Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

The Lost Post

June 27, 2011

I discovered Lost at a darkish time in my life, which happened to coincide with the explosion of TV-to-DVD releases in the mid-2000s.  It turned out to be perfect timing:  I was lonely, bored, and had plenty of free time, so collecting and marathoning addictive TV shows became kind of a passion for me (and one that, believe it or not, contributed to bringing me back to writing after a long time away).  Lost was one of my early fixes during this time.

(Here’s the obligatory spoiler warning.  Although I suspect the spoilers are pretty general, this post is more for folks who have already seen the show.)

If you missed Lost, I encourage you to at least check out the two-hour pilot episode, which may be one of the most impressive series openers ever.  The show starts with a plane crash, and throws together a disparate group of survivors on a deserted island.  But this isn’t just any island…this island isn’t normal.  Weird, scary shit starts happening, and the survivors, nominally led by the conventional hero of the series, Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox), begin their often frantic and contentious struggle to survive in a hostile, Twilight Zone-ish environment.

I found Lost’s opening episode an utterly compelling fusion of  adventure, mystery, humor, and horror.  But it’s also a masterpiece of casting, which may have been the real key to the show’s longevity:  it introduces and deploys a massive roster of characters, most of whom make distinctive first impressions.  Soon it would become apparent that the show didn’t always quite knew what to do with all these characters, but in the early days, everyone felt important:  Kate, Sawyer, Locke, Michael, Jin, Sun, Sayid, Hurley, Charlie, Claire, and on and on.  Some of these characters were given strong storylines, others…uh, not so much, but either way, the actors sold it on sheer charisma.  It’s remarkable how quickly the show gots its audience onboard with such an enormous group of people, whose interactions frequently carried the show even when the plots meandered aimlessly.  Strong casting, often of quirky, interesting actors, was a strength the show retained throughout its run.

Lost was also a groundbreaker in terms of TV story-telling technique, filled with intrigue-laced flashbacks that peeled away character backstory, ricocheting through time to gradually alter the viewer’s appreciation of what was happening from episode to episode.  It tried things with structure that hadn’t been done, and occasionally it did so brilliantly. In the process, it introduced science fiction and fantasy content to viewers who probably didn’t even know that’s what they were getting, and influenced (for good or ill) scripted TV programming for years.

The episode that truly converted me was the fourth hour of season one, “Walkabout,” the famous hour that delivered the initial backstory for John Locke (Terry O’Quinn).  Written by David Fury (who is awesome, by the way), “Walkabout” deployed Lost‘s distinctive flashback technique to powerful and surprising effect, and suddenly a show that had found life as “Survivor with a script” became an utterly unique SF mystery adventure series.

The first year of Lost still holds up, in my memory at least, as one of the most satisfying seasons of TV I’ve ever watched — or at least, one of the most engrossing DVD marathons.  After that, though, the show’s quality quickly grew uneven.  The series lost its luster a bit in seasons two and three as the flashback technique losts its novelty and the writers re-hashed old ground with its early characters — although new characters, like Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaja) and Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), livened things up.  Then season four came along and brought some new energy to the series, reimagining the formula rather cleverly and executing a more precise season arc than usual.  The show attempted a similar structural overhaul in season five, but the effect was much clumsier.

And finally, season six — another conceptual overhaul, and one of the riskier ones, and oh how I wanted it to work.  A show that had delivered intriguing science fantasy, horror, time travel, and mysterious coincidences galore threw an unpredictable alternate universe into the mix.  Despite a handful of casting logistics issues, which exposed the seams occasionally, season six started very strongly, reminding me why I’d gotten into the show in the first place — for its characters, and the promise they’d held.  But the risks didn’t stop as Lost ran down its run, and they didn’t all pay off.  The fourth-to-last episode, a high concept gamble, flopped utterly for me, and the ultimate wrap-up was a major disappointment — an overlong goodbye full of plot holes and clip-show sentimentality.   And from a genre perspective, the exit strategy felt like a cheat.

So why devote so much wordage to a show that peaked early and gradually slid, only to end unsatisfyingly?  Well, for one thing, Lost simply engaged me, and it always gave me something to chew on.  When it worked, it really worked; when it failed, it often failed interestingly, sometimes spectacularly, which can be entertaining in its own right.  And ultimately, I think Lost is an important show:  for its unusual premise, its structural experimentation, its unique ensemble chemistry, and for bringing mainstream-unfriendly genre ideas to a mass audience in new ways.  It may have been a huge, ungainly, runaway train of a series, but it was one of a kind, and it transformed the landscape of TV.

And with that, I’ll wrap with some things I hated about Lost, and other things I liked.  (Both lists could probably be even longer, but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere!)

