Monday, March 17, 2008

Paradise? Lost!

The current season of Lost is proving to be the best one so far. That is a major feat for any network show, but it’s an even more impressive achievement for Lost, which has struggled with long bouts of mediocrity in the past (actually, I am being nice, most of the episodes from the second season, and the first half of the third season, were flat out terrible). It’s not that the show has been providing a lot of answers to any of the original mysteries, or even the newer ones (Then again, the revelations are incidental to the show’s true purpose anyway, and coming to terms with that point makes Lost an altogether more enjoyable show). Instead, it has built on the game-changing, and excellent, third-season finale, and has developed a concise and fairly tight-narrative with a constant array of surprises and cliffhangers in almost every episode. That they have a definitive end point has obviously helped the producers tremendously – not every episode is great, but the course is set. Even during its less accomplished episodes, the show no longer feels like an interminable ramble through sci-fi and TV drama clichés. For the first time since its debut in 2005, I actually love the show.

Which is kind of surprising if you know me. I am a fan of sci-fi and mystery and all that geeky crap. When I first heard about the show in early 2005 (as I was doing my military service at the time, I had missed out on all the up-front presentations in May 2004, as well as the initial reactions when the show first debuted in September), I could barely contain my excitement. A plane crash in the South Pacific – a ragtag group of survivors on a desert island – weird shit abound: SPLENDID! Just the kind of nerdy set up that gets me all giddy inside. Yet as I sat down to watch the first episode in September 2005, a year after its US premiere, I was underwhelmed. I liked the show, but it lacked that final oomph to arrest me fully. That first season did have a few excellent episodes, such as Walkabout aka Locke’s first flashback (even though it telegraphed the final twist), Solitary aka the one where they all play golf, Numbers aka the one where a math genius helps his detective brother solve crimes with the cunning use of algebra (oh, wait…), and Exodus Part II, featuring Michael’s infamous cry of “WAAAALT,” which, to this day, reverberates in my ear drums. It wasn’t a special show or anything – definitely not the best show on network TV like most of its fans claimed it was – but it had potential to develop.

The creative indolence that would plague the show had a lot to do, however, with one element introduced in the first season: the fricking hatch. My memory of the second season is hazier than that of the first, probably because I was bored shitless throughout most of it. That whole plot about pushing the button, and Locke’s lugubrious transformation from crazy island-nutjob to desk-bound, humourless douchebag, and his subsequent man of science/man of faith nonsense-a-rama with Jack were dull to the point of anesthesia, not aided by the second most boring sub-plot in the history of the show, the survivors from the tail section. I don’t know how you can go wrong with such a fount of untapped crazy, but the producers managed it with aplomb. Even though Ben’s Faux Henry days of captivity, and Michael’s gun-totin’ return, brought the show home for a while, Lost fizzled into an incongruous heap of pointless twists and turns by the end of the second season. “We have no idea how we are going to wrap this up, so here’s a giant statue with four toes (I never understood why this is so weird – it’s like looking at Guernica and saying, ‘wow, the guy who painted this must be an alien – look at the bull; it has two eyes on the side of its head’).”

And if the sophomore slump was bad, then the first ten or so episodes of the third season were truly abysmal. The demystification of The Others (probably inevitable in the long run), which had started in the latter part of the second season, continued with the revelation that they inhabit a suburban pleasantville in the middle of the fricking island – complete with book clubs, jungle gyms, and Tesco’s (probably). This domestication was offset in the later episodes of the season by the introduction of the Hostiles, or whatever they were called, but at the time, it felt like the worst creative decision ever. But it was nothing compared to the monotonous Jack/Kate/Sawyer crappola as they remained captives of The Others, doing nothing but eating bear biscuits, and looking stinky. It was only after the show came back from its ratings-killer mid-season hiatus that things started moving. Desmond went mental and travelled through time (or did he?), Charlie found out he was going to die, some other unforgettable crap happened to other characters, and, one of my favourite moments ever, the two random castaways who were awkwardly introduced at the beginning of the season, Nikki and Lauda (I might have the names wrong), got buried alive by their friends. Looking back, it was that very moment (Billy Dee Williams was in that episode, for god’s sake – BILLY DEE, BILLY DEE, BILLY DEE, Billy Dee Klump) that marks the turning point of the show. It was probably then that Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, showrunners and uber-geeks, threw up their hands in disgust and resignation, like a pair of pentecoastal cannibals, and said: “Fuck it! Let’s set an end date, and go all out mental.” The rest of the season was fast and fun. That was the one thing that had been missing in the show: fun. And the latter half of the third season provided that with style.

