Sunday, May 23, 2010

The End of LOST: Thoughts, Ramblings, The Top 20 Episodes, and The Series Finale: Reviewed!

Has any show in the history of television ever been more of a rollercoaster ride than LOST?

Looking back on the show, it's mind-blowing to think of all the highs and lows that the series has had throughout its six-season run. Rarely has a show been so gripping and yet so frustrating. And never before has a single show invited so much discussion and debate. For me and many others, the experience of watching Lost was as much about the communal aspect - of watching it and discussing it and theorizing about it - as it was the episodes themselves.

I think, for good and bad, Lost was able to inspire such intense passion among both fans and detractors because it was, essentially, a blank canvass. The show's themes were so broad, so diverse, that it was easy to transpose one's own ideas into the show's narratives. That blank canvass also allowed a wide array of creators to come in and put their own personal stamp on Lost. For that reason, the show has in turns been pulp adventure, mystic - almost biblical melodrama, cerebral sci-fi, character-driven drama, Twilight Zone-style parable, abstract Lynchian mystery, and about a hundred other things as well. Some people watched Lost in order to get "answers" to the show's constant stream of mysteries (what was with the polar bear? the four-toed statue?). Others watched to get more straightforward narrative resolution (would they ever get off the island?), and others just wanted to see the show's soap opera elements play out (would Kate choose Sawyer or Jack?). That's why so many episodes of Lost were so divisive - one critic would come away satisfied with the character development, and declare the episode a success, while another would express frustration with the lack of narrative momentum, and declare the episode a misfire. By the time LOST got to its much-anticipated series finale, there were the wide-eyed fanboys and fangirls who unconditionally loved the show, the cynical haters who had grown disillusioned with it, and those in-betweeners who recognized that the show was flawed, but that it still, at the end of a day, was a pop-cultural experience worth partaking in.

I've been writing about Lost here on the blog for as long as I've been blogging. It's pretty crazy, looking back on all my past reviews and reliving some of those high and low points in the series' history. There was a time, probably somewhere in the middle of Season 2, where I was so fed up with the show that I was seriously considering dropping it. A lot of people did - ratings went down significantly, and some of the people that left never came back. A lot of people got onboard much later, via DVD, Hulu, etc. - when critical and fan buzz picked up around Season 4. But again, I don't want to look at Lost with rose-colored glasses. It had some amazing episodes, some amazing seasons (1, 4), even. But it was also a show that tested the patience of all but its most devoted fans on many occasions. I think many future TV writers and producers will look back on Lost and find a number of things that the show did right, that set the precedent, that raised the bar. But, I also think aspects of Lost will serve as a cautionary tale - as a reminder of some of the pitfalls that can occur in the world of serialized storytelling on television.

Lost introduced so many concepts into the television playbook. On a macro level, Lost's greatest achievement was perhaps that it shattered preconceived notions of TV as a less-capable storytelling medium than film. There were many weeks when LOST was the best blockbuster movie around, rivalling anything at the box office in terms of scale and scope and ambition. Other TV shows paved the way - Star Trek, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, 24 - but Lost truly kicked off the era of TV as multimedia franchise. Lost was watched in all manner of ways - DVD, online - it spawned books and videogames and endless streams of digital chatter. Again, other shows set the bar, but Lost did all this in a time when TV was struggling - when cheaply-produced reality and game shows were threatening to take over. Lost helped to usher in a new golden age of quality TV, and pushed other series to aim higher. Lost, 24, Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies, The Sopranos - these were some of the dramas that made people look at television in a new light. How to succeed in a world where people were time-shifting, watching online, surfing the web, etc? Easy - be the franchise that rules all of those realms. Ironically, with Lost and 24 ending, there is a very real fear that we could shift back into the television dark ages. So many Lost imitators have tried and failed to replicate the show's success - Invasion, Surface, Threshold, The Nine, Flashforward, and yes, Heroes - just to name a few. But Lost was a show that showed one age-old axiom to be true - at the end of the day, you can have the best high-concept premise in the world, but without a great story, captivating characters, and a narrative that's built to last, you've got nothing. With that in mind, it's understandable to see why networks might be hesitant to invest in trying to create the next Lost. Still, there will always be those who try to push the medium, and those who want to stake their claim in the new media, franchise-driven wild west. There will be shows like FRINGE, that take the ball and run with it. But you've got to give Lost credit for pushing the boundaries, right up until the end. It aimed high, it challenged its audience. It had whole episodes with characters speaking in subtitles. It had nonlinear narratives and time-shifting mind-$#&#'s. It had complex characters, exotic settings, stirring music, and whole episodes that completely strayed from the show's established narrative structure. Yep, Lost had balls, and it's a fitting legacy to the show that its showrunners sort of coined the term "game-changer." Lost was one, in any number of ways.

