|| Print ||
|Written by Frederick Hidell|
|Wednesday, 31 October 2007 19:00|
DRUNKEN RAGES AND BAD MEMORIES!
I stared at the television screen, mouth agape in horror. What was this terrible sight before my eyes? Could this really be television's Lost, the show I had so recently fallen in love with? Good god, what had happened? And, more importantly, how did it happen so quickly? It was like my favourite show had suddenly been bodysnatched… torn away from my screen by alien entities and replaced with a zombie-like doppelganger. Surely this couldn’t really be season three of Lost!
I raised a glass to my lips and sipped, hoping straight purifying vodka would wash away the visual contamination, or - at the very least - get me drunk enough to make the swill I was watching psychologically digestible. I closed my eyes, swallowed, took a deep breath, and prayed that when I opened my eyes I would be looking at quality television. Deep down, however, I already knew that the prayer and booze would do no good. I had been at this routine long enough by now to know that.
I began drinking heavily while watching Lost a quarter of the way into season three. Five episodes of watching Sawyer and Kate, action heroes both, sitting in cages doing absolutely nothing was enough to drive any fan to hard drinking… certainly this one anyway.
The idea was that the booze would sustain me through this early season rough patch by dulling my senses enough to make those horrific episodes seem somehow interesting, and possibly even enjoyable. I returned to Lost each week with a glass of ice in one hand and a bottle in the other.
Three quarters of the way through the season, and many, many bottles of liquorlater, it had become obvious that this wasn't just a rough patch that Lost was experiencing… this was what the show had become. This mangled, blood and gore strewn train-wreck of a TV show was all that was left of a series that only a season earlier had been the summit of current primetime drama. When the episode ended, I turned off the television in disgust. If new staff writer (and comic book veteran) Brian K. Vaughn couldn’t save the show for me, nothing would. I finished my drink, and smashed the empty bottle over the top of the TV in a bout of rage. I had had enough. ‘This will not happen again next week,’ I told myself. I was finished with Lost. The show's rise to the top had been quick, but its fall had been even quicker.
GOOD GOD, ABC HAS A HIT!
Lost came out of the gate swinging, two and half years earlier, with a big budget two hour pilot that drew in 18.6 millions viewers and gave ABC its first hit show in nearly a decade. What at first appeared to be a fictionalized recreation of the reality series Survivor soon revealed itself to be something else entirely. The first season of Lost introduced audiences to a world shrouded in an aura of intense mystery, and even more intense psychological drama. Not since Twin Peaks had a series stimulated such water cooler discussion and armchair hypothesizing. What was really happening on that island, anyway? Everyone had an opinion, and each seemed as valid as the last.
Three of Lost’s stars (Mattew Fox, Evangeline Lilly and Josh Halloway) were young, likeable, good-looking leads, and while studio execs likely pointed to the Jack/Kate/Sawyer love triangle as the reason for the show’s success, it was a different relationship entirely that actually drew viewers back week after week.
AND IN THIS CORNER OF THE RING…. FAITH!
Jack’s "man of science" versus John’s "man of faith" replaced Mulder and Scully as the representative combatants occupying the squared circle in which ‘the metaphysical’ and ‘the real’ would be battled out in popular culture. The chemistry between veteran television performers Matt Fox and Terry O’Quinne sparkled and popped week in and week out. After years of providing exposition in supporting roles, O’Quinne - an alumni of many cult series (X-Files, The West Wing, Harsh Realm, Millennium, Alias) and cult films (Stepfather I and II) - had found the perfect role in John Locke. The show’s rising success and narrative complexity can be clearly charted alongside Locke’s season one storyline.
While wandering the jungle midway through the first season, Locke discovers a hatch hidden under the earth. He spends the last half of the season unearthing it. After multiple failed attempts at open the hatch, in the episode "Dues Ex Machina," Locke finally gives up and stares down into the darkness beyond the window of the hatch in utter despair… and then a light goes on inside! As that light lit up the silhouette of the already iconic character, on televisions screens across North America, fireworks crackled in minds of millions of viewers.
The show transformed in that moment. It ceased to be about people stranded on an island, and instead became specifically about unravelling the mystery of the show’s mise-en-scene… about psychoanalysing the show’s environment, not its characters. When the dynamite exploded in the season finale, finally blasting through the outer hull of the hatch, it also blew away any remaining notion that this show was about physical struggles. Lost was now an exploration of the mind. Jack and Locke stared down into the darkness of the open hatch… and the season ended. Audiences were left to ponder just what was down there for an entire summer.
Unlike The X-Files, which time after time "killed" Mulder as the centerpiece of its season ending cliff-hanger, Lost’s first season ended with a cliff-hanger that opened up a myriad of possibilities, rather than closing them down.
