Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What I'm Watching: Lost is Stupid

Not that anyone cares, but I’ve struggled with how to write this essay for the better part of two years now, and I guess I’m finally ready to have it out of my head.

But first, a little background.

As a kid, I grew up as a TV watcher. My wife did not. We both had shows we’d watch in college separately (her ER, me Friends) and together (Mystery Science Theater 3000, Star Trek: Voyager), but after we got married, we pretty much stopped watching any TV at all.

In the days before parenting, we’d mostly watch movies. You forget how much parenting changes your life until you remember that you could eat dinner at 6, have everything be cleaned up by 7, watch a movie from 7-9, and still have at least two hours to accomplish something with your day.

What finally got us back into TV was the advent of TV on DVD. No commercials, no fast-forwarding, no waiting for next week’s episode. And with the commercials sucked out, two episodes of an “hour-long” show would take up less time than watching a movie.

And so we caught up on some things we’d missed. Gilmore Girls. Babylon 5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then Angel.

Even more slowly, we started catching up to things that were currently on the air. I bought the first season of Veronica Mars because I heard it was amazing (it was) and then we immediately threw ourselves into the second season, which was already running.

And that’s what turned us into TV watchers again. We simply caught up with the things we were interested in.

For the first time in years, I started reading up on what was new, and might be interesting to us.

Despite the fact that my wife and I are sci-fi fans, we took a pass on Lost. If I had to guess why, well, the mysterious island thing didn’t do much to spark my imagination. And when I looked at past show involvement for the creators, I found Felicity (neutral, as far as I was concerned) and Alias (which I hadn’t seen, but which everyone informed me started great, then sucked, then sucked in a new way, then got kind of okay, then sucked into a total flameout).

We took a pass. And then Lost became LOST, the last great water cooler show to exist before DVR and online watching and Netflix and Hulu turned the idea of talking about TV shows the next day into a forgotten thing.

This was the show that my in-laws would, metaphorically, take the phone off the hook for.

This was the show that my friend, who does not fool around when it comes to fandom, would watch with friends. Then watch alone. Then watch it along with the weekly podcast about the show. Then would listen to the podcast without watching the show.

When I told people I wasn’t watching Lost, they looked at me with confusion. EVERYONE was watching Lost. What did I talk about with coworkers, family and friends, if not Lost?

Meanwhile, that guy who created Felicity suddenly became J. J. Abrams, king of all nerd culture. He created, by my count, six hundred and fifty-four new TV shows the next year, and then Hollywood started handing him the reins to every large action/sci-fi project they happened to have lying around.

In the midst of all this, David Fury, a former Buffy and Angel writer, was let go. And he went on the record saying that the people running Lost had no idea what they were doing, or where the show was going. Keep in mind, this is the year he won an Emmy for one of the episodes he wrote for the show.

I was torn.

On one hand, I felt out of the loop of pop culture. On the other, I got the sense that the show was jerking people around, and much like Alias before it, things would start falling apart, and quickly.

Then our good friends bought a copy of the first season on DVD, and put it in our care.

Now, everything I had read about the show said that it had one of the greatest pilots, ever. A two-hour spectacle designed to set up all the brilliant mind-bending fun.

So my wife and I sighed, and settled in. And we were pretty underwhelmed.

I had read that the pilot was originally two hours long, which meant that the second episode was still part of the pilot. Maybe we needed the whole experience?

So we watched the second episode. And we were underwhelmed.

We watched the third, and we weren’t impressed. But it was, of course, the second episode, and all second episodes have problems, as the writers and creators try to get a show off the ground.

We decided to give it one more shot.

And that episode? That was David Fury’s Emmy-winning episode. John Locke. The wheelchair. Not just a great episode of Lost, but a great episode of television.

My wife and I finally got it. This is what the show could be. It was exciting.

We started watching more. Two, three episodes a night.

The excitement drained out of us.

Slowly at first. Then faster and faster. Somewhere around episode 18, we realized we just plain didn’t care anymore about most of the characters, what had happened to them in the past, and what was happening to them now, on the island.

We stopped watching.

Months went by. Many, many, many months. The second season came to an end, and friends of mine started declaring it was better than the first.

With the second season about to come out on DVD, we decided to finish watching season 1, finally. And the thing of it is, they really nailed the ending. They paid off, the tiniest bit, the idea of The Others on the island. They left many of the characters in a profoundly dangerous position.

They mostly made you care about the characters, just as the final credits rolled.

So we decided to continue into the second season. We made it maybe four episodes in, and stopped.

As the years have gone on, we keep going back to the show, trying to push through it, just to get to the end. At this point, I’m not sure we’ll make it. We’re somewhere near the end of season four, and we’ve been jerked around a lot, and… well, let’s talk about why I’m writing this in the first place, shall we?

The title is up at the top, of course: Lost is Stupid. That’s inflammatory, and it’s meant to be. I fully expect some angry Lost fan (assuming there are any left) to come stomping down to leave a comment about how I just don’t get it.

