Monday, May 31, 2010

Finding a way to fill the gap

As I posted on my blog last week between 9PM last Sunday and 11 PM last Monday, we lsot three of the most signifcant shows in Television history--- Lost, 24 , and Law & Order. I feel it's now in my interest to recite a little eulogy.

For one hundred and seventeen episodes (I may be counting wrong; I'd appreciate it if someone checked my math) Lost was one oft he most brilliantly written, superbly acted, and masterfully composed series in television history. The final two hours will probably stand as the most polarizing moment in the history of any medium, probably for decades. The very fact that so many people are disappointed or up in arms over it (and I'm one of them, let me be clear) just goes to show what a niche in our world that this show has left us with.

Let's be honest. No matter what Damon and Carlton wrote for the final episode, somebody was going to be upset. I am reminded of the dismay that millions no doubt felt with Stephen King completed the final book of his Dark Tower series. In a sense Damon and Carlton were telling us the truth when they said that the answers were never going to be fully satisfying. Cause it always is about the journey and not the destination. I'm upset, not because of what we finally learned about the sideways world, or that the island's secrets never were truly revealed (though I am) but also because I'm never going to see John Locke or Desmond or Hurley or any of the two dozen memorable characters that were created. These people had a place in our lives for six years, and we're going to miss them no matter what we saw of their fates. I watched the final episodes with tears in my eyes before the ending, and even though I did feeled a little cheated, the tears were genuine regardless.

I don't know what Nikki's opinion of 24 was (probably not high enough if it wasn't posting on her site) but in many ways, I thought that it's departure was ironically a little more satisfying. Were the final few hours as preposterously unbelievable as just about everything else that happened during the eight days we watched CTU and Jack Bauer? Of course they were. They gave up plausibility years ago. And considering the political implications of the series (which I found silly, I'm on the complete opposite of the political spectrum than many fans, and I found it appointment television for eight years) I imagine it's appeal has certain limitations. But it was always fascinating to watch the byzantine plots unfold, the tension held within the corridors of powers, and the always spot on work of Kiefer Sutherland, who now may be considered the Clint Eastwood of this generation. Didn't matter how horrible the threat, you could count on him to come through for the good guys. Lost may have had things done in a gray area more then any other series, but 24 got there first, and in many ways, did it better.

And now that they're gone, I suspect we will no longer any attempts to duplicate the idea of serialized mysteries. Which in it's own way is a pity. I may not have liked everything about Invasion or Flashforward or The Nine, but at least these were stories that seemed determine to twist the limits of imagination. I'd rather have that then a dozen more spinoffs of CSI. But all of these series failed. ANd not that the inspirations are gone, I seriously doubt will ever see another series like them. And that's a real blow to TV no matter what you thought of them. We need more series that task the mind.

I may have mocked Law & Order to just about everybody, I may have thought that their last seven or eight seasons were basically examples of cutting and pasting headlines into a formula, and I may not be happy that we keep getting spinoffs that greatly dilute from the original, but that doesn'[t change the fact that for nearly a decade it was one of the most brilliant shows on TV. There may have been so many cast changes that the actors may have seemed irrelevant, but I'll always remember certain aspects of the permormers--- Chris Noth tormented Mike Logan's calm approach to talking to criminals, Jerry Orbach's bitter sarcasm, the way that the cool Michael Moriarity cross examined suspects using 'sir' to show his complete disdain for them, Steven Hill's quiet dignity as he tried to negotiate justice and politics watching his ADA's run rampant. This show was about underplaying, a skill that one now finds mainly on cable Telvision these days, and the cast were masters of it from top to bottom. Should it have been on as long as it was? Probably not. Did it deserve a much better treatment from NBC than it ended up getting? Definitely.

This a great era for television. There are at least a dozen series on TV that feature some writign and acting that is among the best it's ever been. I wouldn't call it a golden age, but silver--- definitely. But these shows were among the benchmarks for what could be achieved when you had all that talent in the right places, when things fired on all cylinders The voids these series left will no doubt be filled with time. In the meantime, we should give a moment of appreciation for these series and what they did for all of us.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reeling After Lost--- Nikki, try and read this

I feel so... so...

