Sunday, December 11, 2005

Lost (2x01-2x09)

I watched all of the first season of Lost, and though I enjoyed it enough to watch every week, I had a lot of issues with the series, and the constant critical acclaim heaped on such a deeply flawed show grated on me. I didn't watch the second season because I just didn't think the first was good enough to justify the viewing However, having a bit of downtime, I decided to catch up on the second season and see what had happened so far, and if the show was able to truly live up to its reputation. In short, the answer is no, but it is better than year one.

The first scene of the second season was probably the best scene in the whole series. We're down in an odd bunker-type place and all of a sudden The Mamas and the Papas' 'Make Your Own Kind of Music' starts playing and we see a guy going about his daily routine. Great music choice and just a really surreal way to open the season.

The first three episodes of the season are all pretty good, revolving around the opening of the hatch and the discovery of this compound. There's some nice shifting of chronology, building up the tension around the showdown between Jack and Locke for three episodes. This is the kind of thing that probably plays better watching it all in one go, and could seem annoying spread out over multiple episodes. Down in the hatch, they discover a whole bunch of strange stuff, my favorite of which is the button and Dharma Initiative film. The button raises a lot of philosophical issues. I'm sure eventually we'll see what happens when they don't push the button, and already Michael has potentially screwed things up by reprogramming the computer.

The best thing in the entire series is the Dharma Initiative film. Even though I would have liked to see them spring for real 16mm film instead of just doing a filter in post, it's still very cool and raises a lot of questions about what the island is and what this whole Dharma Initiative entails. I always enjoy 'black science,' experiments taken too far, exploring the limits of peoples' mental endurance, and I liked the reference to BF Skinner, of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. So, there's a lot of potential with that.

Unfortunately, there's still a fundamental flaw in the show, and that's its structure. With over 15 main characters, it makes absolutely no sense to spend half the episodes on flashbacks. You may say that they need to spend time on the flashbacks because otherwise they're going to run out of stories to do on the island, however that's pretty ridiculous. If you run out of stories on the island, end the show, or have them get rescued and then you can do all the land-based drama you want. However, at this point, the flashbacks are just a waste of time.

But it's not just the screentime that bothers me, the flashbacks are symptomatic of the show's whole approach to narrative and characterization. A longform narrative, no matter how well planned, is something that has to grow and evolve over the course of its run, and that growth is usually guided by how the characters change as a result of the events they experience. However, rather than choosing to develop the characters through the events they experience, the producers have chosen to do so through these flashbacks, revealing what their lives were like before they got to the island.

This choice is quite idiotic. The first flashbacks episodes for everyone were pretty interesting, but at this point, how many times can we watch a series of awful events happen to characters in the past. How many more bad things are there left for Locke or Jack to go through at this point? But more importantly, in theory, the whole point of the show is to demonstrate how these people's lives change as a result of their experience on the island. For most of these people, whatever bad stuff happened to them in the past should pale in comparison to the fact that they're stranded on an island!

This is symptomatic of two major problems with the series. One is that the island is just too comfortable. Other than the stuff with the Tailaways, there's no real sense of danger or any real sense of deprivation. Everyone has good looking clothes, plenty of food and generally just seems to spend their days hanging around. So, it's like any other TV show. Considering how little this crash seems to have affected their lives, the show might as well be set in an apartment building. Consider finding the hatch. Yes, it's a major thing in terms of fighting this guy and the button and stuff, but other than the one scene with Kate and the candy bar, there's been very little dwelling on the creature comforts it provides. People should be ecstatic at finding the record player, considering they never thought they'd hear another piece of music in their lives. Obviously, this could be overdone, but I think it's worth doing because it's something that only this show could do.

Also, maybe they're saving it for future seasons, but I want things to get a little bit more Lord of the Flies. They're so caught up in their own plots, why not have a food shortage on the island, creating serious question about the viability of supporting more than forty people. This would turn everyone against each other and put the leaders in an uncomfortable position, something that would lead to a lot of dramatic intrigue. But even without going that extreme, let's show a bit of strain for these people, if they just wanted to do a show set on the beach, you've got plenty of it in California.

The other big problem demonstrated by the flashbacks is the fact that the show approaches narrative and character development like a puzzle. Everything is a question, "What's up with the hatch," "Why is Locke so mysterious," and the answers lie somewhere in the past. This is the sort of thing that works well for a film, where you can build a narrative around a central question, resolve it and leave. However, in TV, you end up with a lot of teasing, and a sort of dance with the audience of trying to keep secrets while still holding their attention, and ultimately this dance always falls apart.

A much sounder way to build a series is to allow it to get push forward by character development. Once again, I've got to say, they're on a goddamn island, shouldn't this be changing their lives massively. Yet, there's very little strong character development, pretty much everyone is just the way they were at the beginning of the show, with some of the edge shaved off, as is typical of characters on a longform series. Everyone moves a bit more towards a bland, likable center. Nobody has been heavily altered by their island experience, and that's because the producers are obsessed with showing us where these people have been, and if you're constantly focusing on how someone became who they are today, you're going to forgot about changing them into someone different tomorrow.

The nadir of the season is Shanon's death. One of the major issues never really discussed in the show is sex on the island. At this point, people are probably realizing they're not leaving, and as far as we know, it's been forty lonely days for most everyone on the island. Yet, this is never mentioned, nor are the practicalities of birth control, and such. In six, sex is finally had, between Shanon and Sayid. I believe they got together around episode 18 of last season. Shanon appeared in two episodes before six, and had, I believe, one scene with Sayid. So, this was clearly a deep, challenging relationship. This is the sort of thing where the time spent on flashbacks could be better used showing us some of what's up with Shanon and Sayid, rather than only going to them when something bad happens and expecting us to care.

