Friday, May 26, 2006

Season Finale: Lost

What a difference a year makes. Last year I felt (perhaps unhealthily...) obsessed with Lost, and believed it was set on a multi-season path to becoming a new classic; a Star Trek, X-Files, or Buffy for our new 21st century decade.

After the second season, I'm not so certain. Like John Locke, my faith has been shaken. When people ask me to explain why I've "lost" my enthusiasm, I point primarily to the series' increasingly frustrating story structure. I liken Lost to a really good novel you read at the beach. In the first few chapters (the first season of the series), we meet all the characters and learn of the tantalizing, fun plot (a plane crash on a deserted island...). As we met these well-forged, dynamically performed dramatis personae, we learned - via flashbacks - of their sordid histories. Kate was a criminal, kinda. Jack had issues with his drunk father. Locke had been duped by his own Dad. Etcetera. Again, this mirrors a fine mainstream novel; we expect when reading a really-good thriller to learn about character backgrounds...who these men and women are.

But then there comes a time in every good novel when the reader sufficiently understands the characters; knows who they are and what they represent in the larger story. At this point, the novel must turn focus and address the plot. We want to see the characters address their situation directly (stranded on a mysterious island), not learn in detail everything they did before boarding a plane. Where they stopped at a bar to have a drink, and so on. In the case of Lost, the plot should be: how do these diverse people survive (or not survive) in their new environs? What kind of community do they build? What do they find on the island? Who do they meet: friends or foes?

This is where I believe the second season of Lost has ultimately proven disappointing. Up to and including last night's season finale, we're still getting the flashbacks and background material. And let's be honest: who amongst has been jonesing for a background story on...Desmond? In fact, the writers have so forgotten about the central plot and location of Lost (a weird island...) that none of the characters - not a bloomin' one - evidence the slightest bit of worry, concern or fear about the invisible monster that roams the forests and rattles tree-tops. Nope, our stalwart islanders routinely and blissfully walk back and forth without protection, without concern. All alone. Even the pregnant women and the one with an infant. Remember, they've only been there sixty days, their time. You tell me: if you survived an airplane crash and on your first night on an island, heard a roaring monster - and saw it shaking tree tops - would you be constantly going back and forth in the jungle alone? Would there be a perimeter set up? Guards? Would people be scared, refuse to travel alone? Would people at least be talking about that thing they saw? There's just no verisimilitude here anymore.

This is just one example where Lost has severely lost its sense of internal reality. This season we were introduced to the hatch and the labyrinth below, but like so much of this season, that plot ends with a wash. On the season finale, the computer and the complex (along with the countdown ticker...) were this season was essentially a dead end. Furthermore, this season spent time (and several episodes...) introducing very interesting new characters (the "Tailies"). By the end of the second season, two of the three are dead and buried. Again...what's the point? We're back to the end of the first season! To my dismay and disappointment, this season of Lost feels like a very long detour down the wrong rabbit hole.

We didn't get to see the grounded pirate ship this season, either. (If you were on the island, wouldn't you want to explore that?) We saw flashes of "the Others" (now called "The Hostiles,") and they appear interesting (though I'm baffled by the fact that one of their number feels he has to wear a fake beard while none of the others bear such affectations...). Yet the overall impression I now have of the series is of one that is...stalling.

Imagine - if you will - reading that great book on the beach. You're maybe five chapters in now. You've met all the characters. You've been terrified by the predicament on the island. Now you're ready to find out address the plot of people bracing for life on the dangerous island. And what happens? You get a flashback of Michael losing his son (again!), or of Rose and Bernard trying to cure her cancer, or of Desmond. If it were me reading those passages...I'd start skimming, in order to get to the good stuff. Like what the novel is supposed to be about.

The finale on Wednesday night had some interesting elements, but again, there was the feeling that Lost doesn't quite know where it wants to take us. Characters behaved...oddly. En route to the hostile camp, Jack - for no good reason - reveals his plans with Sayid...right in front of the turncoat, Michael. Why? Go back and watch the scene again and ask yourself why on Earth Jack would possibly reveal this important information at this time, with this group? Yes, there had just been a shooting involving The Others, but what difference does that make? Jack and the others never even searched the corpse for anything useful. On an island with limited resources, you have to scavenge...but the writers don't treat these characters like they're desperate and stranded on island. The island has become...comfortable.

