Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"What?": Lost

When Lost began, if you asked one of its fans whether they enjoyed the on-island hijinks or the off-island flashbacks more, they might not have made merciless fun at you simply because you asked such a question. We've all come to accept that the flashbacks of Lost, especially in the episodes where they seem almost an afterthought, are going to be an irritating digression at least and a completely new industry at worst. It's a fair bet that no one ever liked the flashbacks the best out of the show, but as constructed now, almost no other part gets even a fair shot.

D.O.C. was that rarity: a flashback plot that commented on the island plot and wasn't a waste of time. The island scenes were more dramatically engaging than the flashback scenes, but the flashback scenes earned their keep by delving into the backstory of Jin and Sun. While the married duo have had six flashback stories now, they have yet to grow uninteresting for me. Some fans, who prefer a little more forward momentum in the plot, may feel completely differently about this, but I've always found the lyrical pauses and acting moments in these episodes to be powerful stuff. Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim sell these moments palpably (look at the expression on Sun's face when she learns out who the father of her baby is in this episode -- it throttles between six or seven emotions, never unconvincingly). On Lost, the scripts may let you down, but the cast almost never will.

That said, the script here was pretty good too, taking its chances on blending a small, personal story of a married couple with the larger ramifications of the paratrooper who plummeted from the sky last week. This week, the paratrooper's injuries after a tree branch punctures her lung left her in dire straits, even as Jin, Hurley, Desmond and Charlie tried to look after her, leading the four to accept the help of Mikhail, the eye-patched mysterious man from earlier in the season, who was supposed to be dead the last time we saw him. In the meantime, Sun went with Juliet to the secret facility we saw Claire dragged to last season to learn what was the deal with her baby and whether it had been conceived before she came to the island (with her lover) or after (with her husband). While it turned out to be Jin's and she found this to be a relief emotionally, she still has the death sentence that all women who get pregnant on the island die hanging over her.

Finally, after nursing the paratrooper to health, she informs Hurley that Oceanic 815 crashed into the ocean and that no survivors were found. Hurley, clearly confused, simply says, "What?!" giving me the shortest post title we've had in a good long while.

One of the things that made D.O.C. work for me, I think, was that it didn't try to deepen its "human" story too much with crazy island mythology or anything. All three storylines (the two on the island proper and the flashback one) told relatively simple, very human stories that were intensely relatable (trying to save the life of a stranger, fearing that your child is that of your lover not your husband, seeking out the father-in-law you've never met before because your husband is ashamed of his roots). Granted, all of these stories take place in the heightened vacuum of melodrama, but one of the things that originally made (and still makes, when the show can match its on-island stories to solid flashbacks) Lost so compelling was that it was a huge story with very simple elements at its core. A lot of that has been lost over the years, as we've delved into Others and Dharma Initiatives and such, but the Sun and Jin episodes offer a chance to ditch that, simply because the two characters have so little to do with the big mythology plot. For that reason, I think Sun and Jin flashbacks may be my favorites from all of the characters who've been around since the beginning, though Hurley's would be a close, close second.

Also, this may reflect how much I enjoy getting caught up in a narrative like this, but I've been watching this show since season one, and I'm just as excited to see how this season wraps up as I have been any other. This last string of episodes has felt quite strong, with a few missteps here and there, but mostly worthy of commentary. I feel like less of an idiot for really enjoying it, as it's at least been a solid action-adventure hour from week to week.

At any rate, I'm sure some of you will disagree. For me, though, I'm down with any hour that lets Yunjin Kim say so much without really saying anything at all.


Wax Banks said...

Todd -

We disagree, I suspect, about whether this week's flashback story treaded water or deepened the characters: there's a neatness to the parallel 'shameful parentage' plots but at this point the idea of One More Secret between characters is more tiring than intriguing. But we're in complete agreement about Yunjin Kim. The scene where she gets the news was strong material for the two best actresses on the show, and they were both fantastic. There's this year's Emmy clip for both of 'em.

Your post title made me smile right away. That revelation was the real Season One stuff: big ridiculous sci-fi setups, pure provocation for the fanboys. That's the stuff the writers seem to be consistently good at - actually answering questions seems to give them a hard time at times, and the intimate character moments prove largely elusive. (Though again, the last couple of weeks have been comparatively good in that regard, starting with Jack and Kate's seemingly effortless ice cream scene last week.)

But this is my strongest disagreement with you this week, I'm afraid:

All three storylines [...] told relatively simple, very human stories that were intensely relatable (trying to save the life of a stranger, fearing that your child is that of your lover not your husband, seeking out the father-in-law you've never met before because your husband is ashamed of his roots).

Did you ever see the amazing Homicide episode with the guy cut in half by the subway train? It's basically just Pembleton and the buy talking for most of the episode. Heartbreaking. When I think of intense, relatable stories, I think of that one, not the Lost shenanigans, because on Lost (sorry to say) there are no stakes. Nothing about the Desmond/Jin/Charlie/Mikhail/chick-from-the-future (?!) scenes felt urgent, and even though she's theoretically a font of information, the real drama of those moments was about Mikhail's reappearance (uncommented upon) and Desmond's decision to let him escape (anticlimactic). The premise of having to save a stranger's life might be relatable - after all, this is an Abrams show, specializing in neat premises and halfassed follow-through - but once Mikhail showed up, the plot was entirely mechanical in its execution, free of the tiny human moments that (e.g.) this week's flashback had in spades.