Things I didn’t like about Lost:

  • The gender politics.  Easily the most disappointing aspect of the show.   Lost gave us great characters with a winning cast, but its track record for giving women active roles, strong personalities, and interesting powers and abilities is simply abysmal.  Most disappointing was Kate (Evangeline Lilly), who started off like gangbusters and was increasing submarined by the writing as the series wore on.  I always thought Lilly was good on this show, but her character got a raw deal, and really that’s true of most of the female principals.  Their moments of glory were few and far between, compared to the more thoroughly developed and active men.
  • Pointless factions.  It strikes me that Lost broke the characters into bickering little subgroups simply to manage the cast.  But often these “I’m right and you’re wrong!” disagreements were utterly arbitrary, senseless conflict for conflict’s sake.  Occasionally these squabbles felt thematic — faith vs. science debates, perhaps — but usually it just revealed the show’s lack of a plan, writers scrambling to maneuver characters where they needed them to go.
  • Jack Shephard.  No offense to Fox, who does everything asked of him, but this is just a boring character, perhaps all the more boring for being upstaged by so many far-more-interesting “side” characters.
  • The Love Triangle.  Ugh, how sick did I get of the love triangle between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer (Josh Holloway).
  • Sayid & Shannon, together at last.  Really?
  • Claire’s baby.  I so didn’t care about this subplot.  In fact, I feel like the show had a weird obsession with motherhood that infected just about every female character.
  • Early Ben (Michael Emerson):  An accidental, runaway hit of a character, I found Dr. Benjamin Linus an effectively creepy, but rather irritating device: the pusher-of-buttons, who often seemed like the writers’ tool to force all the characters to jump through their plot hoops on schedule.
  • Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell):  She started with an interesting aura of inscrutability, but ultimately devolved into a rather flat character, relegated to a thankless role as the love triangle’s fourth wheel.
  • Season five in general.  The time travel flashes quickly grew tedious, and the “We have to go back to the island!” business equally so.  There are redeeming moments later in the season, but mostly…meh.
  • “Across the Sea.”  The fourth-to-last episode of the series, one of its most linear, about Jacob and the man-in-black, with a weirdly stunt-cast Allison Janney.  Blech…
  • Slow-motion reunion scenes.  Lost really laid the sentimentality on thick at times, in glacially slow, emotionally charged scenes of long-separated characters coming together for hugs, handshakes, and meaningful looks.  When executed poorly, it’s pretty hard to watch.
  • The destination.  Lost took us a long way without really getting us anywhere.  Kind of a bummer.

Things I loved about Lost:

  • Hurley (Jorge Garcia):  Gotta love Hugo.  The show had an unfortunate tendency to write Hurley as a stereotypical fat guy, a shambling appetite.  But Garcia is the likeable glue of the cast, and his “dudes” never got old for me.  Also, his backstory episodes were easily among the most entertaining.
  • The backstory for Sun (Yunjin Kim) and Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) :  This really worked for me.  These characters were just a shadow of their former selves by series’ end, alas.
  • Vincent.  Yes, I love Walt’s dog, what can I say?
  • Desmond.  As much as the business with “The Hatch” and pushing the button struck me as…iffy, Desmond Hume was a standout character for me throughout — one of the few genuine “good guys” on the island.
  • “Expose.”  This is the infamous Nikki & Paulo episode from season three, which I gather left many viewers shaking their heads.  But I liked this one, a modern Alfred Hitchcock Presents that promoted a pair of nobodies from the chorus for a brief turn at center stage.  A rather weird, different episode at a time when the show really needed weird and different.
  • Season four in general.  The Oceanic Six throughline really propelled this season, which felt to me like the only season with a strong, well planned framework.  Few filler episodes, and the major new characters introduced this season, especially Daniel (Jeremy Davies) and Miles (Ken Leung), really worked.  Plus, this season has “The Constant,” the Desmond time travel episode that may be one of the show’s best.
  • Later Ben.  Later on, when Ben Linus loses his mojo and becomes far less sure of himself, he becomes pretty likeable — and Emerson is pretty great.  (Remember when Sayid looks up at him from the fountain-of-youth pool in the Temple?  Ben’s reaction is absolutely priceless.)
  • Slow-motion reunion scenes.  Lost really laid the sentimentality on thick at times, in glacially slow, emotionally charged scenes of long-separated characters coming together for hugs, handshakes, and meaningful looks.  When executed well, it…well, it kind of got to me.
  • The journey.  Lost took us a lot of weird places, and some of the stops were pretty damn fun!

So, what did you think of the show?  A classic?  Crap?  Both?

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  • Michael A. Burstein June 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

    For me, the thing about Lost was that it was compelling, captivating television. It was the one show I wanted to watch in real-time, so I could discuss it with others immediately.

    • Chris East June 27, 2011 at 10:53 pm

      Your comment makes me think about my viewing habits, actually…my tendency to marathon shows may have skewed my appreciation of the show.

      I notice the seasons I liked best, 1 and 4, have broader arcs than the others — which perhaps worked better episode-by-episode. I wonder if I’d have enjoyed the show more, as a whole, if I’d made a point of watching it every week rather than mass-consuming it after the fact. Hmmm…