Thursday, May 03, 2007

"One minute, I'm in a car wreck, and the next minute, I'm in a pirate ship in the middle of the jungle?": Lost

Or: The weekly Wax Banks and Jason Mittell discussion post. Though, seriously, go read their blogs.

For some time, now, half of the fun of watching Lost has been hating on Lost. Sure, most in the professional media stuck with the show through all of season two, loving it all the way (and, to be honest, I liked it quite a bit in the moment and think it plays marginally better on DVD), but the blogs and the TWOPpers and the other message board denizens have all been out for the show's blood for a while now. Even I, who was so geeky for this show for so long, was basically unconvinced by the season's opening six and that weird Jack gets his tattoos episode that came shortly after the return.

But, I think it's time to revise that opinion again. Lost isn't what we all hoped it might be (namely, some sort of grand unified theory of American pulp fiction) after season one, but it's also not completely unbearable or awful or anything, especially now. Put another way, it's not The Wire, but very few shows are (actually, only one show is). Its ambitions outstrip its abilities far too often, and that makes a disappointing episode of the show completely disappointing (as opposed to, say, Heroes, which has mostly just enjoyed giving the American public a rough tour of 75 years of American comics as synthesized by a hit-and-miss cast) in a way that almost defies description. It leads those of us who had faith in the show to stand outside the local TV store, dressed in sackcloth and crying out about how we've sinned and misled the world.

But Lost is coming into sharper focus now, in the back half of season three: It's a really big, really messy novel by a Stephen King wannabe. It's the sort of thing you take on the plane and read during vacation and then put back on the shelf, pulling it out occasionally to skim through it in the bathroom. It has a kind of emotional purity and something approaching metaphysical weight to it, but it leaves you feeling curiously unfull.

And I refuse to say this is a bad thing. In fact, I greatly enjoy these kinds of books, and I spend a lot of time at the local giant chain bookstores pulling preposterous horror and science fiction narratives off the shelves just to see if they can live up to their ridiculous premises. My grand unified theory of Lost is this: The target may have shifted along the way and the thin plotline constructed to build the show on may have been completely mangled, but who cares when we can get a stretch of episodes as enjoyable as the one we've been treated to in these last few weeks (slightly boring Desmond episode aside)?

Ah, perhaps I am defensive too much. But this show, which has gotten so much hounding from all corners, tends to make those of us who still defend it feel in such a way. Look, George Eliot completely shifted the narrative of Middlemarch to make room for plot twists that readers demanded (or so my English professors told me), and no one gets mad at her for the convenient way that book wrapped up! Granted, George Eliot was 500 times the writer anyone on Lost is, but, increasingly, we hold TV, an inherently collaborative art, to an impossible standard I'm not sure it can meet. The Wire is the happy accident. A lot more often, ambitious TV is going to look like Lost or (God help us) 24 -- stuff that has its flaws but also engages and entertains in a way that makes its audience nod with delight.

I suppose I should say a few things about the episode, which I found mostly riveting. For once, all of the plots clicked, and even the flashback imparted new information (it was an on-island flashback, and those have worked out nicely in the past -- here's hoping there will be more of them next year). The three-men and a woman scenes in the Black Rock between Sawyer, Locke, Locke's dad and Rousseau were well worth the TiVo spot on their own, a twisty, sweaty way through the maze of connections the writers have established between their characters and now must somehow undo elegantly. Now, there's no way that they'll be able to do this with everybody all the time, but this first attempt to bridge those gaps was pretty good, largely because Josh Holloway gave a career best performance and Terry O'Quinn continued to force Locke, who has been greatly underwritten for a while now, to make some sort of sense. This was probably the last time we'll see Kevin Tighe on the show, but he made a worthy adversary for the two, even chained to a wall, and his theory that everyone on the show is in Hell is neat for how it sidesteps the first season writers' claim that the show doesn't take place in Purgatory and still wraps up a lot of maddening loose ends. (Though not all -- how, exactly, does one find Hell with a helicopter? Last I heard, the only way there was by drilling straight down in a Siberian mine shaft.) I don't for a second believe that this will prove to be the ultimate solution, since Juliet sure didn't have to die to arrive at the island, but I think it will prove to be a part of something.

