Saturday, July 18, 2009

Going to San Diego

Today, I’m leaving the East coast to head out to California to do some filming for our Grant Morrison documentary at the San Diego Comicon. As a long time comics/film/TV fan, this is essentially the biggest event I could ever attend. I’d always wanted to get to San Diego at some point, and this year it just happened.

I’ve got a pretty busy schedule of interviews set up, with some really cool people, for the Grant project. Beyond that, I’m hoping to get to the Lost panel, the Joss panel and the Dr. Who panel, and see if the biggest con in the world means the biggest values in the world when it comes to buying some trades. I’ve heard that San Diego is so huge you can’t even comprehend it, so I’ll see if it lives up to that reputation. Either way, I’ll be out in California for ten days, after the ultra crappy weather here for the past few months, that’ll be nice.

So, look for reports out of San Diego, during if I’ve got time, or a big compilation after. And, also hopefully my computer battery will be strong enough that I can do my writeup of the last Lost episodes on the plane. Short take is the finale was amazing, probably the series’ second best episode behind “Live Together, Die Alone,” but with one glaring error, the inexplicable motivations of Juliet. More on that soon.

And, if you’re at San Diego and have something to say about Grant Morrison, shoot me an e-mail and we can schedule a time to shoot with you.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Lost: 5x05-5x13

This batch of Lost episodes takes us through some of my favorite material the show has ever done, as well as some slightly frustrating stuff. But, in general I’m loving the 70s era stuff, and the turns that the show has taken in this season.

There’s two primary threads in this batch of episodes, one is the tracking of how the Oceanic Six make it back to the island, and the other follows the island based characters as they join up with the Dharma Initiative. I’ll start out with the mainland stuff, since I found that much more poorly executed, and a generally lackluster end to the Oceanic Six arc.

The mainland stuff that worked best was Locke’s journey around the globe in “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham.” After turning the wheel of time, in a really cool scene, he met up with Widmore, who once again casts doubt on who’s the “good guy” and who’s the “bad guy” in his ongoing feud with Ben. We’re inclined to side with Ben, simply because we’ve spent so much more time with him, but ultimately neither of them seems particularly reputable. The introduction of the third group of people, the new crash survivors raises even more questions.

But, that stuff is all so hypothetical, it’s hard to say anything definitive about it. The factions battle over the island, almost like gods, while our characters suffer or prosper at their hands in the middle of it. The Locke episode was one of the most downbeat and atmospheric episodes the show has ever done. I don’t think it’s one of the series’ strongest episodes, but it worked well as a trial for Locke, he passed through suffering on the mainland and is now reborn on the island, his quest vindicated.

The problem with the episode for me was more in how it relates to “316.” “Bentham” seemed entirely about the characters telling Locke he’s insane to want to go back to the island, but in “316” they all go back, seemingly of their own volition. I get why Jack is going back, his life has gone to hell and he blames it all on leaving the island. But, even after her spotlight episode, I don’t get why Kate went back. What is her plan for rescuing Claire, and if she did go back for Claire, why isn’t she looking for her at all?

The structural decision to not say why anyone went back to the island doesn’t make much sense, and I doubt we’ll get a full explanation for why Hurley chose to go back before the season ends. It makes particularly little sense for them all to have such a turnabout after utterly rejecting Locke’s entreaty. It felt like the writers decided this mainland stuff was over, so everyone just went back all of a sudden, logic be damned. Maybe more attempts to clarify the motivation will happen in the next few episodes, but after so much stuff with the Six, it didn’t feel totally motivated for them to return. There’s a lot of playing with “destiny” and what the island wants, and in this case that feels like a shortcut replacing real character motivation.

“316” did have a really downbeat, palpable atmosphere, but the illogical character beats were what I ultimately took away from the episode.

But, part of my frustration with going back to the six, and particularly Jack and Kate, is that it means time away from the people on the island, who are by far the most interesting characters at this point, and their entry in to the Dharma Initiative is one of the most fun episodes in the series’ history. As longtime readers probably noticed, I have a massive affection for the Dharma material, going back to the very first Pierre Chang video, which I still think is the best three minutes in the entire series. So, to see the full operation in its glory days is great.

“LaFleur” features many great moments, as we see Sawyer’s continued rise to leader, alongside his co-pilot Juliet. I love the dynamic that’s developed between the two of them, which comes to fruition in the great scene on the dock, where Sawyer sells her on staying on the island for a while, even though she’s wanted to do nothing but leave for the past three years. He and Juliet are great because there’s very little of the will they, won’t they drama of the Jack/Kate/Sawyer triangle. There’s not the constant posturing for position. Without Jack on the island, Sawyer is the undisputed alpha male, and that means he doesn’t have to be as over the top as Jack was, he knows that Juliet will support him, and they can run things together.

