SPOILERS for Lost season three, episodes 1-11
It’s been a controversial season for Lost. The inevitable backlash has set in, with viewers decrying the lack of forward momentum in the show’s mythology even more strongly than before, declaring that Lost has lost its way and other such puns. Some have not heard masterminds Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse speak of their grand plan and the jeopardy it faces from the indeterminate nature of the ongoing network TV show. The others are those skeptical of any authority behind the show’s mysteries at all. Many from both camps have abandoned the show this season, with ratings disturbingly low and no doubt affected by the ten-week break – despite being designed to placate rerun-fatigued fans – and the more immediately satisfying but arguably less provocative Heroes…
With any backlash against a long-running pop institution, it’s easy to question the audience’s attention span and commitment to seeing a vision fulfilled in the face of a gauntlet of practical obstacles. I’ll admit that I have defended Lost against such exhausted former aficionados because I feel that the show has achieved and offered so much that it needs to be cut some slack. Or perhaps I just like to continue rooting for a show I like when it becomes the underdog, despite a dip in quality.
But with the third season of Lost, even I, keeper of the faith, am a little worried. The show is still engrossing week-to-week, but concerns about redundancy and execution keep rearing their head. The contemplative pacing that has frustrated so many is finally getting to me after two seasons spent entrancing me. By announcing itself as an elaborate genre-based mystery, Lost could really only use its emphasis on characterisation and texture as an excuse for so long. Now that the investigation of these characters is becoming repetitive and imbalanced, the desire to be delivered the goods is starting to trump all other concerns. Although enriched by its diverse and often nuanced characters, Lost still has obligations to its essential nature as a thoughtful genre mystery, or at the very least to avoid inundating us with cumbersome flashbacks that we are told are true to the show’s inherent nature.
The rupturing of the cast this season after the cliffhanger finale was most notable for finally removing the Jack/Kate/Sawyer love triangle into its own separate location, turning a diverting character subplot into a paradigm that determined the show’s essential structure, albeit for only ten episodes. We were promised a rationale for the convenient extraction of the fanfic-inspiring and fairly hackneyed love triangle, but none has yet been offered. Of course, a very satisfying explanation may yet turn up, but the focus on this trio has compounded the imbalance that was gradually coming into effect over the first two seasons.
While the alternation in season three between different pods of characters – often for entire episodes – has been refreshing and attests to the elaborate structural efforts of seasons one and two, several characters are being woefully neglected, and the omission becomes almost sinful when new characters are then being introduced. Lindelof and Cuse have justified the expansion of the cast – first with season two’s now eliminated ‘Tailies’ – by citing the new frontiers that they offer for deepening and furthering Lost, with the added bonus that brand-new flashbacks can be offered. While true, the virtual abandonment of some original characters – principally Emilie de Ravin’s Claire and Naveen Andrews’s Sayid – implies that adding new names to the credits is due less to confident expansion and more to the writers being unsure of how else to use the people they have, that perhaps they did not develop these characters and their purpose within the show sufficiently at the outset.
Plus, while the addition of Emerson, Mitchell and Henry Ian Cusick’s delightful Desmond was at least organic and logical given what has come before, the purpose of Paolo (Rodrigo Santoro) and Nikki (Kiele Sanchez) better be revealed as seriously compelling or otherwise their inclusion will reek of desperation. Lindelof and Cuse have implied that these two – ostensibly survivors of the plane crash and merely unseen until now – were a response to fan inquiries about only seeing the in-crowd of the dozen principal cast members at the expense of the other thirty-odd castaways. But the woefully awkward shoehorning of these two into the narrative as if they have always been there confirms that they should have left well enough alone, particularly since they have barely featured in the eleven episodes broadcast so far. I want to believe that there is a grand design behind Nikki and Paolo and that the neglect of Claire and Sayid has been worth it. TV Guide’s very in-touch Michael Ausiello – similarly frustrated with the newbies – has learned that episode fourteen will feature their flashback, which precipitates a huge change that will have watercoolers buzzing etc etc, and that deceased characters Shannon, Boone, Ethan, and dynamited schoolteacher Arntz will inexplicably appear in the flashback scenes. We’ve heard this talk before, but perhaps Nikki and Paolo do indeed tie in to the story in a significant way. Fingers crossed.
