Thursday, April 12, 2007

"I'll see you in a week.": Lost

If nothing else, I hope the run for Lost continues just so the women of Deadwood can continue to see gainful employment. The show could lapse into the worst on television, and as long as the likes of Kim Dickens, Paula Malcolmson and Robin Weigert turn up in bit parts, I'd be happy. (Suggested future casting: Molly Parker as the fussy accountant for The Others.) Pretty much any acting job would have been a comedown after the magnificent monologues of Deadwood, but these actresses could do a whole lot worse than Lost. (I know there are going to be roughly 50 of you who disagree, but I saw a show today where Kato Kaelin doles out the punishments of a wacky judge who settles things in unusual ways, so I KNOW I'M RIGHT.) But the episode made an even better case for Elizabeth Mitchell as the glue that's holding this season together, even as it provided a healthy dosage of answers (the big crop of answers that has turned up in the season's second half seems designed to placate the people who complained extensively about the lack of same in the first part of the season -- precisely the people who aren't watching anymore).

Mitchell's Juliet would seem an almost impossible character to play. Her motivations are never exactly clear, and she often shifts those motivations within a line. But Mitchell makes all of this believable, all the while putting some of the other female cast members to shame (not Yunjin Kim, but she rarely drives the plot anyway -- though I'm guessing she'll get kidnapped in the weeks to come). If the development of The Others in the previous two seasons hasn't been consistent with what they've been shown to be in season three (barring some incredible save in the season finale or something), their storyline within season three has been remarkably consistent for this show. Everything about them mostly lines up, and stuff that seemed needlessly cryptic in the premiere was paid off here, as were a series of events from Juliet's first flashback episode that didn't make a lot of sense either.

As an example: It should have been completely obvious that Juliet was playing the beach bums all along, but Mitchell somehow made it seem as if she had truly decided to cast her lot with them. The only thing not making her plight the most obvious con job on a series full of them was Mitchell's performance, and she sold it considerably, right down to that scene where she had to have a meltdown in front of a monitor improbably showing her still-living sister playing with her miracle son. (Unanswered in all of this was why Juliet continues to trust Ben, though it seems this is probably because she feels he's her best shot at getting off of the island.) I especially loved the sequence where she first arrived at the island and exited the submarine clumsily, crawling along on hands and knees in her skirt and high heels. It felt like something out of an '80s action comedy, to be sure, but the weird juxtaposition of setting and costume worked for me.

It helps, of course, that Elizabeth Mitchell is gorgeous, as are all of the actors on this show, and exceptionally well-cast, as are most of the actors on this show.

The answers given to some of the series' larger questions were mostly satisfactory, though, to be honest, I'm not sure I'm watching for that anymore. What was even better was that Sayid seemed to continue his quest to learn what's the what with the island, acting as the audience surrogate we desperately need on this show (Hurley is probably the other audience surrogate -- the one who makes the jokes when the jokes must be made). While it continues to irritate that Jack has apparently become the grand Zen master doofus (what with his decisions to base his opinions of people on snap judgments), I'm willing to go with it so long as it leads to him being brainwashed or something.

The other thing I like about this show is that it finally feels like an ensemble show again. For large swathes of season two and the first few episodes of season three, it felt like the writers would forget about groups of characters for weeks at a time (though it must be said that this is easier to overlook on DVD). The scene with what felt like the 500th reunion at the beach was nicely executed, and it was fun to see some forgotten character dynamics (like Jack and Sawyer) resurface. I don't know who in the room is advocating for these ensemble scenes, but I'm glad they are. It grounds the show in a more organic place and makes some of the tougher stretches of the show easier to sit through.

So what did you think, Lost fans and detractors? I anxiously await your vitriol!


Todd VanDerWerff said...

I just noticed that Drew Goddard had a hand in the scripting of this episode. Which explains the continuity porn.

I actually think continuity is overrated on TV, but a show like Lost that's aiming to be a Stephen King-esque tale definitely calls out for someone with Goddard's talents in this regard.

Wax Banks said...

