With the continuing dominance of reality TV and an industrywide mandate to keep cutting costs, it is getting harder and harder to find anything positive to report about the state of television drama these days.
Except when it comes to the ABC serial Lost, which ends it fourth season with a two-hour episode tonight at 9. Season- enders of Lost are not to be ignored.
Reverberations from last year's finale, which concluded with a flash-forward in time that found Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) and Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly) off the island, are still being felt a year later. The technique of instantly jumping the narrative several years into the future not only re-energized the fourth season of the hit series about life after a plane crash, it has also inspired imitation - most recently on the series finale of Desperate Housewives, another ABC drama.
Housewives ended its TV year May 18 with an abrupt cut to the year 2013 and a look at what life would be like for several of the central characters in that soap-opera, suburban world.
Gaby (Eva Longoria Parker), the one-time fashion model, is no longer in runway shape - with two kids who are old enough to "play" dress-up fashion model themselves. Lynette's (Felicity Huffman) twins are teens, and the police are looking for one of them in connection with an auto theft - again. Susan (Teri Hatcher), meanwhile, looks to have found love and happiness - but not with the guy to whom she was married in 2008.
The time-bending technique has even found its way into the larger culture in recent weeks, with Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain debuting an ad titled "2013" and delivering a speech May 15 that was set five years into the future with the war in Iraq won and the threat of terrorism reduced. The combination of prime-time TV, presidential politics and the use of flash-forward has caught the attention of pop culture analysts.
"The writers and producers of Lost delivered a powerful and surprising final episode last year that stunned viewers in a positive and exciting way," says Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University.
"What they did by dramatically flipping flashbacks into a flash-forward is to put the technique front and center as a very powerful vehicle for telling TV stories. And that's why you're seeing it used elsewhere this year - whether it's on Desperate Housewives or in a speech by John McCain."
While there is a "long literary tradition" of using the flash-forward technique, Levinson says that TV has used it only sparingly. The primary use has come in series finales.
The most notable example is the last episode of the CBS sitcom Newhart, which starred Bob Newhart as an East Coast writer of how-to books who opens a hotel in Stratford, Vt. The finale, which aired in May 1990, flash-forwarded five years with a Japanese businessman having bought the entire town of Stratford except for the inn owned by Newhart's character.
In 2005, the HBO drama Six Feet Under ended its run by fast-forwarding to show how several of the leading characters lived out their lives. But, again, it was the end of the series.
One reason for the reluctance to take such liberties before a final episode was the fear of confusing viewers. To be economically viable, network TV needs to reach a mass audience that has been generally conditioned by the medium to storytelling that has a beginning, a middle and an end rather than narratives that suddenly change time.
Sci-fi and serialized dramas are the formulas best built for such time shifts, and they have been used in the last two seasons on Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi), Heroes (NBC) and The Sarah Conner Chronicles (Fox).
Beyond the obvious explanation of screen and speech writers trying to imitate the success of Lost, some analysts point to the uncertainty of American life these days as a reason for the rising use of flash-forward in TV drama.
"There's a huge amount of insecurity about the future out there right now, and I think flash-forward can speak to that in a very reassuring way," says Shirley Peroutka, professor of popular culture at Goucher College.
"When you talk to people, you hear this profound sense of fear about the economy, gas prices, the war, the environment - and as bad as things are, many people believe they are going to get even worse."
One of the primary purposes of TV storytelling "has always been to reassure us about the future," Peroutka says. And what is more comforting than transporting us to that time and showing that "things have generally worked out OK" for the characters we have come to care about.
While there is room for disagreement as to how "OK" things are in the future for the women on Desperate Housewives or the survivors of Lost, it is nevertheless comforting in a general way to know that Wisteria Lane lives on and that there is life after the island for Jack and Kate.
Providing reassurance about an uncertain future is clearly the dynamic in the McCain speech and ad.
In his speech, McCain asks listeners to imagine it is 2013.
"America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom," the GOP candidate says. "The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy."
"I would never vote for John McCain, but I have to admire that speech," Levinson says. "It was a very appealing way of putting forth his program - waking up in 2013, and here is what we are going to see. And guess what, we won - and it was all worth it. Talk about a soothing message in a troubled time."