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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
Wednesday 9:00 PM

Lost With Lost on break until February, it seems like a good time to take a step back and take stock of where the show is and where it may be going. It's now been about two and a quarter seasons of TV time, and just under three months of fictional time, since the crash of Oceanic flight 815, but in many ways things have never been better for the islanders. The difficulties of survival that preoccupied much of the first season have been tended to. Lean-tos and hatches provide shelter, fruit-pickers and mysterious air-drops provide food. Several of the characters have made it clear they have no interest in being rescued, and the others don't seem to spend a lot of time thinking about getting off the island. The invisible monster with the train-whistle roar, which enjoyed snacking on survivors in early episodes, has either disappeared or possibly morphed into a more mystical and selective wisp of homicidal black smoke.

At the main camp, in other words, life has become complacent, the struggles mainly interpersonal or philosophical. That's a problem, because even at its best, Lost always threatened to devolve into a kind of metaphysical Gilligan's Island, and never before, with the show's new absence of energy, has it been in such danger of falling down that hole. The main tension now appears to be away from the main camp and at the Dharma Initiative's base of operation, where the drama is mostly stale and contrived. If the writers can't find a way to get out of the corner into which they've painted themselves, one of the most exciting television shows in years is in danger of collapsing into simpering nonsense.

Shows like Lost can start out strong but face the danger of precipitous decline. The writers are forced to maintain a very tight control on the sluice gates of information, since the original energy of the show emanates from the power of unexplained mystery. Information must be doled out so that viewers don't feel like as though they're being strung along, but at the same time, answering the questions that drive the story take away the very energy that roped in viewers in the first place. The answer, of course, is that every answer provided must itself raise new questions.

In some ways, Lost did an excellent job of providing new mysteries in season two. I can't quite recall what I thought might be in the hatch, but I never once suspected it would be a 70s rec room, complete with a stationary bike and tubs of ranch dressing. I didn't know who the Others might be, but I didn't think they'd be a cadre of needle-happy middlebrow crackpots with a taste for theatrical make-up. We now know what caused the plane to crash -- it was a big electromagnetic thingie, though why there needs to be a big electro-magnetic thingie is a new and compelling mystery.

Season three, on the other hand, makes some pretty big mistakes. Besides, as a result of the show's zero tolerance for DUI incidents, killing off the last of the compelling new characters introduced last season, it has now divided up the survivors into two, at the moment, unconnected narratives. On the one hand, you have Jack, Kate and Sawyer held captive by the Dharma baddies, where the absence of real drama is painted over by (and this is always a big mistake) resolving romantic tensions. Jack is needed to perform a difficult operation on head Dharma baddie Ben, but why exactly do they need Kate and Sawyer to smash rocks? It's a mystery, yes, but not an interesting one. In fact, part of the problem with Lost is that the characters themselves no longer seem especially concerned with the mysteries that surround them. They may plot their escape back to the main camp, but they never take the trouble to wonder aloud who the hell the Dharma baddies are and what they are doing on the island. If Ben can obtain a fuzzy videotape of the most recent world series, why can't he get medical attention? If they maintain contact with the outside world, why is their equipment so mismatched and outdated? There don't need to be answer, but their should at least be questions.

Back on the beach, Locke and the rest may poke around at some vexing problems, but they do it with a kind of blasé dilettantism. The urgency that once drove the inquiry seems to have evaporated in the Byzantine contours of the backpedaling. On top of that, it seems to me very wrongheaded to separate Jack and Locke, whose opposing styles and methods have been a driving force of tension. Jack was interesting as competent and rational leader, but he's absolutely tedious as the Rambo-like caged depressive. Locke may still want to gaze into the island's mystical face, but his quest is less interesting when no one is telling him to knock it off, and the audience has no idea what is driving him forward.

I have by no means abandoned hope that Lost can get find its way back from this mess, but to do so, it is going to have to return to its roots: urgency, mystery and compelling characters who actually want something. Here's hoping the writers get it together.

Day Break: Series Premiere
Wednesday 9:00 PM

Day Break While Lost rests, ABC is filling the space with the 13-episode series Day Break which attempts to combine the sense of mystery of its time-slot-mate with the compelling action of 24. Police detective Brett Hopper, ála Groundhog Day, is inexplicably living the same day over and over again, and it's no ordinary day either: this one is composed of the varied threads of his life coming together in an interwoven mass of conspiracy. He has been framed for the murder of an assistant DA he's never met; his partner is about to be exposed by Internal Affairs; the pivotal witness in a major case has been compromised; his girlfriend's ex-husband is out to make relationship trouble; and a group of shifty-eyed villains are videotaping his every move. Most or all of these developments are linked, which provides viewers with the pleasure of watching the points of contact unfold.

Each day Hopper, ably played by Taye Diggs, can take the lessons he has learned the previous day and try to uncover some new element of the mystery, but there are always hard choices to make. If he doesn't look after his girlfriend Rita, she'll be murdered, if he doesn't stop to distract a stranger, she'll be mangled in a car accident. What makes Day Break's execution particularly interesting is the way in which the things that happen to Hopper carry over from day to day. All the other pieces on the board are reset each morning, but if he's shot one day, he wakes up to repeat the day, only this time he's bleeding from his bullet wound.

The danger with Day Break's narrative is that it risks making all the supporting characters static. Only Hopper moves forward in time, so soon we know the supporting characters, what they are going to do, and so they consequently become uninteresting. Three episodes in, the writers have been doing an excellent job of avoiding this pitfall by building the characters in alternative ways. Andrea, Hopper's partner, sacrifices herself to save Hopper, and that act, next time around, shapes the way we understand her motives. New circumstances, brought into being by Hopper's different choices, allow for the revelation of secrets and connections. Supporting characters can't grow and change, but they can still unfold.

What is lacking, at least thus far, is some framework to explain why Hopper is caught in this time loop. He receives a mysterious package in the mail containing an hourglass, but that feels more like a placeholder than an actual step toward explanation. There are no magic talismans, alien artifacts or wayward theoretical physicists to be seen, and that's a bad sign. For Day Break to succeed it is going to have to offer some kind of justification, or at least a gesture toward an justification, that works within the show's established universe. Right now, other than Hopper's dilemma, the universe is relentlessly rational, and that limits options. On one of the early episodes of Lost, survivors on a jungle expedition are attacked by a polar bear, among the most unlikely creatures to be found on a tropical island. There was nothing hokey or credulity-straining about it, but it signaled that there was something very strange about the island. Day Break could use a similar touch -- some sort of broad hint which gives us a peg upon which to hang a later explanation.

It's fortunate that Day Break is running on a short season since it is unlikely the gimmick could withstand treatment over 20 or more episodes. As it is, the story is almost always interesting, but it is frequently just shy of compelling. I plan to stick with it, but if it doesn't offer a decent pay-off in the end, ABC will feel my wrath.

Copyright © 2006 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

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