Friday, May 25, 2007

Looking in on a Sick Patient

So I got talked into watching the season finale of LOST on Wednesday. Well, alright, truth be told there was a lack of armtwisting that can be fairly described as "near-total." I admit I was curious to see what's going on with the show I love to hate (see also here for an earlier, and more favorable, opinion).

And so what's going on? All the same bullshit, of course. That show never changes.

I plunge down into the middle of the "story" an entire season after I last saw the show, and of course don't feel in the least bit lost, or behind, or like I've been missing out on anything. Same island, same completley unchanged cardboard people, same "plot" that involves nothing but insoluble puzzles. OK, fine, so there are some new Dharma sets, and the characters are off doing things the immediately antecedent of and motive for which I don't necessarily know. But there was a surprising lack of disorientation jumping back in, and that's always a bad sign.

I stand by my earlier claims that what's wrong with this generally amazingly well-executed show is (a) that the characters never grow and change (or, when they do, it's hugely implausible, like Jin going from domineering racist chauvinist to super-helpful team player overnight at the end of season one), (b) that it lacks thematic interest of any kind and, most importantly, (c) that the writers clearly have no clue where things are going.

I guess problem (c) has been remedied a bit. The people responsible for the show were so heavily criticized in the press for this (you know, after Anu Lucia shows up and vanishes, after Mr. Eko shows up and vanishes, after Walt is one of the central focuses of season one and then exits stage left at the beginning of season two, after Shannon and Boone turn out to be completely inconsequential once they decided it would be better for Charlie to chase Claire, and so on and so on and so on) that they seem to want to make good. Now they assure us they have the rest of it planned out. We'll see.

If they've planned it, they're headed in a pretty dopey direction. I admit, the whole "flashback-that's-really-a-flashfoward-and-might-not-even-be-real" trump card threw me for a loop, and that was very cool. But again, it's just so many fireworks. There is nothing character- or theme-driven about this - it's just another clever trick. And, in retrospect, it's a pretty obvious trick to play. You know - imagine yourself a show doctor: you've been called in as a consultant to save an average soap opera. What you need is a way to really hit the audience with a curve - because they're already pretty jaded with cheap plot twists and are ready for some real answers (at least, that's what they say). So you look at the devices and, after all of maybe 20 seconds of "thinking outside the box," you say "Hey, guys, woah - what if we like - you know, instead of having flashBACKS we made them flashFOWARDS. And all the potheads in your office go "WOAH...far out!"

But OK, enough drubbing on LOST. It's fun to watch, and I was also reminded of THAT watching it Wednesday. True, I felt like I had wasted my time about 10min. afer the TV was off, but I had a good time doing it, and that's what counts.

I'm writing this mostly because I want to repeat something that I've said earlier about this - because it bears repeating. The CARDINAL sin of a show like LOST where episodes build (or, in this case, "build") on each other is not to know where you're going before you start. This is LOST's biggest problem, and I sincerely hope that television producers will sit up and take notice and STOP DOING THIS. LOST isn't even the worst culprit here. Battlestar Galactica went from being, in my not-so-humble opinion, the best show in TV history to one of the worst in a matter of about three episodes precisely because of this. They dicked around with us for awhile, keeping most story events on the same page while showing some truly stunningly subtle character development - but eventually the clock ran out and it was time for them to start telling a real story...only they realized they hadn't bothered to think of one to tell. On the other side of the coin - Babylon 5 featured a cast of mostly uninteresting characters spouting stock space-opera dialogue, but managed to be REALLY GOOD mostly because the plot was complex and planned out in intricate detail for all 5 seasons before the first episode even aired (ok, granted, the quality of the acting helped a lot too - those actors turned two-dimensional cutout charcters into real people in spite of everything). So in this vein, I thought it was worth talking about the only two exceptions to the "don't plan and be damned" rule that I can think of:

  1. Twin Peaks - It became quite clear about 3 episodes into the second season (and, in retrospect, should have been clear by the end of the second) that this train was off the tracks. The writers didn't know who killed Laura Palmer and originally had no plans to tell us, and their feeble attempts at distracting weren't working out. But this show worked beautifully all the same - DESPITE (a) network meddling, (b) lack of attention from the creator (fed up with aforementioned meddling) and most of all (c) headstrong actors who insisted on changing their characters (Donna and Cooper are the biggest culprits here). And why? Because the attention to minor details was so thorough. The truth is that even if Lynch and Frost hadn't planned the actual plot of the story through to conclusion, they had thought of the entire history of the town dating back about 100 years. The characters were so fresh in their minds, down to minor details that we never saw onscreen, that the story just worked in spite of itself. The lesson here is this: if you're not going to take the time to flesh out the plot beforehand, AT LEAST flesh out your fictional universe!

  2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - As everyone will agree, this show worked because the characters were so well-done. And the characters were well-done mainly because the writers were so damn good! I don't think we'll be seeing many shows on TV as good as Buffy - but when these gems come along it's worth noting what makes them great. And in this case, I think there's a workable formula that lazier shows (like LOST) can adopt. Buffy wasn't planned in great detail like Babylon 5 - but it was at least planned in broad strokes. The writers might not have known exactly where they were going or exactly how things would end up, but the way I understand it there was a general plan that formed a broad outline for the seasons they filmed. The lack of specificity gave them elbow-room, which I believe paid off HUGELY in the character development department (the actors were unconstrained and able to play believable characters, and the writers were free to shift gears as things developed, which is always very important). But the general outline of a plan kept things disciplined and on track. And the end-product was truly outstanding!

LOST doesn't suffer as much as it probably should from lack of planning - and that's because there are no real characters on the whole show. They were all walking stereotypes when the show started, and not a single one of them has grown or developed in any way that I can tell over the course of three seasons. I think plot inconsistencies show up most glaringly when characters begin to do things that are, for them, unnatural. And this is why I think LOST is still fun to watch in spite of everything, whereas Battlestar just got miserable when things went off the rails. When you have characters that you really care about and that have real identites, face real issues, and actually grow and change, like you did in Battlestar, it requires a lot more sensitivity - sensitivity it turns out most of the writers of that show just didn't really have. But with a show like LOST, which doesn't feature any actual humans, you can do whatever you want with the plot - the plastic pieces will stand anywhere you put them.

Alright, I said some time ago I wasn't going to write any more about LOST - and now I've broken my promise. It's still fun, and still frustrating in its mediocrity (because there's potential in the concept for SO MUCH MORE!!!), and still, ultimately, pointless. It was nice to have another look, but I'm as sure as ever that it's nothing for me.


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