Ruminations on Faith

Please Note: before I get into the Editor’s Blog, please be aware that from Thursday June 3 to Friday June 4th the sites and alternate blog site will be offline to allow an important server switch.

This switchover will yield improved service, and permit the alternate blog to function with images, as well as the creation of a mobile edition of, which will feature new and selected archival reviews, interviews, and articles for mobile gizmos. In an ideal world the switchover should be done by Saturday, and the sites will be up & running by Sunday.

During the down time, I may post new review material here. Additionally, as much as I look forward to the more robust server features, I regret to inform readers that the changes will not yield free issuance of chocolate fudge. This feature is simply not available within our budget. Please accept my apologies, as I am equally disappointed.

On to today’s blather:

Within the past 7 days, two shows I regularly watch came to a close, one for good (gee, guess which one), and one that should’ve ended a while ago but will go on due to (assumedly) steady ad revenue.

What’s intriguing about the two is their how their respective characters handle faith – in humankind, a higher power, whatever.

Each episode of Grey’s Anatomy [GA] always begins and ends with faux faith ‘mental diary’ statements from titular character Meredith Grey about hoping, trusting, believing, and not questioning things that are baffling to rational and twitchy human brains, respectively:

“Surgeons use something called a scalpel, a very sharp knife that’s used to cut deep, but sometimes we have to cut deeper in order to get at the truth, even if that truth hurts us, or some of the people we care for so deeply. It’s a necessary evil we surgeons know: to get to the root of a problem, you sometimes have to go deep in order to find the truth that will ultimately heal our souls, making us better, and strong again – sometimes even proud of our scar tissue, like a badge of courage.”

Present since the series' pilot, it’s become a laughable method in which the writers are already mocking the characters that viewers are supposed to trust, hang on to, and follow through whatever plotline’s been devised for this week.

That statement could easily be reworked as follows:

‘The lessons of life are like partially digesting chili. Sometimes the beans just sit there, and fester in the tummy. Something that tasted so good and gave us such pleasure can suddenly cause us pain, and our instinct is to avoid that sharpness which seems to expand inside of us with no mercy. It’s a lesson we all have to learn, but few of us are willing to face pain head-on.

‘We try and stop it by tensing our muscles, pretending the intensity within our tummy just isn’t there, hiding in a slender room with the door locked shut. And then comes a point where to acknowledge our flaws and face our pain is the best choice. That decision can leave marks – some of them abstract, tactile, and reactive with our bottom senses - but the release is honorable, and for some, it may also be pleasurable, because that rippling cloud of invisible pain evaporating around us means a growing anguish is now gone. The physical stains are like scars, and even though we can scrub them away, to remember them gives them meaning, something we can build upon.’

The other flaw within GA’s world order is the gimmick of characters or pairs representing facets of singular life hurdles, as with a recent episode about marriage/relationships/couples:

After 50 years apart, two septuagenarians rekindle their romance, while one set of doctors are on the verge of breaking up, and another are swallowing compromises to keep their marriage and working relationship stable. Another couple doubt their relationship will survive because one half dislikes kids. The septuagenarians seem to split before the commercial break, but in the end the old folks get together when their respective surgeries teach them it’s best to be honest, and take a leap of faith, because time will rob one of joy, while the other couples either break up, destroy strained trust, or swallow pride and work towards keeping a marriage solid.

Characters also have to repeat keywords and phrases – ‘I’m your person’ or ‘You don’t get to feel sad now’ – and somehow the bullshit narration will tie together an episodic structure that’s become a parody of itself.

Just replace ‘relationship’ with chili, and see how the show’s formula is so ridiculous:

One septuagenarian has an agreeable stomach, but her forcing her partner to eat more chili has caused her severe, painful indigestion. Among the couples at Seattle Grace, the facets of chili consumption are threefold: one person refused to eat the chili because the resulting flatulence would make him seem weak and unmanly, given his predilection for frequently fluttering leguminous methane gas with breezy ease; the explosive nature of digested chili was used by a second couple to create an atmosphere so utterly toxic that their relationship was irreparable; the third couple knew the chili would yield some after-effects, but with a balanced exchange of measured exhalations, the results were akin to an open window, fielding fresh ideas into the fertile atmosphere, and transforming potentially noxious chemistry into a warm amber halo of faith, trust, and devotion.

