Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LOST AND 24: THE MOURNING AFTER

WARNING: There be spoilers here!!!!!!! If you have not yet seen the series finales for these two shows and you care about what happened in them, read this only AFTER you’ve watched them!

Within the space of 23 hours, two of my favorite television shows of all time began their big finale episodes, and I feel like I’ve said final goodbyes to some very close friends—ones with whom I’ve had up-and-down relationships over the years, but there have been more than enough “ups” that it hurts a lot to say farewell.

In the case of Lost, it’s been an adventure that was at times exhilarating, frustrating, beautiful, and challenging on both an emotional and an intellectual level. While 24 shared some of these traits, there was more of an emphasis on action, morality, shades of grey, and the heavy price that sometimes must be paid to keep a nation safe. Two different shows, with different tones and different styles, yet both were fixtures in my home since their respective debuts. Were their send-offs as satisfying as their kick-offs? Read on…

LOST

Last castaways standing.

Throughout its six seasons, Lost never really let me down. Overall, I feel that the series maintained its standards and its level of quality throughout its entire run. Even its weakest season (the second one, in my opinion) represented a chunk of great television.

And I have to mention that the acting has been consistently exceptional, pretty much across the board. As Dr. Jack Shephard, the Emmy-worthy Matthew Fox served more than capably as the foundation of the entire series, grabbing on to us and pulling us in immediately at the start of the pilot episode, and leaving us behind in the very last moment of the finale. Terry O’Quinn did stellar work as both John Locke and his sinister doppelganger. Michael Emerson was absolutely brilliant as Benjamin Linus, taking what was supposed to be a three-episode arc in Season Two and turning it into an ongoing character that stuck around to the very end. As Kate Austen, Evangeline Lilly emerged, particularly in Season Five, as an actress with great talent, handling deeply emotional material with expertise. Josh Holloway brought plenty of arrogance, swagger, cunning, and wit over the six seasons as the Han Solo-like Sawyer. Jorge Garcia, as Hurley, was often hilarious but also the unimpeachable moral center of the series. Daniel Dae Kim’s Jin, so thoroughly unlikable at the beginning, was revealed over time to be quite noble, heroic, and a loving husband. I liked Henry Ian Cusick’s Desmond Hume, Nestor Carbonell’s Richard Alpert, and Elizabeth Mitchell’s Juliet Burke right from their first appearances, and was very pleased when they each became series regulars. Hell, everyone was great. (Well, maybe not so much Michelle Rodriguez as Ana Lucia and Shelia Kelly as Zoe—which made watching them being taken out that much more enjoyable. But I bore no real grudge against Nikki and Paolo.)

Take a bow, Mr. Fox, for a job well done.

So… The finale. On an emotional level, it packed a wallop, and did the job it set out to do. And here I thought Sun and Jin’s death scene from a few weeks ago was as powerful as the show could get! There were plenty of moments in “The End” that delighted me, that hit me hard, and that affected me deeply: the surprise appearance by Rose and Bernard, and the revelation that it was they who rescued Desmond; the return of Frank Lapidus; Richard discovering a gray hair; the encounter between Sawyer and Juliet; the final words spoken between Jack and Kate and their last kiss; Hurley’s last moments with Jack; Hurley and Ben forging a new relationship; Jack’s return to where it all began for him on the island; the big reunion in the cathedral of all of the main cast members over the years; and the last shot of Jack, who has always been my favorite character on the show. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that tears were rolling down my cheeks as the screen went dark, but I will admit it nonetheless.

Ending where it all began.

And yet, on an intellectual level, and from a story standpoint, I have mixed feelings. Don’t get me wrong—the episode was never anything less than absolutely gripping and compelling, as the series usually was. And I would say that, overall, it felt like an organic part of the series, an episode that honored and was faithful to almost everything that came before it. But it certainly wasn’t perfect. (What is?)

