Thursday, March 25, 2010

"El Diablo!" - LOST's Epic Richard Origin, 24's New Mole, and Chuck's No-Kill Policy!

Some of TV's biggest, baddest shows have been fairly controversial of late, so ... let's get to it and talk about 24, Chuck, and LOST!


- I don't know, I was starting to really get into this season of 24, but then this episode came along and killed my buzz a bit. It wasn't a bad episode by any means - there was lots of action, some rare moments of humor (courtesy of Chloe), and yes, a big twist. And yet, there was a feeling that - if this was supposed to be 24's big, game-changing episode, then well, you couldn't help but feel underwhelmed at the overall state of the season.


... Dana Walsh is a mole. Ugh. Okay, let's put this in perspective. Katee Sackhoff as a badass villain is already a HUGE improvement from what she was before - an annoying distraction. At the same time, I am so sick of the character that it's just hard to care, at least right now, all that much about her turning to the dark side. It was a twist that probably had to happen for the good of the show, and yet, it also speaks to the size of the hole that 24 dug itself into with weeks of making Dana into one of TV's most reviled characters. 24 shouldn't have to play the "mole card" anymore - it's one of the show's biggest cliches, and is basically a running joke with fans. If it's going to be done, it should be ultra-dramatic, jaw-dropping. This was a mole-reveal that was less about dramatic effect and more about righting narrative wrongs. A good thing, most likely ... but, not something to get overly excited about.

Plus, that end reveal came only after we had to sit through yet more stupidity between Sackhoff and Stephen Root - aka the most persistent parole office in the history of humankind - a guy so annoying that he doesn't stop nagging about some missing street thug even in the midst of a national security crisis. Man, as much as I usually like Root, it was nice to see his character get offed. Good riddance.

Meanwhile, Jack and Cole were involved in a seemingly never-ending shoot-out with the terrorists. 24 usually does great action scenes, but this one felt a bit flat to me, like I was watching someone play a videogame shooter. The whole thing where the young redshirt dies trying to save one of his CTU colleagues was just cheesy enough to be entertaining, with Jack's assurances to the dying kid that his partner pulled through (he didn't) serving as the icing on the cake of GRAVITAS. This action sequence also led to a whole thing where Chloe was squabbling with NSA security guys at CTU about how best to get CTU's systems online. Chloe, concerned about reestablishing communication with Jack, wanted to try a faster but riskier method. All the infighting was frankly getting pretty annoying, but it led to a funny, over-the-top moment where Chloe actually pulls a gun on the NSA guy. Not quite at the level of Chloe having to go out in the field a few seasons back, but, yeah, sort of amusing.

We also saw the return of Renee after a brief absence. Her return felt a bit forced (would Chloe really call her, of all people, after all that she'd just been through?), but we'll see where it goes from here.

Overall, I am really waiting for 24 to up the ante a bit here. Last year at this time, we had rebel forces INVADING THE WHITEHOUSE, and the combined gravitas of Jack, Bill Buchanan, Tony Almeda, Kurtwood Smith, and Aaron by-god Pierce. And some great villains to boot (Tony Todd, anyone?). Flash to a year later, and the big twist involves the show's worst new character, who we all hated anyway, turning mole (a turn which barely makes sense upon thoughtful analysis to boot). A couple people told me that they thought this was an episode in which business really picked up. And hey, going into this ep, I was optimistic that things were about to get really good. Sorry though, still not sold.