Now, the big question frustrated fans will ask is: how much of Lost was planned from the start, and how much did it come together in the end to form a cohesive narrative? Look, if we're being honest with ourselves, I think it's clear that one of Lost's biggest failings was that there was never *really* a singular vision behind it. Sure, a lot of plot elements were retroactively fit into the bigger picture, but I think people will look back on Lost and say "hmm, for a show that was structured as a giant mystery, the payoffs never really came about in a truly rewarding way." I think some of that was network meddling, some of that was the ever-changing roster of creatives behind the scenes (the show suffered when people like Paul Dini, Brian K. Vaughan, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach left the creative team), and some of it was just shortsightedness. This disconnect first really came to light in the Season 1 finale. For months, a litany of questions and mysteries had been introduced, and the entire season had built towards the final moments, in which our heroes finally opened the hatch that had been the source of so much speculation. Lost fans were on the edge of their seats, dying to see what awesome revelation lay below. And then, the unthinkable: Season 1 ended with the hatch door opened, and inside was ... a ladder! At that moment, we got a sense of the kind of frustration that Lost would so often cause from that point on. I don't know if the producers knew what was in the hatch yet, but regardless, it was just bad form to build up a mystery to such an extent and then fail to deliver a payoff. It was, certainly, a bad omen for things to come. And as time passed, the show accumulated a laundry list of unanswered mysteries and contradictions. The Others went from strangely-clad natives to white-collar intellectuals. Walt was built up as having supernatural powers, and then quickly disappeared from the show. At many points, the show's mysteries felt deeply rooted in the pseudo-scientific, but ultimately, all the talk of quantum theory and electromagnetism was thrown out the window in the name of cosmic soap opera and spiritual hocus pocus. It wasn't that we the viewers necessarilly demanded that everything be reconciled, it was that the show constantly seemed to tease us with answers and reveals that rarely ever came - and when they did, it often felt like too little, too late.

On the other hand, sometimes Lost completely surprised us by delivering something incredible, seemingly out of nowhere. Think of "Walkabout," in which Lost became more than just a show about a mysterious island, but became a show about characters like John Locke - atypical, fascinating, and multilayered. Think of the Season 3 finale - easily the show's biggest "holy $%&%!" moment, when what appeared to be flashbacks were revealed as actually being flash-forwards. Think of "The Constant," in which Lost delivered a classic episode of television, a time-bending epic romance for the ages. When Lost brought it's A-game, few shows in the history of TV have been better. No matter your opinion of how things ultimately wrapped up, you can't deny the iconic status of some of those classic episodes.

And what also can't be denied is the overall quality of Lost as a production. Nothing else on network TV could compare. The cast of Lost was second to none, and a strong case could be made for many of performances from the show's stars and supporting players as being award-worthy. Because of the phenomenal actors and actresses, characters like Desmond and Ben transcended their original roles to become true fan favorites, and others like Jack and Sawyer and Locke became far more fascinating and nuanced than we could have ever expected. Every week, whether Lost turned in a classic or a dud, there was still the feeling of watching a mini-movie on TV. The orchestral music, the stunning sets, and the top-notch performances elevated the show to a higher level than it would have inhabited otherwise. Every week's episode was an experience, an event - and that's not something that many shows can claim. If anything, it's the sign of a show that transcended the medium and became more than just another TV show, b ut a genuine pop-culture touchstone.

So here's to LOST - a frustrating, exciting, and unpredictable ride. We'll see you in another life, brotha.

DANNY'S TOP 20 LOST Episodes of All-Time:

1. The Constant

- Epic romance, time-travelling craziness, and Desmond at his most awesome!

2. Through the Looking Glass, Parts 1 and 2

- The flash-forward reveal was one of the greatest twists in TV history.

3. Walkabout

- "Don't tell me what I can't do!"

4. Pilot

- One of the best kickoffs to a TV show ever.

5. The Long Con

- Sawyer at his roguish best.

6. Confirmed Dead

- A kickass introduction to four new characters, each a challenger of the unknown.

7. The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham

- Locke and Ben at their ultra-intense best.

8. The Variable

- Jeremy Davies at his twitchy best as Daniel Faraday.

9. Cabin Fever

- Was there ever a more tense moment than when we finally peered inside that spooky cabin?

10. Catch 22

- We see Desmond in another life, brotha.

11. Live Together, Die Alone

- Clancy Brown guests in the riveting origin of how Desmond ended up on the island.

12. Flashes Before Your Eyes

- More of Desmond's cosmic odyssey.

13. I Do

- Kate and Sawyer in a cage - yikes!