The problem is, there’s nothing to get. Let’s talk about that.

1. Conflict equals drama… if it makes sense.

I learned really quickly how to tell whether or not an episode of Lost was going to be any good. What I would do is wait to see how Sawyer was used.

Every week, especially in the first season, someone would need something. “Oh, we need six quarts of soy sauce. Sawyer has it.”

Every. Week.

And every week, Sawyer would refuse to give anyone the soy sauce. 90% of the time, he’d claim that he found it, so he got to keep it. Some weeks he’d bargain for something else, and give up the soy sauce. Other weeks, someone would punch him and take it.

I got so sick of that scene, because it was the same five minutes of show, over, and over, and over again. As a viewer, it was simplistic and dull, conflict for the sake of conflict.

And then there were the weeks when Sawyer had actual reasons for holding onto his stash. Or at the very least, offered up a reasoned defense. If that happened, it was clear that the writer had put some actual thought into motivation for once, and the episode had a good shot at being decent.

But if Sawyer was off the rails for no reason, it meant that this week’s episode would feature everyone doing things not because they were motivated by character, but because if they tried to help each other, the plot would resolve in about three minutes.

Which leads me to the secrets problem.

2. Every week, someone would learn something, and then try to keep it a secret. For no reason.

There was a lot of this going on during the run of the show. I think the first one that almost drove me insane was when someone found the bottle that was supposed to carry all the notes home, on the makeshift boat. Instead of going to everyone, and saying, “Hey, we found this bottle, this is bad, we need to see if we can find our friends, who might be hurt, or washing up dead on the shore,” they went with, “Let’s hide this, so we can have a ‘secret’ that can keep as a ticking time bomb. Because the show needs those, or it will get boring.”

Things like this happened all the time. All. The. Time.

My wife and I have spent whole episodes watching someone say, “I can’t tell anyone about this,” while we said, “Why not? It can only help.”

This added to another problem:

3. The characters were constantly finding ways to be less sympathetic, as opposed to more.

Quite literally every Kate episode made me hate her even more than I already did. It was a remarkable accomplishment, turning a woman who was kind of a shrew into an even more hateful shrew.

This same problem extended to much of the rest of the cast. David Fury did some amazing character work with John Locke, and once he was gone the show spent the rest of its time eroding it, turning him from an interesting man with a genuine reason to want to stay on the island, to a complete whack-a-doodle.

Speaking of characters:

4. Lies, lies, and more lies.

This one is pointed at the writers. When the show started, it was stated that eventually we would meet and get to know everyone who survived the crash.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, the whole place became an island full of Cousin Olivers, the character who was slapped into the Brady Bunch when people grew less interested in the show.

First there were the people in the tail. Then The Others. Then they brought in this whole other group to shake things up again. Every season, instead of focusing on the dozens of people and elements already in play, the writers brought in a bunch more shiny new people to distract from the fact that the original cast weren’t interesting anymore.

Which brings us to:

5. That secret plan they didn’t actually have.

Lost’s favorite thing to do was to pile on new elements, and promise that there were super-interesting explanations in the works.

But really? No. They made it up as they went along. Oh, sure, they maintained for a long time that they’d had a long-standing plan.

Then the show ended, and one of the writers came out and said, “Well, we had some ideas for episodes, and we’d do those. And then we’d dip into the fan ideas we’d find on message boards and do those as well.”

You know what a show with a plan doesn’t do? Fan episodes. Shows like The Wire? And Buffy? And Babylon 5? No one went to the message boards, and said “Someone thinks X should do Y with Z!” and then went back into the writer’s room to make it happen.

They made a plan, they stuck to the plan, and they came out with characters who had actual motivations beyond “create conflict this week.” They had backstories that were carefully assembled and mostly made sense, instead of resembling a house made by blind carpenters with different sets of blueprints.

6. The Ending.

Look, I’m not made of stone. I thought that, perhaps, if Lost could stick the ending, it could fix up all the broken bits and pieces the show had left in its wake.

You know what? It didn’t. The best thing fans of the show could say about the ending was that it was “okay.”

A lot of hardcore fans hated it.

And what’s worse, even with an extra half-hour, it still left a bunch of little plot threads lying around. Did they not have time to clean them up?

You bet they did. If they had called up the president of the network and said they needed two extra hours to finish the story in a satisfactory way? He would have coughed up the money without a second thought, and raked in the extra advertising dollars, giggling to himself.

The fact is, Lost had the freaky fans it needed to do a better job. They could have hopped online, and asked for a list of things that still needed answers, and gotten it revised, updated, and color coded within a day.

The fact is, and here’s my final problem:

7. They just didn’t care all that much.

My wife hates serial killer movies. I can understand that. They’re full of formula (guy kills a bunch of people until he’s stopped), they’re often cheaply made, and worst of all, those kinds of people actually exist, and to some extent making movies about their ilk glorifies them.