The flashback bugged me only because it didn't cover new ground of any kind; we know Jin and Sun lived several lies before coming to the island, we know Sun's dad is a baddie, we know Jin's ashamed of his family, and we know Sun has cast-iron balls. The blackmail plot (even with its neat doubled-blackmail twist at the end) was just a new permutation of the same old Jin/Sun elements. Its purpose may well have been to show us a relatively untroubled Jin/Sun pairing, which was nice - but then why not show us how they live now? Because they don't 'live' on the island at all. They show up to have adventures, and then disappear into the scenery. Only the Sun/Juliet show was strong in every particular this week (assuming you can ignore the irritating pseudoscience of all island pregnancies resulting in death) - I keep hoping they'll do an abortion plot, but I doubt it. And anyhow, if Sun's gonna make it halfway through her second trimester, she'll still be alive when the show goes off the air after four seasons and a fifth mini-season...

So really it's my problem that's bugging me, not the show's: I'm incapable of relaxing during the good bits because I know that the bad bits are nearby, and they're awful. The inauthenticity of the show infects my every viewing, my every next-day-blog-commenting word and gesture and thought! I'm rotting from within!

Probably I need a vacation.

Jason Mittell said...

I agree completely with Todd (and disagree with Wax, except about him needing a vacation) - the Sun/Jin flashbacks are always pure gold, and I'd say this one does offer new backstory of relevance: it was Sun who sold Jin to a life of crime to save him, not Jin choosing to do whatever it took to be with his woman (the way it appeared in s1). Sun is all about making choices damning others for her own sense of morality & priorities, yet Kim is so phenomenal that we forget how morally questionable her character is.

Other aspects of the episode I loved: how it foregrounded the time scheme of the series - each season is a month, and Sun's got a timebomb in her for the end of season 5; the week of crazy speculation about the final cliffhanger; the moment pause when Mikhail emerges from the jungle; "I hate you." As good of an episode as we've had in season 3...

Wax Banks said...

Jason -

I'm not sure there's even going to be a Season Five at this point; the producers have been hinting strongly that four-and-out might not be a bad idea. Does the 100-episode syndication rule still hold sway in the DVD era?

Oddly enough, I agree that this was probably as good as any other episode in Season Three. As I've said, the Sun/Jin scenes are consistently among the show's best. But 'D.O.C.' didn't foreground the time scheme at all, that's likely just your response to a momentary highlighting of a topic of personal significance. The first year was forty days, a supposedly significant length of time but not one to which the writers have paid any attention at all; it's an incidental detail. We've seen time and time again how little those details mean on Lost, in the long run.

As I wrote over on my own blog, it was a 'hidden up-and-back': looked like progress but irrelevantly so. The new information alters one of the relationships on the show, in theory, but in practice that alteration, like so many such plot 'advances,' will surely prove meaningless. The relationship between Jin and Sun is better acted than written, and the two characters generally aren't central enough to the show for their interactions to have much weight; it doesn't really matter who pushed whom in the end, as both characters have kept things from one another, and that's the practical extent of their relationship on the show. The Jin/Sun arc in Season One was moving because it was all bold brushstrokes and fine onscreen presence. If the show were really 'complex' in any way (rather than 'complicated' - a distinction between depth and repetition, in my usage) this new information would allow us to reread the accumulated text in a new way, or would at least suggest new shading to those characters' roles on the island.

So the Big Secrets between Jin and Sun are tipped one way now instead of the other. And? What have you seen in this show to suggest that fact isn't a sideshow, or a red herring to be dropped? Jason, I suspect you're seeing systematicity and depth that just isn't there (which is fine, but if so it's worth mentioning); I don't have a dog in that race, and am quite happy, at this point, to cop to the failings of this show. They're instructive, and addictive in their way, and maybe one or two fewer since midseason, but they're pretty goddamn big. I can keep enjoying it, but I've no reason to talk it into something it's not.

When I first started watching Buffy I read several episode guides. As much as I loved the show itself - and did, cried like a baby all the way through Season Five, etc. - I almost loved the guides most. They let me believe in the vastness of the show, switched out its fine-grained human observations for the feeling of mythological scope. Of course, by the time I'd seen most of the show, I'd realized that the mythology of Buffy was almost entirely contingent, convenient for the writers; my interest in hearing about other Slayers had dissipated, because by then I'd realized I didn't want or need more information. There's basically no more Buffy trivia for me to learn at this point; the borders have been reached and the territory mapped.


It's a better show, now. Revisiting it I'm reminded how consistent it was, how contiguous its emotional movement, how easygoing its character growth, how iterative its seasonal structure and yet how much each season expanded the original series's ambit.

I guarantee you this: when Lost is done, no such reevaluation will be possible. Every piece of information on the show has an expiration date. It doesn't resonate beyond itself.

In the land of 'Make your own fun' maybe that's supposed to be enough. But I'd like to take artists' responsibilities seriously. I don't think Lost signals any kind of new televisual pleasure or adaptation of encyclopedic/spatial/programmatic technology (Christ, I wish I could banish Janet Murray from my memory sometimes). It's not much better onscreen than in an illustrated episode guide. Which is too bad for the actors and production crew, who do a good-to-extraordinary job. But it's worse for those with a professional stake in Lost seeming more than it is: those who write the show, and those who write about it.

Which reminds me: will you be at the MIT conference this weekend?