I'm going to be going through my own form of withdrawal, so maybe I'm not in the best frame of mind to write this. But Nikki isn't going to be posting on this site until tomorrow at the earliest, and by then, I'll be going through more withdrawal because 24 will be going through it's final episodes, and then I have to get ready for Saving Grace, which begins it's final episodes this Monday. I don't know if Damages has a future, and Law & Order will be finished, though given its rerun quantities, we'll never see the last of that. We're losing a lot of good shows this year.

I watched the last 2 hours and thirty minutes of Lost in a semi-daze, my Lost action figures around me. Now I'm the kind of person who mists up over the smallest things on TV --- there are moments on Scrubs that make me weepy, so I may not be the best person to judge. But I spent half of the first two hours in tears. Part of it was seeing all the characters, most of whom I'd grown very fond of, for the last time.

But part of it was because, Nikki, you were right--- this show DID come down to love. All through the night, we watched character after character finally find their balance as they reunited with the piece in their life that made them whole--- Sun and Jin, their child, Kate and Claire, Aaron, Sayid and Shannon, Sawyer and Juliet, Locke seeing his foot move. All of these moments made me weak at the knees because if all the characters had pieces missing (as Jacob implies in the previous episode) they were all finding it. And I thought maybe that's what the sideways world was for

And the parts of the episode on the island seemed to work well, also. Ben's backhandedness being the element that saved the castaways,, Richard and Frank being found alive (I knew it in Frank's case) the final arrival of the volcano (cause nothing else makes it shake like that) Kate finally choosing between Jack and Sawyer--- and then having that choice thrown back in her face. Jack's final confrontation with Desmond, seeing Bernard and Rose one last time. My own highlight was seeing Desmond confront Mrs. Hawking and give her the verbal smackdown she's deserved sinces 'FLashes Before Her Eyes'.

For two hours the show was working nearly perfectly. It was even running smoothly when Locke got out of his wheelchair after one final conversation where he and Ben finally made peace. And then came those last ten minutes--- Jack coming out of the water on the island, and finally confronting his father, finally getting the peace that he deserved.

So what was my problem? They never explained to the best of my satisfaction what that world was. Was it somehow Jack's perception of what the world was? Was it some kind of heaven? Somehow that doesn't work because it didn't explain why the last few people who flew off the island were. Was this some kind of reward for finally passing the islands test? Did that mean he survived? And was it really that easy to kill the Man in Black? Why did a bullet work where before it failed?

What dissastisfied me was that so many other parts of the character's fates worked so well. Kate convincing Claire to get off the island, Hurley finally choosing Ben to help him make his number two. Bernard and Rose, still alive after all these years, and we know that there is still a way to reunite Des with his Penny. The show was running all sevens for the last couple hours, and then they seemed to fumble on the goal line And while the final shot was symmetrical (and it did make sense that Vincent was there) I don't know if it really satsified.

Does this episode mean that the journey was a waste of time? Of course not. The acting to the end remained flawless, and it was so wonderful to see all our old friends listed on the credits one last time. Damon and Carlton have done such a superb job this season, and they managed to succeed so much better than where other shows like X-Files had failed. It's just that I feel the show worked so brilliantly, and all we needed to make it perfect was maybe one more line of dialogue, and I'd have been able to say: they did it. They managed to meet our wildest expectations. Maybe then I'd have been able to get something I had hoped for--- closure. But then again, considering the nature of Lost, maybe we'd never get that.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Found ---- The Best Episodes of Lost

Not long ago, I posed the question to people on this website: what do you consider the greatest episodes of Lost? Depending on how the show wraps up tomorrow, I may have some radically different answers. For now, her are my choice for the favorite episode of every season. These aren't necessarily the best episodes ever --- they're just the ones that made me realize how great a series this was.

