Friday, May 21, 2010

Finishing Lost

I don't think it's worth losing to much sleep or bandwidth over, but there's a churlish article in the New York Times by a guy named Mike Hale concerning this weekend's series finale of Lost. In summary, he doesn't like that people who watch the show might care more about the mythology than they do more important elements of show craft, that by late Sunday night people will judge the show based on what kinds of answers it gives to its myriad questions rather than on more objective achievements. Because I'd rather waste my time on the show's parlor game aspect that he disdains, I'll just make a few quick points.
Since “Lost” itself favors oracular pronouncements, here’s one more: The show had one good season, its first. It was very, very good — as good as anything on television at the time — but none of the seasons since have approached that level, and the current sixth season, rushed, muddled and dull, has been the weakest.
I sort of agree with this. The first season, overall, is still the show's strongest. The show's high-water mark, though, came five weeks into the fourth season with an episode called "The Constant." This is a seriously great hour of television, one that I bet is just as thrilling and moving for people totally unfamiliar with the Lost mythology and the sad saga of Desmond Hume & Penny Widmore as it is for the nerds. As for season 1 being "as good as anything on television at the time," I'll be a little condescending myself and point out that the third season of The Wire was airing at the same time, so Hale is obviously wrong.
In this sideways universe, making sense of the show became the responsibility, and even the privilege, of the viewers rather than the producers. The compromises and continuity lapses and narrative backing and filling that characterize all broadcast network series became fodder for a kind of populist biblical commentary, and the logical gymnastics performed to read authorial intention into every word and image and in-joke began to feel religious in nature. Every question about the show had to have one true answer, and discerning it — or asserting your version of it the loudest — wasn’t the stuff of water cooler chatter, it was blood sport. And this new proprietary “Lost” obsession grew symbiotically with things like mainstream entertainment blogs (and their comments sections) and Twitter, until now there is a vast body of shared commentary and speculation that often seems to overshadow the show itself. Why bother writing fan fiction when you can feel as if you had a hand in the real thing?
It seems a little like he blames Lost for the rise of the obsessive fan culture on the internet and for people being dickish in stating their interpretations as definitive. He also doesn't seem to like that some people might base their assessment of the show as a whole based on how it ends. If so, that's a little weird since all those tendencies predate this show and the internet.

There have always been viewers who value the closure more than anything else (for instance, people who are probably going to watch a movie once and thus don't want to know "how it ends"). On the other hand, obsessively arguing over popular art has been happening as long as two or more people have seen the same movies, watched the same shows, read the same books or listened to the same albums. Good, polite disagreement about the meaning of these things is one of the primary pleasures of consuming them in the first place.
It’s clear that the rise of “Lost” geekdom has encouraged fans, and critics who should know better, to celebrate the mythology — the least important element of the show, from a dramatic standpoint — while glossing over things like pacing, structure, camerawork and acting. (With a few exceptions, notably Terry O’Quinn, as Locke, and Henry Ian Cusick, as Desmond, the performances have been undistinguished since the first season, which may have as much to do with the conception of the characters as with the actors themselves.)
Yes, some members of Lost's ensemble cast have more range than others. The more galling parts of this paragraph, though, are the suggestions that (1) there's a right way to enjoy anything and (2) people who enjoy Lost can't also be critical of it.

I happen to agree that the latter half of the series (in which the characters bounce around in time, and the narrative centers on the philosophical battle between two immortal beings) is less engaging than the first (in which survivors of a plane crash piece together the history of the DHARMA Initiative's experiments with fertility and do battle with The Others).* Hale stops short, but it seems like he's suggesting that there are objective ways to appreciate things like acting, pacing, camerawork, etc.

(* Less engaging, but in spite of making the home stretch of the show all about relatively boring questions of good vs. evil and free will vs. fate, the producers have made the distinctions admirably knotty. For this reason, I don't expect, as some people I've talked to do, the show to end with Kate making a choice between Sawyer and Jack. More on the parlor games below.)

Entire books, scholarly journals, magazines and blogs have been dedicated to trying to figure out what's most (or least) important in criticism. What's the point of crisp pacing, a structured narrative, good camerawork and vivid acting if it's in service of something of something the viewer considers thematically dull (or even objectionable)? Moreover, by Hale's standard you have to throw out a lot of significant films. Does anyone argue that what makes Night of the Living Dead a great film is it's supple performances or accomplished cinematography? Moreover, how would Hale regard something directed by Robert Altman? I mean, with all the people talking at the same time you can barely follow a conversation in that guy's films!

Maybe I hang out with a different kind of person than Hale, but I haven't talked to anyone totally uncritical about Lost; everyone I know that watches the show can point to a performance, or a stretch of episodes, or a plot development they don't like. Being caught up in the mythology hardly precludes finding the dialogue ludicrous. Hence, a friend of mine with the biggest attachment to the show self-identifies as a "Lost apologist."

Lost has left so much dangling in its six years that no prediction can possibly cover everything the finale may or may not address. It seems reasonable (though unfortunate) to expect that we're not going to get much more about the DHARMA experiments, but that we will get a resolution to the Jacob vs. Man in Black conflict. The alternate reality will almost certainly interact somehow with the island reality. I rather hope we don't get a name for the Man in Black at this point.

I think Juliet will show up in the sideways reality (probably as Jack's ex-wife), for the first time since she was killed in the island timeline in the season's premiere, and repeat her dying line about getting coffee. I'm 85% sure that's coming. Also, I kind of think the island might cease to exist, but only enough to be 25% sure of it. I think there's a 5% chance that the Man in Black will actually turn out to be "good," and Jacob "bad." I also think there is a 100% chance that Jack, Kate and Sawyer will continue to work out with personal trainers, whether they are in LA or living for eternity as immortal beings on the island.

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