14. Happily Ever After
- Desmond and Penny: one mo' time.

15. The Cost of Living

- Mr. Eko, meet the Smoke Monster.

16. The Man From Tallahassee

- A stunning showcase for the great Terry O'Quinn as Locke.

17. Par Avion

- Goth Claire's one and only appearance.

18. Deux Ex Machina

- So long, Boone. One of Lost's first true shockers.

19. Greatest Hits

- A great send-off for Charlie.

20. There's No Place Like Home, Parts 1, 2, 3

- Charles Widmore's men invade the island, all hell breaks loose, things go boom.

LOST Thoughts: THE SERIES FINALE - Reviewed!

- As Sawyer might say .... "sonofabitch." I'm still wrapping my head around that two-and-a-half-hour finale, and it's going to take a long time to fully process everything - not just as pertains to the episode itself, but in terms of how the episode fits into the LOST narrative as a whole. And as is often the case with Lost, this one's going to be hard to talk about in a lot of ways. On a purely emotional level, it was a hell of an episode. The sheer impact of saying goodbye to these great characters, of saying goodbye to this great show, added an extra level of dramatic intensity and emotional weight that made this episode feel big, sweeping, and epic - on a scale that few if any previous episodes of Lost have reached. In terms of emotional payoff, this episode delivered.

It's funny though, because after years of speculation, of theories, of debate - LOST ultimately ended with an episode that spent almost no time addressing the series' overarching mythology. In a way, you had to have seen that coming after what we've gotten so far this season. Aside from a couple of detours (the Richard and Jacob flashbacks), Season 6 of Lost has, really, been about reestablishing the connections between the original castaways. It's been about this big idea that all of them are connected, intertwined by fate, and that in each other they found purpose and love and that they'd go on to live happily ever after, because hey, all you need is love. It was a strange turn for Lost to take, and it meant that the more scifi-ish and pulpy aspects of the show got pushed aside in order to focus on the show's new (and new-age) spiritual mantra. So as we approached the finale, it was pretty clear that Lost wasn't about to drop everything and explain what was up with Walt. The show had already made two concessions to answers-hungry fans this season, and both of those episodes felt ill-timed and underwhelming. That said, looking back, it's still pretty crazy to realize what a complete shift the show underwent when it transitioned from Seasons 4 and 5 into Season 6. By the time we arrived at the finale, the show wasn't even really concerned with a conventional narrative anymore. In the past, Lost was driven by both plot and character, by mystery and mythology. This season, and especially this finale, were 99% about the characters' spiritual journey towards salvation. Like it or not, this is where the show ended up. So in the contect of that direction, did the finale work? I think so - there's really not much to complain about when looking at this episode merely as a wrap-up of the most recent story arc. But in the context of the series as a whole? Was it justified for Lost to veer so off-course? Did Lost take the most satisfying, the most dramatically-rewarding path, the path that delivered the most payoff to the foundation laid out by the first few seasons of the show? No, I don't think it did. Now, if you were someone who sort-of enjoyed Lost but always hoped it'd drop all the weird island stuff and just be about love and magic and how we're all connected, then hey, you got your wish. But me? I loved Lost most when it was Desmond hurtling through time, or Charlie in the Hydra Station fighting off an eyepatched assassin, or Daniel Faraday realizing that due to a time paradox, his own mother was the one who killed him. I loved the character stuff - I loved John Locke's backstory, and Ben Linus' tragic upbringing, and Sawyer's long con. But I liked that these great characters were now thrust into this crazy, weird, mind-bending adventure. In Season 6 of Lost, there was a disconnect between the characters and what they were actually doing in each episode. They were too often simply going from Point A to Point B, doing Jacob's bidding just because. They themselves mostly stopped caring much about *why* anything was actually happening, and so, in turn, did we. The finale saw more of that type of storytelling, where the characters seemed to do things just because. Climb down the cave, remove the plug. Go back down the cave, save Desmond, and put the plug back in. Get to the plane, have obligatory debate about who stays and who goes. Drink from the sacred stream and once again pass on the mantle of Island Protector. It all felt very videogame-y, in a way. Drink the magic water, restore maximum health!

