Tuesday, March 2, 2010

LOST - Taking a Stand

LOST Review:

- First of all ... thank you, Sayid. Thank you for swiftly and brutally killing off two of the most annoying and useless characters ever on LOST ... Dogen and Lennon, aka the two men with the nifty superpower of being COMPLETELY UNABLE TO DIRECTLY ANSWER ANY QUESTION THAT IS POSED TO THEM. I mean, seriously, holy $%&# were those dudes obnoxious.

And it kind of pisses me off, because here we are in the final season of Lost, hopefully moving towards some sort of climactic endgame, only to have these two crappy characters introduce us to about 500 new concepts that seem designed to elicit one cry of "WTF?" after another. In this episode alone, let's see:

- A machine that can tell if you're good or evil - WTF.
- Sayid is evil so he must leave the Temple - WTF
- No, wait! Sayid should go kill Smokey - WTF
- No, wait! It was just a trap - Sayid was sent to kill the unkillable Smokey so that he'd fail and Smokey would kill HIM - WTF
- Dogen was a businessman in Osaka who got in a drunk-driving accident that killed his son. Jacob agreed to revive his son if Dogen promised to go to the island and never leave - WTF
- Sayid says "I want answers!" ... Dogen doesn't answer a single thing ... Sayid seems to accept the non-answers because the writers of Lost have never heard of the concept of a FOLLOW-UP QUESTION. - WTF

Okay, here's the thing. Some people will say "but Danny, why don't you just chill out and go with the flow - it's more about the journey than about getting your precious answers." And you know what? That's a valid point. The problem is that Lost has a nasty habit of specifically POSING QUESTIONS, setting up a scenario in which the only satisfying narrative response is ... AN ANSWER. If you don't believe me, then I point you to all the times in the history of Lost where a character, like Sayid in this very episode, has angrily grabbed Ben, or Juliette, or Dogen by the collar and demanded ... answers! In those moments, we are MEANT to identify with the characters. We're meant to think "Hells yeah! It's about time! Spill it!" At that moment, we don't need everything spelled out for us, but we at least need the clues so that we feel like we're getting somewhere.

And that's why I sometimes doubt the strength of Lost as a TV show. Because, it's one thing - and I've talked about this before - if you set up a narrative where everything exists in a dreamlike, ambiguous, murky state of reality. Old episodes of The Twilight Zone, the movies of David Lynch, the writing of Ray Bradbury - all of those works were captivating because half the fun was just getting "lost" in these sort of waking nightmare scenarios. But, LOST is different. The whole show is set up as a MYSTERY, in which answers are presumably forthcoming. I mean, so much of the show's own self-promotion is about how "the answers will be revealed!", etc. Hell, each week ABC runs pop-up versions of the show that explicitly exist to help clarify the show's mysteries. And in fact, big parts of Lost's uber-mythology HAVE been explained - the Dharma Initiative, the island's unique electromagnetic properties, the history of Ben and Widmore and The Others, etc. So, we have gotten SOME answers. There is the expectation OF answers still to come. And yet ... so many times, over and over, Lost cheats at its own game. Having a character ask a specific question, only to be met with an only tangentially-related answer ... that's not good mystery writing - that's just lazy. It would be good writing if the character being questioned has a defined motive for being ambiguous. Then we think "aha, they're withholding information because they have their own agenda - interesting." BUT ... how did Dogen and Lennon benefit, AT ALL, from never telling anyone jack squat? We never knew their motivations. We never knew their backstories. The characters were just time-wasters, and that's just lazy.

I'm not a Lost hater, in general. I supported the show in Season 3 when many dismissed it. And I LOVED all of Season 4, really enjoyed Season 5 as well. But when I think back, so much of what I've enjoyed about Lost has consisted of moments that were essentially self-contained. Moments that took a particular element of Lost's complex makeup and ran with it. Time-travel. Pulpy adventure. Great characters with powerful central conflicts at their core. By that same token, every time Lost actively attempts to address the BIG questions at the heart of the show, it falters. It collapses under its own weight. From the beginning, Lost's central mythology has been something of a patchwork quilt of wildly varying ideas and concepts - some scientific, some supernatural. The thread that held it all together was the characters. But the characters have now been milked for all they're worth. We've seen them deconstructed inside and out - we've seen their pasts, futures, and "what-if" alternate realities. In turn, Lost is now forced to finally and quickly make sense of all that *other* stuff that's going on on the show - to tie together a storyline that's involved everything from Smoke Monsters to ghosts to electromagnetic irregularities. It's messy. It's been a mess all along, but we went along for the ride, enjoyed each new concept as it was presented. But parallel to that, there's been this idea that there's a master plan to it all, that in one fell swoop we'll get a Twilight Zone-esque exclamation-point ending. But given all of that messiness, bringing together all those threads, answering those questions in a satisfactory manner - it's likely impossible and likely not gonna happen. And we're seeing that play out now in the final season.

