Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Get ready, Get set, Get Lost!

After being threatened by something as trivial as the State of the Union address the only prime time TV show I watch religiously returns tonight for its sixth and final season. Jennifer, my daughter and I got all caught up and finished watching the rest of season five on DVD over the weekend. We’re psyched.

As long-time readers know, I believe Lost is a unique television series. No TV program has ever given us so much character depth on such a large array of primary characters. New major characters have been added as the story has unfolded and they, too, have been given terrific treatment by the writers. This is all woven into an increasingly complex plot that has by now been transformed to the very edge of comprehensibility. No show is more challenging to figure out than Lost.

The first two seasons were heavily weighted toward character development with just enough action sequences, plot twists, and mysteries established to hook millions of viewers. As the seasons have progressed, the character development has slowly taken more of a back-seat to the plot to the point that now, as the final season begins, we’re pretty much all about plot baby.

Frankly, however, as the plot has taken over more of the show the viewership has declined. At its peak, Lost was averaging almost 15 million viewers in the US. At the end of last season that had declined to a little over 9 million, the overseas market actually growing in size for Lost. It is truly a worldwide television hit. The reason the decline in the US? The plot has become – well – rather bizarre and even the most devoted fans have no clue what is happening or why it is happening half the time. (It should be noted that Lost remains highly rated among the - financially - critical 18-49 age demographic - guess I'm young at heart.)

My family doesn’t care. For us, it has become this thrill-ride, mind-twisting puzzle. The millions of viewers that have hung in there are being rewarded with the most complex television storyline ever presented on mainstream television. That doesn’t spell “entertainment” for most TV couch potato Americans. In places like Europe and India, though, Lost is a growing force.

For me personally, there is a metaphorical element to Lost that is worth pondering. It is not as simple as good vs. evil, or fate vs. free will, or any similar dialectic. As best I can tell, there are at least three different levels of “competitors” in Lost, all fighting for something. One of those levels seems to be outside the traditional boundaries of Time, going back to at least Egyptian spirituality. Sometimes the goals of one competing force overlap with another, but more often than not, they don’t intersect nor are they even aware of one another’s existence (except for the competitors outside Time, who apparently know way more than any of the rest of us). I don’t know what the metaphorical message(s) is(are) yet. I must stay tuned for more information.

The producers of the show have assured fans that there will be explanations for most of the conflicts and unresolved tensions in the show by the conclusion of this season. Most, but not all. And that is the way it should be. The task of the producers is gargantuan because of the ever-increasing complexity of the interwoven plot elements. It won’t be easy to pull off a satisfying resolution. There is the danger of everything devolving into confusion and shallowness. This is what ultimately happened to another great, innovative TV series, The X-Files. Unlike The X-Files, however, the producers of Lost have enough sense not to keep the show going on past its prime. This season will be its last, despite its decent US ratings and enormous oversees market loyalty. The X-Files went through nine seasons, the last three being of decreasingly satisfying quality.

I’m hopeful. The very fact they chose to end the series while it is still in its prime shows an uncharacteristic degree of creative dignity and lack of simple greed.

First and foremost Lost is about Time. The Island skips through Time and everyone on it skips right along. Flash. It’s 1954. Flash it’s 2004. Flash, it’s sometime in the 1800’s. Flash it is 1977. Half our major characters are stuck in 1977. The rest are in 2007. The two groups are desperately seeking to find each other on the same island. I know it sounds stupid put so simplistically. But, this is what is happening and the writers have crafted this absurd situation so delicately over years through so many complicated character interactions that it is totally acceptable, not absurd at all.

In Season Five Lost shifted gears just like it has every season. No two seasons of Lost are really the same, the show evolves fast and on multiple levels. But in Season Five something really different happens. New viewers might think it is just very poor continuity. But it is something more. There are many critical scenes that are replayed over the course of several episodes, scenes where several major characters all converge. Each time these scenes are replayed it is in an episode where the subplot features the back-story (or future-story) of a different major character. When each scene recurs it happens more or less the same way…but not exactly the same way.

Dialog is spoken which means basically the same thing, but it is not the same lines. Example: "If I see either of you again it will be unpleasant for all of us" vs. "If I see you again it will be unpleasant for the both of us." Actions are taken, but they are slightly different actions. Where an injured character lies docile and hurting in one scene, in the retelling that character pulls out a knife for protection. He didn't do that the first go-round. Where a stewardess passes a passenger two little bottles of in-flight vodka, in the retelling it is only one such bottle. Someone is shot seemingly in the heart, but in the next retelling the wound is in the chest but not the heart. The number of little differences is seemingly countless.

This is far too pervasive to be continuity errors. This is intentional. The debate within the Lost community is about what this could mean. The majority opinion is that this is simple “perspectivism.” Events appear differently to different people. Under ordinary circumstances I would agree with this theory. But, this show is now about Time itself. Loops in Time. My own guess, is that we are watching events occurring over and over again within Time and that each time they occur things are generally the same but not precisely the same. And these little changes in the way things happen can add up to completely different possibilities in Time.

Hey, I’m probably wrong but there’s no point in trying to follow this stuff unless you want to play the game of possibilities.

I predict this final season the producers of Lost will pull out all the stops. There is no need to build more audience share. The show is ending. This is it. Why not take even more chances? Why care if everyone can follow it? Go ahead, jerk not just the rug but the entire floor out from under us. We’re your helpless, submissive victims. Take us where you will. Just make sure in the end we end up as surprised and fascinated as we have been ever moment over the last five years. Only then will the end be as completely worthy and satisfying as the journey itself.

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