I suspect when all is said and done that the history of Lost will cleave it pretty neatly into two different shows.
There’s already been plenty written about how Lost’s two-hour fifth season premiere (which is really two episodes that probably could have been stitched together more neatly but most likely weren’t for syndication reasons) more overtly tugs the show into science fiction territory, while the stuff off the island with the Oceanic Six delves into the character-based side of the show that has kept it from having ratings so low it was canceled midway through its first season. But this divide between genre show and character drama is not specifically where the great divide falls for Lost. The great divide falls between the first half of the show’s third season and the last half of that season (which roughly matches up with when executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse convinced ABC to let them set a hard end date for the series). Before season three’s 13th episode, “The Man from Tallahassee,” the series was much more meandering and much more prone to fits of stupidity. But it was also a show with more time—time for things like visual poetry or narrative tangents that occasionally seemed like dead ends (fans hated season three’s “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead,” but it was really a fine little piece of television—it just didn’t advance the master narrative in any way). This series also was slowly shrugging off some of the pitfalls from first season, mostly set there via the original series conception by J.J. Abrams and Lindelof (Abrams has since left the series as an active creative force for the most part, enmeshing himself in Fringe, which actually is starting to feel a lot like Lost in some ways), and that could lead to some really ridiculous things like long flashbacks where we learned why Jack got a tattoo.
But after the network set a firm end date for the show, it became something ever-so-slightly different. Gone were the long, meander-y episodes where we found out why Kate liked horses (and/or killed her dad) for the most part (there was one where we found out why Desmond says “brother” to everyone, but that was the last of an old era). The show became something much more purposeful, taking great strides forward in its narrative and starting to tie seemingly disconnected elements into a larger framework. In addition, the characters started behaving more like real people, no longer forced to do things they wouldn’t do in real life in a similar situation by the constraints of a plot that said they couldn’t because the show might run 10 seasons, and what would you do then? Most of the series’ fans are deeply agnostic that Cuse and Lindelof really had a plan for how the series would run, but the episodes since that back half of season three seem to speak well for the two at least having SOME idea of how this was all going to play out. Plus, while there have been a few clunkers since the back half of season three (most notably season four’s “Something Nice Back Home”), the series by and large has reinvigorated itself as one of the best hours of action-packed TV out there, flitting easily between genres, depending on who’s got the episode focus that week.
And yet there are times when I find myself pining for the series that was. I actually think the series Lost has become is better in just about every quantifiable way when compared to its old self (for one thing, we’re never going to get something as loosely plotted and maddening as that huge midsection of season two, where plot points were raised and then just seemingly forgotten about). The scripts are better, the direction is tighter (even when the scripts are not), the acting is more focused, and the production values are second to none (look at how convincingly the series makes its Hawaiian locations look like every other city in the world BUT Honolulu). The series still carries a few nagging bugs—when pressed for time, it will often just skip over ANY subtext whatsoever, and the two leads (Matthew Fox’s Jack and Evangeline Lilly’s Kate) are terminally stuck in a will-they/won’t-they pairing that regularly drags down the show—but by and large, this is the best drama on basic network TV, the kind of show that just dives right into the crazy stuff and expects the audience to catch up, as in season four’s “The Constant,” the best episode the series has ever done. But I really wish, sometimes, that we could get some very simple moments of visual beauty (like that season one shot of Sun bathing in the ocean) or some plot digressions that DON’T have to be tied into the master plot (season two’s “Dave” remains a series highlight for me). But this is the show Lost has become, and, as stated, it’s a very good show. So those moments of pining are few. But they’re there.
Now, that being said (and I hope to return to the series as a whole more over the course of the season, as the site’s resident apologist for even some of the clumsier stuff), tonight’s premiere, while a thrilling piece of very good television, occasionally tries to wear too many hats at once. The best episodes of Lost tend to have one strong throughline and do the minimum of audience hand-holding, and there were points when the premiere felt SLIGHTLY too scattered and a couple of scenes where our hands were squeezed a little too tightly. Still, the premiere was a testament to the fact that the show’s writers and sprawling cast (comprised of 14 regulars, almost as many dead regulars and an enormous company of regular guest players) have managed to create a mass-market cult show: one that can dabble in theories of time travel driven by quantum physics that manages to hang on to people who have no idea of what’s going on because of how ably that cast has fleshed out characters that were essentially types when the show began.
The two hours focus on Josh Holloway’s Sawyer (in the first hour) and Jorge Garcia’s Hurley (in the second hour). Sawyer has always been the show’s most straightforward character. Where other characters might dither in the face of being told by Faraday (the excellently twitchy Jeremy Davies) that crazy stuff was going on and he’d explain it all later, Sawyer just slaps him in the face and demands an answer (something many Lost fans have surely wanted to do with many an answer-withholding character in the past). He’s also the best character to exemplify the show’s niftiest metaphor in quite a while—the idea of the island and its inhabitants becoming unmoored in time standing in for the idea that when you’re in grief (as Sawyer is, over believing his lover and friends have all perished), you rarely know where or when you are. His presence also allows the writers to get away with offering up a fairly accomplished explanation of the rather complicated time travel conceit the show has apparently seized on as its driving force for this season, having Faraday use an analogy with a record player to get over enough of the concept to satisfy the casual fans while also providing just enough grist for the hardcore fans to go nuts over at DarkUFO.