I didn’t have the same problems with this episode that a lot of other people seemed to have. It didn’t bother me at all that we never learned the name of the Man In Black. I understood that the scenes on the island were set in the real world, and I understood the revelation about the Sideways World. Most, if not all, of my main questions were answered. But I did have problems. Among them:

  • The death of the Man In Black/Smoke Monster just didn’t seem… momentous enough to me, given his importance to the show since last season. And I felt his physical clashes with Jack in the finale were a bit repetitive, essentially having the same beat: Jack gets the upper hand and grabs MIB by the throat, then MIB grabs something (first a rock, later his knife) and uses it against Jack.
  • Why, once Jack restored the Light to the island, did the island not heal Jack of his stab wound? In the past, the island healed John Locke twice—first of his paralysis and then of a gunshot wound—and it cured Rose of her cancer. Why not Jack, after everything he went through to protect it? Why did Jack have to die?
  • Why is Sayid reunited with Shannon at the end? Why not Nadia, who had always been presented as his one true love?
  • The revelation that the Sideways World isn’t really a parallel universe but a place where all of the castaways can reunite after they die and then move on together… well, quite frankly, it broke my heart. I invested a lot of emotion in, and became attached to, the Sideways World. I believed in it and looked forward to seeing its developments and I was hoping that it would play some part in the downfall of the Man in Black and perhaps even offer some form of salvation or hope for at least some of the characters. But no, my understanding of the narrative is that all of the Flash-Sideways sequences were really just there to show how and when each of the characters realizes the truth and decides that he/she is ready to “let go” and “move on.” It was not a real environment created within a scientific context. When I realized what the Sideways World really was, I muttered, “Oh no,” and was tempted to yell “Cop-out!” I felt that the rug was pulled out from under me. Which, I suppose, is exactly what the writers wanted—but I don’t think they really played fair. They started off this year’s season premiere by showing the island at the bottom of the sea—how else was that supposed to be taken, other than literally? And I’m not even sure all the details established in the Sideways World work with the revelation of what it truly is. What exactly was Eloise Widmore protecting or preventing when she tried to stop Desmond’s activities in the Sideways World?
  • On a related note, I’m guessing that Desmond was the one to bring all of the characters together in the Sideways World because, as a result of his near-death experience on Hydra Island (when Charles Widmore blasted him with EM energy), he could now cross between this world and the afterlife. BUT—why didn’t Desmond or Jack suffer a fate “worse than death,” like the Man In Black did, when they went into the Light cave? Isn’t that what Jacob and MIB’s adoptive mother said would happen to anyone who went in? I guess I can buy the premise that Desmond was spared because of his immunity to the energy, but what about Jack?

And yet… the episode still lingers heavily in my mind and my emotions. The gentle, loving embrace between Jack and his father in that moment of revelation, when they could finally and openly acknowledge their love for each other and reach a degree of understanding that had always eluded them before. And to have a special place to go to beyond this life, a place of peace and comfort and love, where you can be reunited with the people who meant the most to you, who were there with you during the most important part of your life… that’s such a wonderful, beautiful thought, and a very moving way to bring Lost to an end. I don’t know how much I truly believe that such a place actually lies ahead… but I’d like to.

Together again for the last time.

Letting go... and moving on.

*************************

24

A (last) day in the life.

As a series, 24 has been much more inconsistent than Lost. A pattern emerged, in which every great season (1, 5, 7) was almost always followed by a disappointing one—with this current season, the eighth and last, qualifying as the worst of all.

And the blame can be placed squarely on the writers. This year, they stretched out the Dana Walsh subplot past the point of human toleraence, all the while saying that the audience had to “give it time” and insisting that we would be rewarded handsomely for our patience. What we got was yet another “CTU mole” storyline, but one that was far more convoluted, implausible, and downright silly than any of its predecessors. What a waste of actress Katee Sackhoff, who was exceptional as Starbuck in the remake of Battlestar Galactica. She managed to shine as Dana in her last couple of 24 episodes, but it was a case of too little, too late. The damage was already done.

The writers threw the audience a bone by bringing back actress Annie Wersching as Renee Walker, who was one of the main highlights of last season and ranks as one of the most popular characters in the show’s history. But then they raped her, both literally and figuratively, presenting her as a mere shadow of the character we knew last year. Having grafted on a dark, tormented backstory that was never before even hinted at and rendering her a self-loathing, suicidal, and rage-filled victim, Renee was almost a complete stranger this year, and was simply not the character that the audience hoped to see again. Killing her off was nothing more than a plot device, a shock moment, and it rendered her a victim all over again. (She could have easily been left in critical condition with just a slim chance of survival, and the rest of the season could have played out exactly the same.)

Talk about the kiss of death!

