Monday, June 20, 2016

Live Together, Die Alone

Remember that time I had a blog? No? Apparently, neither did I.

Since my last post I've managed to get several jobs on actual TV shows and move to another country, but never fear—my introverted tendencies mean that Netflix is still an essential companion. Livin' it up!

So. Let's go to a mysterious island, where nothing makes any sense. A bunch of people crash there, only to find that a bunch of other people already live there. They all try to kill each other. And that, in a nutshell, is LOST.

LOST ran for six seasons on ABC, from 2004-2010. The concept and execution of LOST were hugely experimental for the time; with monsters, immortality, time travel, and an apparently-sentient island, nothing like this had ever been done before on television (outside of The Twilight Zone, which is, even now, in a league of its own), or really much afterward.

On top of that, there's nothing procedural about it, which is fairly common now on cable networks and streaming services, but which was (and still is) frowned upon by the networks, who are wholly reliant on viewership and the advertising money it brings in, and so need shows that anyone can start watching at any time during its run. But it's pretty much impossible to jump into LOST at any episode, which ABC was worried about before giving it the green light. In true creatives-versus-business form, creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof flat-out lied to the network and told them that "Of course people can start watching any time!" even though they had already written out a several-season story arc. ABC needn't have worried, because viewers got hooked immediately.

It's really kind of hard not to get hooked immediately. LOST grabs its audience by making us ask ourselves one of those hypothetical questions we sometimes think about in the shower: what would I do if my plane crashed on an island?

Charlie (Dominick Monaghan), Sun (Yunjin Kim),
Shannon (Maggie Grace), Sawyer (Josh Holloway),
Boone (Ian Somerhalder), Jack (Matthew Fox),
Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Michael (Harold Perrineau),
and Kate (Evangeline Lilly)
The show begins with Oceanic Flight 815 hitting turbulence, splitting in half, and crashing onto an uncharted island on its way to Los Angeles from Sydney. Out of the survivors, personalities, secrets, relationships, and alliances arise while they try to survive and wait for rescue. Once they start exploring the island, the survivors discover that they're not alone there, and "The Others" present a new threat that they—and the audience—struggle to understand.

Through flashbacks, and later flash-forwards (if that's a word), more and more about each character's history and motivations is revealed, building them into really interesting, complex people the viewers can understand on a deep level.

This, to me, is the most amazing thing about LOST. The concept is average at best, and the constant mysteries and cliffhangers can get a little old, especially in the later seasons. But the complex and genuinely interesting characters and the relationships they form are what made me want to keep watching. It's what I love most about television in general, but it's what makes LOST and J.J. Abrams's other shows so interesting to watch. It's what Abrams is best at, and where his films fall flat, honestly; he doesn't have time to build his characters and his stories the way he can on TV, so all that's left is a multi-million-dollar lens flare.

Another way that the show is really made by its characters is the sheer diversity of people. In a way that Hollywood pretty much never is, the cast of survivors is really representative of the diversity you'd find on an international flight. A pregnant Australian girl, married Koreans, a Black single dad and his young son, an overweight Hispanic guy, an Iraqi, a southern con-man, an older interracial couple, a middle-aged, sort-of paraplegic, and a British, drug-addicted rock musician. Though, of course, the main character, Jack, is a sexy white doctor, and, frankly, was wholly uninteresting. To me, Sayid and Sawyer were far more interesting characters and could've been just as effective as leaders of the group and the show.

One of the biggest missing links to me is
the origins of the Dharma Initiative.
There's a pretty definite shift in tone in the last half of the show, when the flashbacks switch to glimpses of the future. That's all well and good—it moves the story along and introduces new questions. But then in the last two seasons, things get really crazy with uncontrollable time-shifts, extra supernatural elements, and new plot twists that, to me, just muddled things up when they didn't need to be.