Part of the problem is that there's never exactly been one central idea at the heart of Lost. With something like The X-Files, even when the mythology sort of collapsed, it was okay because the core idea of the entire show - "the Truth is out there" - remained intact. Here in Season 6 of Lost, we're suddenly being told that the whole show has been about the good and evil inside all of us. No, that's not what the show's been about. Sayid has always been about that conflict. So has Sawyer. Maybe Ben. But Claire was never at all evil. Jack was an asshole, but not evil. If this is what the show is now about, it doesn't ring true. Tonight's episode heavily riffed on Stephen King's THE STAND - characters divided up - Team Smokey or Team Jacob - or something. But if that's how things go, again, it doesn't feel earned. There could have been a big, dramatic moment where someone like Sawyer has to choose - good or evil. And we may still get that moment. But the big deaths in this ep came about because Sayid was infected by the Smoke Monster. It wasn't because of any natural character progression. Again - an easy way out.

I liked a lot of this episode. I liked the bigtime feel of the climactic finale, with the Smoke Monster wreaking havoc on the Temple. It was exciting, exhilirating. It felt cinematic. There were some great little moments - Ben backing away from crazy-Sayid was priceless. Keamy showing up in Sayid's flash-sideways was pretty cool. Miles' dry humor is always appreciated. And the scene where Sayid stabs Not Locke was exciting and intense. The ensuing conversation not so much, but still.

As for the flash-sideways, it was alright, but fell into the same pattern as others where we just end up covering the same ground we've covered in several previous flashbacks and flashforwards. Sayid is a man who struggles with his violent past, who tends to be forced into conflict even though he oftentimes wants to live a simpler, more peaceful life - even though he wants to be a good person. We get it. We've covered this. At least with Jack's flash last week, we got some thematic closure on Jack's long-running father issues. This week, Sayid's flash ended rather abruptly - he kills Keamy and his lackey, finds Jin, for some reason, and that's all she wrote.

Despite the exciting finish, so much of this episode had a feeling of pointlessness to it. Lost has practically been playing musical chairs with its characters, sending them back and forth between the Temple and the Jungle, with no real reason except logistics, ie "we need Kate in this scene with Claire, so ... she's back at the Temple!" Meanwhile, the quick deaths of Dogen and Lennon, while perversely satisfying, just exemplified how pointless they were to the larger story. All that time teasing us with who they are, what their relationship was with Jacob, how they got to the island, etc. - all a waste, or so it appears. Oh wait, we got a completely random martial-arts showdown between Sayid and Dogen at the start of the episode. So at least there was that. Uhhh ... why was a former businessman from Osaka an insane kung-fu master again? And why did Lennon dress like a muppet? I guess we'll never know.

So many times though, LOST is saved by its awesome cast and its amazing production values. I give total credit to people like Naveen Andrews, who's made Sayid into such a likable, intriguing character. I can once again only offer praise for Terry O'Quinn, who has the unenviable task of playing a completely new character who, so far at least, is a complete question mark. O'Quinn makes it work - few others could. And the show always looks awesome. Few if any other series on TV have such a cinematic look and feel.

But ... I feel like Lost right now is becoming very, very messy as it races towards its final episode. Last year at this time, Lost was on a roll, making us ponder the nature of time travel, putting the puzzle pieces together, solidfying its mythology, making us wonder where it stood in the cannon of TV's all-time greatest series.

(And, by the way, is it merely coincidence that Lost's best overall seasons coincided with the great Brian K. Vaughan's involvement on the show as a writer and producer? I think not - his influence was obvious over the last few seasons, and this season is sorely missing his knack for great character moments, witty dialogue, cool pop-culture references, and mind-bending sci-fi storytelling.)

Anyways, a year ago I really did think Lost was one season away from claiming an undisputed claim to all-time TV greatness. Now, to be honest, I'm not so sure. Lost is falling back on old habits. The cracks are becoming deeper. We're getting lots of shortcuts. It feels like the endgame was hastily-assembled. as opposed to deeply rooted in the show's natural path of progression. I'm enjoying the show - that much I'm not questioning. But I'm enjoying it with serious reservations.

My Grade: B

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