Note: This review was mostly written before Dan decided to call me out, which is kinda coincidental, but in which case will read less like I’m defending myself (which he pre-assumed I’d be writing in response), and more like a straightforward and attemptedly (yes, I said “attemptedly”) unbiased review. I’ve also written it before the airing of the season finale, which may be unfair (due to possible “wrapping up” of plots, or paying off of loose ends from earlier), but may in actuality be more fair due to the fact that I’m not blinded by my opinion of the single episode, keeping me honest about the rest of the season.Also, I apologize for the extreme longwindedness.
With Dan’s take on “the current TV landscape” overtly lacking any mention of the rise of drama and fall of comedy (only 13 hours a week among the five networks devoted to comedies for next fall, as opposed to 47 for dramas… of course that’s counting Desperate Housewives as a drama), I thought I’d focus on a few hour-long shows in my next set of reviews.
First and foremost, my current favorite drama, and the winner of last year’s Emmy and Golden Globe in the category. LOST’s Season 2 managed to expand the world of the show enormously, but still keep viewers in the dark as to the overall picture, and wanting more answers, sometimes a good thing and sometimes a bad thing.
For those of you who haven’t watched any of the show at all, it’s probably best for you to start at the beginning, partly because there’s so much going on, and partly just because the first season is a lot better. The show revolves around the survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious island. There’s a huge cast of characters, including the doctor, the Korean couple, the fugitive, the con-man, the ex-druggie rock star, the pregnant Australian girl, the rich brother and sister, the mysterious and wise bald man, the black guy and his estranged son, the Iraqi military man, and of course, the fat guy….. Whew, I think that’s all of them. There apparently were 38 total survivors, but these are the only ones we spend any real time with. The other 24 people are usually just random extras walking around in the background, who somehow never have anything interesting to do in the way of advancing the story. While learning how to get along and how to survive together, they encounter various different strange things, including some sort of monster that uproots trees and kills people, some polar bears, a strange French radio transmission that says “it killed them all”, and has been playing for sixteen years… and that’s only in the first two hours.
Whereas the first season included events that seemed strange, and you could just say, “They’re on a strange island”, season 2 tried to give vague answers to the questions about the oddities, and at the same time, keep viewers intrigued by keeping them in the dark, revealing the story little by little. Of course with each “answer” comes at least 3 more questions. It’s this dragging on of the answers that drives most people to keep watching. There are those, however, who are frustrated by the whole thing, and are too cynical, or just would rather watch shows that wrap up nicely every episode. Personally, I’m a fan of the shows with huge overarching stories and cliffhangers meant to keep me tuned in. It means the characters must be well-developed and we feel an attachment to them more than if we just see them solving a case or healing someone. I also enjoy those types of shows, because while adhering to the serialized nature of old-time movies (the ones your grandparents tell you about seeing for a nickel every Saturday), they tend to be the ones challenging the rules and format of television shows, breaking new ground and taking us places we’ve never been. I tend to shy away from cop shows and hospital shows, because in essence, Grey’s Anatomy is Chicago Hope is St. Elsewhere, and it’s been done to death, usually by the same people (cough cough, Steven Bochco, David E. Kelly). Lastly, I’ll just admit that usually when I’m interested in an episode of something and it ends in a cliffhanger, I will be the sucker that P.T. Barnum was talking about, and I will desire to see a suspenseful moment come to its conclusion, whether it be a week later, or after a commercial break. That’s why once you start watching an episode of Law and Order you can’t stop until its over, but you could care less about watching another one.
Getting back to pushing the (for lack of a better phrase) “grammar of the medium” in new directions, the first season was so gripping because all of the characters were interesting and new. Also, it employed a completely unique way of introducing us to their personalities, using intermittent flashbacks that focused on one character each week, and one particular story from that person’s past. Usually, these stories are picked/written to reflect what that person is going through on the island, and to inform the viewer of why he/she is acting a certain way, or making a tough decision.