Characters would have to use keywords and phrases – ‘I can take the pressure’ or ‘We can both go through this dim cloud together’ – and somehow the bullshit narration would still tie together the episodic structure of presenting reflections of a primary conflict through different characters.

GA’s writers have had to basically take a concept – like marriage (er, chili) – and fashion contrived events to maintain bullshit poetry in each episode. Sometimes it works, but its repetition has become lethal and clumsy, with the massive cast of veteran and ‘ghost characters’ (the pale versions of the veteran interns the writers packed into the last season to spice up the drama).

The focus is no longer on developing core characters, but integrating clichéd conflicts because there’s less screen time for the veteran cast; the easy solution is to dig into the well of soap opera clichés and interpolate GA’s characters into the familiar scenarios, while major storylines, actor indulgences, and contract disputes are adding further pressure to the show’s dramatic originally and weakening the writers’ integrity.

Ergo, GA ended much like Season 5 characters were left in doomed scenarios, but with all those ghost characters, the victims of budgetary economy were two-fold in last week’s season closer: two ghosts died (one a complainer, the other a slut), and two were left in critical care – just the right dose of plotted, dramatic ‘grey matter’ to let the actors work out their grievances with the production chiefs, and decide whether to come back for a full season, die in next season’s premiere episode, or hang around like Katherine Heigl did until the decision to formally leave is signed in blood.

Not a great way to handle a series that began with a fresh take on the tired and aging serial medical drama. GA’s become a victim of stale writing, limited characterizations, and desperate attempts to create excitement by settling for clichés, whereas that other show, Lost went out on a high note.

Now, Lost is a different animal: its plots were brutally fractured over 6 years, characters weren’t wholly drawn out, and the writers constantly tested audiences with new gimmicks, like flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-sideways, muddying up audiences’ efforts to figure out what was real, a dream, or a crackhead show headed for an incoherent conclusion.

In Jimmy Kimmel’s post-Lost special that aired at 12am early Monday morning, the host asked his first guest, Matthew Fox (Jack Shephard) if the show was basically about faith, and the finale showed the time Jack required in order to realize it was time to move on after accomplishing his Big Test in Life.

I think what most fans liked was the emotional intensity of the series closer, which literally brought all the favourite characters back for a final reunion, and allowed composer Michael Giacchino to beat us into tears with his effective, piercing ‘friendship’ theme that never failed to extract a swelling of sadness. (He deserves an Emmy for crafting such a precision strike.)

The show’s first season really pushed characters up front, keeping the weirdness at bay until ad breaks or the inetivable cliffhanger at the end of an episode. Most scenes dealt with characters testing themselves, discussing past painful events, and dealing with the shrapnel from traumatic events that still governed the behaviour of some characters. The puzzles offered by the writers were brutal teases, and while the resolution for characters were well-received by fans, it’s the puzzle bits that are dividing fans because so little of them were explained in the final season.

I think a few things affected the show’s structure: they had a beginning, an end, and a plan, but there was a stretch where it seemed ABC wanted more mileage, and the writers knew the worst thing they could do was a Chris Carter: take the network’s money, and start contradicting and violating the integrity of created characters the way Carter fudged up the X Files when he listened to Fox and cuddled the network’s stacks of greenbacks for extending the show into another crap season.

It’s the same situation that affected Heroes, which was cancelled this year by NBC due to its massive suckage. The creators listened to the network’s grand ideas – a spinoff series, bringing back popular characters whose arcs were over and done with in Year One – and within months of its second season, Heroes was garbage. It wasn’t the writers’ strike that killed the show; it was stupidity, and no consistent showrunner at the helm to maintain quality control and filter only the best network suggestions to a ongoing troupe of writers.

Lost has loose ends, and some may be due to that prior period when the writers were still negotiating a firm End Date with ABC, as well as mapping out the show’s denouement. It was a balancing act: keep fans intrigued, keep them watching, keep the show high in the ratings, avoid as much filler material as possible, and make use of every primary and secondary character, because that show’s cast was big and expensive (aided by those driving-while-intoxicated tickets in Hawaii).

What viewers are able to determine – and I’m now talking SPOILERS, so shoot down to the END OF SPOILERS if you have to – is as follows:

The crash on the island that started the series, introduced the characters, the island’s weirdness, and the freakin’ polar bear were al real.

