Monday, August 20, 2007

Lost, Season 3: A Few Observations

I gave up Lost as a, well, lost cause at the end of its second season, but my brother's been itching to watch the third and there have been a lot of positive remarks, many of them from bitter ex-fans like myself, about the season's second half. So this weekend we mainlined the whole thing. The verdict? Eh. Admittedly, I'd been spoiled for most of the major plot twists, including the big revelation in the season's final minutes, and this obviously had an effect on the amount of pleasure I could take out of it. I also agree with everyone who's said that there's a massive improvement in the show's plot progression, with questions being raised, answered, and leading to more questions with a rapidity that conjures up images of the Lost writing staff huddled around a screening of your average episode of Heroes, slack-jawed with amazement, muttering 'I didn't know we could do that' while mentally compressing their planned storyline for the next two seasons into six episodes.

But therein lies the problem. Lost has been superseded. The standard for vaguely-SFnal shows with double-digit main casts, multiple and intersecting storylines and ever-proliferating mysteries is now Heroes (a shift which is neatly illustrated by Kristen Bell, who as of two weeks ago was negotiating for a role on Lost, instead choosing to join Heroes), and for all of its improvements in the field of plot progression Lost still hasn't matched the newer show's strengths in other respects. The plot still makes no sense; the characters are still idiots, and most of them are so morally depraved they make the good folks from Torchwood look like candidates for sainthood by comparison (John Locke, you soulless, pitiful excuse for a human being, I'm looking at you). Heroes is deeply flawed--possibly in ways that will lead to it unraveling in much the same way Lost did in its second season--but it hasn't squandered my goodwill yet, while Lost's writers haven't done nearly enough to earn it back. I'll take Heroes's strong season with its weak and disappointing ending over Lost's strong ending to a mediocre season any day.

A few other thoughts:
  • There's a flaw in the rendering of the main title sequence--the 3D 'LOST' floating towards the viewers--that's been bugging me since I started watching the show, and was even more aggravating when viewed more than twenty times over a single weekend. As the S floats past the bottom edge of the screen, you can see black pixels between the white front of the letter and its gray side. This is probably the result of a problem with the algorithm that simulates a diagonal line on a pixel grid--I had a similar result in a piece of homework for a computer graphics course I took a few years ago--and should have been pretty easy to fix. And yes, I do realize how silly I sound complaining about this.

  • About halfway through the season, it's revealed that women who conceive pregnancies on the island invariably fall ill and die before their third trimester. Can you guess which two words, one of them starting with an A and the other with a C, don't get mentioned in any of the discussions of this tragic malady? In a scene from a mid-season episode, a pregnant Sun weeps when she learns that her fetus was conceived on the island, and then reveals that she is weeping for joy because the baby is her husband's and not that of the man she was having an affair with before the crash. It's bad enough that we're expected to read this disturbing attitude as romantic, but how is it possible that she doesn't follow this touching display of spousal devotion by inquiring about termination options, especially once she learns that she has no chance of carrying the baby to term? Later in the season, chief bad guy Ben explains to his teenage daughter that he jailed and tormented her boyfriend because he didn't want her to become pregnant, and I don't care how evil he is, surely it would have been less trouble to give the kids a few lessons about birth control? I can't decide whether this is yet another example of the show's trademark idiot plotting, or whether the writers truly believe that dying along with your unborn child is preferable to terminating a pregnancy or even using contraceptives.

  • And since we're on the topic of dispiriting treatment of gender issues: there are almost no romantic relationships on the show that don't boil down to the male's obsessive need to protect and provide for his mate. Sun and Jin, Charlie and Claire, even Rose and Bernard, all fall into the protector/protectee roles by the end of the third season. Desmond and Penny's relationship falls apart because Desmond can't handle the fact that Penny doesn't need him to support or take care of her, and the narrative treats his choice to leave her as tragic but ultimately correct--his path to becoming the kind of man who might deserve her. Even Kate, the only female main cast member with anything approaching the male characters' agency, gets sent away from the action for her own protection not once but twice, by both of her love interests. What's interesting about this tendency is that there are strong female characters on the show, and some of them--Penny and Alex, mostly--protect their male mates. Once a romantic relationship stabilizes into a marriage, however (or, in the case of Charlie and Claire, leapfrogs romance entirely and arrives directly at a chaste, verging on asexual, marriage), it is invariably the man's role to take care of his wife and the woman's to wring her hands with worry.

