Monday, March 29, 2010

Lost - 6x07-6x09

I was traveling, and then sick, so I haven't been able to post reviews of the last few Lost episodes. So, I want to do a post to sum up some of my feelings about the series at this point, and my hopes and fears about the rest of the season.

Lost, like a lot of other works that have a fanatically devoted fanbase (think Star Wars or Evangelion), has a lot written about it, but very little objective analysis of the quality of the work. So much of it is centered around the series' internal mythos that more general looks at what does and doesn't work in the storytelling doesn't really happen. With this series, so much of the dialogue centers around what answers we'll get and how new revelations integrate with what we've seen before. It's more of a puzzle approach to criticism, while I feel like the focus on answers excuses some of the series' more basic problems.

To me at least, the show never became frustrating because it didn't reveal answers. If you just want the answers, wait until May and read a Wikipedia page. The show became frustrating, both in the early years, and in this season because it has characters struggling with mysteries and nothing else. The creators are fond of saying that this is really a character based series, but the storytelling doesn't support that. The show has generally been most successful on a conceptual level, and frustrating on a character level, since devices like the flashbacks, or the flash sideways, lead to a notion of character that is inherently contrary to ongoing serial storytelling.

The universe of Lost has always been based around revealing secrets, be it the drawn out revelations about the nature of the island, or the way that the flashbacks ostensibly revealed the true nature of the characters on the island. The problem with that has always been that I feel like most of these people are going to be more affected by being stranded on an island than by the small scale slights that happened to them on the mainland. Characters should grow and change over the course of the series, and that's why the flashbacks were a structural failure. I'd argue the show would have been more interesting if we never saw the flashbacks at all and had to speculate about who the people on island were, or had it revealed in season four when everybody made it back to the main land.

The biggest problem with the flashbacks was the implication that they were a satisfying way to pay off the audience's need for character development, allowing the on island time to focus more on mythology questions. In stereotypical terms, the flashbacks, or current flash sideways, are there for the female or casual viewer who doesn't really care about the island, while the on island stuff, with its action and mythos is for men or more committed viewers. This strict division has reached its apex this year, where most of the characters have no arcs at all on island and the island material is heavily intellectual, with most emotion restricted to the flash sideways.

Now, yes, there's some arcs happening on island. Sawyer's gone through some stuff, as has Smoke Locke and Jack, but other than that, everybody's basically sitting around waiting for stuff to happen. Why not devote some time to giving character arcs to people like Miles and Ben, who haven't done much at all this year. Ben is particularly frustrating since he was the propulsive causal engine for the show in seasons three and four, but hasn't been doing much this year. Take him out of this season, or take Lapidus, Sun, Miles, Ilana and Kate out of this season and what changes? Not too much, and that's not good writing.

This really frustrates me since I felt like season five did a fantastic job of servicing all the characters in a satisfying way, and still progressing the mythology stuff in a way that felt integrated with the emotions of the story. Even something like the love quadrangle issues surrounding the nuke were a bit hackneyed, but gave that story an emotional resonance that led to arguably the most emotional moment in the whole series, Juliet's fall down the hole.

That said, some of the concepts and ideas of the season are amazing, I love the idea behind the Jacob/Man in Black conflict, and the way it resonates with things we've seen throughout the series. It's a great narrative engine to bring all the characters together and lead to a big climax. It's also strange and surreal in a way that TV shows so rarely are.

I really dug the Richard episode, and a lot of the Sawyer episode. But, it's frustrating for me to see no one really analyzing the significant structural and emotional flaws in the series. Character based storytelling can't be just telling a random ten minute story about a different version of the character from the series. Character based storytelling is telling stories that derive from characters doing things, and dealing with the consequences of their actions, and sadly, the on island stuff right now is pretty much the opposite of that.

So, I guess what I want to see is more objective analysis of the structural elements of the series, and the way that the series is dealing with character and emotional issues, rather than reviews that just focus on the answers, or saying the season sucks. With shows like this, with a really committed fan base, it's hard to do that objective analysis, but surely there must be someone else out there feeling the same frustrations with the show as I am, who's still loving elements of the show, but just wishes it could be better.


suncore598 said...