Before that point, it felt like things were finally being explained. The time jumps were promising, because it seemed like the origins of the island, the Dharma Initiative, and the Others would finally, finally, make some sense. But instead, LOST fell into the trap that I've found a lot of suspense-driven shows fall into: mystery for the sake of mystery, drawn out for the sake of intrigue, and then poorly—or never—explained. I like being left with questions, sure, but they have to be good, thoughtful, interesting questions, and not just "What the hell just happened?"

It's incredibly disappointing, because up to that point the mystery was exciting, and didn't feel exploitative. In the last two seasons, I felt like the cliffhangers were just taking advantage of my investment in the show, and not in the smart way that good stories do. It felt a little cheap, frankly.

And, well, the end. I had heard complaints about it and went into the show believing it had been spoiled. If it helps anyone who wondered, they weren't all dead the whole time. Thank. God. I put off watching the show for several years because I was so disappointed in this possibility, because, if it were true, it would be such lazy writing that it would completely ruin an interesting show.

I still didn't love the ending, but it was better than the alternative. It was emotional and was nice in that it brought all of the characters back together, even ones that had died early on in the show. But it was disappointing in the same way the last seasons were: it just wasn't explained well enough. It was a nice idea, but there were too many loose ends that felt contrived. They could've been explained, but they just weren't, and for no reason.

My five-season theory holds up here. LOST would have been infinitely better if it had had one fewer season. It felt like it had one too many story lines. One too many returns to the island, one too many time trips, one too many supernatural elements. Again, it felt a little cheap and exploitative. It felt, as with many shows that last a little bit too long, like ABC was just trying to drag out the viewership just a little bit longer.

All in all, I'm glad I watched LOST. I'm glad I can be part of the cultural phenomenon that came out of it, even if it's years too late. It's certainly worth watching if you like suspenseful stories and interesting characters with some sci-fi elements, but just be aware that it's not consistently good all the way through. I personally much preferred Abrams's Fringe, which is one of my favorite series, and the very short-lived Alcatraz was promising, as well. But LOST was worth watching and is really fun to discuss, and with so many hugely-dedicated viewers and so many weird plot lines to figure out, there's no shortage of things to talk about. And I think the LOST community is what helped it last.

This is a show that demands conversation. So on that note, let's talk about it! Leave a comment with your thoughts below—I'd love to hear from you!
My Favorite Episode:
"Live Together, Die Alone," (S2, Ep.23). We learn more about Desmond's past, and Michael brings Kate, Jack, Hurley, and Sawyer to the Others to try to rescue Walt, while Sayid, Sun, and Jin try to stop the betrayal. Desmond and Locke decide not to press the button in the hatch, and Charlie and Mr. Eko try to stop them. Picking a favorite episode is difficult, because each one is so connected to each other one that it can be hard to separate them. But the hatch was my favorite plot line, because it included a lot of interesting dilemmas for the characters. They learn about the Dharma Initiative (which I wish had been better explained), and the imperative to keep pressing the button brings up the question of how much of the island's information they should take on faith, and how much control they actually have over their time there. The hatch also showed a lot about the characters involved, based on how they reacted to the instructions to continue to press the button.

Some Trivia:
  • Daniel Dae Kim hadn't spoken Korean since he was a teenager, and had to relearn the language for his monolingual character Jin. Yunjin Kim, whose character Sun secretly speaks English and teaches Jin to speak English, actually spoke Korean in most of her previous acting credits and helped Daniel Dae Kim with his Korean.
  • Michael Emerson, who played Ben, was originally only supposed to be in a few episodes. The producers liked him so much that they made him a more prominent character. (Good thing, too. Ben was probably the most interesting character, even in the last seasons when things got weird.)
  • Parts of the crashed plane were used as instruments in Michael Giacchino's soundtrack.
  • Jorge Garcia (Hurley) was the first person cast in the series, after J.J. Abrams saw him in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Next Up in the Series:
Murder, She Wrote

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