My Grade: B-

- I thought CHUCK had a somewhat weak episode this week as compared to other, stronger eps of late. While there were some fun moments with Casey adjusting to his new life as a full-time civilian and Buy More employee, everything with Chuck and his first solo mission just felt pretty contrived. I mean, we know that Beckman calls the shots and that her agents are obligated to follow her orders, but the idea that Chuck might have to suddenly up and relocate to Rome was fairly out-of-nowhere. It just seems like, even at a place as crazy as the CIA, they'd at least give you a little warning when you're going to have to uproot your entire life. Plus, the whole thing where Chuck won't / can't kill anyone played out in just about the most predictable way possible. Did we really need the whole "looks like Chuck pulled the trigger, but then we pan out and see it was really Sarah" scene? Why not just have Chuck kill someone? It would make for good drama. I mean, Chuck is a CIA agent, not a superhero - it's amazing that he hasn't killed dozens of dudes by this point. Not only did we have lots of emphasis on Chuck's no-kill policy, but we also had a ton of oh-so-emo moments between Chuck and Sarah. Adding to this episode's streak of lame cliche moments, we got the "Chuck and Sarah almost kiss, but are interrupted by danger" moment. Gag me. Again, lots of fun moments with Casey and Big Mike, and Morgan got in some funny bits as well. But ... Chuck is at its best when it covers NEW ground - ie the awesome episode from a few weeks' back in which Morgan learns Chuck's secret. But this was an all-too Smallville-like episode, with an overreliance on tired cliches and well-worn, dragged-out plot points. Next.

My Grade: B-

LOST Thoughts:

- Well, I watched this episode of Lost twice. The first time, I was exhausted and struggling to stay awake, so I decided to rewatch the episode in order to make sure I took everything in, and that I really had a good feel for what the episode did or didn't accomplish. I know that many are absolutely raving about this one. Many, including myself, have been waiting for this episode for years. Ever since the introduction of Richard Alpert, Lost fans have wondered about his origins, and what if any secrets his backstory may reveal about the nature of the island. And as I spoke about last week, this was in many ways a true litmus test for Lost. Because the show has always sent mixed messages about the way it unravels its narrative. Is it a show that poses specific questions with the expectation that all will eventually be revealed? Or is it a show that revels in ambiguity and mystery, letting the audience interpret things as they so choose? I've talked about it a lot, but Lost oftentimes tries to have its cake and eat it too - specifically addressing certain mysteries while ignoring others, trying to downplay the importance of certain "answers," even as the show's marketing - and its own characters - consistently talk about when and how certain things will be revealed. So here we have an episode that promise to unravel the big mystery of Richard -- or does it? That was the question - would this episode set the expectation for the final remaining episodes that all would and should be revealed? Or does it make a statement about the very nature of Lost by affirming that the show, despite what the marketing would have you believe, has no intention of being a traditional "mystery" serial, but that its very vagueness is an integral part of its identity?

Well, as longtime viewers have come to expect, this episode was a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B. The episode revealed the "origin" of Richard, but did so in a way that left dozens of questions still lingering. We found out that Richard was originally Ricardo, living on the Canary Islands with his wife, Isabella. When Isabella takes sick, Ricardo goes to find a doctor, but ends up meeting one who stubbornly refuses to help treat his wife. In a fit of rage, Ricardo accidentally kills the doctor, landing him in prison, facing a possible death sentance. However, a slave trader recruits Ricardo, forcing him into captivity. Ricardo and other slaves are taken on a ship - The Black Rock (long a staple of Lost lore) - and are on their way to parts unknown, when a storm steers the ship off-course. The Black Rock crash-lands on The Island. In a fit of fear and rage, one of the traders kills off all of the slaves except Ricardo - before he gets the chance, the Smoke Monster arrives and offs all of the traders. Smokey spares Ricardo, and frees him from his shackles. In return, Ricardo agrees to serve him. Of course, Smokeys first request is that Ricardo kills "the devil," aka Jacob. But Jacob subdues Ricardo, and convinces the freed slave - who thought that he was actually in hell - to serve him and not the Man In Black. Ricardo agrees, and thus begins his tenure as Jacob's emissary on the island and elsewhere.

It's funny how Lost works sometimes. This episode took the time to specifically show us how The Black Rock crashed into The Statue and shattered it - explicitly answering the semi-intriguing but only semi-important question of "what happened to The Statue." And yet, it didn't tell us a thing about Richard's time on the island once he agreed to serve Jacob. How did he come to be an "Other?" Why was he sent to test Locke again and again? Who did he think Jacob was, and why did he only know question him, 130 years or so later?

Again, the fact that the episode took the time to show exactly how The Black Rock crashed into the Statue sort of amazes me. It answered that mystery in almost obsessive detail. And yet, a question like "how and why can Hurley talk to dead people?" is left wide open.