Todd -

All of us who watched together were engaged by the episode, for a change; I'm the most cynical of the three when it comes to this show, and generally if I don't hate a given hour then it's a hit in our household. Well, I didn't hate it.

But I was half-drunk on red wine at the time.

Afterward, though...

Y'know, I'd really like to enjoy this show in an unfettered way. But there's always something:

* Every representation of science on Lost is a fucking travesty. Admittedly between the three of us viewing were five degrees from MIT, one my GF's soon-to-be-awarded PhD in curing goddamn cancer with plastic, but anyone who did a science fair project in grade school should know, for instance, that a 'control group' wouldn't be given a goddamn untested serum! The Mittelos Bioscience scenes nauseate me, not least because they're central to the ongoing mystery of the show. At which the producers continue to wave their hands.

* I love Goddard - and I'm all set to add Brian Vaughan to my personal pantheon of 'writers worth watching dumb shows for' - but he's got an impossible task ahead of him if he hopes to pull continuity forward in a believable way. They put an implant in Claire? I bet you a hundred dollars that wasn't part of the plot until a few weeks ago. Good on him and Cuse for addressing some questions, but once we start talking about the actual content of the answers, things get bad again.

* As Dignan handily put it, another episode, another 'con job.' Though in this case it's more of a straight acting job. And re: acting: Mitchell is one of the best things about the show, no question, and I second your fannish joy at seeing Jane, Joanie, and Trixie turn up in the South Pacific. Plus Holloway was fantastic as Sawyer this week, multileveled and restrained, and Naveen Andrews gave the good stuff as Sayid. Yeah! Which is why the fact that, yet again, they decided to step down and give up on their empty threats toward Juliet/the Others/the island/eachother was so ridiculous. (Though Mitchell's look as she walked away from that scene was priceless.) The cast is stepping up a little lately (not Fox), and it's a pity they have so little meaty personal stuff to work with. One player a week gets to do straight-up melodrama, it seems - two when Sawyer and Kate fuck.

* There was an interesting quote from Lindelof and Cuse on a radio show recently; they said, in essence, that the ARG last summer was for hardcore fans only - not unexpected - but that the revelations about the origin of the island aren't actually important to most viewers(!), and they simply don't know how to work them into the TV show itself. The producers are, I may as well admit, pretty good at mapping out ridiculous story arcs on a 3-6 episode time horizon. But as far as the overarching plot, we were dead before the ship even sank: I think the writers are actually losing their nerve a little bit.

Here's a conspiracy arc for you:

Season One: All unanswered questions, no idea how long the show will run or how seriously it'll be taken. The show's basically a lark, and is still relatively true to its original pitch (Castaway the series). Never mind the utterly-free-of-detail pilot, Season One was most from-the-hip, I think. Which was OK, because there was a lot of not-too-deep character stuff to work with, and people love a mystery.

Then: the Emmy happened, and ABC repositioned Lost as one of its flagship franchises, and started all this transmedia experimentation, and this is Lindelof's first showrunning gig (as I recall). David Fury leaves for 24 and gives a very public interview stating that the writers have no idea where they're going. The writers defend themselves by...not defending themselves, instead repeatedly saying 'You shouldn't have done that!' until Fury apologises.

The man might be irascible but he seems a straight shooter. And he's spoiled about such things, after all - worked with that 'Joss' fellow, what's his name again?

Season Two: I've written before that I think Season Two was largely awful, its low point being the deeply stupid 'I have to save Aaron!' Charlie flashback - I'm sure you remember, the one with the Virgin Mary on the beach. Aargh. The network is talking about five to seven years of Lost; the producers' interviews are hubristic and chatty, plans are laid for the ARG. Ratings are huge at first, then fall as the show slips into self-involvement and hermeticism. The writers know they're supposed to be building a show to make it to syndication, but it rapidly becomes clear that it's not a sustainable mode. The flashbacks get increasingly irrelevant or silly. They introduce the Tailies, expanding the cast and the possibilities for stories, and the first Ana Lucia and Eko flashbacks show tons of promise. Focus is at some point shifted; the cast shrinks. By the end of Season Two only Eko remains (and Bernard, wherever the hell he is); he's gone a few episodes into Season Three.

