Friday, December 22, 2006

Now that I've Seen Season One...

Yesterday I finished Lost Season 1.

I think I'll stick with my revised B+ rating. It has a lot going for it, but ultimately there's no basis for calling it "great."

First the good things. The production values are firstrate. The acting (given the characters they have to go on) is good, the directing is very good, and the pacing is nothing short of amazing in places. For a show that relies on central mysteries for interest, this is important. Though they slip now and then, for the most part I never feel like story continuity is sacrificed in the service of a cheap cliffhanger. Episodes tend to end at what seem like natural breaks in the narrative; they never really have to go back and revise something that happened in the previous episode to keep things going. Probably best of all, they do a really good job handling subtleties. For example, the safety deposit box that Kate needs opened is number "815," which also happens to be the number of the flight and, as we later learn, two in the string of numbers that Hurley believes are cursing him. It is to the writers' credit that no one ever calls attention to this in conversation. And there are tons of things like that - little bits that you notice on your own that the writers didn't hold your hand and point out to you. Usually, this kind of faith in a viewr's perception and intelligence is the hallmark of a truly good show. But...

There are a lot of problems with Lost too. Most importantly for me, the characters just aren't very interesting. With the possible exception of John Locke, I've seen all of these characters before in other shows. Now, it's OK to recycle successful "types," but you have to do something to flesh them out and make them seem human, and there's just none of that here. No one has so much as a single detail in their background that sets them apart in any way from the thousands of copies of these people I've seen elsewhere. Worse still, they all finish season one off pretty much where they started. Stranded on a desert island, struggling for survival, and yet this experience changes none of them? Implausible. And the two possible exceptions here - Kate and Jin - are both flawed in some way. Now I admit, when the subject of a fugitive on board came up I didn't immediately think of Kate. But once you know it's her (which you do almost immediately after the subject gets raised), there's no reason whatever to change your opinion of her. This only gets confirmed as the show goes on. She never does anything to give the impression that she's really shady. Cerainly nothing to back up the skymarshall's claim that he "needs" four guns to keep her in tow! What few sneaky things she does are not much more than we'd really expect from any independent-minded tom-boyish woman in this situation. And of course the flashbacks make abundantly clear that she has a heart, which just ruins the whole effect. It's the one of the biggest - and worst - cliches on American TV: the beatiful damsel who seems shady but is really good deep inside. Yeah, got it, guys! Worst of all, her status as fugitive plays exactly zero role in the story aside from giving her a "connection" with Sawyer and giving Jack an excuse to keep their budding relationship at the eyeballing level. It's not clear that we actually needed a criminal background for either of these things. As for Jin, the writers cheated. The man we were shown at the outset of the series simply isn't the same guy who helps Michael build the raft, and there's no event or series of events that explains the transformation. Jin's flahsbacks are wholly inconsistent with the guy we saw in the first 6 episodes or so. The writers picked him up and replaced him with someone else as the story demanded. Not a very convincing character portrayal. And so it is, more or less, with everyone. Charlie's religious bent is not very convincing, and he seems awfully focused on his fame for someone who is supposedly only in Driveshaft (HA! I admit that's a great name! It's so believable it's almost not satire - a sad comment on the state of Britpop) because he loves the music. But see, this is a story we've all heard before. The hack who thinks he's an artist but is really only in it to paper over his insecurities? Sayid is the foreigner with a troubled past. Jack the doctor who can't let go. Blah blah blah blah BLAH.

The point is that I don't care what happens to these people. I REALLY didn't care in the first episode, and the writers didn't do much to improve that situation over the course of the following 23. Locke is the only remotely interesting character. I like the concept of a geek who can do the things he brags about, and I think they're doing a good job keeping the balance here. That is, on the one hand, Locke is very capapble, no denying it. On the other hand, despite some experiences in his past (and I admit that his flashbacks about his father are pretty cool), he's still extremely naive. What he calls "faith" is actually just wishful thinking, and it's interesting that his "wish" involves not having to deal with people in the "real" world - because he knows he can't. He seems strong, but really he's just latched on to the first thing that came his way - "the island" (and the weird religion he makes out of it). An especially nice touch is that he's not really fooling anyone. The only person he got to, really, was Boone, and that made sense given Boone's own problems. There's an anger in Locke that's always just beneath the surface, and the actor does a good job of portraying the fake serenity. I'll be interested to see what happens with Locke in the second season (which I have already ordered from Netflix) - but he's honestly the only character I can say that about.