It was also nice to see Sayid back because I knew he would get a variety of answers out of our dear parachutist. I know he must have seemed a little too paranoid to her, but could you blame him? Similarly, the refusal of the parachute rescue crew to trust Jack sets up the season-ending conflicts nicely, as does Jack and Juliet's refusal to tell Kate something. Normally, people not giving other people information makes me groan, but I'm more willing to let it slide this close to the finale because I know I'll be getting information soon (yes, readers, it really is all about me).

There wasn't a ton else going on in this episode, but I liked all of what I saw. This and D.O.C. are a remarkably consistent duo for the show, more than enough to prove that Lost is back on its stride and cranking out some fun TV. And the scene where Ben tried to get Locke to kill his dad, who was tied to a pole? Instant classic!

OK, Wax and Jason (and hopefully Luke). Take it away! Any theories on the maddening insistence of the show concentrating on Sawyer's bare feet? It felt like a literary illusion I couldn't put my finger on, but I think I'm just thinking of Firefly's "Objects in Space."


Wax Banks said...


Wax Banks said...

Just kidding.

I do wanna hear what other people think about this episode; I'd read that it would be a treading-water ep, but it moved the on-island story a good deal further forward than anything else of late. That's the show's best bet, I think: to focus on the present(??)-time story and flesh out the day-to-day existence of the characters. Otherwise there's nothing to lose but a bunch of ciphers.

The last six episodes or so have shown pretty consistent improvement in a number of areas, no question, and I gotta admit I'm feeling some of that ol' Season One tingle. Todd, your analogy to Stephen King is strong; he's famous for cooking up most of his stories without the benefit of an outline. The differences are telling, though: King actually gets to revise his work, and continues to write effortless naturalistic dialogue. There's nothing naturalistic about any aspect of Lost, at this point, nothing for the metaphysical hijinks to illuminate. That's the root of my disappointment with the show: it clearly wanted to be something like the early X-Files - a lazy but pungent critique of post-Watergate paranoia about the bad gubmint - in terms of its referentiality and emotional complexity. But the emotional aspects of the show never quite took off, to my eyes; the first act was strong, but first acts are a hell of a lot easier than second ones, and the hard work of moving forward was just bobbled in Season Two. The trouble is, this is an allegedly very talented staff of professional writers, and yet they seem to have miscalculated almost everything about their show after the can't-lose pilot:

How long to run? How much emphasis to put where? How seriously to take the 'real-world' premise (people surviving a plane crash) vs. the fantasy premise (life on a magical island)? What tone of voice to give the characters? Is it a big-budget action-drama-comedy or a metaphysical inquiry? (Actually I can answer the last one pretty easily: it's the former. The show's 'metaphysical' moments barely register; the writers have nothing to say about life and death, the mind, the world beyond. They're in hell? Purgatory? Do you really expect to learn anything about redemption and chance from Lost?) And Todd, as for its 'emotional purity' - don't you mean simplicity? Or 'clarity,' by which we mean 'ease of summary'? It's all been up in the air since word one, it seems.

All of which can give us a run of fun episodes (containing almost no non-plot-device information) that will prove in the wake of the season finale to have been nothing but machinery, guaranteed. Hell, I enjoyed most of this week's episode a good deal; Terry O'Quinn is still giving the show's best performance, and this week he had somewhat meatier scenes than before - plus, Holloway, damn! - but trying to piece together the psychology of his character is largely pointless. In the wider context of the show, Locke seems less interesting, because when he's not the focus of things, half the time he's carrying the Idiot Ball for the ensemble. Every character has had to; the writers cop out too often, particularly when it comes to characters acting at moments of emotional crisis and dealing with the ramifications of their actions. (cf. Charlie shooting Ethan, Locke blowing up the radio station, Eko's long descent into delusion, the Claire/Charlie non-relationship, Jack being on-again/off-again crazy, Ben's near-omnipotence excusing him from emotional fallout, etc.) One needn't be sitting in the writers' room to point that out; it's clear from the text.

