LOST Faith

Note: LOST series and finale spoilers, as well as opinions (but no details) regarding the Battlestar Galactica finale.

Longtime visitors know that I was a huge fan of LOST, so much so that I have written several essays of the subject: The Perverse Appeal of Lost, The LOST Script Style, and a long discussion in the TMN 2008 Annual about the symbiotic relationship between LOST and spoilers.

I have often gone so far as to call LOST my favorite television show, ever. Not the best show, mind you–not in a world with The Wire and Six Feet Under and Arrested Development–but the show which has given me the most hours of enjoyment. I am predisposed to LOSTian fiction to begin with, and the exceptional quality of the writing and direction (although intermittent) put me solidly in the TV show’s camp. Watching season 1-3, I was literally unable to wait between episodes (nor did I need to, thanks to the miracle of TV-on-DVD). Watching 22 hours of the program in the space of a month, sans commercial breaks or weeklong pauses, was like going on a drug binge of the pull-down-the-window-shades-and-unplug-the-telephone variety. In the off-months, between season releases, I would occasionally devour huge swaths of Lostapedia in a single sitting.

Around the time my LOST zeal was at its zenith, I was watching another dramatic serial: Battlestar Galactic. The two shows had a lot of similarities: a mix of sci-fi and politics, large ensemble casts, perpetual questions about where loyalties lie, and so forth. Although there were some great episodes of BSG at the time, and some pisspoor episodes of LOST, I routinely declared the former to be inferior to the latter. The primary distinction between the two was clear in my mind: the writers of LOST had a plan, and the writers of BSG did not. (Nor did the Cylons, it turned out, despite weekly assurances to the contrary.)

I, like John Locke, had faith that things on the island happened for a reason. The stories on LOST (thought I) were primarily to advance the narrative toward a predestine conclusion; the stories on BSG, on the other hand, were primarily to fill an hour of airtime, with little thought toward how the events would fit into the greater arc. I enjoyed BSG, but viewed it as more an episodic show than a series. I never for a moment thought they’d be able to wrap it up satisfactorily and, after my lack of confidence proved prescient, chided those friends of mine who had believed otherwise.

Well, after last night it looks like I deserve a heaping helping of chide myself.

Even as late as yesterday afternoon I thought the writers could (but had long since given up on “would”) give us an intellectually satisfying resolution to the series, even while necessarily leaving many many many many questions unanswered. To my mind, that only required one thing: providing an explanation for the island that could have been hypothetically deduced early in the series.

Lord knows that there has been no shortage of hypothesizin’ in the six years since LOST premiered. People thought the island was purgatory, or a Matrix-style virtual reality, or the world’s biggest Skinner Box. Some thought that the unseen creature in the jungle was a dinosaur time-shunted to the present, or that the smoke monster was a collection of nanobots powered by the island’s electromagnetism. Some thought the Man in Black was a djinn, let loose from his bottle by a shipwrecked Jacob and hellbent on destroying the world. Some thought that everything took place exclusively in Hugo’s head. It would be impossible to quantify the number of words written and volume of carbon-dioxide expelled by people explaining their elaborate theories, online and over beers and to glazed-eyed acquaintances in elevators.

And it was all for naught. Because the show pulled the most grievous of mystery genre crimes: it introduced new clues at the end of the story. The Jacob/MiB relationship was explained at the end of season 5; the “light at the heart of the island” was introduced two episodes before the finale(!). This is the cinematic equivalent of whodunit in which the murderer turns out to be some hithertofore unmentioned character who appears in the last chapter only. Agatha Christie would have been de-damed if she had pulled this shit.

Now, to be fair, if the secret of the island had been any of the things mentioned above, most (i.e., non-me) fans of the show would have been enormously disappointed. The problem with a show like LOST, especially in the age of the Internet, is that every reasonable explanation for the mysteries had been formulated and disseminated far and wide, and settling on any of them would have resulted in the writers getting eviscerated for “obviousness”. In fact, the more fitting a solution, the more likely it would be the “leading theory” among fans, the more the finale would be denounced as “lame” for failing to deliver a surprise. The writers were practically forced to conjure up a brand new mystery in the last season (“hey look over here, what’s the deal with these two guys?”), provide answers to that alone, and largely ignore the five seasons of enigmas that preceded it.

I totally understand that. But it leaves me no less annoyed that the show that spoke so often of “rules” decided to flaunt the gentlemen agreements that govern the mystery genre. I wouldn’t have cared if the island turned out to be the Garden of Eden, or a big reality show, or one of Charlie’s heroine-fueled fever dreams. Anything, as long as it was figure-out-able.

