Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Journey

It was Wednesday, September 21, 2005.  Having completed my first game test assignment on The Con for PSP the previous Saturday, I had just been reassigned to help out on NBA 06 for the PS2, which was in the midst of its final development push.  Thus, with nary a break between gigs, I was back on crunch time.  My shift began at 9 AM, and although I was technically free to leave at 5:30 PM, it was highly encouraged for a temp like me, hoping to get called back for future jobs, to work until 10 PM.   I was dog-tired, however, and did not feel quite like going the distance that day.  I decided on my own to strike a compromise by quietly stepping out at the 8:30 PM break, and then not heading back in.  Since my responsibilities were minuscule at this stage, it was unlikely that anybody would notice my departure.

I made it home before 9 PM, in time for a late dinner.  Since I was eating alone, I turned to the TV for company.  Prime time programming is something that you largely give up when you work twelve-hour (minimum) days for weeks on end, so I didn't really know what was on.  I rolled the dice and turned to ABC.  During my final summer of unemployment, Wednesday nights on ABC had been home to Dancing with the Stars, which had captured my attention for a good few weeks.  On that night, however, what I got was a scripted scene of a lone unidentified man waking to his alarm clock, to meet the day by working out and preparing a liquid breakfast to the diegetic sound of Mama Cass Elliot's vinyl recording of "Make Your Own Kind of Music."

How could I not be intrigued?  This was obviously a very sick man--like, Silence of the Lambs crazy.  The unnerving combination of upbeat oldies music with the mundane routine of a man whose face was strategically obscured in every shot told me as much, even before he started shooting up chemicals in what appeared increasingly like a 1960s fallout shelter.  Things quickly got even crazier once an outside explosion set him scurrying to the gun rack.  As he then peered through a telescope in anticipation of intruders, the camera traced the bounding path of his sight along a system of mirrors winding down an underground tunnel to arrive finally face-to-face with two recognizable men staring curiously down a hatch.  The two men were the stars of Lost, and I was watching the second season opener, "Man of Science, Man of Faith."  It would be the first full episode of Lost I ever saw.

Having heard a lot of hype already during the first season, I had once randomly tuned into the middle of an episode, and after about two minutes of some bald man trying to convince me that the island was destiny, I walked away without regret.  Okay, so maybe I had made up my mind not to like it, having missed the phenomenon's emergence and consequently having felt some resentment at being left out.

It was some remarkably chance encounter that saw me caught by this season two premiere, however, and I could not avert my gaze--not for the duration of the episode, nor for the rest of the series.  I thought this show was supposed to be a TV version of Cast Away.  What then was the story behind this man in the hatch?  It was a mind-bender all right, and the crazy man in the hatch was just the beginning.  As it turned out, the bald guy was not being creepy just for the sake of it; he alone knew firsthand that the island was a place of miracles. Season two also included a hostile band of ninja-like "others," a terrifying smoke monster, and a button that had to be pushed every 108 minutes in order to "save the world."  And it was a nail-biter--a tightly scripted thriller where the action had consequences.  Ironically, the one thing I thought the show lacked at the time was appealing characters.  I say it was ironic because, for a show with such a high body count, it was all along, at its perhaps surprisingly sappy core, the story of its characters.

Every week was about flashing backwards, forwards, or even sideways in a character's journey to the defining moments that made them who they were, ultimately presenting a life story in 121 episodes.  At its very best, the show could even, within just a single episode, leave you feeling like you had spent years with a character.  Indeed, it took one very specific such episode to convince me that the show was something special.  For me, the pivotal episode was the season two finale, "Live Together, Die Alone."  The two-hour event, instead of presenting the usual flashbacks to a main character's past, focused primarily on a theretofore undeveloped recurring guest star of seemingly minimal importance.  For a serialized show so notoriously inaccessible to newbies, its greatest feat was probably how, with a single two-hour episode, it managed to convey the entire essence of this character, about whom I had known practically nothing going into the episode, but who, by the end of it, would become my favorite character, not just on Lost, but on any of the shows I was following at the time.

And the show would do it over and over again.  Four seasons in, they had the gall to introduce an entire team of new characters into the established family, and these newcomers quickly became among my favorites.  In season five, they managed, with just three scenes, to fully develop a romance that could not have felt any more natural and believable.  The final season's best episodes were "Dr. Linus" and "Ab Aeterno."  The former more than redeemed a character I never expected I could like.  The latter finally gave fans the story of the island's most mysterious character, after most viewers had already guessed he was a red herring.  By the episode's end, the character's insignificance in the grand scheme was only affirmed, and yet it was a success because it got me to care about the character's life and not his role.

Lord knows things didn't always go down this well.  The writers themselves acknowledged that third season additions Nikki and Paulo were "universally despised."  The aforementioned season four romance was all the more remarkable because the first three seasons had wasted so much time going nowhere with a love triangle that felt forced.  The poorly-timed Jacob origin episode this season was one of the series's least effective.  Bringing back some long-forgotten cast members for, essentially, fanservice moments at the end only reminded me how little I missed them and their lousy subplots that never rang true.  And the show's professed center, Jack Shephard, was never an easy guy to like, and it took nearly all of six seasons of them forcing him on viewers before I finally warmed to him.