To my mind, entertainment is entertainment, and a good stalking movie can be very entertaining, when done well. If someone cares.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think the people making Lost cared.

They’ll claim the opposite, as is their right, but take a look at that list I just compiled. 1000 words of me just scratching the surface of the problems with the show.

And these guys got everything they wanted. They wanted an end point? They got one. They wanted to keep casting new actors, while keeping most of the old ones around? They got it. All of the episodes put out back-to-back, with no breaks? Yes, sir!

They were happy to shovel shocks and twists at you. That was fine. That doesn’t take very much work, after all. It’s the equivalent of a dark room, some scary music, and having a cat jump out at you.

Let me tell you a story about someone who cares.

When Robert Jordan died he left behind his Wheel of Time book series with one volume left to write. A man was plucked from the fold to carry the legacy of the series.

That man’s name was Brandon Sanderson.

Here’s what Brandon was faced with. And keep in mind, he’s one man, not a team of TV writers.

He had to complete a book series that was already 12 volumes long, with almost every volume topping 250,000 words. This meant he had to read all the books, taking copious notes who got where, and how, and when, and why.

Then he had to take every single solitary plot thread, and pull them together into a single volume. For fans who had been waiting forever to see how it all came together in the end.

Ultimately, he discovered he couldn’t do it in one book. Or two. He’d need three.

So he wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and released one book. Then he wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more, and released the second book.

And then what? He went back and reread all the books again, before writing the third book, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything.

Even if a season of Lost went for 24 episodes, at about 45 minutes each, you can watch an entire season in about 18 hours. Two nine-hour days, or three six-hour days, if you’re so inclined.

Before the beginning of every season, every writer and producer on the show should have been sitting in a room, notebook in hand, scribbling reminders of ideas and setups that needed paying off.

I’m pretty sure that never happened.

It would have been easy, even as they approached the sixth and final season. They could have done it in less than 13 days. Fewer than three full workweeks, watching for just six hours a day, with time for discussion before and after. Maybe make it three full weeks, with two extra days of listing important details on a whiteboard somewhere.

But no.

A final thought. Somewhere in the midst of season 2, I commented on one of my social networks that the second season of Lost was pretty awful. Friends piped up immediately that the second season had problems, but the third one was perfect.

Someone qualified that statement, by stating that the first six episodes of the third season were actually kind of bad. But then it got better. And season four was great!

I gave it some thought and realized there was a pattern. Whatever season was running was “great!” and the last one was always “faulty.”

And then I started thinking about my jump scare idea, how it’s easy to take a dark room, a cat, and ominous music, and make people pop out of their seat.

A roller coaster is a lot of fun. It takes you up, down, and around, but at the end of the ride, you haven’t actually gone anywhere.

In some other iteration of the universe, there’s a great version of Lost where it took you places, made you think, and came to a beautiful and exciting and satisfying ending set up by the previous seasons.

But not in this one. In this universe, Lost is stupid.

4 comments:

  1. Love your article and glad to be here: Fire and Ice by Dianna Bellerose http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007HG21ZC/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_c8Nwpb030F3CX via @amazon

    ReplyDelete
  2. I know this was written some time ago but I'd just like to say.. Fantastic article. I'm watching Lost with my girlfriend at the moment (we're on season 6, half way through and I have seriously thought at times that I would never get this far) and have noticed the plethora of issues that have plagued this series.

    In my opinion, you have summarised this show so perfectly and concisely that I don't think I could've done it any better myself. I just sat here nodding my head the entire time I was reading your article.

    I can't believe how easily people were duped by all of the cheap theatrical tricks. I remember thinking during this shows original run, how ridiculous it was after watching 4 episodes back to back. Now I realise how justified I was to not involve myself in the hype.

    Anyway, great article.

    ~Ram

    P.S. I also wondered if they were intentionally trying to make Kate hateable. She was just so damn selfish and unsympathetic. I've come to the conclusion after 5 seasons of experience that these people just have no idea how to develop characters.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love your article, as for the show, I think it's far fetched and find myself fast forwarding many episodes, I can't stand all the flashbacks integrated in each episode. But I ask myself why do I keep watching the show, I guess it's more amusing than it is great. Now Breaking Bad is my personal favorite series, I think I will go read some viewer opinions on that series now. Thanks again for your insight on LOST. I'm not going to proof read what I just wrote, so hopefully I didn't make to many grammatical errors. Lol :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I love your article, as for the show, I think it's far fetched and find myself fast forwarding many episodes, I can't stand all the flashbacks integrated in each episode. But I ask myself why do I keep watching the show, I guess it's more amusing than it is great. Now Breaking Bad is my personal favorite series, I think I will go read some viewer opinions on that series now. Thanks again for your insight on LOST. I'm not going to proof read what I just wrote, so hopefully I didn't make to many grammatical errors. Lol :)

    ReplyDelete