The island’s mythos seems tied to a pair of Romulus and Remus brothers, one good (Jacob) and one temperamental (Smokey) who use anyone that crashes on the island as pawns in their personal power plays. They want to kill each other, but the island’s gift – immortality and weird powers – are also curses. Jacob can leave and see into the future and visit the outside world using a gizmo in an old lighthouse, whereas Smokey has no constant human form, but can shape-shift, and through that deception, he can influence others to kill Jacob.

The eventual death of Jacob means Smokey need only hop on a boat or plane and he’s free, but he must kill the so-called chosen among the plane crash survivors that Jacob knows have the wits and conviction to assume his role as island protector, and therefore keep Smokey trapped on the isle.

These chosen few have to die because the island also has ancient machinations that enable people to travel through time and place, and killing the chose few as well as those humans aware of the island’s power, and wanting to harness it – like Charles Widmore, Inc. – will ensure no one will be able to suddenly appear or return, and stop Smokey from leaving. If he were to be free to roam the world, many would die, because he’s a vengeful homicidal entity, and has never touched a booby.

There are three groups of people that are presumably being used by Jacob and Smokey as chess pieces, both to win the pair’s elaborate chess game, as well as kill time, since they’ve all eternity to putter around the isle.

The Dharma Initiative is Jacob’s original group of pawns. Tree-huggers and hippies with medical degrees recruited by Richard Alpert – Jacob’s immortal emissary to the outside world – whose ersatz ‘initiative’ is just a game to keep humans in just enough darkness not to learn about the island’s power, but use them as provincial or federal park wardens, making sure no one messes it up.

Why? Because the island is the product of ancient, unknown, and who-knows-what, four-toed culture who managed at some point in their own antique evolution to harness its electro-magnetic power and make it move. In its chilly core they built a donkey wheel that allowed it to disappear from maps, and re-emerge elsewhere. That’s the power that the more technologically advanced Dharminians are protecting using more modern day (seventies) gear.

Smokey, however, exploited the frictions and power struggles within the Dharminians, and coaxed a putsch, which destroyed the hippies and created two groups of new chess pieces Jacob and Smokey could play with: the post-Dharminians, led by Alpert, and disguised as ‘the Others,’ a bunch of feral scruffigans; and another group that superficially appeared to be more civilized that the Others, but were in fact schemers themselves, headed by a grand Poobah named Ben.

Whereas the Others had a submarine and could leave the island, returning to civilization for further recruits and supplies, the Bennites were stuck with picking off plane or ship survivors for supplies, knowledge, and vehicles to escape. Ben had used the island’s other gift – a window through which he could travel through time – to visit the outside world, which kept him evil but somewhat vaguely, potentially good, since his motivations were apparently anchored around a need to feel important, special, and valued (which he never got from his father).

The island at one point was found and used by the U.S. Army for potential atomic bomb testing during WWII, and when the isle was ‘moved’ and disappeared, one of the marines, now grown-up as wealthy industrialist Charles Widmore, used his resources to find it, which he eventually did, and made sure any opposition – namely the Bennites and the Others (of which he was allegedly a member at one time) – were eradicated.

The flea in his ointment was his daughter falling in love with a man named Desmond, who was later revealed to possess a freakish ability to survive massive electro-magnetic exposure. That trait is what Widmore eventually needed to wrestle control of the island, because each time the donkey wheel was turned, the user was sent to some place in the outside world (a desert location). Widmore had designed his own high-tech version of the donkey wheel, but the electro-blast was so dangerous it would kill the user/traveler, except Desmond.

While that might move the isle, it wouldn’t kill Smokey. At best, Smokey would just be disoriented, and after some reconnoitering, he would return to the chess game. To Widmore, Smokey was just a malevolent entity, and none of the humans may have been aware of his relationship and private war with Jacob.

That war was begun by their mother. She was the isle’s jealous and over-zealous protector, but had no one to help (or trusted anyone to) bear kids that would follow in her mamma ranger footsteps.

When a pregnant woman washed ashore from a shipwreck, she killed the mother after the twins’ birth, and raised them as her own, testing them out until she chose the best to become the next isle ranger. What she failed to consider was division, jealousy, and vengeance, and that begat Smokey’s efforts to kill his brother. That action led to a fight, and him being sent into the isle’s bright and glowing core, where he became Smokey, the Cloud of Death.

(This pivotal mythology was dramatized in the series’ most dramatically flat episode, which seemed to have been written fast, shot cheap with felt clothing, and acted out by two dreadful child actors spouting dialogue with contemporary accents. Maybe Jacob and Smokey should’ve been cast from kid-to-adult by Brits?)