And then came the third season finale, Through The Looking Glass, which was probably the show's best episode since Exodus Part II, the penultimate episode of Season 1 (the two-hour season finale was shown as two separate episodes here, as Exodus Part II and Exodus Part, wait for it, III). It was suspenseful, action packed, and, at times, rather moving. The back-to-basics feel to the episode, with all the Lostaways finally together on some – probable – fool’s errand, and finally an interesting – and pertinent – parallel-plot elevated the show above the levels of most other mainstream dramas. Not just that, but it was also unsettling in a way few shows ever dare to be.

First of all, I had always liked Charlie, and that had a lot to do with Dominic Monaghan’s pitch-perfect performance throughout his run. Even though it’s a shame he had to die, I think it was understandable from a story-point of view as there was nowhere his character could go from there. His final self-sacrifice was very moving: a testament to the character’s growth while on the island, as well as underlining the show’s overall theme of redemption/damnation.

In fact, that Yin-Yang relationship was made more obvious than ever before in the latter part of the third season as demonstrated by, for example, the developments in Locke and Sawyer’s respective characters. Locke’s inability to kill his father, or himself, or, in fact, Jack showed that he might not be the hunter/hero that the Island seemed to have molded him into. This subtle emasculation was contrasted by Sawyer’s transformation from a joker/con artist to a murderer. Whereas he was haunted by the memories of killing the man in Sydney, he did not seem to show any remorse for strangling Anthony Cooper, as attested to by his shooting Tom even after the latter had surrendered. Locke’s confrontation with Jack and Sawyer’s with Tom in the episode three finale were linked stylistically (of course), and thematically. The Others probably wanted Locke to kill his father because they wanted to see if he would be able to kill one of his own men should it ever come to it. Obviously he failed – but Sawyer would not have. Sidelined for most of the second and third seasons, Sayid, too, had a return to form as a very, very dangerous man – it was moments like these that formed a coherent whole around the episode.

The redemption/damnation motif also forms the basis of Jack’s story. I know that he is despised more than any other character (apart from Charlie, I suppose), but Jack is one of my favourites. It’s an old caveat of – good – comic book writers that it is far easier to write Wolverine than Cyclops. Similarly, Jack - an uneasy leader whose decisions usually produce ambivalent results - with all his genuine goodwill, heroism, altruism as well as his almost psychotic obsessiveness, sins-of-the-father issues, and, err, voice-control problems, is a much more complicated character than many others on the beach. His arc is the show’s arc (if I have to use the horrible “a” word) – damnation or salvation. And Matthew Fox’s performance, which, admittedly, comes and goes, was fantastic enough in the last seven or so episodes to rise to that larger challenge. So it was a combination of all these factors that made the final revelation in his flashforward that Jack was not redeemed all the more shocking.

Oh yeah – the flashforward.

I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. When, last spring, we were talking about the show on an internet board, my good friend Graydon mentioned that he would like the series finale to be a slowly-revealed flasforward that would “flash back” to how the Lostaways escaped the island. I had entertained similar convention-defying possibilities before (not like that, you filthy heathens), and, albeit slightly similar to the Voyager finale, Graydon’s idea was great. A few days afterwards, I accidentally saw an avatar on another board of Leonidas/Jack, and, remembering the leap-in-time approach of the Battlestar Galactica third season finale (this is probably the geekiest post ever), I entertained whether a similar idea would be introduced in Lost. There were also a few tell-tale signs in the episode as well. The first one was the deliberate obscuration of the date of the paper, and the identity of the person who committed suicide. Another sign was Jack’s mobile, which was a Motorola Razr, and not released until 2005 (or, maybe, 2006) – having said that, I thought it might have been just an error (it obviously wasn’t, as proven by Jin’s bulky mobile in the most recent episode). Even though Jack’s mentioning his father threw me off at first, I thought it was too obvious a red herring, and that, if confronted, the producers could just write it off as Jack’s being high as a cloud at the time. Still, I was flabbergasted when Kate walked out of the shadows. It was such a bold, and imaginative move - setting up a great avenue to explore for the three seasons ahead. The fact that Jack had not been redeemed after all they went through (a line of Jack’s at which I raised an eyebrow) was an incredibly powerful way to end the show. It was like the producers’ saying: “Right, so you want answers? Here’s one: Kate and Jack get off the island, but they end up estranged, and, even better, Jack is more fucked up than ever! Happy now, bitches?” In one single episode, the show had managed to undo most of the effects of introducing The Others as regular characters, or the hatch, or, well, all the creative missteps of the past two seasons. Unlike the end of the second season, we were left with genuine questions. Who’s in the casket? What makes Jack go nuts? Whose boat is it? How do they get off the island? Why do they have to get back?

And it was with that new-found love for the show that I found myself counting the days to the fourth season premiere. Come back tomorrow for the second part of this post, where I’ll be reviewing the latest season so far, analysing the show’s technical aspects, and considering what might be in store for the last thirty-odd episodes…