I honestly liked the finale, in isolation, as a solid few hours of television. And we got emotionally satisfying resolution in spades. Heck, if I’d only seen the pilot and the recap show and the finale, I might have called the series an unmitigated success.

Instead, I invested a lot of time into a show that for years masqueraded as a “mystery”, only to reveal itself, in the final act, as a run-of-the-mill “thriller”. A twist ending to be sure, but not the one for which I had hoped.

Last LOST Post For a Year, I Promise

Okay, a friend and I just did the math.

The final episode of LOST Season 4 will be #82. After that there will be two more seasons, each with 16 episodes.

The premiere of LOST Season 4 was in mid-January, 2008. Let’s assume that the final season starts in mid-January of 2010. At that point, 98 episodes will have aired. So, what’s January 15, 2010, minus 98 weeks?

Answer: February 29, 2008.

So: if you’ve never seen LOST, you can start from the pilot now, view one episode a week (with five double-headers), finish right before the start of season 6, and see the remaining installments in real time, thereby watching the entire series without hiatus.

Lemmie know how that works out for you.

The Perverse Appeal of LOST

This post contains no spoilers.

The Queen and I are halfway through season three of LOST and goddamn I love this show.

It’s hard for me to admit because LOST is popular, and it’s crucial to my self-image that I only enjoy television shows that hobble along for a season or three, unappreciated by the unwashed masses, before getting unceremoniously axed. Freaks & Geeks, Arrested Development, Firefly, and so forth. (We are going to conveniently ignore that I also liked The Sopranos, and that I laugh until my stomach hurts every time I stumble across AFHV …) And yet here I am, a LOST junkie, just like half of America.

Intellectually I recognize that the third season has all of the same problems of the first two: it shows us the trees, so to speak, and willfully ignores the forest. In other words, the creators of LOST have inverted the traditional mystery formula by making the clues themselves the focus of the show, instead of using them as an means to a end (the end being the solution of the central mystery).

Here’s a hypothetical example (hypothetical in the sense that I just made all this up; again, no spoilers in this post.) An episode ends with someone on LOST finding a leather-bound tome entitled “Secrets of the Island.” Yes! Finally we’ll learn what’s going on! But in the next installment, that person opens the book to discover that the whole thing is written in ancient indecipherable pictograms. Dammit! But in the last five minutes, someone notices that the final third of the book is blank, and the ink of the last entry is fresh! “It’s a work-in-progress,” says Major Character. “Someone is still writing it!!” And in the last five minutes of the next episode it is revealed via flashback that Other Major Character studied Ancient Indecipherable Pictology in college–holy shit!!!! And this goes on for three more episodes, at which point Major Character confronts Other Major Character with the book, and he (O.M.C.) confesses that he is using the book to record the movements of the other castaways, but only because a giant, ambulatory, sentient coconut threatened to kill him if he didn’t. And you, the viewer, are, like, “well, I’m glad the mystery of the book is cleared up BUT WHAT’S THIS ABOUT A GIANT AMBULATORY SENTIENT COCONUT??!!!” Lots and lots of clues (and episodes about clues), but you’re not one jot closer to understanding the central mystery. And meanwhile the LOST prop department is hastily burying the book in a Superfund site, hoping that no one remembers the title.

I found all this exasperating during season two (during which I parodied the style with The Adventure of the Missing Stocking.) But I’ve succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome or something, because now I kind of enjoy the sheer absurdity of it.

The structure of the narrative reminds me, in many ways, of a computer roleplaying game (CRPG). A quick primer for my seven non-nerd readers: in a CRPG (such as World of Warcraft, a.k.a. WoW), you typically start out as a puny little nothing, a 47-pound weakling armed with a broomstick. As such, you only have the wherewithal to fight monsters of a comparable degree of fragility (rats, typically). But every time you dispatch one, you gain “experience,” and once you’ve acquired enough experience, you “level”. Leveling (as it is called) means that your abilities go up, you are able to buy and use better weapons, and can now go toe-to-toe with slightly more menacing creatures–giant ambulatory sentient coconuts, say. Kill enough of those, level again, and move on to the next class of baddies.

I love CRPGs (so much so that I’ve avoided WoW like the plague–if I wanted a all-consuming addiction I’d pick up some heroin from a Seattle street corner, thanks). I love them despite my frequent realizations, while playing, that in-game progress is largely chimeric. When you’re a level 1 squire it may take you two minutes to kill a rat; when you are a level 9 knight you can kill a rat with a single stroke–but you don’t fight rats, you fight ogres, and the time it takes you to kill them is … two minutes. You environment levels up as you do, such that you are pretty much playing the same game all the time, albeit with cool new equipment and a more impressive sounding rank. The excitement you feel upon leveling fades almost immediately, as you start accumulating experience to reach the next stage.