Yes, this was a show that had a master plan, yet things did not always go according to that plan.  They cast a child actor without considering that he would grow up faster than time was supposed to be passing on the show.  They cast a fat actor who never got thinner, even though his character should have been barely subsisting on an island diet.  They had to deal with actors walking out on the show, leaving them high and dry on unresolved subplots.  Sometimes they had actors exceed their expectations and earn larger roles than anticipated.  They admirably committed themselves in advance to a strict end date, only to end up constricted by a final season that left no breathing room, resulting in a finale that needed to be a double-and-a-half length, and at least half of that had to be spent just on cleanup.  And quite often the writers clearly could not keep track of the messes they made.  Yet it is in fitting with the show's theme of destiny versus free will that even its own creators could not entirely dictate where the story would go, en route to an ending that gave the hardcore fanboys almost none of the meaningless answers they had been demanding for years (It was all midi-chlorians! Satisfied?), but was nevertheless a love letter to the viewers who had followed these characters over six years.  It's a credit to the show that, at the end, that emptiness that I felt was not from any questions that I felt needed answering, but because I simply wanted more time with these characters to see how they lived.

What can I say?  It's hard to let go.


Czardoz said...

Interesting comments. I'm at episode 20 of Season 1, and I can already see what you mean by "wanting more time with these characters." I also see the irony you mentioned - that the characters are largely unappealing. That I think it what turned me off from the show originally. How am I supposed to take the show seriously if I can't find myself rooting for any of these annoying sad sacks?

I think perhaps this is intentional, because a serialized TV series, especially one with a grand plan from the beginning, needs to keep it interesting over many years. Perhaps the writers wanted us to see these characters grow and change over the course of the show, lest we fall in love with Mr. Darcy too soon. I'm just speculating, though if I'm right, I do think that making your characters tough to like at first can jeopardize your chances of winning viewers.

Then again, I don't really dislike all of them. I like Kate, I think Jack smiles just enough, and Sawyer is the likable jerk. I may never warm to Locke or the fat dude, but am I supposed to warm to everyone?

When I first saw the previews years ago, I kind of expected a cross between Cast Away and Alive (that long forgotten plane crash cannibalism movie), with some dinosaurs thrown in. I believe that this is not the show that the creators had in mind? But it's what I was led to expect, and I think that's why I felt disappointed and even a bit deceived when the show first came out.

So far, there's not a lot of mystery or mysticism, just some talking, some fighting, the trademark use of flashback, and the withholding of certain information. I wonder if the show will start to lose me when it starts becoming that "mind-blowing" head trip that people seem to enjoy telling me it is. Seriously, that's what turned me off most about hearing about this show, the way people went on about how my brain would explode at the beautiful mysteries. Not to pre-judge, but I've read a lot of books, seen some movies, so I've seen some things that can truly be considered intellectually daring and dexterous. Will this TV show match up? We'll see.

* * *

Along the lines of our previous conversation, I wasn't asking that anyone "convince" me of a property's greatness in 20 words or fewer. Just that the greatness could be described in plain Engrish.

Watching Lost and seeing its strengths and weaknesses as a work of art, I get a clearer sense of what makes, say, Shakespeare, great. Lost has some characters and situations that really move me, but it also has a lot of inelegant and illogical situations.

What Shakespeare has that almost no other writer/artist has is the ability to do everything well. That doesn't mean he wasn't capable of writing a clunky line or that he didn't rely on a few shaky premises. But anything that can be done well in literature is done well by him 99.9% of the time. And yet this idea of "wellness" represents only a small part of what he is. The rest is the stuff that we don't ask him or anyone to do well, because we never conceive of it to begin with.

Henry said...

Reading what you have to say about Shakespeare, I'm convinced that, ultimately, the work itself must stand as the proof of its merit. The difficulty is in leading obstinate people to that proof. When we're in school, they can force us to discover the classics. It's much harder to sell a busy adult on anything new, unless they have low standards and are inclined to like everything.

What's annoying is when some people ask "what's so great about such and such," and what they really want is for you to save them the trouble of experiencing the work for themselves, either by inspiring, in a few words, the same feelings that the full experience inspired in you, or more likely, by failing to do so and thereby validating to them their self-satisfaction in ignoring the material.

Czardoz said...

I just watched the Season 2 opener that you mentioned, and I actually didn't think it was such a great episode, compared with much of Season 1. The opening scene you described was cool, and the Desmond cliffhanger at the end was nice (though I already knew enough about Lost to know it was him), but much of the middle was a big slog, I thought. All the hospital flashbacks, especially, were a bit overwrought for me. And the way they stretched out Jack's journey down the hatch seemed like unnecessary padding. Oh well, I'm sure things will pick up.

I should note that, despite the seeming illogic of "ruining" the show for myself by watching the series finale before I had seen much of the series at all, it was seeing and liking the finale that motivated me to go back and watch from the beginning (kudos to Hulu!).