The reason why characters are important to a series like this is...well, there isn't a reason to watch it twice otherwise. Twin Peaks and The X-Files were similarly plot-driven "arc" shows that suffered from poor planning, but they both stay interesting over several viewings because the characters are believable and compelling. Lost just doesn't have this at all. Strip away the interesting character story and all you have is a plot. And once you've seen the plot once, there's no need to go back and ever see it again.

Unfortunately, the plot is another problem here. The premise for this show is REALLY interesting. The actual events, though, seem hokey at times. In particular, the stuff with the numbers is kind of dumb. It's not that I don't think recurring numbers are cool, because I do. And it's not that I mind the implied mysticism. Quite the contrary - I like shows and novels that don't feel the need to explain everything rationally. (I've written quite a bit about this with regard to Star Trek.) But if something is transparently a device then it loses its meaning, and "the numbers" are simply a device. They're too easy to be impressive in any way. All a writer really has to do to cash out "interest" is put them somewhere - like, oh, say on the jerseys of a girls soccer team standing in an airport. They function in essentially the same way as the "central item" in every fantasy novel ever written. You know, some mysterious stranger appears before the hero and tells him to search out and find the sword of [insert appropriate-sounding name here] and take it to [insert appropriate name] castle(/cave/wishingwell/whatever), and all his troubles will vanish. Of course, if he fails, some Truly Terrible Fate will befall mankind - but that never happens, so generally we're safe. Well, the numbers are slightly more interesting than that - but the point is that they're still a story-independent device. I can very easily pick these up and take them out and put them in any story without having to substantively change what's going on. They're there to be cashed in for "plot" the same way you cash in accumulated chips for money at a poker game. You can leave the game whenever you please, and with devices like this the plot picks up an moves whenever the writers are good and ready. It's "story engineering" more than "story telling." They've made the process "efficient," which is sort of the last thing we really want. Claire's experience with the psychic is a bit better on this count. They've left totally ambiguous whether his powers are genuine - and there's an interesting story to tell about credulity in the face of coincidence involving people like Claire. Not that they're really telling it exactly, but they're at least sniffing at it. Hurley's "cursed numbers" are sort of the poor cousin of this. I'm as much a sucker for them as anyone (I did say they were cool) - but the point is I shouldn't have to feel like I'm a "sucker" for one of the central plot devices! A good plot "device" isn't a device at all - because it's a place the story leads you naturally. No need for literary "call/cc."

Finally, there's just nothing going on thematically. This premise has nearly endless possibility for philosophical exploration. Throw a bunch of deeply flawed people on an island and give them a chance to start over and ... well, in this case, NOTHING HAPPENS. No one grows, no one learns anything, we don't feel any closer to the mysteries of life than when we started. There is exactly nothing profound about this show. Now in some cases this is a blessing. For example, I'm REALLY glad they spared us the potential "man vs. nature" theme, which I don't think would have been appropriate here. There is plenty of food on and free shelter on the island - so we don't have to go through the drudgery of watching a Scout video presented as fiction. Thank God. But there are plenty of other themes that would have been interesting to work in ... and they just didn't. In particular, something about "starting over" seem to be in order but just isn't here. And there are interesting things to say about the civilization vs. "the wild" thing too. Not in the cheesy way that Sawyer means it when he brings it up early on, mind you. No replays of "Lord of the Flies," thanks! But it still seems strange to throw a bunch of random passengers together away from civilization and say essentially nothing whatever about how they organize themselves. The closest they really come is Jack's "every man for himself doesn't work" speech - and they really could and should have spared us that. Not just because it's not very realistic (in actual disaster situations, people are a lot less selfish than you think), but also because Jack's authority to say these things at the time hadn't been properly established by the story. That everyone stands around and listens like the faceless extras they are only reinforces this impression.

So I give it a B+. It's a true pleasure to watch, but there's nothing lasting here. Having seen it once, I'll never wanna see it again, and I won't spend much time thinking about it when it's not on the screen in front of me. It has superior production values and a damn intriguing premise, but the actual literary execution is generic. And I mean "generic" as in "nothing over and above the genre specifications." Granted, I guess there isn't really a "crash on a mysterious island" genre - but if there were the prototype would be exactly this show. There's nothing here in the way of a story that depends on people and themes. It's really just a skeleton plot (which may not have even been properly planned - the show will be pretty pathetic if there aren't some substantive answers by the end of season two) with made-to-order playing pieces standing in for characters. And nothing of substance anywhere to be found. Mostly it's a trail of "sparklies". True that it's a superior "trail of sparklies," but that's not enough to garner it an A. The truly discriminating viewer will want to stay well away. People looking for a nice weekly escapist relaxer, however, will get exactly what they're looking for in spades. 


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