Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I must admit, I'm not the biggest fan of J.J. Abrams. Odd, since I'm always game for geeky, cult television and, though I've not seen many episodes, I adore Alias. In fact, I seem to be split right down the middle when it comes to his projects, liking about half of them and detesting the rest. One of the items in the latter was actually Lost, Abrams' biggest hit and the cult show of the new millennium. I only saw a few episodes, smack in the middle of either its second or third season. Naturally, this gave me an unfairly biased opinion, but what little I watched smacked uncomfortably of the sort of thing I detest about Abrams' more out-there work: the incessant build-up with no payoff, with a mythology that's admirably huge but too big to fit in the medium, resulting in canonical comic books and whatnot that I simply refuse to read -- seriously, if I have to read something to understand the point of Cloverfield, it's a crap film.
But I resolved to give the series a fair chance, and start from the beginning, if for no other reason than to have something to talk about with my friends on Wednesday nights. I also liked the idea of such a simple premise going in such bizarre directions, and maybe if I stuck with a whole season I wouldn't be so damn baffled by it. I also genuinely like Abrams' weirder side, even if that's usually the part that undoes his best efforts. So, I bummed the seasons off a friend, and sat down to follow the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815.
As it turns out, the first season of Lost is truly captivating. It's bursting at the seams with character development, with the kind of trippy horror/mystery that made Twin Peaks so engrossing (I wouldn't call it Lynchian, mind you). Supposedly the series was originally planned as a fairly straightforward drama that the network essentially wanted to play like a dramatized version of Survivor. Mercifully, someone realized what a terrible notion this was, and they brought aboard J.J. Now, with a show this strange, and with such visual and verbal symbolism and foreshadowing, I cannot be sure if some things I mention might end up spoilers for the next season, so I'm just throwing up my hands and discussing the show; while I will try to avoid as many major surprises as I can, I will at the very least explicitly mention spoilers in the first few episodes.. You've been warned.
Now, I've always been critical of Abrams' direction, and I knew he was the man behind the camera of the pilot immediately because of its clumsy style. Nevertheless, I would be lying just to look cynical and iconoclastic if I didn't say that the pilot is reason enough to stick with the show for at least its entire first season. Even if the camera movement and placement is borderline terrible, the lighting and location look magnificent, and many of the characters are instantlyintriguing . The first character we meet is Jack (Matthew Fox), a surgeon who stirs from unconsciousness to find himself on an island as plane wreckage burns around him. As soon as he gets his bearings, he sets about helping the wounded. As he moves along the beach, we meet more characters.
The plane in question had been traveling to America from Sydney before crashing. Jack, along with a woman named Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Charlie (DominicMonaghan ), a bassist in a little-known rock band, search the cockpit to find the pilot still alive. Before they can get much information out of him, however, an unseen monster rips him out of the cockpit and a spurt of blood splashes across the windows. Later, they find his mangled corpse hanging from a tree. A group of survivors go exploring and must fight off a polar bear(!), eventually picking up a radio message in French that's been broadcast for 16 years. Someone translates it as an SOS from the last of her group.
Of the characters who receive any substantive screen time, a few leads emerge: besides Jack and Kate, whom a U.S. Marshal warns Jack not to trust, there's Sawyer (Josh Holloway), a selfish pig who hoards supplies simply to play games with people, and Hurley (Jorge Garcia), clearly serving as the fat comic relief, at least for the time being.Sayid (Naveen Andrews), a former communications officer in the Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, is also established as a prominent figure.But the most interesting of the characters in the early episodes, and indeed the season as a whole, is John Locke (TerryO'Quinn ). Locke makes passing references to having experienced a miracle in the crash, and immediately forms a bond with the island. In the early highlight "Walkabout," we discover what he meant by "miracle:" in some of the first of many, many flashbacks, we see how and why Locke came to Australia, with the shocking reveal that he was a paraplegic who regained his ability to walk after the crash.
Locke forms a nice foil to de facto leader Jack, a man of science and reason. Locke, though not specifically religious, offers the survivors a spiritual leader, and his knowledge of hunting and wilderness survival makes him an invaluable asset. There is no schism between the two, at least at first, but some characters align with each leader more than the other. In a conversation with Jack, Charlie says that Locke is completely mad, but that he'd trust him with his life. But when Locke uncovers a mysterious hatch that cannot be opened with the help of fellow survivor Boone, things begin to take a turn. Locke's efforts to open the hatch grow increasingly obsessive and eventually lead to the death of the first major character, which drives a wedge in his previously harmonious relationship with Jack.
It all leads to a thrilling conclusion in which several of the survivors attempt to launch a raft to seek out the rescue that's yet to come for them, while the rest prepare for the arrival of a group that Danielle Rousseau, the lone survivor of an expedition 16 years ago and the person behind the SOS signal, refers to only as "The Others." Despite the utter letdown/"are they kidding?"-inspiring reveal of the dreaded monster and the cheap cliffhanger, it's a gripping finale with a load of revealing flashbacks that leaves you more than anxious to see where it all goes from here.
