVDs, but interesting enough to raise my curiosity.)
Oh, and for the record, I can never be too excited about Lost as a postmodern metaphor or as a mystery, because I quite frankly don't believe that there will ever be consistent, satisfying narrative resolution. It's like the X-Files meets the final half season of Felicity. At some point, there become so many unresolved threads and mysteries that the authors can't remember them all, much less convince me that they have an intentional end in mind from the beginning. But I enjoy it as an experiment in form even if I find the results of that experiment less gratifying than its fans.