Thursday, August 25, 2005

Someone's Lost the Plot (some spoilers for Season 1)

It's been said that the hit American TV show Lost is overly-reliant on each character's back-story to the detriment of any believable ongoing plotting.

Which is undoubtedly true - almost every naturally occuring revelation in the show has involved flash-backs to the actions which led to each of the main players boarding the plane in the first place. Much of the time, in fact, being lost on an isolated island seems simply to be a framing device for a series of short films about the characters stranded there.

Added to this, the back-stories of each of the main characters in the show follow very similar paths. At its most basic level, each person on the plane is there due to betrayal. The doctor betrays his father and goes to Australia to pick up his body; Walt is betrayed by his step-father and so Michael has to come to Australia to pick him up; Clare is betrayed by both her boyfriend and the medium who tells her to go to the States; Charlie is betrayed by the brother who caused his addiction in the first place; Sawyer is betrayed by his criminal associate; Son tries to betray her husband but cannot and so ends up travelling to America with him; Boone is betrayed by his sister; even the seemingly omniscient John Locke is betrayed by his parents.

And those who are not themselves betrayed, betray others - Shannon betrays Boone; Sayeed betrays his friend and Kate betrays her fellow bank robbers.

The exception to this is Hurley who may have in some way brought things on himself by using the 'magic' numbers, but who is not in any way involved in treachery. Possibly this is an important point, but it's very hard to tell in a show in which the writers operate on the theory that introducing new motivations, characters and situations by authorial fiat rather than narrative drive is perfectly acceptable.

So it is that in the first season we have characters completely disappear (the black woman who has lost her husband but is convinced he has survived has gone without anyone apparently noticing by the time Clare's baby is born); mysterious animals (both the never explained polar bears and the huge monster in the jungle); equally mysterious powers (Walt can make bad things happen, apparently; Locke can walk; Hurley is cursed); and all sorts of bits and pieces are thrown in to the mix for no obvious reason other than an attempt to disguise the lack of genuine forward moving narrative (the hatch in the ground is the most obvious of these, but Kate's paper aeroplane and Clare's magical baby serve the same purpose).

Take away these distractions and what you're left with is John Locke in his role as mystic/trickster moving from individual to individual and making them feel better about themselves - where once you were nothing and the subject of betrayal, now you are better than that and have grown as a person - like a serious version of the Sphinx from Mystery Men. Even the island setting itself is a con - the show might just as well have been called 'Stuck' or 'Trapped' and featured the cast in a bloody big lift or an abandoned building/space station/shed - since those elements of the plot which require an island (big bears, long treks, lost planes) are wholly incidental to the main thrust of the show and merely serve to use up time between periods of Lockian philosophising (and breath-takingly trite moralising - torture is bad and could happen to *you*; heroin will kill you; don't let a doctor cut your leg off with a sharpened door - OK, possibly not that last one).

Actually, the island parts of the show remind me of one of those early computer adventure games where a random number generator decides when you can get out of the maze and you spend most of your time wandering around in compass directions looking for stuff:

You are lost on an island. You can see a burning plane.
>Examine plane.
You find a gun.
>Take Gun
You take the Gun.
>Sleep
You sleep. You dream of a plane crashing to the west.
>Go West
You go west. A polar bear attacks.
>Fire gun at polar bear
You fire the gun at the polar bear. The polar bear is dead.
>Go west
You go west. You see a small plane in a clearing.
>Examnie Plane
Sorry I do not know the word 'examnie'

And so on. Like those adventure games, there is nothing in Lost which seems to grow organically out of the situation the cast find themselves in. Instead situations occur as logic puzzles put in place by the writers and, once solved, can be forgotten about entirely (why is no-one wondering where the polar bear they killed comes from?). Equally, objects appear as if by magic ('we need some guns', 'hey, luckily there are some in this case') and when things seem to be slowing an unexpected and previously unmentioned enemy can be introduced and then dropped again when necessary (in one scene we have the 'Hi - my name's Ethan' speech, three scenes later he's an unstoppable killing machine and one episode later he walks into an obvious trap and is then easily beaten up by a weakened Jack).