Joss Whedon frequently used the start relationship, then die motif. However, he usually earned it. When Tara was killed, it was devestating. However, the death of Shanon is just sort of there. Despite the best efforts of that episode to make us care for her, it's not enough. The whole point of making a TV show is long term development, you can't take a stereotype, show some bad stuff happen to her and expect us to be sad when she dies. Pulling a Joss only works if you've earned it through character development. Lost did not earn it in this case.

Enough negativity however, it's clear that this is a deeply, deeply flawed show. Yet, there's still a lot of good stuff going on. I really enjoyed the B plot with Sawyer, Michael and Jin journeying back to the camp. Jin is really interesting, the language barrier makes him inherently fun to watch and Sawyer is the closest thing this show has to a Spike. Mr. Eko is excellent as well, I particularly enjoyed the stuff with him and Locke once they make it back to the camp. Also, episode 7, with the tailaways, was fantastic. I loved the end, which showed how all the stuff we'd already seen fit together in the bigger the picture.

The show falls into a catergory I've mentioned before, deeply flawed, but inherently watchable. The show goes down easy, even as it's constantly frustrating me. I think that's because it has so much potential to be great and yet it never quite makes it. Yet, they always give you just enough to string you along. And even watching it in one chunk, it's obvious that the show moves at a glacial pace. Nothing much happens for episodes on end, and when you don't bother with character development, that's actually a problem.


Benjamin said...

It's funny, I went back to Season One for a quick glance and quite a bit of shine had peeled off. What I once considered the best opening I'd ever seen now seemed just a little off, a little less gripping. This season I've enjoyed a lot more, but I definitely see where you're coming from. I happen to enjoy the Flashback set-up, mainly because I'm waiting for the big "Oh, we've been watching you your entire lives" reveal and I'll be able to piece together every single bit of their lives and how it lead them to the island. (That's why I loved the toy plane in S1. I was all, "No, that's what's so cool! THE PLANE LITERALLY PUT HER ON THE ISLAND." So I love that kind of stuff about the flashbacks. It's weird but a lot of the character development seems to have happened when I wasn't looking. Sawyer, Jack, Kate, are all completely different people now and I sort of didn't realize when that happened. Which is nice. Same goes for Sun and Jin. God damn, they just own that show.

Patrick said...

Sun and Jin are definitely my favorite characters, and they've still got a lot of interesting directions to go, Jin's already changed a lot from how he was at the beginning of the show.

I haven't seen the start of season one for a while, so it's possible the characters changed more than I thought, but it still feels like no one's been really dramatically altered, there's been some gradual evolution, but I feel like the experience they're going through would have caused at least one of these people to have a major identity crisis. Locke clearly did, but it all happened before we met him, so the chance to see him change only happened in the backstory.

I'll admit a lot of my criticism is more about what's not there than what is. As it is, it's a very entertaining, but highly flawed show.

Ellenore said...

Finally, someone else who agrees with me! Every episode of Lost generally has one moment of greatness that shows me how good the show could be. Aside from that moment, however, Lost is pretty thoroughly mediocre.

I'd love to see what Joss or David Lynch could do with a show like this.

the clap said...

I really liked the Dharma Initiative movie too- the music in the background really did it for me. And the first sequence in the second season was absolutely brilliant. I was convinced that Desmond was some guy who had been stuck down the hatch since the 70s, what with the hair, the music, and the outfit.

I just sat around last weekend and watched the entire series for the first time, and I think the pacing problems that a lot of people find in the show aren't quite so glaring when you're watching it back to front. Not waiting a week at a time really cuts down on the frustration.

My own biggest disappointment with the show is that there's too much going on, not too little, and I though JJ Abrams made the same mistake with Alias. He seems to like setting up intricate and surreal plotlines and then waiting well beyond the point of plausibility to resolve them, or not resolving them at all and just hoping the audience has forgotten. Personally, if I was on that island, I'd be damned concerned about finding out what the murderous plume of smoke is, just like I would've been a little more concerned about the Big Red Ball than Sidney Bristow ever was in the second season. Maybe long-arc TV is better suited for shows like Babylon 5 and The Sopranos, in which everything's laid out in front of you, than stuff like Lost and Alias, where you can either (a) stall on revealing the big secrets, and risk the audience losing interest, or (b) reveal freely, and have to reinvent the entire show every so often.

The experiments you mention were done by Stanley Milgram, not B. F. Skinner, by the by, but even though I don't think Milgram's mentioned in the orientation film, the nods to him elsewhere in the show are nifty. Also, nice site.

Patrick said...

The Clap, I'd definitely agree. I think when pitching a show, you want to sell the network on the idea that people will have to keep coming back every week, and that's why a lot of shows are structured around mysteries. It's easier to sell a cliffhanger based around a question, like "What's up with the island" or "Who killed Lily Kane,"than to sell something like The Sopranos where you come back every week because you care that much about finding out what happens in the characters' lives. That's tougher to quantify, becuase you can't guarantee that people will care about the characters.

As for comparisons to Alias, I'd agree. Both shows continually tease you with the sense that there's some huge masterplan behind everything, even as it gradually becomes apparent that they're just making it up as they go. The thing that bothers me is that Abrams and Lindleof continually said we're not going to make the same mistakes as Twin Peaks or The X-Files, yet interviews indicate that a lot of what they're doing is throwing a bunch of cool stuff and seeing what sticks.

And you're right on Milgram, what was Skinner then, the shock experiment?