This leads to the seamless jump from Sawyer selling her on staying on the island, to three years later, where everyone is living a basically happy life. I found myself wanting to see even more of that three year gap, to just stay in this world forever, where LaFleur runs things, and lives with Juliet and everyone’s happy. There’s that old adage that happy people is boring, but I just love the world of Dharma so much, and it’d be great to discover it through the eyes of our characters. Thankfully, it looks like we’ll get a glimpse into upper management through the eyes of Farraday in an upcoming episode.

Hanging out in the world of Dharma, everything’s chill and times are good, so it didn’t please me much to see Jack and Kate turn up, to mess with the perfect setup and domestic bliss of Sawyer and Juliet. It’s weird how you find yourself invested in certain characters and couples on a TV show. Why do I care so much about Sawyer and Juliet together? What makes that important to me as a viewer of the show? A lot of it is the maturity of the characters, and the quiet dynamic between them. Juliet is easily the most interesting female character on the series, carrying a moral complexity and demeanor that Sun and Kate can’t match. And her being with Sawyer calms him down and makes him grow a lot, as he tells Kate later on.

So, with my affection for them, I was glad to see that Jack and Kate’s return to the island didn’t ruin their relationship, or lead to a lot of adolescent bickering. Jack and Kate seem totally out of their depth, and wind up essentially ruining the life that everyone has here. It’s interesting to consider that this show is called Lost, but now that the Six have chosen to come back to the island, what does the endgame become? Getting ‘rescued’ isn’t enough, the search for happiness ceases to be connected to a specific end, and becomes a more general existential journey. So, maybe in the Dharma Initiative Juliet and Sawyer were rescued. Juliet got the kind of community she was originally promised, while Sawyer was able to reinvent himself and become a better man, unencumbered by his past. He’s left behind the Sawyer name, the mark of the man who shaped him into a con artist who couldn’t show his real feelings, and became someone else.

That makes the discussion between Kate and Cassidy on the mainland feel so off. The Sawyer they talk about isn’t the character we’re watching now, and I don’t think that he jumped off the plane because he couldn’t face being with her. Cassidy in particular seems to cast her own, justifiably negative, view of Sawyer on to Kate.

I’ve talked a lot about the divide in complexity between characters who were added later in the series and ones who were there from the beginning. At this point, Sawyer and Locke have been reinvented and grown into characters just as complex as the new batch, while we’ve shed Lost 1.0 characters like Charlie and Claire, but pretty much all the Oceanic Six still feel tied to the archetypal roles they had in the show’s original conception. Sayid and Sun have suffered from some inconsistent development, and the lack of a long enough focus to really propel their own narrative forward. Sun smacking Ben with the oar is a fun moment, but beyond getting Jin back, it’s hard to say what her agenda is. Sayid gets put through the same torture beats again and again, though I did love the tripped out truth serum scene where he reveals that he’s from the future. That leaves Jack and Kate as the most frustrating characters because they still suck up so much screen time, but just don’t feel as real as the best characters on the show.

Anyway, the reappearance of young Ben kicks the narrative back into forward motion after the sojourn at Dharma town. These episodes, particularly “Dead is Dead” give us a lot of insight into the history of the Others and the development of Ben into the person he became. I’m curious about the idea that he lost his “innocence” by being healed in the temple. Locke tells Ben that they’re going under the temple, not into it, which is where the smoke monster resides. What resides in the temple itself? Perhaps the island demands a sacrifice in order to heal Ben, in the same way that Locke had to sacrifice Boone to continue his ascend to ruler of the island status.

That episode followed up on the interesting stuff with Sun and Lapidus meeting Jack’s dad in the abandoned Dharma cabins. What is Jack’s dad at this point? Is he actually reborn, or is he just a manifestation of the island’s will, in the same way that Alex is for Ben? The stuff with Sun looking at the picture of all the contemporary characters at the Dharma camp reminded me a lot of the end of The Shining, raising the question of the island as a mystical space that requires people to fulfill specific roles.

Ben forces Widmore to leave the island because Widmore spent too much time on the mainland. The island has specific rules, and those who believe in it most seem to get the most out of it. You could argue that the reason Sawyer, Miles and Juliet and are so happy for three years is because they chose to stay on the island and follow its will. By leaving the island often, Widmore broke the covenant with the island, and could no longer be its leader.

Has Ben broken his covenant by moving the island? Perhaps, rather than rule the island, Ben must now serve Locke. I think there were some effects issues with the incorporation of old clips inside the smoke monster, but I loved Alex appearing and yelling at Ben, telling him to follow Locke. And the Smoke Monster’s lair raises questions about just how long this island has been around, and how many regime changes it’s had.