  • Charlie's death is probably the first time that a main character's demise has been handled effectively by the writers, so it's a great shame that its execution is so flawed. It takes Charlie forever to reach and bolt the door that traps him in a rapidly-flooding room and saves Desmond's life--so long that he obviously had time to exit the room and bolt the door from the other side. Also, this could be a trick of the camera, but the porthole through which the room is flooded definitely looked big enough for him to swim through. Dominic Monaghan and Henry Ian Cusick do fantastic work in that scene, and it is tragically undercut by inattention or laziness on the part of others.

  • I'm curious to see how the flashback format gets used next season (by 'curious' I mean I'll read about it in the TWOP recaplets, and might watch the fourth season in its entirety next summer). The writers seem to have taken the step Veronica Mars should have taken at the end of its first season, and jumped forward several years (it's depressing to think that although both shows made the same mistake, it's Lost that's been given the chance to come back from it), which hopefully means that instead of regurgitating and needlessly complicating the characters' pasts before they came to the island, next season's flashbacks will bridge the gap between the survivors' escape and the finale's last scene. I have the sneaking suspicion, however, that the writers might not be committed to the future they presented in the finale (mainly because I think the person in the coffin has to be Sawyer, and I don't think the writers are willing to kill him off entirely), which means we might be in for more of Kate's wacky fugitive hi-jinks or more highlights from John Locke's horrible, miserable, no good life.
My overall impression of Lost's third season is that it reeks of fear--the fear of writers who lucked into a winning formula, scrambled to set it in amber, and then watched their subgenre whiz past them as more adventurous shows took that formula to the logical conclusion they had been too frightened to pursue. There's something almost desperate in the way the season's final episodes throw revelations, relationship developments, and character deaths at the viewer, as if the sheer tonnage of plot progression would make up for the lack of care and attention given to each individual development, or indeed compensate for two years' neglect. Nothing about the third season finale suggests to me that the show's writers have found the courage they need to write a truly worthwhile story.

17 comments:

Todd said...

I am really amazed that I seem to be the only person who truly hated the third season finale. My first reaction was, "So they get off the island and our main character spends the rest of his life in drug-addled misery? Wonderful."

Subsequent hints from the producers indicate that I was wrong; they say that's not actually the end of the story. But I still don't like it, because the flash-forward was just another of the cheap shockers the show has been relying on all along (and which I lamentably only came to recognize this past year). We got precious little hard information, and certainly no story, from the whole sequence. So two of them do get off the island; we could've predicted that ourselves. What else are we left with?

As for the season as a whole, I thought it was terrible. I don't find the Others fascinating at all. They're just annoying. I realized pretty quickly that when almost everything a character, such as Ben, says is a lie, then absolutely nothing he says has any real drama. Kate's freak-out a few episodes in ("They're gonna kill Sawyer!") fell completely flat because of that. (And on a side note, I really don't see how the Others, as we know them now, fit in with the whispery forest spirits implied in the first season.)

The Others also managed to corrupt all the main characters they touched, such that by the middle of the season I no longer cared about Jack, Kate, Sawyer, or Locke, after absolutely loving them all in the beginning. That left the one saving grace of the third season, Sayid. How much I enjoyed any given episode in the past year was directly proportional to his screen time. He was the one leader who wasn't drawn into the Others' twisted psychodrama. He took no crap from them, and I loved him for it.

And Charlie? I was dancing when he died. He started out as a kind of lovable screwup, but what he did to Sun was terrible, and I'm amazed that anyone could have any sympathy for him after that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

My assumption (or, more properly, hope) is that the next season will follow the characters as they return to the island. In other words, it's not the end of the story, but the beginning of the next chapter. We'll see if that happens.

