Thursday, January 31, 2008

"They're still alive, aren't they?": Lost

(Remember to come back tomorrow for the Deeply Superficial Blog-a-Thon's kickoff special! -- ed.)

To some degree, Lost has always been a show at war with itself. On the surface, it was a pulp mash-up, a gleefully giddy ride through a century's worth of science fiction, action-adventure stories and Boys Life covers. In its heart, it was something deeper, or at least, it thought it was. And, to be fair, a lot of the pulp stuff really got at some core emotions and themes, particularly when it came to questions of destiny and free will (a theme pulp has always done well for whatever reason). But some of the stuff didn't work, and a lot of it had to do with the flashbacks, which always felt like a panacea to the casual fans, people who didn't tune in for every episode and just wanted a single story or two they could follow in individual episodes. Damon Lindelof reports that Carlton Cuse has referred to the flashbacks as "New Yorker stories," and while most of them were too cliched to get into the New Yorker, that's the right idea. The occasional pulp hint would enliven stories about father issues or Kate's love life or what have you. After season one, there were some good flashbacks, but they tended to be the ones that played around with the format of the show (or the Sun and Jin flashbacks, which seem incapable of disappointing for some reason).

So that's what made the fourth season premiere feel like someone taking a nice, deep breath after holding it for so very long.

To some degree, it feels like Lost, having figured out that its audience will be around 15 million viewers, give or take, has just decided to completely bid the fickle audience adieu and do gripping stories that embraced the best aspects of the show. Lost is no longer a show for that audience of people who has never seen the show before. It's for the audience that plots out its own endings, the audience that's the most critical of it, the audience that always comes back for more. That key, subtle shift is what has propelled the show into what feels like a serious second wind (which it first gained in the back half of last season, lest we forget).

I think the best thing about the show now is how the time jumbling has made it less clear what the A-story is and what the B-story is. In the first handful of episodes that made the show a hit, the A-story was often the flashback, leaving the island strangeness relegated to being a slowly continuing bit. In later episodes and seasons, however, the show seemingly abandoned this format in favor of the island storyline dominating, while the flashbacks often became redundant B stories. This had the unintentional shift of taking the show from a mass-audience show with a cult element (like The X-Files) to a cult show that still had a mass audience (like. . .Twin Peaks, I guess? I don't know). The focus initially had been archetypal characters with big, obvious plot point backstories caught up in a truly interesting setting. The latter seasons focused on characters whose archetypal points were hammered home for us again and again caught up in an increasingly elaborate mythology. This shift probably robbed the show of the huge audience it had garnered early in season two more than anything else.

Now, with the addition of flash forwards to the show's storytelling palette, the structure of the show is once again up in the air. The A-story SEEMS to be the gang on the island coming back together after the events of last year's finale, with Jack having initiated the steps that will lead to their "rescue," but the flash forward makes a very good case for being an A-story too, complete as it is with Hurley's slow realization of his guilt and his visit from the very dead (or not?) Charlie and his later argument with Jack.

To a very real degree, Hurley and Desmond have always been this show's soul. Without them centering the show in the problematic episodes of seasons two and three, the series could have completely spun off the rails. Terry O'Quinn's John Locke is one of the great TV performances of all time (just thinking of that moment when he was put in the wheelchair last season still fills me with emotion), but he's also not a character that makes such a good fan surrogate, in the way that the nerd culture Hurley and the sweepingly romantic Desmond do. The writers have abused the fan relationship to Hurley in the past, but their best episodes take advantage of Hurley as well (his feeling of powerlessness in the finale last year might as well have stood in for a nation of fans that just felt as if their show had gone off the tracks somewhere around that VW Bus episode and there was no way to get it back). I occasionally felt that the show was overdoing the reaction to Charlie's death tonight until that marvelous moment when Hurley gathered Claire up in his arms and the two wept. That Jorge Garcia's portrayal of this character hasn't garnered him ANY awards attention so far is a crime. He's the show's stealth weapon, and he hits absolutely every improbable acting note the show throws at him (another great scene tonight featuring Hurley was the one where he and Bernard discuss his lotto winnings, followed by him cannonballing into the ocean -- it was bittersweet in all of the ways the preceding scene of the women talking about their "men" without knowing that Claire's was not coming back was not).

The show also came up with a smart way to distance itself from the past with the throughline of the episode, which contrasted Hurley with Jack. As Sepinwall pointed out, unlike last year, when Jack was always right, he's wrong in ways both large and small this episode, and that gives the show some real momentum right there (the self-righteousness of Jack grew unbearable when he was right all the time). It clues us in that whatever Jack did to leave the island was REALLY wrong, even as the smaller hints left for us by Abbadon (and what a GREAT name for a character -- Wikipedia it) and Charlie's appearance gave this idea further weight. Hurley plants the seed that grows into Jack's crippling need to go back in the finale from last year. Excellent.

I'll have more to say on Lost's new time-jumbly structure, which is the same old structure as before but also DIFFERENT in an important way, in future weeks, I imagine, but for now, let's do some discussion points.

--Hurley able to make Jacob's shack disappear? What up?

--Just who IS Abbadon (and just how much HBO do the Lost producers watch)?

--Is the island able to manifest itself on the mainland now?

--And what's up with the thin line between life and death?

--And, finally, who are the other three of the six? I predict (without being spoiled) Sun, Jin and Sayid.

Discuss away! Lost's back, and it might be the lack of scripted television talking, but I couldn't be happier.

1 comment:

Myles said...

First, my prediction for the remainder of the six: Sawyer, Sun (Not Jin), Sayid. Although maybe they would then be the Alliterative Oceanic Six, hmmm...

I really enjoyed the episode, so I don't think either of us simply drank from the Strike Kool-Aid so to speak. It wasn't the greatest episode of television of all time, by any means, but what it succeeded extremely well at was maintaining the momentum from last season.

Through both the on island and flash forward part of the episode, you never stopped thinking about the tragic irony inherent to the story. Whether it was Charlie death or Jack's eventual fate, everything fit together beautifully - no question was left untouched, per se, but no question was entirely answered either. I left wholly intrigued, which is how I felt during the second half of last season.

Plus, it was nice to finally get the great schism of Jack and Locke which has been coming ever since that game of Backgammon - while the Tailies and the Others created binaries of sort, this is the first time we've seen one (finally) within the core group itself. And based on Hurley's lamentation to Jack in the future, things are definitely going to be interesting.