Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lost: One More Time

TV used to be the most mass of mass media, but in the past ten years or so, it’s splintered into niches. And, with the rise of the internet, there’s a subset of people who support a bunch of ‘quality’ shows. If you believed the internet, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire and Arrested Development are the most popular shows of all time. I’ve seen most of these internet buzz shows, and loved them. For the short list, refer to shows that get weekly recaps at The House Next Door. As I make my way through Breaking Bad, I think I’ve seen every show that they do weekly recaps for. But, there’s one major one I’ve never finished, one that’s one of the most discussed shows in the blogosphere, Lost.

As I’ve mentioned on here before, Lost is a show that I’ve tried a couple of times, I watched the first season live, then ‘cancelled’ the show. After hearing how great season two was, I decided to watch again and saw about ten episodes before giving up again. The show always sounds amazing, like exactly the sort of thing I want to see, but there’s always a mess of structural issues that prevent me from enjoying it. That said, once again, hearing vague things about this most recent season that sound amazing, and after some solid recommendations, I was thinking about giving it another shot. Then, watching JJ Abrams’ Star Trek film turned me around on him, and I decided to give the show one more try, and watch it all from the beginning.

As of now, I’m twelve episodes in, and liking it, but also still feeling a lot of the issues I had with it the first time through. I first watched the show on a 13 inch TV, or my computer monitor back in college. Now, I’ve got a 58 inch HDTV, and the thing that really jumped out was how great the show looks. The locations they have are gorgeous, and put pretty much any other show on TV to shame. Even when the stories aren’t working so well, there’s some really nice stuff to look at, and the show is always shot in an exciting way.

My central complaint about the show the first time through was the narrative structure, with its reliance on flashbacks to develop the characters. For the first few episodes, I was like, why did I hate this so much? The first Kate flashback is a solid story, and “Walkabout” is still great, even knowing the end twist. Those stories do a great job of setting up the mindset of the characters, without trying to resolve everything in a neat little short story structure. Jack’s flashback works really well also, because it’s just a sketch, not an attempt to tell a whole story, and it’s a nice contrast to his persona on the island. That said, that episode is where the flashbacks start to fit a bit too neatly into the events on the island, it’s one thing to parallel the stories, but the more implicit the parallel the better.

Things go awry in the first Sayid and Sawyer flashback episodes. Sawyer’s doesn’t work because of an ending that takes away all his edge, and makes no sense. We’re supposed to believe a hard edged con man not only leaves the $160,000 he stands to make, but also his own $140,000 simply because a kid walks into a room. If he’s conning rich wives, I think he’s conned families with kids many times before. The story would have worked just as well, if not better, by having him still take the money, thus giving him somewhere to grow on the island.

Sawyer is a problematic character because he’s meant to be a morally ambiguous badass, but winds up coming off like the Fonz, a network TV idea of a bad guy, one who really has a heart of gold. At first, he seems to recognize there are no rules on this island, and he can control things if he wants, but after the lame flashback story, and his inevitable capitulation to Jack and crew, he becomes a paper tiger, with no real spine. Sawyer/Jack/Kate is a riff on the classic Spike/Angel/Buffy archetypal triangle, or the bad boy vs. good guy for morally ambiguous girl, but Sawyer is not as legitimately dangerous as Spike.

And, most of the flashbacks feel kind of same-y. The person is going along, something bad happens to them, they feel bad about it, story ends. Particularly as we enter the second round of flashbacks for characters, the flashback segments feel so unnecessary and just take away from the real reason for watching the show. The flashbacks do reveal some character details, but I’d rather see that development happen in the present, in conjunction with the forward motion of the narrative.

Now, you could argue that all these criticisms are actually part of “the plan.” The reason so many of the flashback stories feel similar is that this group of people were all chosen for a reason, they all have pain in their pasts that need to be resolved in some way on the island. That’s what’s hinted at in “Raised by Another,” where the psychic ensures that Claire was on the plane. And, perhaps there will be some mindblowing revelation that will place all the flashbacks in a new context, and make it clear why time was spent on them.

But, that gets to the core problem with the Lost viewing experience. The show is based almost entirely around questions. Why are they on the island? Who are the others? What’s in the hatch? And, that makes the actual in the moment viewing experience almost less important than the speculation about where things are going. The flashbacks are problematic because they detract from time that could be spent on present day character development that would flesh out more about people feel about their new lives on the island. I’d rather see fifteen minutes of people just living their lives in a new way each episode than spend time on the flashbacks.

And, ultimately, the answers to these questions don’t matter. A TV show is about the experience of watching it in the moment, and I think the writers here sometimes forget that. Even if it does piece together wonderfully, will my retroactive enjoyment of these episodes make up for the frustration in this moment. There’s a line between an investment in a series and just wasting your time. I enjoy the show enough in the moment to persevere, but a large part of that is my curiosity to see what happens in the newer seasons, which sound great.