YOU’VE GOT TO MAKE YOUR OWN KIND OF MUSIC, SING YOUR OWN SPECIAL SONG
This is when I fell in love with Lost. It wasn’t love at first sight, by any means. It took an entire season, but by those final moments of season one, the show had me completely. Lost opened my mind and forced me to dive into my own imagination for answers in a way no television show ever had before.
I didn’t spend the summer wondering whether the lead character was dead or alive. I spent it pondering questions like: "What is reality?" and "What signifiers do we use in art to signify ‘the real’ and which do we use to signify ‘the fantastic’?" The blackness within the hatch represented a world of infinite possibilities and it was up to the viewer to populate that world over the course of the summer.
With the second season premiere, the show pulled in 23 million viewers… and for good reason. The five minute long opening teaser is one of the greatest in television history. It was brilliantly shot, edited and lit. A man awakes and (like the show in microcosm) it is his environment that is fascinating, not necessary the character. He performs his daily morning rituals in a room that seems to be a mishmash of multiple eras: "Mama" Cass Elliot’s "Make Your Own Kind of Music" plays on an old vinyl record player; he types something into a seventies-era computer; he injects himself with a modern looking syringe device. Where is this happening? When is it happening? Is it a flash back? Is he on the island?
"Mama" Cass’ beautiful song speaks perfectly to what Lost’s audience had spent the last summer doing: making their own version of the story, figuring things our in their own minds, "singing their own song." The teaser represented a summer’s worth of pondering; the myriad of possibilities discussed by fans that summer all seemed to coexist simultaneously in the strange mini-art film that was the opening teaser.
Finally, at the end of the teaser, it is revealed that the images that we are looking at are taking place inside the hatch! The show’s creators provided a definitive answer to the question audiences had spent months considering, and the answer was fascinating.
FORGET MCLUHAN, THE SHOW IS THE MEDIUM!
The second season brilliantly played off the cognitive dissidence created by the new locale. After a year spent in the jungle, having characters suddenly functioning in an environment that was both modern, and yet at the same time antiquated, was deeply intriguing. The characters had descended into the clockwork inner workings of the island’s mind, and what did they discover there? A psychological game!
The themes of reality versus fantasy and science versus faith were perfectly encapsulated into a simple, easily understandable signifier: the button. The characters are informed that if they do not insert a specific sequence of numbers into a computer every 108 minutes and then press the "execute" button, the results could be catastrophic. Is it real? Is it not? The characters don’t know and neither did the audience. It was up to us to "sing our own song." Do we sign up for a continuation of the status quo or do we risk change? Do we go with our gut instincts or with our minds? Do we voluntarily subscribe to society’s mind games? How do we know what is real? How do we define real?
The dialectical tension of science constantly pushing up against faith (represented by the button and embellished upon in other aspects of the show) fuelled the entire second season as it rocketed headlong into mystery. In doing so, Lost kept me glued to the edge of my seat with each and every episode. By the time the button was becoming too familiar a concept, viewers were given another embodiment of the show’s dialectical tension with the introduction of the character Henry Gale. Was he who he said he was? Or was he one of The Others? What means were justifiable in extracting the truth from him? Lost balanced on a fine line, and, once again, audiences were left to make up their own minds.
It is no coincidence that The Turn of the Screw is one of the books on the shelf in the hatch, as the show constantly forced viewers to enter into an extremely uncomfortable liminal space, where they had to ask deep questions not only about the show they were watching, but about their own minds and psyche.
Lost had tapped into a unique magic that few works of art, let alone television shows, are able to harness. Viewers weren’t just watching stories as presented by storytellers, they were jointly investigating ideas in some sort of mutual spiritual and intellectual endeavour. The show transcended technology… Lost itself became the medium, not the television screens on which it was projected. The show functioned as an imagination stimulant, rather than the soma that most shows are accused of being. The episodes were the medium and the message was created and projected against the walls of the viewer’s skull. It was magical.
WILL SOMEONE PLEASE TEAR OUT MY EYES?
Then season three began, and from the opening teaser onward… the magic was gone. The teaser to "A Tale of Two Cities" desperately tried to recreate the dynamic opening of the previous season, but failed miserably. Again, an old pop song provided the soundtrack, but instead of "Mama" Cass’ lesser known ballad, this time it was Petula Clark’s annoyingly familiar "Downtown." Instead of a tone of mystical strangeness, the song added an air of familiarity. The environment too, reinforced this feeling. Rather than the fascinating environment of the hatch, the new character, Juliet, navigated her way around a typical suburban kitchen and living room, making muffins and then attending a book club meeting. Rather than mysterious, strange and arty, the teaser just felt utterly dull.
At the end of the teaser it is revealed that this suburban scene is taking place within The Others’ village. Unlike the hatch, which proved utterly fascinating, The Others’ village (like The Others themselves) is immediately established as dull, familiar, and boring. This was not a good way to kick off the season, and it unfortunately set the tone for the next fifteen episodes that followed.
