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J.J.  Abrams’ Mystery Boxes

By King-Wai Fung

Posted 9/15/08 at 7:32 PM

With the debut of his latest TV series Fringe last week, J. J. Abrams—the writer/director/producer behind Lost, Felicity, and Alias—is back in the spotlight to talk about why he did the things he did with his new, much anticipated sci-fi show. Opening to mixed reviews, the X-Files-esque-medical-puzzle series promises to deliver weekly, self-contained stories that are decipherable without prior episode exposure. Judging from his fan following, Abrams seems poised for yet another long series run.

I first became interested in Abrams after my Lost DVD-collecting roommate showed me this video of Abrams’ zany and thoroughly entertaining talk at TED.

The man is onto something when he reveals his secret to television series success: mystery. “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination,” he casually remarks during his talk, citing a dimension of our lives we too often despair of experiencing, except during our favorite weekly show. Mystery keeps us wanting to know what happens next, breaks open the possibilities, evokes the wonder we remember as children.

Why are we so drawn to mystery? Why the attraction to the secret subplot with clues along the way? Near the end of his talk, Abrams contrasts what movies are about with what movies are really about:

“Look at ET for example: ET is this… unbelievable movie about what? It’s about an alien who meets a kid right? Well it’s not. ET is about divorce. ET is about a heartbroken divorce, crippled family and ultimately this kid who can’t find his way. Die Hard— … crazy, great, fun, action-adventure movie in a building. It’s about a guy who’s on the verge of divorce. He’s showing up to LA, tail between his legs. When you look at a movie like Jaws… it’s really about a guy who’s dealing with his place in the world—his masculinity, with his family, how he’s going to make it work in this new town.”

The attraction to mystery is about much more than effective television writing techniques. It’s about the expectation of a satisfying answer to the questions we ask, to the desires that stir. And Mystery Boxes, as Abrams tells us, are more ubiquitous than we think.