Over the last five to ten years, one could make the case that the best films aren’t being made for the movie theaters, but for your television sets. The case is easy to make: just compare The Sopranos to Analyze This, The West Wing to The American President, and The Shield to Training Day. In each case, the television series is smarter, wittier, funnier, and more dramatic, not to mention better-acted. In short, they’re better in every way.
Of course, a serialized television program has a large and unfair advantage over a theatrical feature. Characters and plotlines get to fester and grow out a natural speed; storytellers can actually take their time with characters, allowing their audience to be sucked into their lives and situations. The best television series hearken back to the serialized novels of Dickens or Hugo in complexity and punch.
In a medium with so much excellent work, to me the standout of the 2004/2005 television season was Lost. And it’s not particularly close.
You certainly know the premise by now, but to perform my due diligence: Lost focuses on a group of forty-some survivors of an ill-fated flight, stranded on a mysterious island that seems to be in the south Pacific. Each has some darkness in their past, some wrongs they’ve never gotten around to righting, and struggle to survive on an island full of mystery and – possibly – magic.
When I made my purchase of the Lost Season One DVD two weeks and two days ago, the checkout clerk asked me if it was “like Survivor.” Um, nice try … it’s like Survivor if you crossed it with The Twilight Zone and maybe a little Twin Peaks. Thematically, it’s far richer than that amalgam suggests.
Lost is about more than a group of flawed people struggling through trying circumstances. Though that is, of course, a big part of the show, that’s hardly enough to make it more than a thriller. The show adds to the mix a clash between faith and reason, a conflict that also underscores Alias, another product of Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams.
Reason is represented by Dr. Jack Shepherd, played by Matthew Fox. A goody-two-shoes surgeon with some major daddy issues, Jack takes it upon himself to lead the ragtag group of survivors. Over the course of Season One, this brings him into a growing conflict with John Locke (the marvelous Terry O’Quinn, inexplicably robbed of an Emmy this past Sunday night), who believes that destiny has conspired to bring these survivors to the island. He firmly believes that there is something there for every survivor, and he has first-hand experience to support his claim.
One of Lost’s more ingenious conceits is that each episode focuses on one character, intercutting the drama on the island with a story from that character’s past. These backstories seldom turn out well for their characters, often revealing their biggest failures and disappointments – their sins and omissions. (The only exceptions to the structure are the pilot and three-hour finale, which feature flashbacks to multiple characters.) Each character is in search of redemption or reconciliation, and their corresponding story on the island often (but not always) allows them an opportunity to right the wrongs of their past.
It sounds heavy, like some pop consortium of Ingmar Bergman and Paul Schrader. But the subtext is buried in expertly-played generic elements, gripping suspense, and well-placed humor. The show walks the line between verisimilitude and fantasy, and continually sets up mysteries, resolving them one only to open up five more. This continual denial of satisfaction may prove frustrating to some viewers, but I couldn’t praise it more: Lost is about the journey of discovery, both for their characters and their audience. To betray that by just dumping canned explanations onto the viewers would negate the whole idea.
The case is uniformly superb. Fox is actually one of the weak links, but a lot of it is his character (who was originally intended to die in the pilot), whose overdone earnestness reminds me of the on-field antics of Derek Jeter. Evangeline Lilly provides sensitivity as Kate, Dominic Monaghan and Jorge Garcia are an unbeatable comic duo, and Josh Holloway’s roguish “Sawyer” is one of the more subtly complex characters on television. (The DVD features audition footage for several of the actors, including Fox, Monaghan, and Garcia reading for the role of Sawyer. Though each is a good actor, it’s not until you see them fail at this that you realize how specific and difficult the threatening charm of that character is to pull of.)
There are several others, but there’s no point in inserting a laundry list here. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fine work of frequent guest star John Terry, who plays Jack’s father in his flashbacks.
Another great thing about the show is that any episode can function as a medical drama, a comedy, a thriller, a supernatural mystery, or an action tale – or some combination of everything. The mysteries of the island and the flashback structure allow the writers to tell any story they can dream of; they are not limited by the physical constraints of a bunch of people stranded on an island. This also allows the various recurrent themes – redemption, conflicts between children and fathers (father issues play into nearly every backstory on some level, and may yet for characters whose histories are currently incomplete) – to play out in different arenas, revealing the bonds that tie this disparate collection of characters together (bonds often unknown to the characters themselves).
The Season Two premiere gave a literal answer to one of the key questions of Season One, but of course did so in such a way that many more questions are raised. Though the episode itself wasn’t spectacular by the high standards of the show, this question-raising is exactly as it should be. It’s not the answers that matter – it’s the questions asked and how we go after the answers. That’s Lost’s vision of life, as well as its vision of television drama. The things a masterpiece; now they just have to keep it up.