When Lost was launched it was pushed as the same kind of addictive viewing as 24, but whereas that show is filled with inconsistencies, co-incidences and implausabilities all cleverly disguised by breakneck editing and a succession of seemingly satisfactory conclusions, Lost has all the same problems but cast into the glare of harsh critical appraisal by its leisurely, almost comatose, pacing, pedestrian writing and utter lack of answers.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Scott Liddell said...

OK, I'll have to admit it. The plot of Lost as a text adventure is genuinely funny. Damn you.

Although you might want to add in a 'Say to Thorin Carry Me' for the oldies like me to enjoy.

9:03 pm  
Blogger Taoski said...

I must concur that the plot is getting a little tiresome - already!
I have not seen to the end of Season 1 yet and am already gearing myself down for a long, long build up through all the characters history - only to find it was all a dream or something crud like that.

I hope they don't cock it all up.

I am tempted to check on the web to see what happens.... but i will be strong.

4:52 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

The annoying thing being that - having watched Season 1 - you do find yourself inclined to watch Season 2, if only to satisfy natural curiosity.

Which isn't a sign of good writing dragging you in, but of lack of resolution irritating the crap out of you...

8:35 am  
Blogger Taoski said...

Its going to be worth watching if only to see the Korean lady and the single black father "get it on"!

Oh.. and i hope Mr Locke gets eaten by something nasty.

9:34 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Yeah, you can see Michael and Son (was that her name?) getting quite...eh...'close' (if only to keep people watching)

7:41 pm  
Blogger Sparky Quagmire said...

I found this page by googling "lost plot inconsistencies", and I'd have to say the search result was right on, as is your amusing depiction of Lost as an Infocom game.

Those games were basically the reason I bought my first computer, a Commodore VIC20 (That's 20K of ROM, folks, a blunt hand-axe in comparison to even the most basic contemporary cell phone). My persistent nostalgia / enduring love for text adventures could well be the very reason I put up with this show, despite the increasing bitterness it engenders.

It just irritates the hell out of me that the primary way the writers keep the various island mysteries alive is by simply ignoring them for weeks on end, concentrating instead on endless (and usually interminably arbitrary) character-based filler. This charade began immediately after the (admittedly excellent) pilot, and less than halfway through season 2, Lost has already accumulated more filler than Buffy or X-Files did in their first 4 or 5 seasons. By my tally, almost half of what we've seen since the second episode could have been dispensed with entirely.

Even when episodes are focused on revelations about the island and its mythology, the writers do their best to keep the characters distracted by internal conflict. Despite the amazing number of strange things going on (the polar bears, the smoke monster, the Dharma stations, the cable leading into the sea, the recurring numbers, etc...), everyone's too busy getting on each other's cases to concentrate on investigation. Unless a particular mystery relates directly to their personal flashbacks, they rarely even act curious, and on those occasions when they do, they don't ask more than a couple questions per episode, as if each of them has a quota they can't overshoot.

Then, whatever answers they get are always vague, inconclusive, or just plain incomplete, because anyone who knows anything either disappears or is conveniently dispatched before they can reveal too much (Rousseau, Ethan, Desmond, Goodwin...). I swear you could write an alternate season and a half worth of scripts containing nothing but the follow-up questions the average stranded passenger would have asked. Furthermore, everyone is exceptionally stingy about sharing their discoveries with each other, which is why it took half a season to open the goddamned hatch.

I hear that some big reveals are coming in December, but the promos for upcoming episodes are always bullshitting "all will be revealed" when we all know the show would be over if that was the case. I certainly don't need or want all the answers fed to me in one huge spoonful, but a modicum of new information is definitely overdue.

The TelevisionWithoutPity forum about the show is filled with wild speculation at this point: Because people aren't getting enough new info per episode, they're spending pages picking apart simple issues that need only be taken at face value, questioning what they've already seen and already know to be "fact" in the Lostiverse. I saw the same thing happen to Carnivale right before it was cancelled, and though Lost's much larger audience guarantees it'll be around a least a few more seasons (the writers claim to have plans all the way up to the eighth, or so goes their wishful thinking), the heightened viewer frustration level is still not a good sign. Not that ABC cares in the least how unsatisfied the audience is, as long as they keep tuning in.

7:45 pm  

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