I’m guessing that at least some of next season will delve even deeper into the history of the island, perhaps finally showing us the origin of Richard Alpert, and where this statue comes from. The statue seems to have major significance to the new group of people on the island, who seem to have come there by design, in the same way that the Oceanic Six did. How did they know that all the Six would be on the plane? Are they in cahoots with Ben, or an independent group?

So, there’s many questions out there, and the happy days of Dharma for Juliet and Sawyer seem on the verge of crumbling. But, at least we got one more comparatively light episode there, “Some Like it Hoth,” which featured some funny time travel material, and at last, an extended spotlight on Pierre Chang, who’s confirmed to be Miles’s father. I think Miles is one of the most fun and interesting characters on the show, so it was great to see him get the chance to do a bit more than usual. Some of the flashback stuff fell into the contrived beats that old flashbacks did, but I loved the scene with him, Hurley and Chang driving around, and the promise of a possible beer together. Chang has become such an iconic figure through the movies that pretty much anything he does is of interest to me.

I’d have loved to spend even more time in the world of Dharma, but it looks like it’s almost at an end. I’ve got four episodes left to go, then I’ll be all caught up and looking at a six month wait for the final season. I’ll probably wrap the season tomorrow, then write up those last episodes, stay tuned.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Lost: 5x01-5x04

Lost’s fifth season throws off the last shackles of the series’ strictly divided flashback or flashforward structure and establishes a two pronged narrative, partially on the mainland, partially on the island, with the island half doing its own journey through time, sending the characters backwards and forward through the island’s own history. It’s a fantastic device, giving us the opportunity to explore a lot more of the island’s own history, and give the characters still on the island something new to deal with. However, the series is once again suffering to some extent from the problem it had during the first three seasons, and that’s a disparity of interest between the two narratives. In the past, it was the flashbacks that didn’t work so well, now it’s the 2007 mainland stuff that’s got me wanting to jump out and over the other storyline.

More on that later, for now let me just praise the dizzying journey that was the season premiere. The opening sequence is a great riff on the now iconic “Make Your Own Kind of Music” Desmond introduction, finally bringing legendary Dharma video host Marvin Candle/Pierre Chang out of the confines of old VHS tapes and 16mm film and into the glorious clarity of the show’s reality. I still think the first orientation film in “Orientation” is the series’ finest moment, raising possibilities I’m still waiting to be fully realized three seasons later.

What that video sketched out was a vision of the Dharma Initiative as a utopian, forward thinking organization that also had a strong undertone of menace. I’m still waiting to see the full story of the Dharma group, to see the people depicted in that video, and understand what went into the creation of the Initiative in the first place. The teaser here in the first episode indicates that our characters will soon find their way there, and we’ll get greater insight into the glory days of the Dharma Initiative. But, not so much yet.

The island story so far this season is easily the strongest the show has ever been. After teasing so many events in the island’s past, it’s really exciting to travel back through all these eras. The Dharma era is the one that interests me most, but the stop in the 50s, to see the Others in conflict with the US army has a lot of good stuff as well. It’s a great structural device to allow us to simultaneously get background history/exposition filled in, and keep our present day characters moving forward in their own stories.

I’ve always enjoyed time travel stories, and it seems that the series is sticking to the Invisibles model of time travel, which is that every movement through time has already happened, so you can’t actually change anything, you do things that you do because you already did them in the past. It’s a view of time which essentially denies the idea of any kind of present, all time exists as what Morrison in The Invisibles called the “allnow.” So, Richard can send his own compass from the future back to the past with Locke so that Richard from the 50s can show it to young Locke in the 60s. I like seeing how seemingly random elements like Richard’s appearance in Locke’s past now becomes something motivated and more significant.

This season flows seamlessly out of season four, a contrast to the semi-reboot feel of seasons two and three. Each season has its own distinct feel, but the narrative link between this and season four feels tighter than say the jump to the world of the Others in season three, or the structural switch in season four. It gives the impression that the creators had a much tighter plan when building these last three seasons, so scenes from Locke’s flashback last season can link together in a way that we can’t expect the glimpsed Claire giving birth scene to tie with the present.

It’s become more apparent as the show goes on that the real core character is the Island itself. I thought that the flashbacks felt pointless because of their narrative disconnect from the rest of the show, but seeing the off island stuff here, I felt a similar disinterest next to the island action. The Island not only serves as the narrative hub, it’s what makes characters more interesting. The closer a character gets to the mysterious force that is the Island, the more interesting they become, though I suppose that could simply be a function of my love for the quasi-religious force that the Island exerts over the characters.

The reason that people like Claire and Charlie, or even Sayid or Jin never felt essential to the show is that they had no real role to play in the drama of the Island itself, which in the wake of the Widmore/Linus revelations, has become increasingly the main focus of the series. Those characters didn’t have the mystical revelations that Locke, Ben or Desmond did, so even when they’re at the center of the narrative, they don’t feel as central to the show as even someone like Faraday or Miles does here. The characters had some strong moments, but they’re not what makes the show so distinct.