This is the LOST formula in a nutshell. During each show you gain a little experience in the form of new information: about the island, the characters, or both; every four episodes or so you level up, as some (allegedly) major piece of the overall puzzle falls into place. After leveling up in a CRPG, you typically head to Ye Olde Flail ‘N’ Scented Candle Emporium, sell all your current equipment, and buy the improved weapons that your enhanced abilities now allow you to wield; likewise, after a revelatory LOST episode, fans chuck all their old theories into the dustbin and cook up new ones consistent with the revised facts. Then, having done so, each–the player of a CRPG, or the viewer of LOST–is handed a brand new quest, or puzzle, or plot plot. The ephemeral thrill of leveling vanishes, replaced by a longing to hit the next milestone. You never disembark from the treadmill, it just goes faster.

This may sound like criticism, but it’s not. It’s admiration. Like the creators of World of Warcraft, the writers of LOST have managed to throw a saddle on the addictive lure of leveling and ride it to success. And bully for them. Like I said, I love this genre, even if I can visualize the levers they are pulling.

LOST is not the first program to attempt this, to be sure. Lynch tried it with Twin Peaks, but the wheels flew off the cart in the second season (and even before that, the ride was pretty bumpy). The X-Files came close to pulling it off, but it wasn’t certain if the writers would ever provide resolution to the core “mythos” mysteries, and after a while fans (such as myself) gave up on the series. That’s what CRPGers call an “endgame problem”–the game might be fun to play, but the whole enterprise feels pointless unless there’s a clearly-defined “ending” on the horizon. (Even WoW, which you could conceivably play forever, has a maximum level that a character can reach, giving players a concrete goal toward which to strive.) The creators of LOST obviated the “endgame problem” by announcing that the series will end in 2010, and swearing that answers will be supplied. (For details, see this commendably spoiler-free USA Today article from last year.)

Another piece of lingo that crops up a lot in CRPG circles is “grinding“: when your character has to do the same thing over and over again (killing rats, for instance) to acquire the experience necessary to level. If the CRPG isn’t intrinsically interesting, then grinding is just that: a grind. But if the world is well-constructed, and the game is well-written, grinding is tolerated (and even enjoyed) by players as a necessary evil, something to keep you immersed in the storyline as long as possible. After all, a game in which you started at level 70 and killed the End Boss in your first fight would be lame beyond belief.

Much of LOST is grinding, honestly: stuff to keep the viewer occupied until the next bombshell drops and the story is taken the next level (so to speak). But here, halfway through season three, it’s becoming increasingly obvious (at least to me) that the grinding itself is pretty fun. That’s high-praise right there: these guys can even stall entertainingly.

Yes some of the episodes are clunkers, and lot of the plot twists don’t endure a moment’s scrutiny, and I STILL REMEMBER THE TITLE OF THE BOOK YOU GODDAMNED CHEATS!! But the game’s been a lot of fun so far, and I’ll gladly play through to the end.

The Sopranos

After zealously shielding myself from spoilers for seven straight months, I finally watched the final episode of The Sopranos, knowing absolutely nothing about what would happen or how it would end.

Thoughts in the comments.

TV On DVD: Battlestar Galactica

The Morning News used to have a quarterly featured entitled Of Recent Note, in which the contributing writers raved about whatever they were currently grooving on. In the Spring 2005 installment, for instance, I talked up Oracle Night, KEXP, and the St. Petersburg freeware game.

With the redesign, though, The Morning News has started featuring one item of note daily, and, again, I am one of the contributors. Two weeks ago I recommended Stumbleupon; today I’m singing the praises of, believe it or not, Battlestar Galactica.

In fact, Battlestar Galactica is largely the reason why I have still not seen Revenge of the Sith. The Queen and I had intended to go last week so I could finish my write-ups of the prequels, but after watching the three-hour BSG mini-series we were so surprised and impressed by the storytelling that we knew that Sith could only disappoint in its wake.

I’m not saying that the Battlestar Galactica mini-series is great. But at least it’s actual space opera rather than an overwrought romance plastered onto a bunch of politics as scintillating as a typical two hours of C-Span.

The mini-series served as the pilot for a regular series, the first season of which will be released on DVD in August. I am looking forward to it. If you receive the Sci-Fi Channel and own a Tivo (or have the wherewithal to watch 13 straight hours of television), you can get up to speed on July 6th when they are going to air all the Season One episodes in one marathon block. (Apparently the episodes can also be acquired via BitTorrent, but I, of course, wouldn’t know anything about that.) Then settle in for Season Two, premiering July 15.