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The Small Picture
by David Liss

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Small Picture columns.]

Lost: The State of the Show
ABC
Wednesday 10:00 PM

Lost Among the things so remarkable about Lost's precipitous third season demise is the degree to which, in its effort to both answer question and complicate the drama, it has distanced itself from the formula that made it successful in the first place. Lost's early appeal was based not on the mysterious isolation of its characters -- certainly Jericho has proved you can put a bunch of characters together under extreme and baffling circumstances, and yet viewers will only wish fewer of them had survived. No, Lost worked because the characters and the tension between them enlivened what was always -- let's be honest -- a very silly set of mysteries. You want proof? Just try recounting some of the plot points from the first two seasons to someone who has never seen the show. Pretty soon you'll feel like an idiot. You want more proof? Consider this: on many of the show's best episodes the drama was driven not by the events on the island but by the back story -- the often quotidian flashbacks in which the characters are fleshed out and made more sympathetic. Yes, often enough these stories contain the hint of the mysterious, or provide unexpected links between survivors on the island, but that's not what made these segments work. They work because they make the characters interesting and real, and good story-telling is nothing more mysterious than that.

Now it's March, and though we're still less than halfway through the third season, Lost feels irredeemably lost. I recounted some of these problems in a previous column, but suffice to say that the most significant challenges remain twofold. First, we now know too much about the Dharma Initiative, and, like all shadowy villains that step out of the shadows, it turns out these people are not especially interesting. They know how to, on occasion, give the sinister dial a twist, but often enough that effect is only achieved by throwing another inexplicable plot log onto the fire. Secondly, while the bulk of the energy of the show is dedicated to Jack's adventures on the Dharma island, the ensemble cast that made Lost so much fun has fallen away. There's often a "Hey, I forgot about that one" moment when such principal characters as Hurley, Sayid, Clair, Sun and even Locke show up. Except for the occasional digression, Lost is centering on the increasingly petulant and unlikable Jack and his relations with his captors. I won't deny that it is, at times, interesting, but it is also frustrating and a mere shadow of what Lost once was.

So, in the interest of fairness, let's do a quick recap of the three most recent episodes.

"Not in Portland" resolves the midseason cliffhanger in which Jack, while operating on Dharma chief Ben, slashes the patient's kidney sack (I don't know precisely what this means, but it can't be good) and threatens to let him die if Kate and Sawyer aren't aloud to escape. In the resolution -- and no one could have seen this coming -- Jack saves Ben and Kate and Sawyer escape anyhow. There is lots of running through the jungle, shots fired and pistol whipping, but what makes the episode interesting is the back story of Juliet, the very conflicted Dharma member who ends up killing one of her own in order to save Kate and Sawyer. We also learn in this episode that her last name is Burke, bringing, by my count, the number of characters named after 18th century philosophers to four. If you're counting, there's Juliet Burke (ex-husband named Edmund), Desmond Hume (middle name David), John Locke and Danielle Rousseau (middle name Jean-Jacques?). What does it mean? Probably nothing. Is it intriguing? No, mostly just distracting.

Perhaps the most interesting of the three episodes is "Flashes Before Your Eyes," in which Desmond becomes unstuck in time and ends up reliving events prior to his shipwrecking. Now he has the opportunity to change his life and avoid the old mistakes. Nifty, but in true clichéd fashion, he can't bring himself to do it. A mysterious jewelry store matron informs Desmond that it is his destiny to land on the island and push the button in the hatch over and over again, and somehow he ends up believing it. Yet, thought his episode leans heavily on cornball plot devices, Desmond is an interesting character, and I enjoyed seeming him in his pre-island habitat. And the episode ends on an interesting note. Desmond has twice saved Charlie's life, and he knows from his previous incarnation that Charlie is destined to die. He can try to stop it, but Charlie's death is inevitable. It's too bad that, if you've been watching episode after episode of Jack trapped on the other island, you might ask "Charlie who?"

Easily the weakest of the three episodes is "Stranger in a Strange Land." It suffers largely because it focuses on the now unmoored Jack. Without Locke to butt heads with him, Jack ceases to be a strong, determined leader, and instead comes across as a jerk. Sadly, though it could have been a device for reintroducing us to Jack, there's nothing in this episode to make him more sympathetic or interesting. In the flashback sequence, when we learn about the secret origins of his tattoo, Jack is moody and withdrawn, and in his dealings with the Dharma people, he is doubly so. Much of the difficulty derives from the fact that the show has gotten into the very bad habit of presenting exchanges between characters in which one will say something cryptic and the other will simply accept the meaninglessness. In the flashback sequence, Jack's Thai girlfriend Achara announces, after much mysterious build up, that she marks people with tattoos that reveal their true identity. Rather than ask her to explain what she means, he accepts (a) that tattooing people with their true identity is the sort of thing that makes perfect sense; (b) that she is the sort of person who can do this mysterious thing; (c) it is the sort of thing he wants done to himself. I know I wouldn't. Jack, however, demands (with inexplicable anger -- why exactly is he so miffed?) that she mark him. Achara says no, that it is not for outsiders and there will be consequences. Jack replies, "There always are." It's a trite and obvious rejoinder, but what does it mean? What does it mean to him? It's pretty clear that Achara is horrified at the prospect, but at the height of this important conversation, with so much yet unresolved, the exchange ends, and the plot -- in this case the tattooing -- forges ahead in defiance of logic. Later, on the Dharma island, one of the residents explains to Jack that they are on the island "to watch." In an unusual moment of trenchant detective work, Jacks asks her what precisely she is there to watch, but then blows up in anger before she can answer. What a shame since, "We're here to watch," is about the most comprehensive explanation we've yet received about the Dharma Initiative's mission.

This pretty succinctly demonstrates the new direction of the show. Questions are never asked, and if they are they arenever answered, and if they are answered, the answer is cryptic and goes unchallenged. The Dharma plot line builds inconsistency upon inconsistency, and there is little chance that all the questions can ever be satisfactorily resolved. If we cared more about the characters perhaps it wouldn't matter, but right now, Lost is groaning under the weight of its own excesses. Can it fix itself? The mysterious jewelry merchant in "Flashes Before Your Eyes" tells Desmond that the universe has a way of correcting itself, but then again, she's talking about Lost's universe, and I'm not entirely sure I believe her.

Copyright © 2007 David Liss

David Liss is the author of four novels: A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, and The Ethical Assassin. He can be contacted via his web page www.davidliss.com.


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