It’s widely acknowledged that most of the show’s best characters were introduced in the show’s later seasons, and that makes sense since the real narrative of the show only came to the fore in the later days. The show isn’t about wanting to leave the island now, it’s about controlling the island, or understanding the Island, with the Island itself functioning as an all purpose metaphor for that which beyond traditional human understanding, be it God or some other divine force. So, characters like Ben, Richard or Desmond are all more attuned to that understanding of the show than the earlier conception of an island filled with a myriad of horrors.

The off island action here isn’t anywhere near as bad as the flashbacks of yore, but it focuses on two characters who have become increasingly frustrating to watch, Jack and Kate. The ostensible stars of the show, I find them far less compelling than pretty much anyone else on the show. Jack is interesting sometimes, as when he came into conflict with Locke in last year’s finale, but the stuff here feels like plot mechanics playing to move the story along, and I’m not looking forward to Jack’s return to the island, simply because I think the character dynamics there are much more interesting without him.

Kate is another character the writers have struggled with over the years, they never can seem to agree on whether she’s a damsel in distress or a totally capable fighter. Here, she’s stuck with the most boring female plot line possible, the transformation into a mother. Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting to see Hurley or Jack struggling to raise a kid, and Kate just slipping away on the boat, never turning herself in and facing prosecution? It just seems like the most obvious way to spin the character, and I’ve got no emotional investment in her connection to Aaron, who she never really dealt with on the island. I also don’t buy the woman who burned every bridge she ever had deciding all of a sudden to settle down and become a suburban mom. It doesn’t make much sense, and was never given any real motivation. There seems to be a big deal being made about Kate wanting to keep Aaron despite the fact that he’s not really her son, but I just don’t have any investment in it.

The other vexing thing about the off island stuff is that hanging around with this batch of characters has taken away a lot of the evangelical fervor that made Ben so compelling last season and turned him into more of a generic trickster manipulator bad guy. I loved him and Locke competing for the affection of Jacob last year, but the more power he has, the less interesting he is. In season two, imprisoned in a room, or season four, subject to Locke’s leadership, he’s easily the most interesting character on the series. But, as here, or at the start of season three, when he’s already in total control, his manipulation has no real end. There’s some interesting stuff with him, particularly the meeting with Ms. Hawking, but I want to see him get back to the island, or at least perhaps interact with Locke after Locke gets off the island and becomes ‘Jeremy Bentham.’

But, there’s some good stuff on the mainland too. I really liked the stuff with Hurley and his parents, and his crumbling belief in the effectiveness of the Oceanic Six lie. He’s the only character to actually have supportive parents, even if it means a recasting of his dad from child abandoner to nice guy. I don’t necessarily mind that since it seems like a natural growth of the events we saw in “Tricia Tanaka is Dead,” and it’s a lot more interesting than hitting the same bad dad beats again. But, in general, the on island action is more interesting.

At this point, the on island characters are all much more engaging than the people on the mainland. Sawyer continues his growth, and his grief over surviving while he believes Kate died is sublimated by some extent to his and Juliet’s ascension as the alpha leaders of the remaining survivors. Sawyer is a much more compelling leader than Jack, and I really like the interaction between him and Juliet. Juliet knows the sacrifice he made so that the others could escape, and she respects him for that, she’s willing to comfort him as he suffers through his pain. Juliet remains the most fascinating female character on the show, still carrying a bit of mystery, but also a strong, independent leader. I forsee a relationship between her and Sawyer, which makes sense, both of them feel so much more mature and centered than Kate or Jack, and I’d be glad to see them end the quadrangle once and for all.

The freighter people have also become some of the most interesting characters on the show. We get hints that both Charlotte and Miles have been on the island a lot longer than previously expected. Daniel is definitely the center, particularly in the episode where he negotiates the burial of the hydrogen bomb in the 50s, but Miles adds good color. They’re all pretty compelling characters.

The revelation that Widmore was on the island as a younger man is perhaps the key piece of information revealed by the trips through time. It sets up why he’s in such conflict with Ben over the island, and also makes clear the central conflict that’s raged throughout time, between the Others and invaders to the Island. In this case, those invaders are British and American armed forces, later on it will be the Dharma Initiative, and even later, the castaways.

The conflict invariably seems to end in the absorption of some of the invaders into the group of Others, while the rest are destroyed. That’s how it went with these army people, and later with the Dharma group. The wheels are moving to set up the return of Jack, and all the characters forming a unified front against a grand invasion by Widmore, and perhaps a series finale that has them take up permanent residence as the new Others.

But, we’re not there yet. For now, the show is rolling along. On the whole, this season has been top notch, really expansive and mind bending in ways the show has only hinted at before.