Season Three has marked an improvement in this regard, no question - people are doing more and paying for it longer-term - but not definitively. The flashbacks remain a huge problem, constitutively so: whatever the characters have dealt with in the past, they've had the choice to either (1) learned to deal with it like normal human beings, or (2) hold on to fucked up grudges and fixations because such things are indispensable to the writers. They go back and forth as needed. In theory the crises of Island Living should have trumped all the Daddy Issues/'everyone's a con man' bullshit in the flashbacks, yet the writers keep going to that well. Writing substantive Life Stuff on the island itself is apparently beyond the scope of the show.

Why? God damn it, if these writers actually know what they're doing, three years in why can't they give even half the characters emotional lives and meaningful personal interactions? Even fucking Die Hard managed that!

OK time to rein it in a little. Lads, over to you.

Wally said...

Oh yeah, I'd wanted to say: every scene that's had Locke and Ben interacting has been riveting. Without fail. Those two guys are the show's MVP's, with Elizabeth Mitchell making a strong run at the title as well. Necessary caveat: they're making do with maddening, largely inconsequential material. But earning their acting trophies, no question.

Benaiah said...

I thought it was a very solid episode, with the caveat that the "revelation" was obvious and nothing was a surprise from the very beginning. It was wonderfully acted, and the subplot on the beach is heating up, but I have seen Locke's dad as the original Sawyer bandied about for months around the interweb. At least the show is making the characters more responsive and interactive than in past seasons.

Josh Halloway really elevated his game in this episode. Kate and Sawyer both have demonstrated that they can hold their own with Terry Quinn this season.

Jason Mittell said...

I guess I'm forced to reply now that I'm on stage...

Basically, I agree with Todd on every turn - this was an episode centered on performance, reminding us that Lost may have overall the strongest ensemble cast on network TV. Performers who may have been weaker in s1 have either dramatically improved (Kate, Sawyer) or been given clear limits on what they're asked to do (Charlie, Claire). The one exception is Matthew Fox & his Jackface - arguably the hero is the hardest part to play (see: Adama, Lee), but the episodes that fail most reliably are the ones that require Fox to do the emotional heavy lifting. Nearly every other performance is simply great or better - Locke, Ben, Juliet, Sun, Jin, Hurley, Desmond, Sayid, the late Eko.

I've mentioned this before, but we need to remember how fracking hard & unprecedented it is to churn out so many episodes with such a narrow story focus. Last night was the show's 67th episode in 2 1/2 years, which (to compare) took The Sopranos 7 years to complete! (And I'm not holding The Sopranos up as the ideal of consistent quality here...) The show can be erratic and frustrating in delaying gratification, but for me no other show has been able to pull off such an ambitious project under such constraints & pressures. And thus I do think we'll look back on it as not the artistic equivalent of The Wire, but as ultimately more successful than most of the other network shows of the moment, which I mark as a real achievement.

See you next week...

Todd VanDerWerff said...


I think that critics tend to excuse more on Lost than, say, Wally would like because we watch so much damn TV. It's fairly obvious the show can't match the best cable dramas (or even Friday Night Lights), but when you hold it up against, say, One Tree Hill, it looks positively genius in comparison.

All I'm saying is that Lost's bad qualities have been so thoroughly dissected (and I'm not saying they're not there) that the good qualities have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle.

Wally said...

Fair enough!

Though I gotta say, I think Jamie Bamber's doing a wonderful job in the role of Lee Adama, and has risen the occasion as he's been given more improbable story-turns to take (his law career being the latest, and weirdest). There's plenty of evidence - starting with the pilot - to suggest that Fox just isn't anywhere near as good an actor as his (weirdly) adoring fans would like him to be. Was Party of Five good? Was he? I never did see it, but that's the only explanation I can come up with for continued charity toward him. He was intermittently interesting when he was going nuts in Season Two but (as I recall) his flashbacks are horrible without exception at this point...

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Gross. I spelled allusion illusion. This is why I should never do this stuff after midnight.

Anyway, the barefoot Sawyer thing could possibly be a Buddhist allusion. The show certainly seems fond of Buddhism.