Sayid is, without a doubt, the only sane, sensible, likable person left on the island. I like to believe that his screen time has been so limited this year because he spends most of his time in meditation, training himself to deal with the idiocies and inanities of his fellow castaways without resorting to violence or going into hysterics.

Charlie seems to be a polarizing character. I like him, though I feel that I shouldn't, for the reason you state and many others. To be honest, he's probably better off dead - he makes a much better memory than a day-to-day reality.

Kristen said...

Wow! Or, um, hi! I'm a pretty new reader of your blog, and I'm so impressed with this post. You've articulated so many problems with this show, some of which are real eye-openers for me (like the abortion thing, which we all know mainstream media just loves to talk about -- not). The writers have definitely lost their way.

Your point about the heterosexual relationships is a really good one. Like, Kate was once a much more interesting and, arguably, a stronger character than Jack or Sawyer, but that degenerated when she became an object of protection. (It always rubbed me the wrong way, too, that Jack was pegged as some sort of Hero, no pun intended, from the beginning, just because he had a Y chromosome and soulful eyes.) And don't even get me started on the Shannon/Sayid thing, which admittedly wasn't this season, but... yeah.

Sorry to write a novel here when you've never met or heard of me before! You've definitely set me thinking about how to put into words my own set of disillusionments with Lost, and I'm excited to read more here in the future.

Dotan Dimet said...

What made watching the third season of Lost really irritating for me was your comment, back when you wrote about Nathan Fillion's short-lived death-race-whatever series, that Lost was an attempt to translate the popularity of Survivor to dramatic form.

Suddenly, all the idiot plotting made sense in a sick, meta-contextual sort of way. Ben was no longer a cunning mastermind, he was an irritating taskmaster; Locke, Charlie, Jack, Sawyer and the rest were no longer wrestling with inner demons, they were just carrying out pointless missions meant to push their buttons.

By now I think everyone watching this series has learned that any revelations are just feints of misdirection meant to draw our attention away from the unclothed emperor behind the curtain; The show isn't really about the secrets it's keeping so coy about, It's about what's actually happening on the screen, and that's not tough dilemmas that reveal character through hardship, not anymore.

The hardship is now so manufactured (in the last two seasons, have the Losties been troubled by anything we'd expect real plane crash survivors to be inconvenienced by?), the seven-veils-dance of secrets used to misdirect us is so twisted, that your comment made my eyes snap open.

Instead of capturing the excitement of real-life drama, this show captures the inane arbitrary artificial nature of reality game shows.

Matt said...

I know I'm kind of a weirdo when it comes to Lost...unlike say BSG I don't feel like I'm expected to like the main characters that much so the lack of likable characters doesn't bother me too much, I think Locke and even Jack are interesting (except the horrible tattoo episode, I'm not crazy), I hate Sayid, I liked a lot of season 2, etc.

But while all your specific criticisms are quite accurate, I think your conclusion is a little speculative. Heroes got a lot of hype but in the final numbers didn't beat Lost's season ratings. And with its weak season finale Heroes hit narrative problems Lost has (unfairly really) sidestepped by not actually having any sort of ending.

I think I've commented on your blog before that Heroes has a lot more in common with Veronica Mars than Lost, and I still think its true. I can't see how Heroes is the "logical conclusion" of Lost's subgenre since I'm not even sure they are in the same subgenre.

Maybe my problem with Heroes has been I can't help but compare it to VM's season 1 or the Wire and find it woefully lacking, whereas my idea of Lost's predecessors as mythology shows like Alias and the X-files makes for a much more flattering comparison. Hopefully Heroes' second season (with Kristin Bell no less) will be more successful than VM's second season.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kristen:

It always rubbed me the wrong way, too, that Jack was pegged as some sort of Hero, no pun intended, from the beginning, just because he had a Y chromosome and soulful eyes

One of the third season's most glaring incongruities was the writers' continued attempts to sell us on Jack as a great and natural leader, when the character who showed up on the screen was snide, petulant, and motivated primarily by his feelings for his love interest du jour.