The mission statement of season three seems to have been "convince the audience that The Others are regular people." This is an extremely different goal than the previous two season’s aim of stimulating the audiences’ imaginations and forcing them to think for themselves while layering complex metaphors upon fascinating mysteries. Rather than exist in a liminal space, the show now forced specific aims upon the audience, primarily through the character of Juliet.
Lost, which had always been subtle and assured, suddenly became clumsy and obvious. Episode after episode the writers would make heavy handed attempts to get the audience to "care" about Juliet and The Others. The creators, however, failed the present these new characters in any sort of coherent manner. Season three episodes constantly stressed the fact that The Others are regular people: they live in a sort of suburbia; they have kids and girlfriends; they have family back home that they miss; they make mistakes; they get sick and need help. The show seemed desperate to get the audience to, if not like Juliet and her colleagues, at least feel sorry for them. Of course, this comes into direct conflict with the fact that The Others: kidnap children; murder people on a regular basis; lie about everything; can never be trusted; and are always trying to manipulate people in some way. They also have super technology, crazy-assed electrical shield things, futuristic brainwashing equipment, and, you know… submarines. They are super stealthy and smart. They are bad guys that you should fear… but you can also beat them up using only a sling shot, escape from their cages with no problem, and easily take their weapons from them.
Instead of existing in the space between opposite poles, Lost now wanted to have it both ways at the same time. Mysterious and complex was replaced with clumsy and obvious, and the more the creators tried to make me care about Juliet, the more my seething hatred for the character boiled.
WATCHING PAINT DRY…
Lost’s pacing suddenly ground to the speed of a snail. The show that had produced 44 minutes of utter heart-pounding jaw clenching drama a season before, with the episode "The Other 48 Days", now seemed utterly unable to kindle even the faintest flame of suspense. Sawyer and Kate spend the first episode in a cage, then the second, then the third… by the forth, the ice in my newly poured drink was looking more interesting than what was happening on the television screen.
In their attempt to depict The Others as relatable characters, rather than mysterious villains, the creators slowly lost each and every aspect of the show that made it so successful in the first place. Rather than provide exciting new ideas, the show rehashed the earlier season’s high points. More and more hatches are discovered, then buildings, electrical towers... The mysterious jungle of the previous seasons now seemed like an urban community, and one began to wonder how the character had never discovered these various locations in the previous forty episodes. New Others were continually introduced, each more boring and annoying than the last. Art direction, such as the innovative design of the hatch, was replaced by Clockwork Orange rip-off sci-fi that looked cheap and fake in the brainwashing room. The flashbacks simply retold stories we already knew. John’s dad is still a dick. Kate’s mother still doesn’t forgive her. We had seen it all done before, and done better.
The show was crumbling on all fronts. LOST was no longer emotionally thrilling, nor was it intellectuality stimulating. I would watch each episode, hoping for some sort of glimmer of hope that the magic had not completely evaporated, but I was unable to find it. It was nothing but episode after episode of endless dull grey.
LIKE A CHEESE GRATER TO THE FACE!
The problem was not just that the show was now dull and uninteresting, but that it had actually become intensely annoying. The mysteries that had always seemed out of reach, hidden somewhere within the dense jungle or the forgotten past, were now readily available, and yet characters, such as Jack, refused to reach out and claim them. Episode after episode Jack would talk with members of The Others, and episode after episode I would want to scream at the TV, "Jack, what’s wrong with you? Are you some kind of savage moron? Just ask The Others what is going on!" Would it have been that hard for him to say, "Hey, Juliet, what's up with the Dharma initiative… and these hatches… and that smoke monster that's always killing everyone around here?"
Audiences can only be expected to suspend disbelief to a certain point. Once Jack had brought Juliet back to the beach and told the other characters, "She’ll tell us what’s going on when she’s ready," I simply couldn’t take it any more. The show had gone from smart and intriguing to outright stupid and annoying.
Characters that I had identified with now seemed unrecognizable. Jack acting like a complete idiot, rather than an intelligent leader? Kate crying over Jack’s interest in Juliet, instead of being tough and strong? Who were these people? I don’t know what was worse: that I didn’t know who these characters were anymore… or that I didn’t care.
The show had fallen to such low depths of banality that nothing could redeem it for me.
And yes, you can save your counter arguments. I know that the season finale was universally loved and that many say it allowed Lost to "un-jump the shark", but you know what? I’m not buying it. Terrible memories from last winter still blaze through my mind as I drift off to sleep at night… horrible flashback images of heroes in cages and Juliet’s horrific smug face staring back at me from the darkness at the end of my bed. "Through the Looking Glass" may have been the greatest episode of television in the medium’s history; it would still not make up for the festering pustule that was the rest of season three.
Not for me, anyway.
Watching thee quarters of the season was all the self flagellation this (Cult)u’re Magazine television critic could stand.
So go ahead and watch season four of Lost, if you like. Let me know how it goes. I’ll be sitting over here, watching Heroes, sober.
Art by Kirk DesRosier