Season 1: Walkabout
Yes, the Pilot was awe-inspiring, brilliant and budget-breaking, but despite all the things that happened, when it was over, I was still somewhat uncommitted to the series. When I saw 'Walkabout'--- especially the last two minutes--- I said to myself "I'm in. As long as the writers produce like this, I'm in." The first of a long series of brilliant performances by Terry O'Quinn, he introduced us to the quite fascinating John Locke, and made him a character we cared about. The final minutes of this episodes are one of the greatest twist endings of all time. Both O'Quinn and the episode should've won Emmys.

Season 2 --- The 23rd Psalm
Eko was one of favorite characters on this show, and I was devastated when he was killed. Not only did this episode almost tell a complete story from beginning to end, and link it to something that we had seen before, it also gave us our first real look at the monster. When Eko stared it in the face, it retreated, which leads me to believe that he might really have been a candidate had he survived. The acting and writing is stunning, and it reached a level that Lost hit far less often in season 2

Season 3 --- The Man Behind the Curtain
Nothing against 'Flashes Before Your Eyes' and 'Through the Looking Glass', but Ben Linus has always been one of the most brilliant villains in television history. This episode was the first really to suggest that he wasn't always that way. We also get our first real look at the Dharma Initiative, as well as the Purge. And then there's Ben, Locke and the cabin (even though it wasn't what we thought it was) I only wish we'd resolved who Annie was, but that's one mystery I wouldn't mind being left unsolved

Season 4 --- The Constant
All right, it 's a cliche, but this was probably the most mind-bending episodes this series ever did. The first to suggest that time travel was going to play a role in the series, it established a link between those eccentrics Desmond and Daniel. But we all know that the real reason we love this episode is the last couple of minutes when Desmond and his beloved Penny finally talk to each other for the first time in four years. Their love story is one in a million, and I really hope that the writers allow it a happy ending.

Season 5 --- The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham
The backstory between Locke and his trip back to try and convince the Oceanic 6 the return to the island. It demonstrates once again how often he fails when his faith deserts him. It shows him getting stuck between Widmore and Ben, until the last minutes when he ends up become the latest casualty in their decades long war. What's sad is that this may have been the last time we ever really saw John Locke. I really hope that this isn't the case for the finale.

Season 6 --- Ab Aeterno
They've almost all been winners in the final season, but this last real flashback episode answered so many of the questions we've had for years--- what happened to the statue, how the Black Rock ended up in the jungle, and how the ageless wonder Richard Alpert ended up the way he is. Nestor Carbonell was magnificent in this episode, which also featured another look at Jacob and his nemesis. I really think that Richard is still alive, and that he has a much bigger part to play in the finale.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hit or Myth-- Why we May Never See A Show Like Lost Again

In May 2010, as has been pre-arranged by the creators of the show, ABC's Lost will air it's final episodes. Similarly, the heads of the network will determine whether or not they have a series to replace it with. The odds are not good, as both of the shows they tooled for it's audience, Flashforward and V are each barely averaging around 5 million viewers per episode. Though the network may decide to spare one or the other, it seems likely that both shows will join Invasion (2005), The 9 (2006) Daybreak (2006) and Life on Mars (2008) in the increasingly crowded attic of failed mythology series--- and those were only ABC's attempts.

Perhaps ABC should have learned from the failures of Fox. For over a decade, they tried in vain to come up with a series that could attract the same market as The X-Files, often in he same Friday night time slot. Over a dozen series tried to fit in during the series nine-year run, including two series by creator Chris Carter--- Millennium, which ran from 1996-1999, supposedly to keep Carter working for the X-Files, and The Lone Gunmen, an actual spin-off that premiered by the time energy was all but bled out of the original. Even now, when they premiered Fringe, a series from Lost creator J.J. Abrams typewriter, the end result was the same---small devoted following, but no ratings smash. (Admittedly, airing it 9 P.M. Thursdays against Grey's Anatomy and CSI hasn't helped.)

