Monday, September 19, 2005

Lost Just Isn't that Good

So yesterday the Emmys were announced and Lost won the award for best drama. Now, I did watch the whole first season, so it's not like I hated the show, but it's got so many flaws and a lack of real storytelling ability that it's far from a good story or piece of art, it's something that keeps you watching by providing the occasional flash of quality every once in a while, then going back to the same routine. It suffers from the frequent problem that ongoing serialized works can have and that's to have stuff happen to the characters, instead of allowing plots to form organically out of the interactions between them.

For example, in the first season they set up Boone as very protective of his sister Shanon, going so far as do a whole flashback about this. At the same time, they set up an attraction between Shanon and Sayid. This is good plotting, Boone will go after Sayid, leaving Shanon torn between her brother and the the man she may love. But wait, once Shanon and Sayid actually begin the relationship, the very first scene in which they're walking back to camp, they find out that Boone is dead. That's some apallingly bad plotting, to take away the source of tension in your narrative, right at the moment when the plot should be coming to a head.

And that's just one example, this is a show that seems to be more concerned about coming up with something to get to the next episode, rather than having well developed characters. Once you have good characters, you have to do very little work to make things interesting. All the characters are basically the same as they were at the beginning of the season, and there haven't been many storylines with events of lasting emotional significance. People should go through massive changes, considering they are stranded on an island, but no one does. The characters are all stable, something perhaps best exemplified by the show's narrative structure, which features flashbacks designed to show how the characters got to where they are now, when it would be much more interesting to watch the characters evolve in the present.

So, this show did not deserve an emmy, especially up against the best season yet of 24 and a phenomenal year from one of the best shows ever, Six Feet Under. The thing about Lost is that it aspires to be a film, and uses the narrative style of action movies, where characters are generally just archetypes. We know them all from past movies, so there's not a pressing need to really develop them. To some extent, every character starts off as a type, but the whole point of doing a TV show is that you have enough time to go in depth on each of your characters. In a long form narrative, you can have characters as complex and contradictory as Brenda or Nate, and you just can't do that in movies because there just isn't enough time.

Similarly, the beauty of TV's long form storytelling is that you can have all the action come out of character decisions. There's no need to just have stuff appear suddenly, look at Buffy season six as a shining example of how character decisions alone can propel a narrative forward. There was no need for a big villain because the characters had enough conflicts between them to sustain the season. And it's not even like the show was coasting or anything, it's riveting to watch these long held tensions come to the surface and witness the domino effect of actions that lead to something bigger. Six Feet Under does this really well, frequently starting the season with a slow burn to establish mood and tensions, then bringing everything to a head at the end of the season. If you let the characters grow, your show will write itself.

The problem with shows like Lost, Alias, The OC and others is that the characters all have to remain relatively stable, because they're not written deep enough to allow for growth. Brenda's sex addiction in season two emerges organically, while Marisa's flirtation with lesbiansim seems like a cheap narrative ploy. On Lost, all kinds of stuff happens to the characters and they just react. Same on Alias. There's no subtext, it's just the characters going along, confronting each new peril. These shows create the illusion of depth and continuity because on the surface their plots are very complex. However, these complex plots mask the fact that the show isn't going anywhere. Buffy always felt like it was moving forward, while Alias, it seems like JJ is struggling to come up with enough to make it to the end of the season.

And that comes to the major dichotomy in television, comics and any other ongoing narrative medium. Is the story going somewhere, is there an ending in mind, or is it just going until people stop caring? If it's going somewhere, that allows you to have actions with lasting consequences, but if there's no ending, then things have to stay relatively the same. The producers of Lost claim to be going somewhere, but even if the plot genuinely is, which I doubt, the characters aren't. A plot revelation is good for a one time surprise, but a character evolution will give you a whole series.

And to top it all off, I come across an article in which Damon Lindleof, co-creator of Lost, repeatedly cracks on Twin Peaks, citing the show as an example of letting early promise go to waste. Now, yes, there were some issues in season two, but the series rebounds, and never got as bad as people claim. Plus to claim that it got lost in its own mythology would imply that Lynch's stylistic exploration in the last episode and FWWM is a failure, and I just can't agree with that.

So, Lost isn't the worst show, but it really surprises me that so many people love the show so much. It's got so many dramatic flaws, I don't see it as successful on an artistic level.

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