Regardless, episode eleven was a small step in the right direction when it returned Sayid to the spotlight, and this week’s episode is a Claire flashback. However, their sudden return to the narrative only draws attention to their regular absence, as if the writers are content to ignore them until their flashbacks finally roll around. The best ensemble dramas, such as Deadwood (except for season 3) and especially The Wire, manage to keep their characters in play constantly. Although a formidable juggling challenge, it needs to be met if a show insists on having a massive cast. In contrast to these shows, I’d wager that Claire has appeared in less than half a dozen Lost scenes this season, which makes the enormous focus on Jack, Kate and Sawyer even more aggravating.
The fixation with this triangle of beautiful people has become painfully obvious, because although they are among the show’s most interesting characters, they can be overused, particularly Sawyer. Even after placing him centre stage for eight episodes, the writers still had to insert him into nearly every subsequent B-story, as if he were some good luck charm against wavering audience interest. After this season-long imbalance, episode eleven, “Enter 77”, reminded us that the show’s secret weapon has been patiently waiting in the wings: Naveen Andrews’s Sayid. The final scene of his flashback was the single most affecting scene of the season, a slap in the face to those of us who had forgotten that these flashbacks were once able to elicit such profound pathos, a trait now eliminated by the format’s growing redundancy. As much as I enjoy the Jack character and admire the surprisingly versatile and powerful Matthew Fox, his woeful tattoo flashback was Lost’s nadir and cemented the errors of balance that the show has been perpetrating, as if the character has hit some kind of critical mass when he need not have. Lost appears to have painted itself into a corner by establishing flashbacks as a weekly staple rather than an intermittent feature. No show on TV at present has become so saddled by a superficial convention.
But far more has been made of Lost’s plotting this season than its characterisation, and I won’t deny that there are problems. Much has been made of Heroes’s rapid narrative and the efficient resolutions to its mysteries. This is all true, but that show utterly lacks the texture and contemplation of Lost. I am sorely tempted to charge that Heroes is Lost for those with short attention spans, but that would vastly oversimplify Heroes’s appeal and Lost’s dilemma. I do feel though that Heroes is instantly satisfying rather than casting a lingering spell, much like 24. However, as much as texture has tipped Lost from standard TV genre fare into something greater, the writers have, at last, been leaning too hard on detail and some ultimately superfluous drama (Sawyer’s prison stint, Kate’s dull husband – sorry Fillion) to prolong the overarching story. When the show has gotten action-packed this season, it was usually a cat-and-mouse game of abduction, interrogation, hostages, and escape that did not progress the narrative much, replete with the stereotypical hard-nosed bad guy in Pickett (Michael Bowen). While Lost should absolutely not be pure, undiluted ‘mythology’ and we should not expect answers or progress at predictable intervals, the word ‘stalling’ can’t help but finally come to mind (‘finally’ for me at least. Others have accused it of that since season one’s hatch-tease conclusion). To cap it all, since the texture has been less insightful and effective, the whole endeavour has been a little iffy this season.
But the season has provided some gems that delivered both meaty character work and an active consideration of the show’s core questions, narratively and philosophically. Despite these lengthy criticisms, Lost is far from a —- cause (I couldn’t bring myself to complete that phrase). Desmond’s time-travelling flashback (if that’s what it was) deftly played on the show’s standard structure, and the jewellery-store owner (Fionula Flanagan) being aware of what Desmond is experiencing makes that mini-saga very beguiling indeed. But the episode embodies one of the principal complaints about the show by setting up an elaborate and fascinating scenario and giving virtually no clue as to its cause, essentially putting it in dry dock until the writers drag it out again. Lindelof has hinted that this episode works toward the ‘game-changer’ coming later this season, so it is clearly not meant to be redundant, but it merely aggravates fans further rather than placating them.
If the upcoming game-changer is as significant as we’re led to believe, it could serve as the ultimate test of Lost’s ability to deliver as a piece of popular culture, and that’s not just on the level of ‘will they give us answers?’, a simplified complaint that while often justified fails to account for the show’s clearly ambitious nature. If the game-changer allows us to look back on this season and understand its excesses, if it points clearly toward a grand design and the downhill journey that Lindelof and Cuse insist that they are now on, then there is hope for Lost. But if this season ends with a vast miasma of not only mythology questions, but questions about the show’s integrity and vision, then Lost’s legacy will be abundantly clear. It feels terrible to be so cold about a show that I still dearly love and still has such promise, but it’s the truth of the matter. At some point in a story designed for a handful of seasons – even if not an exact number – patience becomes gullibility and the money needs to be where the mouth is. But we’re only halfway through the season. We need to be hopeful, although that may just make us more pissed off in the end.