I loved the Richard Albert episode too (did you get the feeling of the Fountain from that episode?) and the Ben episode with that emotional scene in which Ben tries to explain himself to Illana. I'm also looking forward to how the rest of the conflict with the MIB unfolds in the final episodes.

From all your Lost reviews I've read, I've noticed you have some personal thoughts on what way the show should taken when you're talking about this episode or that episode. Tell me (and this is something I tend to ask about other shows in the threads I've written on Trek Nation), what would you have done differently if you were put in charge of Lost?

Patrick said...

Lost is a show where I often love it conceptually, but not on the execution level, so I'd love to have to had a chance to do my own take on it. Now they took it in some directions that I never would have gone that proved awesome, but there's certain things I think would have made the show more satisfying.

In the first season, I'd have first off, not had so many random people after the crash, just keep it to the main cast, that would make the emergence of the tailies more exciting, and make it more plausible that they could survive with the resources they had.

I also think the series basically squandered a fantastic premise. I think you could do a great show about people struggling to survive on an island, that's not what this is about. But, I always wanted to see a more Lord of the Flies style thing, with people struggling to find food, and dealing more realistically with having to create a new civilization on the island. They dealt with this briefly in the early years, but I think it's rich territory that was never really exploited. Everybody still looks good and has clean clothes after several years on the island, that shouldn't be.

The invention of the hatch, though it led to some great stories, basically ended any pretense of the show being about people struggling with living on an island since they now have access to a seemingly limitless food supply, a shower, etc.

But, that's a different show, and not the one they wanted to do, and with that structure, you'd never have the Dharma Initiative or the time travel stuff or many of the other great stories.

The larger structural thing I would change in the series is the use of cross cutting and multiple chronologies. The show has a huge cast, but a lot of them often aren't serviced very well, and I'd replace the achronological elements with more on island subplots and character beats. I think the Lost writers struggle to write meaningful human interaction a lot of the time, so many plots along these lines (think Sayid/Sharon or Charlie goes bad) didn't work, but I'd love to see a more ensemble structure and more characters getting stuff to do other than just sitting or standing around.

Everyone has a great story happening to them, it's just a matter of finding it. On a show like The Sopranos or The Wire, they managed even bigger casts and never left you feeling like you weren't getting enough of someone. But, on Lost, I often do want more of certain characters who get nothing to do.

And, perhaps the biggest thing, would be focusing on character development as a function of present day events, not pieces of the puzzle from past experiences. Do that, and I think you'd have a much stronger show.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment on your points, Patrick.

I find myself agreeing with what you've said here and part of the reason I think is the writers' insistence on fitting the story into an pre-existing structure. So, you tend you focus on the characters on-island primarily when they have a flashback/sideways.

This leads to the clever cuts between the two such as Sun hitting her head and cutting to her waking in bed with Jin, or Jin being led away, cutting with him in Widmore's custody. Nice touches, but it means that for long stretches at a time you get very little focus on a particular character, then for it all to be bunched together in one episode. Often they also try to mirror or contrast the situation of a character on island and off island.

If they just let the island story tell itself, without the need to focus on one particular character on island becaue it's their falshback week or try flashy narrative tricks, the story might be more fluid and organic, instead of the somewhat forced feel it sometimes has.

Patrick said...

I definitely agree with that, focusing on one character intensely for an episode then letting them drift off for a bit can work, as in one of my all time favorite TV seasons, Sopranos season five, which for a lot of the season would focus on one or two characters intensely in each episode.

The big difference there was that there wasn't the cross cutting gimmick diluting the character progress, so instead of those 'clever' juxtapositions, you got real insight and forward momentum. And, it felt more organic than Lost, where you're so conditioned to expect a certain character to be in the spotlight in a given episode.

I just wish they would save the structural elements like flashbacks or flash sideways for episodes where it really works. Episodes like 'The Man Behind the Curtain' or 'Greatest Hits' are infinitely better because of the flashbacks, but the obligatory nature of the atemporal chronology means there's a lot of episodes saddled with that structure even though it has no real point.

Anonymous said...

WTF Patrick? The flashbacks are for women and the action is for the male viewers?

I've been following your posts for a long time but you really lost me with this one.

Patrick said...

I prefaced that with "in stereotypical terms," I'm saying that's likely how the creators pitched it to the network, both back in the beginning of the show and with the new alt-verse stories, not that I think that's what actually appeals to either audience.