Sunday, August 3, 2008

Extended Play: Lost, Season 3

Well that’s more like it.

Season 3 of “Lost” starts off floundering and directionless, much like its writers apparently felt, not knowing how long they’d have to string out mysteries and answers before they knew when the damn thing would END, so they could work out how to start finishing the story.

So while the first half of the season is devoted to answering questions all but the most dim-witted of viewers had already kinda guessed, the second half – after the creative crew got a schedule for when the show would end – starts tossing out answers and barreling into the next phase of the story.

By the middle of Season 3 (and once again, taking it in as a “TV-novel” beats the shit out of the frustrating experience of watching it as a weekly series with a big gap between new installments), there’d been a lot of throat-clearing episodes (“How Jack Got His Tattoos” the most annoying example), and a half-answers to tide weary viewers over.

But after the last deck-clearing outing – one entirely devoted to doing away with poorly-conceived new characters Paulo and Nikki – a sharper, more coherent display of the show’s Big Story began to emerge. This culminated in the first Ben flashback – which explained a bit while offering specific questions about the character and his place in that Big Story. The questions stopped being “What’s going on?” – that vagueness that got folks annoyed last season - in favor of “Who knows what?” – which holds the promise of concrete answers.

Let me back up for a second and talk more about the added characters. Introducing new folks onto a show set on a supposedly uninhabited island is a tricky proposition, but while most people bitterly recall Nikki and Paulo – two previously-unseen castaways viewers were unfairly asked to readily accept as part of the ensemble, even though they brought nothing of merit with them – it’s important to note that this season also brought Ben, Juliet, and Desmond to the fore.

I have a soft spot for Juliet because of her unflappably dry sense of humor (which ironically contrasts her off-island basket-case status). And she is important to the Big Story, in that she’s a catalyst for explaining the mysterious malady that’s killing pregnant women on the island (which affects original characters Sun and Claire). But Ben and Desmond are the ones to pay attention to, as they turn out to be insanely important additions necessary to drive the Big Story and its emotional themes forward.

Pushing Ben – leader of the mysterious Others and keeper of the magic island’s secrets – to the forefront of the story gave the viewers fair warning that the serious questions about the overarching plot were, in fact, going to be answered.

And with the arrival of Desmond, viewers learned that there was a deeply romantic element of the story we didn’t even know was there.

(If there was a drawback to our quick investment into the starcrossed Desmond-Penny love story, it was the “duh” realization the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle seemed that much more pointlessly juvenile in comparison. “Kate wishes Jack paid more attention to her? Fuck her. Desmond’s devotion to Penny was the only thing that kept him alive for THREE YEARS.”)

It’s amusing to note that all three of these characters, so important to the Big Story, also brought with them a sense of humor that had been lacking previously. The tone of the show mirrored this in a way by tossing in a bit of self-effacing meta-commentary. Characters started pointing out how over-the-top Sawyer’s nicknaming had gotten, or how ludicrous Locke’s island-worship actually sounded. It felt like a clear message from the writers: “We know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry. In the end, we’re all here to have fun.”

All this culminated in the game-changing season finale, throwing viewers off by flash-forwarding to the post-island torment of its leads. If the meta-jokes were the writers’ way of saying they understood viewer frustrations, the finale was their way of saying, “And just to shut you up: yes, we know where all this is going, too.”


So that’s three seasons viewed pretty closely together, with full knowledge of season 4 (which kept all season 3’s lessons to heart by introducing more useful new characters and giving answers to big questions without leaving viewers feeling like they’re being maliciously dicked around with). When the season 4 DVD shows up, I’ll plow through them, too – particularly with an eye on how the writers strike affected the story’s pacing and reveals).

What’s my final prognosis? Very simply, I’ve learned to trust the creators again. It’s been a tough road, and there have been some hiccups along the way (which reminds me, I forgot to mention how off-handedly they killed off Mister Eko, or how they had to foretell Charlie's death just to make the audience like him again), but I remain incredibly impressed by the body of work they’ve managed to produce so far. And I fully believe they know what they’re doing.

At this point, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn they had a bigger plan for Bai Ling’s “Jack’s Tattoos” character all along.

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