While there are a lot of reasons why all of these shows never enjoyed the success that these groundbreaking shows did, perhaps these repeated failures should serve as proof of a larger truth --- the very makeup of these series are not designed for any kind of long-term success. For starters, networks no longer have the patience to let a series like X-Files premiere and slowly build up buzz. Instant success is the only option possible for any new show, or series' are tossed to a new timeslot or--- more frequently--- cancelled after a handful of episodes.

However, one could make the argument that the same success that built the X-Files eventually led to the series' imploding. When Fox moved the series from the relatively crowded Fridays to the then all-but-empty Sunday nights at 9, the series audience nearly doubled to more than 25 million viewers a week. But because of it's rating, Fox extended the life of the series long beyond the original five years Carter wanted the series to run. The more Carter tried to extend the mythology that framed it, the less fathomable it became to the average viewer. Only because of the existence of standalone episodes did the series work at all. By the time it ended its TV run in 2002, even Carter had to admit that he had "stumbled and fell" in trying to map out a path for the series to take.

Lost endured a similar arc. After the landmark first season in which the show averaged between 12 and 15 million viewers, and won the Emmy for the Best Drama, the series leapt to number one in the Nielsen ratings. But as soon as the show's ratings exploded, a huge amount of critical and fan backlash emerged, partly because new viewers were confused by the shows mysteries, and because old viewers didn't like the new pace the show had taken. Creators Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof eventually worked out a plan for the course of the series, but by May 2007, the ratings were little more of half of what they were.

Even mythology series considered successful only worked on a limited basis. Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were big successes --- for the WB, a network whose average ratings were so low, it doesn't exist anymore. Future efforts for Fox such as Firefly and Dollhouse had ratings that by normal network standards were low, but would have been at least passable on say, the CW. Like all of Whedon's shows, it had a devoted internet fanbase, but that did not translate into the necessary audience.

Perhaps this reaches the foundation of a mythology series. Every major show has had a certain devoted fanbase that will stick with the show through thick and thin. The X-Files started average about 8 to 9 million viewers an episode, and that's roughly where it was when the series came to a conclusion. Lost's ratings have basically stuck around the same level for the past four years--- roughly 9-10 million viewers a week. They are extremely devoted fans, but the nature of the show's structure has stopped the show from ever earning new viewers each seasons, and even a slight drop each season after the early flurry of interest.

The roots of these problems with these mythology shows may fall back to all of these programs ancestors--- Twin Peaks. Recently commemorated in the media for it's twentieth anniversary, one can't help but wonder if the people at ABC really learned their lessons with this show's meteoric rise and fall. Debuting to some of the most extraordinary praise, it's ratings for it's initial eight episode run were excellent even by the higher standards of the early nineties and receiving fifteen Emmy nominations. But the buzz began to collapse after the awards, where they won only two trophies for technical awards. The reviews and ratings of the show never recovered, even after the show's central mystery---- who or what killed Laura Palmer--- was resolved. ABC would make a series of questionable programming decisions in the early nineties, but cutting a show that critics had started to openly mock seemed an easy one.

The main reason X-Files managed to avoid Twin Peaks fate was the explosion of the Internet as a place where fans of TV shows could gather. Hundreds of websites would spring up devoted to the show, and continue to flourish over eight years since the series was cancelled. In those early days, Fox was not kind to these sites, shutting many down for copyright infringement. By contrast, Lost creators would openly woo and encourage the development of similar sites, with creators Cuse and Lindelof often going online willing to discuss and enflame further mysteries of the shows with the devoted followers. Other shows creators (particularly Joss Whedon) would do the same, but with nowhere near the success that they have anywhere else.