Lost is all about making you ask what happens next, while I think the best TV shows are more about the why than the what. But, I’m going to stick with it, and see how things develop. I am eager to get past the episodes I’ve seen and see what went down from the backhalf of season two on.


Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick,
Yeah I think Lost is worth investing time into for the long haul.
The characterisation is broader and less precise than a lot of similar 'prestige' shows, such as Battlestar; but it often co-ordinates its increasingly massive cast better than those other ensemble shows, and as it develops it continues to give key characters fun and humane showcases.
Lost derives from a more overtly pulpy source-material and as such is seemingly more plot-orientated than comparable shows, yet as the show continues to expand its scope throughout its middle and latter seasons it becomes a versatile discussion of some pretty weird SF themes, and a well-acted exploration of almost always entertaining and occasionally surprising characters.
The flashbacks which reach tedium levels in parts of season 2 and early season 3, eventually yield to a series of structural innovations remarkable for network television as the almost encyclopediac mythos of the narrative begins to reveal itself (not to over-hype this-but the show gets beatdown a lot for some of its early experiments in story-telling).

The show is perhaps most comparable to the more mythic elements of Stephen King's output; things like IT, The Dark Tower, The Stand etc. Indeed the show makes lots of intertextual references to these works and Lindelof and Cuse (the real showrunners rather than Abrams from Season 2 onwards) are apparently involved in bring TDT to the screen after Lost concludes next year.

Now the show is far from perfect (for one it's very much a boys-own tale and very often sidelines female characters, and its storys full import cannot be judged till after the final season), but for those who see it as nothing but a tease for answers I would argue that the show develops into a convincing and overall coherent worldbulding exercise, a platform for a series of often wonderful performances, and a rare attempt at a metaphysical adventure show on mainstream television.

Also every season tries something new and at least tries to re-invent itself.

Regrading the 'answers', the show is perhaps more interested in ambiguity and imagery (like Twin Peaks and Battlestar) than it's given credit for, perhaps as a consequence of its punchier story-telling.

Patrick said...

I can definitely see the Stephen King similarities. Knowing that Lindelof and Cuse were talking about doing a Dark Tower adaptation, I saw a ton of The Stand stuff in these first few episodes. The balancing of the large cast is very novelistic.

The reason I criticize the idea that the show is all about puzzles is partially because I think, despite the flashbacks, there isn't the focus on character that Battlestar, a very similar show, has. I feel like BSG has a much more relatable response to trauma than the characters on Lost do.

The two shows are very similar structually, both following a group of people who've banded together after a trauma to try to survive. On BSG, that trauma is the major driving force behind their actions, on Lost, it feels like everyone's more preoccupied with who they were before the island than what's happened to them now. I love the flashbacks in the last couple of episodes of BSG, but they're interesting primarily in the juxtaposition of happier times with the desolation everyone has experienced since. There's no real need to know who these people were before, it's fun for an episode, but on an extended basis, as in Lost, it becomes a bit tedious.

I don't mean to harp so heavily on the flashbacks, but I really think they cripple the viewing experience, by slowing the pace of the show down to a crawl, and depriving us of more time to watch people develop on the island. Some of the flashbacks do work, like Sawyer killing the wrong guy in "Outlaws," but before that you've got the absolutely dire Charlie vomits on a copier storyline, whose juxtaposition with an otherwise exciting climax of the Ethan arc diminishes the narrative impact of the moment it's supposed to explain, Charlie shooting Ethan.

Watching a TV show, you shouldn't have to deal with the burden of 15 minutes of every episode being a distraction from the actual reason you're watching it, and in most cases, that's what the flashbacks are, a pop psychology attempt to shortcut character behavior.

And, part of the reason the flashbacks frustrate me so is that a lot of the show does work really well, and the occasional flashback would be nice. It's just that they don't fit in every episode, and the need to stick to formula is a major detriment for the show.

But, I am eager to see how the structure develops, and am sticking with the show for the long haul.

Anonymous said...

Hi again! (must set up a google ID)
Despite casual viewers and lots of the general public loving season 1 the most of all seasons, and often harping back to its supposed quality I remember my watching it at the time as being a mostly frustrating experience. I agree the flashbacks are often quite crudely constructed then, and the show seems quite timid in embracing its weirdness and/or committing to its situation.

Yet I stuck with it because the show seemed to have such promise in its conceit and much of its realisation onscreen.

I guess I fell in love with the show properly during the 'troubled' airing of season 2. The island portions seemed much bolder in embracing the weird potentials of the concept and though the flashbacks continued to strain, the show as a whole I felt continued to get more interesting.

Arguably the show never has the depth of characterisation as the high points of Battlestar do, but throughout there are consistently great and endearing performances. In those early episodes, though largely devoid of the bigger mythic beats, characters like Sun and Jin have tender low-key episodes that are enjoyable.
Yes, the characters in season 1 are sterotypes but the cues that make them warm and familiar are sometimes offbeat and subtley affecting (like a season 1 episode subplot about Sawyer needing glasses).