Oftentimes, and what made the show so intriguing from the get-go, was how they played with the expectations created by our first impressions of characters. They’d go back and show us that certain people led completely different lives than they want others to assume, the lives that they’ve left behind, so that they can start with a clean slate. Also, many of the people had strange instances in their past, and occasionally if you looked closely, you’d see another of the people from the island in someone else’s flashback, or at least a connection to the other person. People (the internet obsessives… I don’t consider myself one, but I’ll look at the evidence they have to offer) started to obsess over why certain characters were appearing in others’ flashbacks and if everyone who was on the plane had some sort of “six degrees”-style connection to each other. Of course, since nobody ever talks about their past either (in addition to not talking about island discoveries), nobody ever realizes, “Hey, that guy in that picture’s your dad? I took a trip to Australia with him and he was wasted. I was gonna offer him some help, but I had to get somewhere. How’s he doing?” “Oh he ended up dead from alcohol poisoning in a gutter in Sydney. That’s actually where I was flying from, when the plane crashed into this island hell. Thanks a lot for ruining my entire existence, you jackass.” One big question that nobody ever really touches on, though: are these flashbacks specifically intended for the viewer, and therefore completely the facts, or are we seeing the thoughts and memories of the specific characters, allowing them to eventually somehow be discredited, i.e. could they be using the faces of people from the island to replace background people from events in their past, just because they can’t remember what those random people looked like, or possibly had their memories tampered with?
While it is perfectly feasible to fill 24 hours of television (with commercials) this way, at some point it’s going to get old, and the flashbacks are going to become insignificant or boring. That’s my first complaint about the second season (over 1000 words in!). While most of the stories in the characters’ pasts were relevant to their present motives and actions, many of them were just plain boring or possibly irrelevant to the big picture. Sure, I can’t expect every one of everyone’s flashbacks to involve something paranormal, but watching the con-man pull off a pretty normal con job, that has nothing of relevance to do with his overall story-arc, and is completely predictable, isn’t the most interesting thing to me… especially if it’s slow-moving. The same goes with watching the blonde rich girl try to get over the fact that she’s “useless”, or the bald guy trying to come to terms with his estranged and ungrateful father, or the rockstar trying to help his junkie brother get clean. I understand the reasons that they were put there in terms of what the characters were going through in the present, but if I want to watch boring melodrama about a whiny teenage rich girl who wasn’t allowed a shot at her dream because her dad left all her money to her stepmother who won’t give her a cent, I’ll go watch The O.C. At least there I’ll learn what “Indie” (the genre) music is hip nowadays. Even WB shows are at least more entertaining than that.
In the second season they’ve moved away from stories about the survivors trying to get off of the island (save for one episode where one guy justly decides to create a giant SOS sign, and nobody wants to help for some reason), or fighting over food and medical supplies (mysterious food drops keep them supplied, in addition to the island’s staggering amount of mangoes), and basically all of the necessity-type issues, and onto the bigger things at hand. You see, it’s not themselves that they should be fighting with (although that proves difficult due to the incredible amount of stubbornness each character possesses), it’s the group of people on the other side of the island, who were there before the plane crashed and who want something from the survivors but won’t tell them what, instead opting to threaten them, and kidnap some of them. Of course, like with everyone else on the island, I’m sure if they all just talked it out, and thought about things before doing them, all of the conflict and issues with each other would be solved. But this isn’t a show about problem solving. It’s a show about characters acting, usually, stupidly or irrationally, with the only reason being to keep the plot going. After all, if there was no conflict, we’d be watching Gilligan’s Island, and who wants to watch that? In fact, I guess in the simplest terms, the problem is that the show went from having the characters drive the plot forward in the first season to having the plot drive the characters in the second season. Rather than being about what the survivors find, or what choices they make, it becomes about the things on the island that affect the characters, and the “mythology” of the place… how it affects the characters, and not how they affect each other.
Of course, what second season would be complete without a group of new characters? In addition to the mysterious people on the other side of the island, (who may or may not be running some sort of scientific experiment on the crash survivors), there was a second group of survivors who were in the tail section of the plane (affectionately referred to by the online community as “talies”), that eventually got whittled down due to attacks and kidnappings by the mysterious “others”. These characters were greeted by fans with mixed reactions, some becoming quick favorites and good additions, and others being grating and just seeming like dead weight meant to stir conflict, but not really serving their purpose. By now, there’s only a few left, due to some high profile offings of characters.