Season Three: The new schedule loses more viewers, though there is talk that the audience fall-off is less than it seems, due to online viewing and TiVo (I think this is statistical misunderstanding by Lindelof/Cuse but they may well be accidentally right on this score). The NYTimes profile is of a beleaguered pair of showrunners, tired and a little bit at sea, doing a cool job but not the same one they signed on for and not one they're necessarily ideal for (imagine Whedon running Lost!!). The interviews are suddenly quite different in tone: apologetic, defensive. And now the writers are talking about getting out after four years. The six-episode miniseason was an interesting idea, and productionwise it probably helped a lot, but there was a definite midseason lag in the show from a viewer standpoint.

And what does Season Three consist of? Let's watch Kate: She's a prisoner. She escapes. She immediately goes back to the Others. She's a prisoner again. She's freed. She and Juliet go back to the Others. They get Jack. The amount of headless-chicken running-about is maddening. The pilot was originally centered around Kate (Jack was to be killed); we've been getting a weird alternate-universe view of what that show might have been these last few weeks, with Kate the Adventurer carrying on and leading expeditions all over the island. The upshot: one of the most interesting backstories on the show, acted well (I love Lilly's work as Kate, much of the time), is squandered on a character who's 90% Love Interest and occasionally forced to carry the impetuosity ball for the cast to force a plot point. (Locke holds the idiot ball still - particularly after Sayid's return to form these last few weeks, praise Allah.)

I believe David Fury. And I don't think the decision to reduce viewer expectations from seven to four years was a response to viewer complaints or speculation that people would lose interest; a well-crafted show that actually focused on the civilizations on the island and their daily lives, charting the slow adaptation of the community on the beach and taking seriously the social stresses upon it, would absolutely appeal to viewers. Picture something closer to Deadwood On the Beach (or more likely Twin Peaks On the Beach, unfortunately), as I suspect the show was originally aiming for to a greater extent than it is now.

What's confusing to me is that the writers pay so much lip-service to the relationships on the show, to Jack's romantic interest and the Kate/Jack/Sawyer love triangle, yet they jettison any kind of emotional logic every few episodes to get to the next Major Plot Twist. I know it's unfair to compare this ramshackle narrative to Buffy - what show of this kind could possibly stand up to Whedon's work? - but there's lots of precedent for tight theme/plot coupling on genre TV. Lost is just getting it wrong, but the goddamn writers seem to know! (Drew Goddard has to know.) The Wire and Deadwood have comparably large ensembles (much larger in the former case, in fact), yet they serve their personal relationships with fine-grained emotional detail. Same with Firefly, for that matter. But the writers of Lost have committed to this broad-strokes style of characterization and a slapdash approach to plotting, and I just can't figure out why.

It's telling that no one on the show blogs about their work anymore - Javier Grillo-Marxuach used to, but he's gone after working on the ARG. And I haven't seen interviews with the writers in a long time. Maybe not since the Fury debacle. (If they're out there, I've missed 'em.) My suspicion is that it isn't the happiest writers' room in Hollywood - no big deal - and that the writers on that show basically aren't up to the expectations that have been set for them. They've got some stars (Goddard, Vaughan) and several very solid writers to round out the group, but they don't get to showcase their best work, because of the laughable gnomic style the show has largely fallen into. Every show takes shortcuts; the writers of Lost have given no reason to forgive theirs, and I suspect they know that better than anyone. They're the ones the fans piss on, after all.

I tell ya: I'm a lot more interested in the writerly machinations, at this point, than the content of the stupid on-air conspiracy.

But I liked this week's episode.

Until I sobered up.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Wax -- that's a lot of stuff to go through, so I don't think I'll touch all of it.

