Thursday, August 1, 2013

LOST Con

LOST is a show for, by, and about cons. I don't think I'm the first person to point this out, but the series really operates on a very simple premise, how long are you willing to watch something on the basis of faith alone? It might say a lot about you depending on how long you watched the show when it was first on. A skeptical person watched the first couple of teasers way back in 2004 decided the show was a bunch of hokum and left it at that. At the other end of the scale, you have the completely credulous person, addicted to the show from the first episode, watching every episode religiously, pouring over the theories and web discussions, never losing faith that the show was finally going to be about something.

Characters in the show are generally either perpetrators of cons or victims of cons. John Locke is taken in by his parents' insistence that he is special, eventually losing his kidney to his grifter dad. James Ford (Sawyer) becomes a con-man after that same guy conned his mother out of his father's money. Main bad guy, Benjamin Linus is portrayed a bit like the Wizard of Oz, a flimflam artist keeping a phantom empire together on spirit gum and fast-talking. The list goes on.

But what I find moderately interesting is that we the audience are also encouraged to be part of the long con this show represents. We put up with the melodrama and repetitive action scenes because every once in awhile the shows supply a SECRET ABOUT THE ISLAND setting off another round of speculation and internet theories.

I lasted until the fifth season, second episode in the first go-around. The stories started to jump back and forth from the past, present, and future with little regard to sense or plot and I had to stop. I just made a cost-benefit analysis and decided the show was no longer worth it. I was tired to learning new characters that I suspected would meet pointless ends sometime later in the season. I was tired of keeping track of the ever-increasing number of plot threads, bread crumbs, and clues. I was tired of watching LOST keep pulling out more and more trash from the trash bag, waiting for it to start cleaning up the story. Long past the turning point where you'd think the writers of the show would start wrapping things up, answering questions, and tying up loose ends, the show was still introducing new characters, mysteries, and conflicts. Ugh.

On the other hand, having finally sat through all six season, the show still possesses considerable charm. Although I still think LOST is a kind of fictional ponzi scheme, it's a pretty clever one. Witness that none of LOST's many, many imitators were able to equal its success. Witness the fact that the finale, while still leaving many, many loose ends, was genuinely powerful and well-received. The secret behind LOST is that behind all of the head-games, fake-outs, and metafiction, lies a collection of really good stories. The concept of having a bunch of broken, scared individuals finally able to make peace with their pasts on an island of mystery is a compelling one.

So, here is my list of reasons why you might want to watch this show along with a list of disclaimers.

Reason #1: Main ensemble. Kate Austin, James Ford, John Locke, and Jack Shepherd are wounded, haunted refugees highly conflicted whether they even want to be rescued from the island. All of the daddy-issues, distant mothers, and histories of betrayal add up to consistently good television. Another clever touch was that the flashbacks did not always directly relate to the events on the island. They might suggest the motives behind the character's actions, but never rationalize them. A stand-out in this regard is how "Deus Ex Machina" reveals John Locke's difficult relationship with his father, contrasting this with John's impotent rage in the aftermath of Boon's death. The two plots intertwine with each other but aren't necessarily talking about the same thing.

Reason #2: The Flash. Whether delivered as flashbacks, flashforwards, or even flash side-ways, the show kept finding ways of using its central conceit of telling parallel stories separated in time in new and novel ways. Just when the basic concept of flashing backwards into a character's past got stale, the show began using flashforwards to suggest getting off the island wouldn't resolve the characters' central conflicts. Even the sixth season's use of flash side-ways stories found a way to be relevant to the overall story. Not to give too much away about the end of the show, but I think the purpose of each of these devices is the same, to magnify and elaborate on the characters. LOST is an incredibly character-driven show, offering a full picture of each character's past, present, and possible futures.

Reason #3: Hurley. 'Nuff said.

Reason #4: The mysteries. It's not just that the island harbored secrets or that the audience was in the same boat as the characters, unsure of what the hell was actually going on. It was that these secrets were multi-layered, and hyper-specific. LOST is a show that works because of its details. To use one example, the grainy, distressed DHARMA Initiative orientation film contained an entire world that took many, many seasons to fully grasp. Even when the characters finally got to see the DHARMA Initiative in the fifth season, something more always seemed just out of reach. We're going to have to see that again.

Reason #5:  The conflict between. LOST loved its opposites. Science versus Faith. Light versus Darkness. Parent versus Child. Civilization versus Nature. What was great about these themes was how they appeared again and again throughout the long run of the show. Each of these essential conflicts was like one small piece of a fractal and no matter how far down we dug into the past of the island, these conflicts emerged again and again.

Okay, in the interest of fairness, here are a couple of annoyances.

Uneven acting
Pointless characters
Repetitive plots
Unresolved questions and plot threads
Abandoned plot threads
Heaps and heaps of schmaltz
Awfully dated special effects (particularly first season)

But if you can get over this list of drawbacks, the series still works as a bold experiment. Can you know you're watching a con game and still find something meaningful in the trick?
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