One point a friend observed: Smokey isn’t Jacob’s brother but an evil entity released from the isle’s nuclear bowels. I don’t buy it because if the water is what ‘spiritually’ transformed Jacob (and Jack, for that matter) into an immortal island ranger, then making contact with the electro-nuclear core could take the bad electro juju of a person (like a jealous brother) and reconfigure him differently. Ergo, Smokey, the ex-ranger who wants to start forest fires.

Jacob’s tactic in selecting candidates in the event of his death was to avoid his mother’s mistake and make the choice to become a ranger voluntary, which is why he picked candidates among the plane’s survivors, and through a group’s agreement, the one wouldn’t be subject or cause the kind of rivalry that’s decimated so many island humans.

Ergo, the series finale actually shows Jack being the one who stayed, helped defeat Smokey, restart the island’s electro-magnetic core (preventing the isle from sinking into the ocean), and showing Jack dying just as he sees the plane of survivors from the Widmore troupe and original plane crash survivors fly back to civilization, where they managed to live out their natural lives.

The only side storylines that the writers over-indulged in were a fourth group of ex-Dharminians headed by an Asian schemer named Hanso; and Widmore’s son Daniel, who travelled back and forth in time to refine his father’s plan to not only wrestle control of the island’s power, but understand its nuances. That, and end up into the arms of ginger hottie Charlotte.

The only time-angle in the series that wasn’t based in reality was the flash-sideways, in which the plane never crashed, and everyone landed in Los Angels. That world was a kind of purgatory where lost souls wandered around, remembering bits of their past lives only as much as coping mechanisms, enabling them to function, live and work among other ‘lost souls.’

Some apparently chose to stay and live in purgatory, whereas others – perhaps those with intense emotional connections – remember their past lives when they touch someone of significance. That contact causes a rush of memories, and allows them to make a choice to stay, or move on to another life – a life that’s left up to the viewers to be reincarnation, Heaven, or life as a molecule in the great wide goo of the universe.

Now do you understand?

And as for the polar bears, the explanation I got from a learned colleague – which is insane, and as far-fetched as a moving island – is that the Dharminians or Others brought polar bears to the isle, kept them in cages where they were rewarded by fish pellets if they hit the big disc. That action was reconfigured, where a trained polar bear could turn the donkey wheel at the isle’s frozen core, and move the island. Since the bears would end up in the desert someplace and die, they needed a few of ‘em.

My big question aside from the real/unreal/dead/undead/whatever material: beer brewed in the 1970s and sitting for decades in the back of an old VW van in a tropical environment CANNOT be drunk. Sawyer would’ve spat out the beer, if not had a serious case of tummy bug. Maybe Doc Jensen can postulate an explanation for non-aging beer, now that he has nothing to obsess over at Entertainment Weekly, and is likely going into severe Lost withdrawal.


So back to the original point: whereas GA’s dramatizations of faith in mankind have become parody and bathos, Lost’s writers never lost sight of their own characters because the show had an endpoint. GA is reliant on ratings and audience interest, so it drags on and the writers regurgitate whole plots as happened in ER, or nighttime soaps like Dallas. Lost had a confirmed conclusion, and I’d say with a few wobbles and walks a bit close to the cliff’s edge, the writers managed to stay true and stick with the characters they made audiences love.

Those who ‘lost’ patience with the shoe aren’t morons or idiots; they simply found the convoluted series frustrating, and would’ve preferred a few bones in this year’s final season, which frankly, isn’t wrong to ask. That fans who are still hashing out theories must be immensely amusing to the show’s creators and cast, but I’d cut the show’s detractors some slack.

The test I’m game for is to re-watch the series in the fall of 2010, and see where the writers’ organization played out correctly, and where the seams of indulgence and potential self-destruction started to appear, but where largely fixed.

As for Jimmy Kimmel’s special, it was a fun and fitting ‘aloha’ to the series, and the best parts had composer Michael Giacchino guiding the band in completely atypical theme and song renditions between ad breaks. If time permits this weekend, I’d like to do an overview of all 5 soundtrack CDs, since Varese Sarabande just released the music from Season 5.

Lost is slated for an August 24 release on Blu-ray as individual season boxes or a full series set. Grey’s Anatomy’s next DVD and BR release is due September 14, but I just don’t care anymore. There’s just no more faith.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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