Sunday, April 10, 2005

What's wrong with Lost?

At the beginning of the TV year, I watched one new show, and that was Lost. It had a great premise, really strong critical buzz and was from JJ Abrams, creator of Alias, so I figured this would be quite the series, and the pilot certainly sold me on that. Really interesting characters, tons of interesting conflict, and the promise of more good stuff in the future. And, I really liked the show, it had its ups and downs, but I enjoyed each episode, but lately, I get the feeling more and more that what once seemed like it could be the next Buffy level series is just not going to make it, and here's why.

At this point, Lost is basically handicapped by its structure. For some inane reason, the producers decided to stick with having character flashbacks to the mainland long after these have outlived their usefulness. At the beginning, it was cool to see where each character came from, and they did a good job of setting up what this person brought to the island. And for character, the first flashback episode was interesting enough. However, at this point, the flashbacks are just a drain on screentime and a distraction from what's actually interesting on the show. In the most recent episode, we saw Jack preparing to get married, and having some issues with confidence. On the island, he is also having issues of confidence, but just being a parallel story does not mean that this flashback is worth including. In the end, it had no impact on the events of the episode, and didn't tell us anything important about Jack that we didn't already know.

I wouldn't have such a big problem with the flashbacks except for the fact that with such a big ensemble cast, it means that the screentime taken up by the pointless flashbacks precludes us from checking in with most of the characters on the island. In most episodes, about ten of the fourteen main characters actually appear, and only five or so have any sort of significant role. It's not that the cast is too big, it's that one third of the running time is taken up with things that have no bearing on the narrative. The occasional flashback episode can be great, as in the episode of Firefly where we see how Mal met his crew. This fills in backstory we didn't know before, while still telling a story that moves things along.

However, the pointlessness of these flashbacks comes to the fore because even as we learn more and more pointless minutiae about these characters' past, they still show no signs of changing in the present. The characters were all archetypal in some sense, just like in Buffy, but the problem here is the characters haven't moved beyond their one sentence description. No one has any depth or does anything unexpected, and all the chaacter dynamics are the exact same as from the first episode. There've been a ton of episodes where Kate/Sawyer/Jack have tension between them as they try to get something they want from Sawyer, but what happens in the past never seems to affect how they behave in the present. They go through the same dance over and over again, eventually Sawyer shows he's not all bad and helps them out, which Jack grudgingly accepts.

The only characters whose status quo has really changed is Jin and Sun. Now that they're split up, you'd think there'd be plenty of space for exploring how the characters are dealing with it, but they basically function exactly the same way, just apart now. I'd love to see Sun and someone get into a relationship, to see how that affects Jin.

That's one of the biggest problems with the show, no one gets into relationships that could cause tension. They get Sayid and Sharon together, but then kill off the primary obstacle to them being together, her brother Boone. I'd have loved to see that triangle play out, but instead the element of tension is removed. It's writing 101 that you should give your characters obstacles to overcome, and that's something that just isn't done on the show. Everyone has settled in on the island, with no evidence of psychological wear. Where's some Lord of the Flies style de-civilizing?

I think part of the problem is that between the flashbacks and arbitrary problems that arise every week, there's no room for character development. There doesn't need to be a crisis every week, just letting the characters stew, and seeing what tensions arise would make for a much more interesting show. There's so many issues that would arise being stranded on an island, and the only discussion about it is very brief and not in depth. I'd play up more romantic relationships, because that would lead to more character tension. When you're on an island, there's nowhere to hide from each other if something goes bad.

Ultimately, the show needs to upset the status quo more. The worst thing a show can do is settle into a routine, and that's what has happened at this point. There's no progress forward for the charcters, it's almost like a sitcom in that respect. A bunch of things can happen, but people don't change and on a long term series, that's the worst thing that can be.

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