But then, this is the same show that tries to argue that, in Jack's absence, Sawyer is his natural successor. Which just goes to show that you are absolutely right: on Lost, the criteria for leadership are being male and good-looking.

Dotan:

I hadn't made the connection between the season's plot structure and the senseless tasks on a reality show. It goes some way towards explaining the characters' tendency to unquestioningly accept every inane plan and ridiculous plot development.

Matt:

unlike say BSG I don't feel like I'm expected to like the main characters that much so the lack of likable characters doesn't bother me too much

Hmm. I suspect that it's the BSG writers who don't expect us to like most of their characters, whereas the Lost writers do, but I can certainly see how your perspective would make for a more enjoyable viewing experience.

You're right that Lost's predecessors are shows like Alias and The X-Files - formula shows pretending to tell a multi-episode or even multi-season story but really just stringing their audience along. Where Lost deviates from these shows is that, almost from the beginning, it foregrounded the continuous story and tried to sublimate its formula. When I call Heroes the logical conclusion to this approach what I mean is that its writers seem willing to do what the Lost writers promised, though I'm not sure I'd go so far as to equate it with Veronica Mars or The Wire - at least not yet.

Anonymous said...

it is invariably the man's role to take care of his wife and the woman's to wring her hands with worry.

If I were a cynic, I would say they do it because portraying women as weak allows them to appease feminists and social conservatives simultaneously.

paul said...

Abigail, I read a reluctant optimism for the next season, and a measured criticism for the third season in your post. Is it possible even that outlook is too generous for Lost? My brain hurts trying to imagine how the show will regain anything resembling coolness again. The flashbacks are slated to continue, as are the flash-forwards. The Others will be replaced by the other-Others. I wonder what plot points will be dumped next season, to be forgotten or never heard from again. There are too many problems to fix, and my faith in the writers to do anything with the mess they've created is pretty close to zero.

I found the third season unbelievably random, almost as if the episodes were being written in a panic, so I think your description of the writer reaction may have some substance to it. A lot of the time, I watched the characters do things and tried to figure out what was happening. The secrets, if there are any at this point, appear to be pretty senseless and mediocre when they get revealed. There seemed at times to be a narrative momentum building, such as Kate's rescue attempt, but it never quite resolved into anything believable or engaging. It's just so hard to care anymore what's happening on the show.

A.R.Yngve said...

Dotan asked:
"in the last two seasons, have the Losties been troubled by anything we'd expect real plane crash survivors to be inconvenienced by?"

Well... not really. (Real castaways will soon enough find out that what they really miss is a good dentist... and a barber... and insect spray... and decent food.)

I always assumed that they weren't "really" on an island anyway, but in some sort of afterlife/simulation/limbo.

The problem with that is, most of the "action" and "drama" are pretty pointless if the island isn't real. (And, if that's really case, the series should have been much shorter.)

Has LOST "jumped the shark" yet? (Soon, the inevitable episode where the cast dress up as cowboys and do the Western Scenario...)

Anonymous said...

Abigail why do you think it must have been Sawyer in the coffin? I was thinking it was either Ben or Locke.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, it has to be a crash survivor because both Kate and Jack know them. It has to be someone who lives in the L.A. area, and someone whose funeral would be completely unattended. That doesn't leave a lot of options, and though Locke is one of them, I find it hard to believe he'd leave the island (Ben, I think, would almost certainly have stayed). If he had, wouldn't he be in prison for Naomi's murder?

Of course, any number of things could have happened to change the other survivors' circumstances to the point where they might believably be the person in the coffin. I'm just going by what we know right now.

Anonymous said...

You raise good points but I just can't see Jack crying over Sawyer's death.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I find it easier to believe he'd cry over Sawyer's death than Locke's, and I can't see him crying over Ben at all.

He tells the funeral director that he's neither friend nor family to the deceased, so my guess is that he's crying because he feels that he's failed as a leader.

Anonymous said...