Instead of trying to avoid clichés, the writers and producers of 24 seemed determined to use as many as possible, as often as possible—clichés both in terms of storytelling in general and of the show itself. (Yet another mole? Yet another romance for Jack Bauer ends in tragedy? Yet again, Jack is the only competent person in a crisis situation? After Jack has proven himself over and over again, the people in authority still refuse to listen to anything he says or take his experience into account?) And then, when the audience calls them on it, they simply shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s the show.” Shouldn’t the goal be to explore new ideas and directions, to improve upon what was done already? Why, in this day and age, when television is more creative and innovative than ever before, would any self-respecting writer or producer of a drama series simply embrace the formulaic?

At least things improved toward the end. Which brings us to the finale, which was fronted by a very classy farewell message from star Kiefer Sutherland, who thanked the audience for sticking with the show for the past eight years.

As an episode of 24, the finale worked well enough. There was plenty of action and conflict and tense moments, and, at the end, a nice sense of closure to the relationship between Jack Bauer and his longtime colleague Chloe O’Brian, played so effectively over the years by Mary Lynn Rajskub.

Chloe O'Brian: The only constant in Jack Bauer's life.

And I have to give the producers credit for having the balls to take the hero of their show and turn him into a vicious, ruthless, bloodthirsty, vengeance-crazed killing machine, even for just a little while. As the now out-of-control, off-the-rails, damn-the-consequences Jack Bauer, Sutherland delivered the goods—just as he always has. Hell, if Keifer is willing to dye his hair black, I say cast him as the Punisher and really turn him loose!

Gregory Itzin, who made an indelible mark on the series during Season Five as the insidious U.S. President Charles Logan (made Nixon look like a choir boy!), returned this year and was responsible for some of this season’s best, most talked-about moments. I didn’t find his rather abrupt murder/suicide solution to be 100% convincing—it was a little too contrived and felt like run-of-the-mill TV plotting to me—but it was certainly a dramatic exit for a memorable character.


He's not a crook, but he is a murderer!

But when it comes to current U.S. President Alison Taylor, introduced last season and played by Cherry Jones, well… I don’t know what the writers were thinking. Last year, Taylor was portrayed as so clear-headedly moral and righteous that she sent her own daughter to prison after learning of the girl’s crimes. This year, she was so focused on getting a peace treaty signed with a Middle Eastern country, no matter the cost, that she helped cover up the assassination of the leader of that Middle Eastern country, used her position to intimidate the press and confiscate incriminating evidence, and started taking advice from her infamous and disgraced predecessor, the aforementioned Charles Logan. This season, Taylor was portrayed as a weak-willed, wishy-washy, simpering fool who doesn’t trust herself or her conscience, and always seems to be on the verge of tears. It isn’t until the last few minutes of the finale, when she realizes that maybe it was wrong for her to authorize the cold-blooded murder of a man who has saved the U.S. at least seven times—and who tried desperately to warn her that she was heading down the wrong path—that Taylor rediscovers her morality and tries to do the right thing. In terms of salvaging her as a character and making the audience feel at least some kind of sympathy for her, I once again use the phrase, “too little, too late.” Which is also a perfect way to describe this entire season.

And yet… I’m going to miss 24. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s one of the best shows on television. That’s undoubtedly why I’m so critical of it when it fails to live up to its own standards. But unlike Jack Shepard, we may well see Jack Bauer again in the near future—plans are afoot for 24 to make the leap to the big screen. I just hope it doesn’t bring any of this season’s writers along with it.

1 comment:

  1. Okay, you have to get out of my head now! I am totally in agreement with your analysis of both Lost and 24, two amazing shows that ended within 24 hours of one another, in what was a marathon television session of 7 hours time. I found 24 achieved some redemption for their lack of consistency this season, via Keifer's classy (which was the word I used on Sunday!) statement to the fans. LOST, while it left me a little "lost" at the end, the more I contemplate it, the better I feel about it (which is what I think the storytellers wanted to leave the audience with). I am not sure if you have seen the 24 best moments of 24 that is online, but you should- it made me remember those shattering moments when TV was at its best. Its a sad goodbye to both JACKS this week, but I can agree that the ride along the way was thrilling television and will take a lot to be topped. Thanks Glenn for another great blog entry. Keep em coming!

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