And here's where I wonder about Lost's storytelling methods. I mean, was it really better to wait *this* long to give us Richard's origin? Now you only have a handful of episodes to expand on it. I don't know, I just question the merits of building up a mystery for years and years, and then addressing it - after crazy amounts of buildup and expectation - just as the story is about to wrap up. The mystery of Jacob and the Man in Black is a similar example. If we just knew who they were and what their motivations were from the outset of the season, then we'd have so much more invested in them and their battle by this point. Now, Lost just creates this crazy level of expectation that the final reveal of their identities will be something positively mind-blowing. Maybe it will be. But most likely not. And even if it is an awesome reveal, then there'll be no time to explore its ramifications - the show will be over.

It's this kind of disjointed storytelling that has soured me overall on this season of Lost. As much as I loved certain things about this episode, I still wished that Richard's storyline was playing out in a different context, and not wrapped up in this whole Jacob battle of the gods. I just don't think that the concept of two omnipotent beings waging a cosmic chess game is all that intriguing - certainly not as an uber-premise of Lost. Now that every storyline, even a potentially standalone one like Richard's, is tied in so tightly to Jacob's, it just, to me, makes those storylines inherently less compelling.

And man, Richard's storyline did have a number of very compelling moments. First of all, this episode looked amazing. It felt huge, it felt grand, it felt epic. You just don't get this kind of sweeping, cinematic storytelling on any other TV show. Secondly, Nestor Carbonell kicked serious ass in this episode. Who knew he had it in him to play a ragged, wide-eyed Spaniard channelling the ghost of Inigo Montoya? His acting was melodramatic, but it worked. It was something completely different, stylistically, for Lost, and yet the episode had the same sort of epic-romance feel as classic episodes like The Constant? I didn't think this episode was half as clever or tightly-scripted as The Constant, but still, it was undeniably memorable, entertaining, and just plain fun to watch. Just to rant about the aesthetics a bit more - the music here was awesome - loved the new theme, one of Lost's best. And the editing was great - there was a real momentum to each scene that just made the story that much more captivating.

The episode looked amazing, Carbonell was great - just awesome stuff. But the script still felt pretty weak to me. We couldn't care about Isabella all that much - after all, we met her while she was on her deathbed. And then we had to see she and Richard's big reunion play out through a crazy combination of weird plot devices - Hurley can talk to dead people, sort of, and Isabella has chosen this moment to make her voice heard after all this time. Seeing this big romantic scene essentially boil down to Richard gazing lovingly at, well, Hurley, was odd to say the least. And then, as I said, Richard's story had to get the shoehorned into the Jacob stuff. More vague talk, more questions answered with vague non-answers. A metaphor about the island being the cork that keeps evil bottled up, preventing it from spreading out into the world. So after all this, the island is a cork. Cool beans. Yes, The Man In Black (and for the love of god, can they just give him a name already?) smashing the wine bottle as we cut to black and the Lost logo was a sweet visual. But it wasn't much more than that.

I don't know, it just seems that the more we learn about Jacob, the less interesting he is, and the less his involvement as the great puppet-master makes sense given what's come before. So he's just trying to prove that people are inherently good, but he's trying to do so by interfering in their affairs as little as possible? Wait, didn't he play a role in all of the "candidate's" lives? And didn't he deliberately crash-land them on an island and expose them to all sorts of danger - a situation that tends to bring out the worst in people? And isn't he sort of a smug asshole for someone who we're supposed to believe is a force for good?

Look, maybe there is some drop-dead amazing explanation for everything, some giant reveal on the horizon that retroactively makes all of this awesome. But if Lost is all about the journey and not the destination, then shouldn't the journey be a great story in and of itself? There were elements of that greatness in this episode - Richard's story had hints of the epic, sweeping storytelling that's characterized some of Lost's best standalone installments. And on it's own, this was an amazingly-produced, very well-acted, extremely entertaining episode. But, it came in the context of an overarching narrative that is losing steam when it should be going full steam ahead. Let's hope things pick up for the final leg of the race.

My Grade: B+

Okay, that's it for now. Leave your comments below!

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