I genuinely believe the people behind the show when they say they know the answers to the questions -- but only the very big ones. I think when they started, Abrams and Lindelof really had figured out what the island was and what the monster was. And the original pilot treatment (well, it's less detailed than a treatment, contains characters who never popped up on the show and a handful of other things, so I'll call it a treatment) makes it clear that they had some idea the Tailies existed (though the plan was to bring them in much later) and that there were Others. I honestly think the idea was that the show would be a little hit (if that at all) that would coast along for a handful of seasons under the radar.

And then, of course, largely because of Abrams' capability with pilots, the show blew up. And everyone everywhere had a theory on what the island was, and many of them were probably right.

From here, there were two paths -- they could completely change the central mystery of the show or they could keep layering on additional mysteries. I think, honestly, they may have done both. (Fury's the key to this. When he JOINED the show, he talked about how he had been told what the island was and he was impressed by how it was a nifty metaphor for. . .whatever it was a metaphor for. When he LEFT, the producers said he had no idea what the island was.) So the show added things like the numbers and the Dharma Initiative and so on and so on.

In mid-season two, when I realized I was being more charitable to the show than many, I tried to figure out why. And I think the reason I was was that the show itself had the same flaws it ALWAYS had (you'll note that serious bitterness about the show over at TWOP started mid-season one). More people were watching it now, because of the Emmys and such, and they had caught up on DVD, a format which seriously understates the series flaws (because above all else, the show has a certain momentum to it -- early season three aside -- even season two plays much better on DVD). What's more, I was a big Twin Peaks and X-Files fan, so I was expecting whatever the answer to everything was to be a major disappointment from the get go, simply because the sheer volume of fan theories on the Internet meant that at least one or two would have to be more interesting.

So I started watching, more and more, for the cast, the stunning direction and production values, and the writers' ability to tell a Twilight Zone-esque morality tale (basically any Hurley episode). And, by and large, I found this successful -- I even proclaimed it the best show on network in 2005 (late season one/early season two), though, admittedly, the competition was pretty slight when you nixed cable (and even cable really only had Deadwood and BSG -- though those are two big reallys).

So, in short, I feel vindicated. Even though I still really like the show. Here's the thing -- it's still got great acting and direction, and the writing is serviceable at a character level but fantastic at churning out action-adventure sturm und drang and simple little morality plays. It's nowhere near the best show on network anymore (what with Friday Night Lights being so note perfect), but it's still completely enjoyable. (And you'll note that the recent fan re-appreciation of the show comes when it's running new episodes every week -- a situation rather close to DVD watching.)

Yes, it's not The Wire, but, Jesus, they can't all be. It succeeds in so many ways that I'm willing to forgive it its failings.

Also, Goddard is something of a legend around Hollywood for fixing story problems in scripts. He's got a real knack for it, and if anyone can tie up all of the insane (and unnecessary) mythological loose ends, I think it's him.

Jason Mittell said...

I'm definitely more on Todd's side than Wax's here, as my own Lost blogging reveals consistent pleasure in the show, waning only at episode 3.6. What all Lost gripers with a taste for analyzing TV storytelling have to remember is that what the show is doing is virtually unprecedented in TV history. While many other shows create complex narrative arcs, and some pull off more compelling combinations of character depth & engaging narrative drive, Lost is the only show lasting beyond a season that at its core has the most basic question imaginable about the show (asked by Charlie to conclude the pilot): "where are we?" Everything in the show must be oriented to answering this basic question, which forces so many narrative contortions & raises the degree of difficulty so much that we cannot compare what it's doing directly to other programs. Sure it's not as uniformly successful or profound as The Wire or Buffy or Firefly etc., but in some ways (not all certainly) what Lost is trying to pull off is more challenging. Plus it's being watched by more people than all of those other shows combined, so the scrutiny and pressure to maintain ratings & buzz is intense. And it's mode of storytelling is ultimately not terribly well suited for its mode of delivery during the season, making it even harder to pull off what it does.

Bottom line for me - even the missteps are interesting, and the peaks are so original & innovative that I have no doubt it will go down as a (flawed but brilliant) masterpiece in TV history.

Freudian Slip said...

I hope this show can get back on track now. It just seems disconnected when they have the major characters broken up like that for long periods of time. It will be interesting to see what's next.