Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Praising (and mourning) Lost's mutation

When Lost arrived in 2004, it was a revelation. The show promised action, excitement and mystery, but it also took the time to give us interesting, flawed, believable characters and strongly weave theme into every episode.

And there's the secret. People fell for the flashbacks and were wowed by the unusual-yet-somehow-working structure of the show, but the reason those flashbacks (and the structure as a whole) worked so well was due to how thematically connected everything was.

Take "Walkabout," the first season episode focusing on Locke. It works so amazingly not just because of the revelation at the end that he used to be in a wheelchair and now has somehow been given the ability to walk again, but because both stories--on the island and in the flashback--involve people telling Locke that certain things are beyond his ability; one ending with him being thwarted by his limitations, the other with him overcoming them. Even today, just thinking about it gives me chills.

Of course, I'm referencing what's possibly the best episode of Lost ever. The single episode that I believe is responsible for Locke continuing to be a favorite character of fans even with all the weird waffling and disservice done to him the past few years. As thematically impressive as "Walkabout" is, there are numerous examples of episodes where the thematic thread is so tenuous that it comes off feeling forced, and others where I'd be hard-pressed to even hazard an idea about what the writers were trying to say.

And there's a great reason for this: it's really, really hard to imbue something with meaning every single week. Even more so using the structure of Lost, where you're continually and very obviously mining the same characters' backstories over and over. Why do you think they've added new characters all four seasons?

So increasingly the last few seasons, the writers have been focusing more on the plot twists and turns and on the mystery of the island. The good part of this is that we've been getting some answers to many of the questions they've set up (not all of them, not by a long shot, but things do seem to be moving forward). The negative is that part of what made the show great--the thematic connections and revelations built in to each episode--mostly got the short shrift. We uncovered more and more of the mystery, but in certain ways it seemed to matter less and less.

And then came the third season finale. Unlike many others, I was not completely blown away by it, but I did think it was a good episode of Lost and an interesting twist on the show's premise. After seeing the first four episodes of the fourth season, though, I have to say the change to include both flash-forwards and flashbacks was a brilliant direction to take the show.

Keeping flashbacks around allows for those old-school Lost episodes that really focus on character and theme and once-in-a-great while deliver a sucker punch of unexpected emotion. Adding flash-forwards takes the onus off of the writers needing to do the above in every episode. With flash-forwards, somehow there isn't as much need for the two stories to fit neatly together. The writers are making us wonder how the current drama on the island leads our heroes to the places where they are in the flash-forwards, whereas in the flashbacks, I immediately expect to be shown what the connection is. I'm not sure why exactly, I just know that somehow it works better for me. It's not that my expectations are lowered; they're just altered. And I'm happier with the show than I've been in a while.

Still, while I do think the change makes the show better as a whole, I lament the loss of true thematic connection in every episode. For every "The Economist" gained, there's a potential "Walkabout" that falls by the wayside. And that is truly something:

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