And where did our stalwart Iraqi, Sayid go? He had a great plan to back-up the attack on the Hostile Camp, but after he set the signal fire...what? We never even got a clip of Sayid saying something like: "Something's wrong. They should be here by now." I hope he's enjoying his cruise...

Again, my contention is that Lost keeps changing its premises on us, sometimes from week-to-week. Because of that, the writers are blind to what the characters should be experiencing (like, duh - fear...). Didn't Jack threaten to build an army in one episode (with Ana Lucia?) Did we EVER see any progress made? No, but it made a hell of an episode-ender, didn't it? And what about The Others being able to miraculously swoop in and steal people up out of thin air? (Remember that? On the trek from the other side of the island?) And what about The Others being total savages (barefoot and all?) Is that a third group? I guess so, since Henry said in the finale "We're the good guys," but come on, Lost...throw us a bone now and again.

Don't misinterpret my remarks. I'm not saying that Lost need answer all of its mysteries. I love a good mystery as much as the next guy. I believe we live in a world where we never get "all the answers" (why are we here? why do some people die in plane crashes? what is fate?), but a mystery is only fun if you have confidence that the writer remembers why you're watching, and furthermore, that he or she is keeping track of all the clues that have been doled out to you. You can't introduce an invisible monster in the first act and then never have the characters react with fear that it is out there (or only rarely). You can't say "we're gonna build an army" and then never do ANYTHING in that regard. You can't spend all season pressing a damn button, then just shove a computer out of the way and reveal a hole in the floor that conveniently leads to a failsafe button that saves the day. You can't introduce the idea of a teleporting Walt with possible super powers, and then send him off on a boat with his dad, presumably never to return (though the door is still open on that last bit).

That's...sucky writing. If it were a novel, I'd put it down and start another one. And there's no joy in writing any of this for me. I really enjoyed several episodes of Lost this season (and like I said, I loved the first season...) but the writers and producers really need to stand back and re-assess. They need to look at where these characters are now; and what they would really and truly "feel" in this situation; and whether or not continued time-wasting flashbacks are necessary.

Some folks have suggested that the islanders are inserting themselves into each other's flashbacks, so that these moments are actually intrinsic to the plot. I'm willing to play that out, but I'll tell you what I truly think. I believe that the writers of Lost are embarrassed by the fact that their show is "science fiction." They know if they address monsters on the island and pirate ships, it is definitively and inarguably so. But...if they keep having quasi-meaningful and "deep" character flashbacks where the actors get to strut their stuff, they can make the claim that this is a serious character "drama." Really. Imagine if Buffy didn't have the balls to admit that it was a superhero/horror show, or Star Trek didn't want to countenance the fact that it was a space adventure. What you'd be left with is...pretension.

Lost needs to get over itself. It's science fiction. If it isn't, there shouldn't have been a tree-rattling invisible monster in the first place...and now it's too late to pretend like it wasn't there...


  1. Hey John,

    I have mixed feelings about Lost. I still love the show, but it did seem to lose some of the Lost mojo this season. Some of the flashbacks felt forced. The characters are also starting to act strangely. They keep secrets that they would have no reason to keep and they keep forgetting about the dangers on the island. Between the “monster” and the “Others” I would never walk out in the jungle alone, but they rarely worry about this. Hmm…perhaps that virus is kicking in. ;-)

    I agree with you that they need to drop or at least use less frequently the flashbacks. But, I do feel that Desmond’s flashback was very important. No one was calling for it, but it told us some very important things about the island. I also found it odd that they spent so much time setting up the “Tailies” to just kill all but two off (I still think Eko is alive). Ah, but perhaps the DUI factor played a role in this. The writers deny it, but I’m not so sure.

    I think the series can be put back on track. The writers just need to stop being flashback slaves. But I have to give them kudos with this “Lost: Experience” thing with all of the fake websites, commercials, newspaper ads and the fake book. Man, no series has taken their mystery to that level. I just hope they have an answer planned out.

  2. they nver even discussed contasting the plane that dropped those supplies


Thundarr the Barbarian in "Valley of the Man-Apes"

In “Valley of the Man-Apes,” Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla ride through Death Canyon when they spy intelligent ape creatures digging in the dese...