Still, this finale gave us some absolutely riveting sequences. My favorite was the absolutely epic confrontation between Jack and Not-Locke, high atop the island's rocky cliffs. Huge, huge kudos the crew for shooting an incredible action sequence, nearly biblical in its intensity and scope. I can't say I've ever seen something quite that "big" feeling on a TV show before - it really was awesome. In fact, every scene between Jack and Locke was pretty damn crackling. When Jack told Locke he planned to kill him, Locked asked him how, and Jack said "it's a surprise," well, that was a pretty great moment. The biggest stand-up-and-cheer moment? Definitely the reveal that fan favorite Lapidus was alive and well, floating in the ocean and just waiting to be rescued so he could fly a damn plane like he was meant to. Lapidus has really been an unsung MVP of the last few seasons of Lost, and he always gets the best one-liners. Well, he and Miles. So, it was great to see them alive and playing a crucial role in the finale. Plus, it goes without saying that Ben and Locke and Desmond are, as always, scene stealers. Michael Emerson, Terry O'Quinn, and Henry Ian Cusick are the show's trifecta of awesomeness - lending true gravitas to all scenes they're involved in. Loved Locke's scenes in the alternaverse hospital, and loved all of the epic scenes that showcased the rivalry between Not-Locke and Jack. Desmond was cool as always, brotha, and Ben, well, he had some of the night's most interesting scenes, especially at the end there outside of the church.

But, I do have to say that Ben's final fate was one of my biggest gripes of the night. It was only last week that Ben betrayed everyone and allied himself with The Smoke Monster. And now he was back to being sympathetic and on the side of the angels? Lost has gone to great lengths to show that Ben is a liar, a backstabber, and someone not to be trusted. It just rang false that suddenly he was Hurley's trusty right-hand man, and a guy who everyone was all happy and smiley to see as they prepared to go off together into the great white light. I mean, why is, say, Michael condemned to haunt the island, whereas Ben the mass murderer gets to join Jack and Kate in "heaven?" This, I think was the single biggest misfire of the finale.

Now, what about that ending? I'm still digesting it, to be honest, and yes, it's very much open to interpretation. What did the final, post-credits shot of the Flight 815 wreckage mean? Who knows - I'm sure people will be pondering that one for years. That said, we finally got an explanation of sorts as to the nature of the sideways universe. It seems as though it was a place somehow created by the collective willpower of the castaways - a purgatory of sorts, existing outside of time, that allowed their souls to reunite and find each other again. The reunion of each castaway to their "constant" seemed to trigger an influx of memories. Ultimately, many of the castaways - all of those "ready" for a happy ending - gathered in a church and went off together into the great unknown, presumably to find everlasting happiness in the light. This, of course, leaves a lot of open questions as to the fates of some key characters. Since Christian Shephard explains that the sideways universe exists outside of time, the castaways like Sawyer and Kate, who escaped the island, could very well have lived out their lives for years and years, before ultimately dying and ending up in this parallel world. Was Jack, in his last deed before dying, the one who "created" or enabled that universe by plugging up the cave? Maybe - it certainly seems likely. And how about Hurley? Do he and Ben live out their lives for thousands of years as island protectors? Did Ben do so much good in that time that he absolved himself of his past sins? We can only speculate. And why were some prominent characters not in the church? Why not Faraday? Because he hadn't yet truly connected with Charlotte in the sideways world?

It was an emotionally compelling ending for the show, but it was pretty far removed from anything else the show has done. I don't know - I remember hearing an interview with Matthew Fox from a while back where he said he thought it'd be fitting for Lost to end on a darker note - one in which Jack never ended up with Kate, or Juliette, or anyone. And at the time, I remember agreeing and hoping that would be the case - it just seemed to fit the somewhat tragic tone of most of the show. I found it a little too convenient that suddenly everyone had their star-crossed romance in the season finale. Jack and Kate didn't work when the show went there previously, why shoehorn it in now? Sayid and Shannon never had what really seemed like a true-love - it didn't really connect that they were each other's anchor, or constant, or whatever. I just felt like it was a little cheap - everyone on Lost was suddenly paired up as if they were at a high school dance. Most of these characters had never seemed destined to find true love or lasting happiness, but that's what we got - everyone holding hands, singing kumbaya, and heading off to enjoy everlasting love in the great beyond. Is that really what all these years of LOST had been building towards? I mean, look, with the stunning cinematography, the sweeping music ... it was easy to get caught up in the moment and maybe even get misty-eyed as our favorite characters rode off into the sunset. But was that the ending most true to the characters? I don't know - it was a very fairy-tale-like ending for a show that's always been grimmer and darker than that.

I do want to give one more shout-out though to the fantastic cast and crew of LOST. Watching the show has been an epic experience, and this finale would not have had the weight and resonance that it had if not for the years of great stories and memorable character moments that preceded it. Lost may have lost its way at times, but it was always able to transcend those faults due to the underlying strength of its premise, its production, and its characters. Few other series presented this sort of sprawling canvass on which great stories could be written and fantastic adventures could be had. It's been an amazing run, and even though I was quick to complain at times, I was always onboard, was always a fan, right up through to the end. One thing's for sure, there will never be another show quite like LOST. Thanks for reading - it's been a lot of fun writing, and I look forward to the next great adventure.

My Grade: B+

See you in another life, brotha!

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