Friday, January 23, 2009

Welcome Back, "Lost"

So, if you weren’t quite aware, the season premier makes it as clear as it can: “Lost” is a science fiction show.

The audience response to this, as judged by its steady decline in viewership over the last year, has been, “OHHHH NO YOU DON’T!”

See, a lot of people feel like the show’s pulled some kind of bait-and-switch. They started watching the show thinking it was a character-based “struggle for survival” kind of series. And having recently watched four seasons straight through, I can tell you – other than a few weird visions and an occasional noisy monster, there weren’t too many that, just a few seasons later, we’d have a character try to explain, in his best “okay-nobody-freak-out-here” voice, that they’ve all become unstuck in time.

A monster in the jungle is one thing – it’s tangible. Still in the confines of an action-survival story. It’s something you can fight and kill. (At least, it was until it showed up on screen as an undulating sentient smoke-cloud, but anyway.)

But even if you explain the time-travel through a handy record-skipping metaphor and sciency-sounding explanations…it’s still time-travel. It’s conceptual science fiction that, bottom line, is NOT REAL.

That’s a harder pill for some viewers to swallow (and let’s face it – science fiction is still a niche genre). So for all the talk about “drop-off in quality,” or “frustrated fans,” I’d wager the real reason a great number of people bailed is because they didn’t want to watch a show that was becoming more and more about the space-time continuum and less about The Gang Hunting Boar.

Additionally, last year’s introduction of mystery-building flash-forward and fewer character-building flashbacks was a clear sea-change from character- to plot-based storytelling. A lot of viewers saw that as producers saying: “We care about the weirdo sci-fi crap now more than the characters, and you should, too.”

But that’s not true. In fact, the only reason the show can now successfully explore out-and-out sci-fi territory is because of those four seasons of character- and relationship-building. Because at the end of the day, a story only matters if you care about who it’s happening to. And the producers have been very careful to cultivate that concern.

(Which is why an episode where, say, Desmond’s consciousness is pinballing through time still works – because despite the lunatic premise, the real story is still about a guy who couldn’t possibly be further away from the one he loves, and it’s killing him.)

As for the actual episode(s), I thought they were very enjoyable, particularly for what they suggest – that the off-island present will be our “core” narrative (and the 70-hour timeframe to get back to the island would hint that “off-island” may not be a term we’ll be using all season), with the time-bouncing islanders (under the anti-Kate/Jack leadership of Juliet and Sawyer, has some interesting potential) making up the “flashback b-story,” possibly witnessing Great Moments in Island History as they happen (which would certainly be a novel way of answering some long-term questions, wouldn’t it?).

Some final advice: If you start talking about “Lost” and someone mentions how they dropped it because it got too “out there” (or some variation), just tell them that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Which requires change from one section to another, sometimes with unexpected results.

And if they don’t like it, they can just turn on frickin’ “Law and Order,” because Sam Waterston will never die.

Over the last few months, I wrote essays on each season of Lost, and I recommend them (of course, I would):

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4 (in two parts, here and here)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Adding up "Fringe"

There’s been a lot of stupidity on “Fringe.” Bad science, stupid investigating, and plots that hint at forward movement by obliquely referencing people and things that might have something to do with…something.

The stupid has been neck-and-neck with the interesting – the creatively gross stuff, the enjoyable banter between mad scientist Walter and his sardonic son Peter, and Lance Reddick’s awesomely sharp jawline.

But with its first episode after the winter break, the stupid-to-interesting quotient on “Fringe” has officially tipped in stupid’s favor. And so, I’m 80% certain I’m giving up on the show.

Let’s add it all up. -1 for every stupid moment, +1 for every interesting moment:

-Olivia escapes her kidnappers by asking for a drink of water, which they oblige without issue (-1) – and when her captors sit her up to drink it, she smashes the glass over the one guy’s head (-1 for giving her an ACTUAL GLASS).

-Then she throws a knife at the other guy and it plows straight into his back (+1)

-She sneaks up behind another guy, knocks him out, takes his gun and the keys to his car, and even swipes some evidence on her way out, finds the proper car and speeds out, at which point she uses the stolen cell phone to call in the whole thing (+1 because she really hauls ass throughout the whole sequence).

-Later, it turns out “fringe division” (-1 for actually giving this previously-unnamed subgroup a silly name) is being investigated by the guy our hero, Olivia, had previously prosecuted for sexual harassment (-1 for asking us to believe a guy with such an obvious conflict of interest would be put in charge of investigating this particular division).

-Meanwhile, a giant slug thing kills an immunologist and crawls out its throat (+1 for doing what “Fringe” does best – being gross as hell).

-Olivia starts solving this and that (+1 for giving her a personality – it took 13 episodes, but she has finally developed “enthusiasm for her job” as a secondary trait, past “earnestness for her job”).

-Then, she realizes the double-agent guy in the FBI is the one who kidnapped her, through skillful deductive powers of noticing the same dollop of WhiteOut on his shoe (-2 for being so fucking stupid that THIS is how she puts it all together – this is Scooby-Doo shit, right here).

-Despite her suspicions, she can’t investigate the guy, so her partner goes to known criminal Peter to tap double-agent’s phone off the books (so the FBI can maintain deniability). He does this by standing in the room while Peter makes calls to his criminal buddies, and helping him set up the illegal wire-tap (-2, one for the idiocy of FBI partner, and another for the utter bullshit of this wiretap setup).

-Fortunately, Peter has tapped in JUST IN TIME to hear FBI double-agent call his wife – from his DESK AT FBI HEADQUARTERS TO THEIR HOME’S LANDLINE – to tell her “Olivia CANNOT LEAVE THE HOUSE ALIVE.” (-3 for the amount of phrases I had to put in aggravated caps.)

-Then Olivia shoots the wife in the head, narrowly missing a bullet herself (+1/2. Not too awesome, but…I gotta give ‘em something at this point.)

-So they catch double-agent, and in the interrogation room, Olivia breaks him by revealing she killed his wife (+1 because she gritted her teeth in kind of a cool way). Double-agent cracks hard and starts spewing in a really oblique way about how they weren’t kidnapping her, but SAVING HER, and now she’s RUINED EVERYTHING!!! (-3, two for the caps, one for the truly annoying vagueness of his “admission.” Nobody is ever this vague about anything.)

-Oh, and in the end, the investigator guy has to admit Olivia knows her stuff (still -1 because that still pisses me off.)

So let’s look at the tally:

Okay, it’s official: I’d have to be a real glutton for punishment to keep watching a show that hurts my brain this much.

Wait, what’s this?

Next time on “Fringe,” people’s brains liquefy and leak out their brains?