This brings me to my second (or is it third? or fourth?) complaint. This season (not just on this show, as I’ll explain if I write something about 24 season 5) has been filled with the killing off of popular characters, or at least medium-sized ones. If it’s done for a story purpose on occasion I don’t have too much of a problem with letting go of characters. The problem comes when a show does it mainly for ratings and once it’s over things don’t change as much as they should, or characters don’t react as dramatically as they should for as long as they should. There was one major death in the first season, and it was used to advance characters’ reasonings, heighten drama, and make a statement to the audience that people are expendable… that “anything” can happen. Then in the second season, with as much advertising hoopla as in the first season, there was another death. This was done in a way that should have heightened tensions within the group and drove the plot for upcoming episodes. Unfortunately, I believe this was mishandled and after 2 episodes (about 2 days time on the show) everyone had pretty much gotten over the fact that she died. The producers contend that they had nowhere to advance the character to, but she had just started two new minor storylines. Near the end of the season they had at least one more major death, and this one finally did what it needed to do, served as a motivation to advance the story in a major way, promising payoffs in this finale, which the producers have sworn will be more revealing than last year’s (generally considered) underwhelming finale, and yet at the same time also leave us with a huge cliffhanger that will set up next season’s major conflict.
Which brings me to a topic that I don’t know how I feel about. Certain TV shows like to set up a goal that characters are attempting to achieve, and with that, payoffs and conclusions to plots for us at the end of the season. Season 1 of Lost had the bald guy attempting to crack open a metal door that he had found in the ground, but lacked a handle or latch, and the black guy, the Korean guy, and the con-man building a raft in an attempt to escape. The finale had each of these characters succeed at each of their goals, only to meet an obstacle afterward, thus setting up the second season. The problem with this season is for the bulk of it, there wasn’t much driving it forward. The characters realized that there’s more to this island than they thought, but they’re not freaked out about it, or anxious to actively pursue escape. They’re not actively seeking anything, for the most part. Sure the first half of the season had the people from the raft journeying back to their own side of the island, and the end seems to have a group ready to attack the other side of the island to get back one of their own, but in between everything was kinda fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants. That’s not to say that there isn’t an overall plan for the show. I believe that the people in charge have an endgame, and a few planned stops on the way. This season, however, it just seemed like the middle was trying to be filler to get to this season’s “stop” and big reveal.
Why I say that I don’t know how I feel about that is because, really, we’re pretty much in the same position as all the people on the island, trying to understand the surroundings as we go along. We know as much as all of the survivors combined (at least regarding the island… not about their pasts), but we don’t know more than that. We hope for them to share information with each other, but know it’s not going to happen. And while this leads to a lack of action, I think I’d rather not know the secrets until the heroes discover them. There are no scenes of the villains in their secret lair planning their shcheme, filling the audience in and making us cringe when we know that the choices the heroes make are wrong. We’re in this with them, and if they make a wrong choice, we won’t know it until they do, and I think I’d rather have it that way. In fact, on a positive note, the season MVP had to be the person who was caught in the jungle… Henry Gale. Why this is important to this topic is that the characters suspected him of being one of the “hostiles” or “others”, when he insisted (through pain of torture) that he crashed on the island in a balloon. We didn’t know if he was lying, just as the other characters didn’t. We found out the truth just as they did, and we didn’t know if we could trust him, just as they didn’t. Every scene that he is in is absolutely gripping, because we know so little about him, and every single word that comes out of his mouth could be a lie to manipulate people, or he could say it knowing the people would think that he’s lying… or he could just be telling the truth in general, with no ulterior motive. This performance and character alone make the second half of season two worth watching, and it’s all because we don’t see his side of the story.