As much as Lost owes its success to J.J. Abrams' annoying tendency to over-hype his projects to the point that you watch his stuff just to feel in the loop, it very much earned itself a second season with this exceptionally strong offering. It mixes the mystery and intrigue of the island with an impressive level of character development and only rarely has to drastically shift gears to do so. Even when an episode doesn't excel it makes you want to know what happens next immediately. The flashbacks offer interesting juxtapositions between the "past lives" of these characters and the people they've become under these extraordinary conditions, particularly Locke,Sayid and Sawyer. And as dark and ominous as the show's tone is, it's not without humor: Hurley offers constant comic relief, and there's a great moment late in the season where Charlie and Hurley attempt to calm Claire's newborn baby, only to find that the only that soothes it is Sawyer's accent.
Abrams also has an eye for casting, and many of the actors are perfect for their parts. Harold Perrineau is believable as a father who wanted so badly to see his son that, when he finally received full custody years later, didn't know what to do with the kid. Reyes makes the most of his fairly static character with his formidable yet lovable frame. The two best actors are, naturally, the ones at the center of it all: Terry O'Quinn, no stranger to cult shows (Millennium), is completely absorbing and compelling as the faith-based Locke, while Matthew Fox deftly mixes Jack's capacity for leadership and stoic heroism with his humanistic side that just can't take it when he loses a patient.
Yet as engaging as Lost is, this first season is not without flaws. Though it's a great deal more straightforward than I would have guessed -- no doubt because it had the Herculean task of setting up such a strange story with such a large main cast -- it still opens up a great many mysteries simply to string us along. While some of them (the numbers, the hatch, the skeletons in the cave) deservedly remain unanswered by the season's end, others (Kate's past, the inexplicable damn polar bears) are just there to keep up interest.
Also, despite the high level of character development, the show relies too much on its flashbacks to tell us about these people when we should learn about them through their actions on the island. They also create the illusion that some characters are layered, when really all they do is add some fluff to otherwise two-dimensional people. Take Kate: all she seems to do this season is flirt with Sawyer and lead Jack on, but because we see her rob some banks in the past suddenly we're supposed to give a damn about her. For such a central character, we really learn nothing about her that applies to her island life in any meaningful way.
It also doesn't help that some characters don't get the time that others do, and they appear flat in comparison. While Hurley works as a two-dimensional piece of comic relief, the barely-evolving relationship between Michael and his estranged son Walt (though it does have its moments) could have been more interesting with a bit more time to shine. Sun andJin Kwoon , on the other hand, work better for their lack of screen time, as they have a mysterious edge that slowly erodes into a level of uneasy trust with the others. But there's no salvaging Boone and Shannon, the self-important, never-growing siblings with a disturbing hint of incest. Boone isn't completely horrible, but Shannon is a flat-out bad character; even when she seeks revenge in one episode she can't manage to be interesting.
Frankly, the show needed to kill off more than one major character, and sooner, to devote more time to the rest. And with the arrival of The Others seemingly on the horizon for the next season, the writers better do something quick that will allow them to handle all these characters. There's also the problem that there are over 40 survivors and only 14 main characters, which means a whole bunch of people show up every now and then and know about the other characters even though we have no clue who they are; it's hard to tell if a fresh face is supposed to be villainous or just another survivor who apparently contributes nothing as the 14 leads do everything. They point this out in the finale, but they joke about it rather than do anything to address it. Now, I love it when writers are willing to identify their mistakes and joke about them, but this is a serious flaw; the people at Mutant Enemy, by contrast, tend to find their major weak spots and do something to fix them, and only joke about the small stuff. And every time something bad happens on the island: the same three people (Sawyer,Jin , Kate) are always suspected. It gets tiresome quickly, to the point that, when it actually is one of these characters is responsible, it's less a shocking moment and more a "'bout time!" one.
Nevertheless, Lost could have so easily been some god-awful forced commentary on a post-9/11 world, but Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, Damon Lindelof and their team of excellent writers are more concerned with crafting a sort of makeshift civilization and a whole heap of mythology. They seem to realize how close they might have come to taking such a direction and let a few characters briefly blameSayid for the crash, only to set him up quickly as one of the most trustworthy characters on the show. I like to bandy about the term 'ambitious' when describing the scope and scale of a television series (i.e. the all-encompassing grandness of Firefly and The Wire, the risk-taking of Dollhouse), but Lost puts them all to shame. For once, Abrams' hype machine is necessary, because the show needs its impressive viewing figures to balance out what must be an astronomical budget.
When you get right down to it, Lost, at least at this junction, is not the masterful piece of television so many assure it to be. It is, however, damn good, at that's all you can ever really ask of a program. It's deep but not self-absorbed, and one hell of a ride. I am not ready to full recant my earlier position that the show was a bunch of garbled nonsense, as I have yet to move with the series past its foundations and into uncharted territory, but I am happy to recommend this season to anyone with a taste for the unexpected and a desire for bold dramatic programming.