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)

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