The other thing that was an issue (and not just with me, but with every person who watches every week), which wasn’t the show’s fault, but the network’s fault, was that they would run a string of new episodes for a few weeks, and then a long span of repeats. Viewers had a hard time knowing when new episodes were on, were bored with repeats, and were impatiently waiting for the wrapping up of cliffhangers from weeks previous, usually only to find that they wouldn’t wrap up until a few episodes later anyway. The network has decided to fix things next year by running a few months of uninterrupted episodes in the fall, taking a few months off to debut a new show, and then coming back in February with the rest of the season. After getting the DVDs of the first season, and watching them, I realized that if I had the patience, I’d much rather wait the extra nine months, and just buy the season set, because watching weekly, or however often it’s on, is quite grueling, and usually very manipulative.
With all of these negatives, you would wonder why I claimed that this was my favorite drama on TV. (now comes the part where I justify myself) First of all, I don’t think that this year it was the best drama on TV. It may have been my favorite, but I can’t ignore the huge logic holes, and the few procrastination episodes in the middle. As a whole however, I think it’s the most engaging drama, due to the sheer amount of story and history that not only are contained in the island itself, but in the characters as well.
I think that the story and the characters are more realized and well-rounded than most shows are. By allowing us to see the people’s backstories (albeit selectively), we can understand where people are coming from without being bored by endless cheesily-spouted exposition. You can understand each character’s drive and reasoning, oftentimes before he/she takes action, because we know where s/he’s been. Not only that, but their stories are usually more interesting than normal drama fare. It’s not often that you one of your main characters is an overweight man who spent time in a mental hospital where he met a patient who compulsively repeated a set of six numbers that the character eventually used to win the lottery, only to be marred with immense amounts of bad luck for the rest of his life.
I believe that in addition, it is the most creative, engaging, and unique television show I’ve ever seen. Sure, there are those television history enthusiasts out there who’ll tell me that a weird island has been done before on “The Prisoner”, but never with a group of characters this large and diverse, never with a mythology that is expanding to Asia-sized proportions, and never as evenly managed. Some people will say that there’s definitely a few lead characters, and I agree. But this is the largest ensemble show I’ve ever seen where every character is given at least one hour to be fleshed out, and where every character is checked in on on a weekly basis. All this, and they manage to keep the mythology-obsessed people generally happy.
Think about it this way. The X-Files had two characters, and justly used “monster of the week” self-contained episodes to flesh out a season that usually bookended, and possibly “middled” with episodes dealing with that show’s over-arching storyline. There was very little character progression, mainly Scully coming to realize that things aren’t always easily answered, and that didn’t come until like the sixth season… this after having seen all that creepy weird stuff. Yet the first five seasons of that show are considered some of the best of the 1990s, and most people who watched the show continuously are more interested in the conspiracy/aliens story than they are with the repetitive self-contained eps. LOST succeeds at taking that mythology and upping by at least 5 times. There are seven times as many main characters, and they change their perceptions of the events just as we do. The one thing that the X-Files did much better was the self-contained stories, and while I concede that LOST is more about the overall picture, there are a handful of episodes that work rather effectively by themselves.
Overall, the show has its faults and I acknowledge them, specifically the leading us on little by little, but the general scope and size of the undertaking, and the skill with which it is pulled off amaze me week after week. There may be better shows out there, (at least this year), but LOST’s labyrinthine story has had me hooked since the day the pilot aired.
LOST’s second season gets a slightly disappointing 3.5 stars. Mostly because of the major issues I dealt with in the first half, i.e. some boring episodes, some plotlines that went nowhere (at least as of now), some frustrations over not getting the answers (but like those adventure-puzzle games, the journey is usually more interesting than the destination), the rather soap-opera-style killings of major characters during sweeps weeks to get ratings and not serve the story, and of course the problem of the repeats, which will be solved next year, or by watching the episodes on DVD. The reason it doesn’t get less stars (those are a lot of complaints) is because of the usually deft handling of the many, many characters (including ones I didn’t mention way,wayyyy back when this review began in the Byzantine era), the extreme creativity of the story, the way they’ve managed to keep the idea of a group of people on an island fresh after two seasons, the way they’re taking their time in giving us what we want, so that they don’t blow it all in one shot, and the way that they pay off minor events or things that they know don’t make sense. They even had a voice for all of the background extras for a few episodes until they exploded him randomly and without warning. That’s right. He exploded, chunks and all. It was great, and is just one of the many reasons why I love this show.