I can see him crying over Ben and Locke's deaths because those were the two people who tried to stop him from pushing the button. He desperately wants to get back to the island and if he had listened to either of them, he'd still be there. I know you find it unlikely that either Locke or Ben would leave the island, but I can see them being forced to leave for some reason. If this were the case, Locke would likely be back in a wheelchair--exactly where he doesn't want to be (perhaps leading to suicide)--and Ben might find himself with a reaccurance of cancer (which could explain his death).

The Overgrown Hobbit said...

It was strange that Sun's tears of joy (and yes, it was a tearful moment, for a woman so emotionally torn between love and despair about her husband) that she had not added yet another betrayal to her count against her husband, were not followed immediately by the question: can I kill our child? In every sense of the word "can" - It would add an honest-to-God moral complexity to a story-problem that usually is lucky to get the barest knee-jerk treatment in popular media.

But I think you may be mistaken regarding the devolvement (if you will) into protector/protective relationships that the writers have given the characters. This is an extreme scenario, very similar to (to use a local-for you-example) the European Holocaust. Men are like that. Women, especially if they have no-one to care for (mother, younger sibling, child) will respond similarly, falling into the "protected" slot. It's a mercy to their menfolk; without that care-taker status, the men are less likely to survive.

Granted, it's more fun if the gals kick *ss and take names, but it doesn't feel as real.

Would having a more skiffy-fantasy feel (ala Seven-Of-Nine or wassname, the Xena the Warrior Gal) improve Lost or worsen it? Dunno.

Like you, I ended up watching the show in toto, playing catchup: I was unimpressed. Unlike you, I have greater hopes--having set themselves a deadline, the writers now have a chance to properly plot. Good Things may yet ensue.

And if they don't? That's what TIVO and Netflix are for

--carbonelle

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It would add an honest-to-God moral complexity to a story-problem that usually is lucky to get the barest knee-jerk treatment in popular media.

I don't think it gets much treatment at all. Abortion as a viable option isn't mentioned that often in depictions of unwanted pregnancies (admittedly, this might have something to do with the fact that pregnancy storylines are often mandated by the actress's real-life pregnancy), and I can't think of another example of a recent television storyline in which a woman's life is jeopardized by her pregnancy to the point where she has to decide whether to terminate it.

Men are like that. Women, especially if they have no-one to care for (mother, younger sibling, child) will respond similarly

Some men are like that. And some women respond to that impulse in extreme situations. As I say in the original post, however, the show's attitude seems to have less to do with the situation on the island than with a general perception of marriage - Jin and Desmond are as consumed by the protector role, and by their failure to fill it properly, when off the island as they are on it.

More importantly, I hardly think it's fair to defend, on the grounds of psychological and practical realism, a show that, in every other respect, has so little interest in either. Quite apart from its fantastic components, Lost's depiction of the castaway experience is so luxurious as to be laughable - this is an island with golf tournaments and miraculous food drops, where everyone has clean, whole clothes and no one has gotten sick or become malnourished - and the closest the third season came to a discussion of the social effects of being stranded on a pacific island is a laughable B-plot about halfway through the season in which Hurley tries to teach Sawyer the error of his anti-social ways. My reaction to the gender dynamics on Lost is that they are rooted in, at the very least, thoughtlessness, not an attempt to discuss gender relations in life-and-death situations.

matt said...

Sun's reaction may not be logical (after all she did still cheat) but...well it's not really a logical sort of thing is it?

The Achilles heal of abortion plot's is that it's such a real world messy +simple problem. In that you have one group of people that would look at the problem on the island as a duh question. Mind the group in question is really two groups that would have totally opposite answers. Then ya have the some ware in the middle (is it really absolute that pregnancy= death for mother and child?. Then queue the "can i realy do that..." angust). Ultimately i'm kind of glad most show's just ignore the hole thing. 'cuse frankly you ether get a pontification were one side get's told there right (while possibly admitting the difficulty’s involved in actually following the correct answer) and the other side get's told there wrong (agine while possibly admitting..yada yada) or ya get some sort of split down the middle were the hole thing is just sort of a non-issue (every body states there argument and….nothing the subplot’s over no resolution no real debate just kind of filler) . The question is just to fraught to take the sort of...uh..X mint’s for plot development and resolution that you have on a show.

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