BSG and Lost are very similar thematically for sure and only more so as both shows continue. They're for me without a doubt the seminal SF shows of this decade.
I'm rewatching BSG from the beginning with my girlfriend and really enjoying these early seasons and I've just come off the audacious, infuriating, potentially disasterous, possibly amazing ...wait and see fifth season of Lost; and I have to say I think as a whole I prefer Lost (despite critical consensus). It just feels more consistently entertaining, surprising, coherent (?) and ambitious. Of course this could all disintegrate based on next year. Many of the reveals (and do avoid spoilers if you can) are hard to assess at the moment. This is obviously a different topic but I do also wonder apropros one of your other posts whether watching Lost from the beginning as it aired has wed me to it in a closer way than if I'd watched it in dvd?

Thanks for responding and I'm really enjoying your blog and look forward to reading further posts from you in your Lost marathon!

Anonymous said...

Let me know if you make it past season two... that is where I stopped as well. The flashbacks were to frequent for me to handle. It ruined the flow... my attention span is to small. I'll keep an eye on your blog to see if I should continue watching :) - Jon

theoldboy said...

I recently finished season one, and I had pretty much the same reaction to it as you. I'm less frustrated by the lack of timely answers than by the flashbacks' frequent ridiculousness and lack of dramatic credibility and some of the more annoyingly contrived, only-on-network-TV characters like Sawyer and Kate, who seem to have been created entirely for the purpose of looking good on Entertainment Weekly covers. I've been moved occasionally by the show, but I have to wonder if that's just because the musical score manipulatively underlines everything remotely emotional to a Spielbergian degree. There have been scattered moments of greatness, though (the pilot, the ending of Walkabout, the Locke-Boone jungle mindfuck episode, some stuff late in the season), and I'm definitely going to press on, since it allegedly deepens. But it's currently pretty far beneath Battlestar in my Good TV pantheon, which had the decency to have only one Black Market, whereas Lost seems to have one about as lame every few episodes.

Anonymous said...

I think Lost is deliberately working from a different dramatic template than Battlestar though.

Lost uses broader, more melodramatic shades to elaborate its story; and for much of the time this suits the type of story it's trying to tell which often veers toward rompish, almost comic-book adventure.
It's coming at its themes and plot from a different stylistic perspective than Battlestar and is arguably more consistent in tone than that other great show, whose tonal missteps, Black Market included, seem to stand out more in the context of the overall series.
Lost is very much like Michael Giachinno's great score on the show - unafraid to be sentimental at times, fueled by big, often clumy emotions, and open to big ideas. Yes the show is exaggerated, has many quirks or devices that are blatantly unrealistic and employed just to facilitate its brand of story-telling and so on; but I daresay these flaws become part of its charm.
Its appeal however lies with its big, bold, larger than life characters, including Sawyer who I feel you're being a little too hard on.

Characters like Sawyer are comparable to Saturday afternoon serial-heroes like Han Solo etc. rather than the the more subdued/naturalistic character studies of many similar figures like Saul Tigh or Starbuck in Battlestar.

In the brash stakes of entertainment I would currently favourably compare the MO of Lost at its best to that of Doctor Who.

Indeed early Lost is like much of Old Doctor Who to most modern viewers-full of ties with, and very close to New Who, but stalled by pacing issues, story-telling devices that stall plot and use of caricature.

Later Lost (Season 3 part 2 onwards
at the very least) is more like New Who: pretty much the same as Old in intent and design but with more vim, brio (?!), direction, stakes, emotional colouring and yes, pace.


Keith said...

I'm one of the people that recommended Patrick give Lost another try. I agree that Season 2 is the season most fraught a drop off during the mid-point, the last couple episodes ramp up the plot quite a bit. Season 3 starts off in a weird place brought on by television politics, but once it's over that hump, it's extremely high quality ending in a complete mindfudge of a finale. However, the reason to stick with Lost through wonky passages is the way that Season 4 unfolds, pushes the story forward, and envelopes the previous seasons. It's hand downs the best season of television I've ever seen and beats anything in BSG for sheer storytelling consistency and dramatic flair. Season 5 is a nerd's dream, and furthers the plot in leaps and bounds.

The problem with Lost was how popular it was early on. This put the creators and writers in a jam, cause the network would naturally want them to continue it as long as possible, which would just weaken the story. Once they got a confirmed end date during season 3, the plot has been completely focused.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Keith, love reading everyone's responses here.

And I'm even one of those 'weird' people who find something to enjoy in those notorious early episodes of Season 3!

Ok, except maybe Paolo and Nikki!

Patrick said...

I'm really eager to get to those later seasons, though I'm trying to enjoy all the stuff along the way. If you didn't catch it, there's a new post up covering through the start of season 2, here.