If One Rises, Must Another Fall?

The big revelation about the premiere episode for Lost Season 5 isn’t that it involves time travel, but that the show is more riveting than ever, which is hard to imagine, given a lot of wet, pungent red herrings have slapped viewers’ faces now and then, testing our patience and having some (like me) shout at the TV (“WHAT?!?!?!?) when something completely bizarre or oblique precedes a fast-fade to commercials, and Michael Giacchino’s snarling, elastic brass stabs seem to tease us into a bit of interactive, profane shouting.

There’s an opinion out there that people don’t like sci-fi, and while I prefer the terms “weird” or “interminable mind-f**k” to describe Lost, the series is probably sci-fi, which is not a bad word. If sci-fi was taboo, James Cameron (T2) would have no career, and Arnold Schwarzenegger might have gone into land development instead of governorship, Star Wars would’ve bombed, and Star Trek would’ve died after the execs saw the first pilot in 1966.

The last franchise is important because it shows how clever a show can be when it’s timely and riffs conflicts tangible or perceptible to TV viewers. That begs the question:

What does Lost reflect right now?

Politically, perhaps nothing, but perhaps the reason people are glued to the mystery is because it’s a group of disparate survivors (from doctors to thieves and babies) of a horrible plane disaster, and whose weird experiences are counter-balanced by utterly ordinary conflicts and fears, either on the island in present-day, flashbacks, or flash-forwards. They bleed, they cry, they’re enraged, and they’re overjoyed by simple things – like Sawyer using busted glasses to read a novel so he doesn’t go crazy. It’s about coping and bonding and feuding like an extended family, and power struggles and jealousies, as well as good turns that soften past acts of utter selfishness.

These elements have been consistent since day one, which is why fans have stayed through the clever and dumb left turns, and remain patient with hope that the whole damn thing doesn’t end with some kid holding a freakin’ snow globe (I’m trying to keep that show’s twist as vague as possible).

Besides, this is the next-to last season of an expensive show with a huge cast tired of a production schedule no one figured would last this long, and instead of doing a Chris Carter and whoring themselves for network monies, Lost’s creators are going to end the series in Year 6, and the brevity of Seasons 4 thru 6 mean there’ll be less fat and lameness.

Lost has had its ups and downs, but unlike Heroes, it hasn’t taken some serious nose-dives. For one thing, Heroes has kept the bulk of the original characters, whereas several cool characters in Lost have died; they may reappear in flashbacks, but they don’t hang around like a static objects the writers keep tripping over and moving around in the hope a useless character will eventually slide back into some purposeful function.

Heroes Season 1 was perfection – the best filmed comic book narrative ever – whereas Season 2 was hampered by the writers’ strike and NBC’s urgency to get something in production so some ad revenue was still a sure thing before Christmas. That meant poorly developed story arcs were forced into the narrative, and pointless characters – Nikki Sanders and her family, Senator Nathan Petrelli and brother Peter Petrelli (who should’ve died) – were punted back and forth.

There was also the dumb idea of adding new people – Maya Herrera and her dopey brother – who pretty much stayed whiny and useless. (The pair was allegedly conceived at the behest of the network for some spin-off show with another stream of mutants on the lam. Unlike Law & Order or C.S.I., though, the characters in Heroes travel the planet, making the mere concept of franchising more Heroes to specific cities or countries impossibly difficult, because whatever the second stream characters do has to affect the primary stream, and if the latter are dealing with global issues, that leaves little else for the spin-off characters to do. For the series writers, a spin-off show would've been a logistical nightmare.)

When Season 3 debuted this fall, things turned a bit more favourable as Sylar tried to be good, and even got to become a man-in-black, as well as romance electrically bitchy Elle Bishop, but just as he was poised to find some inner peace, he kinda said, ‘Gee, it’s dull being good. I’m going back to being evil,’ and sawed open Elle’s head to fondle her noodles.

The Petrelli boys’ father was brought back from the supposed dead, and just as he too was poised to conquer the world, he goofed, and his elimination didn’t really alter the power struggles very much; the only shift was Nathan, who decided the warped philosophy that drove dad to hunt down and neuter special people, was actually kinda good.

In making Nathan the new bad guy (and having Sylar wander around in minor scenes for a while), the show was clearly losing its way; if the same characters keep co-existing within the small world of the show, they become boring; and the abruptness of a character’s alliances (or flip-flopping) also makes respective character arcs irrational and silly – and that’s what’s happened, now that Tim Kring has returned after the last batch of writers were dismissed.

The new rebooting, as seen in this week's episode, has the mutants routed out from their hideouts and packed into a plane just like Gitmo prisoners in orange jumpsuits and headgear. It's dated, it feels like a Prison Break rehash, and it's also dumb because it offers the series’ cosmos nothing new: it’s the same batch of characters, except someone else gets to be evil this season.

(Sylar, for example, should never have been brought back in Season 2; he should’ve stayed in the sewers of NYC until the last few episodes, thereby setting him up as a vengeful monster, ready to wreck total hell in Season 3. The writers totally blundered in bringing back the whole gang in Season 2, and were stuck conceiving loser storylines: Peter’s amnesia was borrowed from the daytime soap opera template of ‘how-to-keep-characters- busy,’ and was a gross waste of the fan-time).

This week, when Claire ran into the Hercules cockpit, and saw her father in the co-pilot’s seat and shouted “Dad?!?!” it was a symbolic moment, because she actually transmitted the exhaustion of loyal fans that are surprised, frustrated, and tired of this new attempt to fix a broken show.

Kring has opted for an old trick that’s common when a show is gone for a while: no matter how radical some changes may be, viewer minds will fill in their own rationalizations as to why one character is doing something inexplicable.

Like an ad break, viewers have been trained from years of TV watching to auto-fill their own reasoning when the show returns from the ad break and jumps to a scene further into the drama. Kring’s basically done the same thing, except applied it to a longer time-jump that ended in November of 2008, and began in February 2009: let the audience fill in their own assumptions as to how some characters went from point A to G, albeit within a particular gap of two months.

Mohinder, for example, began as a crusading doctor in Season 1 and became an ego maniacal, self-made mutant with Cronenbergian side-effects in Season 2, and after useless, wandering moments in Season 3, he's now an apparently neutered mutant, back to driving a taxi cab.

In his taxi exchange with Peter Petrelli (now a paramedic instead of super-boy), Mohinder explained he wants a simple life, but even if that were the logical path such a bruised and morally confused character would take – excising himself from any connection with the global mutant thingy – why drive a cab in the same city? There’s a feeble full-circle element to Kring’s decision, but wouldn’t it make more sense if Mohinder had chosen to emotionally and physically remove himself from each and every person pivotal to the mutant cosmos?

A neutered Peter goes back to being a paramedic because it’s the only way he can accomplish good, much in the way he was a male nurse in Season 1, but Mohinder’s decision – and largely his function so far in Season 3 – shows the writers have too many leftover characters that now clutter up a messy show.

In retaining the bulk of the original gang, it’s impossible to keep a focus on meaningful arcs, and whether Kring and Co. can steer the show back to some purposeful narrative seems doubtful.

People have to die in the next few weeks, otherwise Season 4, if it happens at all, will have an even shorter run that Season 2.



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