But perhaps the real reason that mythology shows haven't succeeded as well because they expect the opposite of what conventional wisdom should work. The main reason that police procedurals like the CSI or Law & Order franchises work is because they have a formula of resolving everything in sixty minutes or less. The There is an audience out there for complicated shows with ambitious capabilities for telling a story over a period of months or even years, but historically, they've never been as large as those of more conventional shows. Why else would CSI and Grey's Anatomy have more than triple the ratings of Fringe, a dramatically superior but far more convoluted program? Critics may say these kinds of programs have inferior narratives and no direction, but maybe the answer is a lot simpler than any mystery these shows produce. The average viewer wants simpler. Successes like Lost are aberrations, not the norm, and the odds a similar success ever being developed are, well, like figuring out what is up with that island in the Pacific.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Getting Closure where we can Get it

Life is not like television, where things are often shown in black and white. So those of us who watch TV to the extent that it is a large part of their life expect more out of series that they watch. We grow to like certain characters, and we become invested in their successes and their failures. And on those occasions when a beloved character dies---- something that has begun to happen more often in series produced in this century--- it can be like a death in the family, no matter how little we actually knew them. So perhaps its not unusual that when a long running series reaches its end, we hope for that rarest of things in life--- closure.

As I write this, Lost is coming to its conclusion. Millions of words have been written online and on paper trying to figure out the mysteries of this series during its six-year run. I won't deny that there are some questions about this show that I desperately would like to see answered, but there are other things I care about more. Will Desmond and Penelope live happily ever after? Will Jack finally work through the mass of complexes that have burdened him almost since the day he was born? Will Ben finally pay for the endless series of crimes he has participated in for nearly as long? Sure, I want to know what the island does and why, but after 100 plus episode, I care about these characters resolutions more than the islands.

24 is coming to an end this season as well. I have less hope that this series will be able to wrap up all of the myriad storylines it has started spinning over the last few years, and not only because each season amounts to just one day in a life. This series has generated nerve-jangling suspense and bone crunching action, but it's very concept does not lend itself to resolving the stories in the same way other series do. Characters die by the boatload on this series, but as a great playwright once penned: "Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship." Killing a character, even when it's done well (as this show proved over and over) doesn't end the issues or fill the space that character did. That may be the real reason so many people were upset about the ending of The Sopranos. There was an awful lot of killing, but there wasn't much resolution involving Tony or either of his families.

Some long-running series provide closure in other ways. In its final season ER spent less time wrapping up the lives of the current cast, and more episodes dealing with the original cast--- I cared more that Ross and Hathaway managed to live happily ever after than I did about Neela and Ray. In that way, it modeled NBC's other great hospital drama, St. Elsewhere, which spent the last few episodes wrapping up the lives of the characters who'd been there the longest (Even if the whole series existed just in the mind of an autistic child).

And some shows can only provide closure by telling you that nothing ever really ends. At the end of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and Homicide, they wrapped things up by making it clear that crime never stops, even though the people who solve it keep leaving. The Wire did it perhaps even better in its final episode, when it demonstrates that even though the players in both the crime and law change, 'the game' never ends.

I have mainly dealt with dramas in this article, but a good comic series can resolve things better. This year, Ugly Betty manage to resolve things satisfactory not only for its plucky heroine, but even for her greatest rivals at Mode (and with pleasant endings that didn't feel pat). Frasier and Friends wrapped up long runs by carefully spending a season handling all of their characters arcs. And even if their hadn't been a movie franchise, I'd say that Sex and the City managed to wrap things up for all the major characters according to each of their behaviors. That's the real reason Seinfeld's finale was such a disappointment. The show may have been about nothing, but they tried to make something out of it, and, well, we all saw the results.

No one wants to end a successful series any earlier than they have to. This can lead to endless problems in providing proper conclusions. I fear that we will never get proper resolutions for most of the characters on Grey's Anatomy. Franchises like Law & Order and CSI care little for character development by their nature. And even after some series are cancelled (mostly animated) they can find themselves revived a few years later, so resolution makes little sense. Still, I can only hope that when it's time for Gregory House to solve his last medical case, or to say goodbye to our friends at Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, that the creators of these shows realize we've come to care about these people we've let into our living rooms for a period of years, and give them to chance to leave with the same dignity they arrived.