Hurley’s a different matter altogether. The end of the second episode (when he turns himself in to the cops instead of going off with Ben—the always superb Michael Emerson) offers up what seems to be a pretty clear plot stall. Ben needs all of those who escaped the island to be back together to return to the island, but Hurley doesn’t trust Ben (with good reason), so he turns himself into the authorities, who want him in investigation of multiple murders (the evidence against Hurley is pretty damning, though he didn’t commit a single murder). We know that Hurley wants to go back to the island, and though we also know he doesn’t trust Ben, Ben offers a pretty sweetheart deal, all things considered. In addition, Hurley spends most of the episode feeling conflicted over the lies he told to serve the Oceanic Six story, and it feels a bit forced as a story point. It’s come up before, but at this point, it feels like he should have larger concerns. Surprisingly, though, Garcia, who has always been the show’s soul, even in its most chaotic moments, almost pulls it off. He makes his distrust of Ben so palpable that you don’t really question him until the episode is over, and he plays the moment when he tells his mother everything that REALLY happened (including many of the show’s most implausible elements) so perfectly that your heart breaks for him even as you haven’t really found this plotline all that believable before. The episode also featured great moments for Emerson, Terry O’Quinn as Locke, Yunjin Kim as Sun and even Michelle Rodriguez as Ana-Lucia (turning up in a cameo seemingly designed to try to make fans forgive the actress and character for much of season two’s aimlessness). Lost’s cast is probably its best asset, and I’ll certainly have more to say about how these actors have pushed the writers on the show to places they might not have gone under the show’s original conceit (and vice versa, to give the writers credit) in the weeks to come.
The best stuff in both episodes occurs on the island, which is skipping through time. (Or are the people on it skipping instead? The final scene of the second hour seems to definitively show the island itself is traveling and taking the people with it.) The terrific disorientation of these early sequences, where only Faraday seems able to grasp what’s happening, makes for enthralling television, and examining the history of the island seems like the best way for the show to turn while still delaying most of the series’ big reveals for its sixth and final season. The moment where Faraday convinces Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), who’s ALREADY found himself traveling through time in prior seasons, that he needs to go see Faraday’s mother in Oxford, quickly rewiring the future to his own benefit, is one of those moments that makes you grin with the swoon-y possibility of it all that the best science fiction delivers in spades. The scene following, where Desmond awakens from a dream he then correctly identifies as a memory, just makes it all even better, but just as much of that lies in the edit, which jumps from Faraday confronting an on-island Desmond to a point three years (or more?) in the future and from the South Pacific to the Mediterranean. It’s a little cheap to enjoy Lost solely for the scope it employs, but there are few better reminders of just how much the series has opened itself up over the years than in this edit.
In addition, the action sequences in the episode are nearly perfect. Think of that towering crane shot as Sawyer and the other island folk race from the flaming arrows hissing down at them (taking out what appears to be most of the longtime background extras in the process) and then the mad scramble into the trees away from them, or the nicely paced and choreographed kitchen fight between Sayid (Naveen Andrews, who makes for an enjoyably comic prop in the second hour) and one of Widmore’s goons. The kitchen fight is the sort of thing we’ve seen in dozens of films and TV shows over the last decade, but Lost finds an efficient brutality all its own, and the way Sayid (accidentally) dispatches of the goon is a great moment for a sick laugh.
It all culminated in one of those moments Lost fans are sure to freeze frame endlessly and dissect on message boards, as a cloaked Mrs. Hawking (Fionnula Flanagan, playing one of my favorite bit characters on the show), who might just be Desmond’s mother, of all things, did a little math, then confronted Ben about how badly things would go if he couldn’t break Hurley out of jail. Because of the sheer ambition of the time travel narrative, neither episode had the HUGE CLIFFHANGERS the show is known for, but this final moment was a nicely creepy one, set as it was in a candle-lit church and featuring two actors who can handle the show’s cryptic dialogue, biting into it with relish. It was the kind of thing Lost does best—all shadows, pulp plotting and fine acting—and, even without a huge nailbiter to end on, damned if it didn’t make me excited for next week.
• I plan to largely dissect the episodes’ scripts, performances, direction and technical aspects in these reviews, rather than offer speculation-filled recaps, which are a dime-a-dozen. My Lost speculation tends to be really poorly thought out anyway, though I certainly invite you to share your theories below. If there’s a great clamor to offer more of my thoughts in this regard, I’ll certainly reconsider. I’ll also cut down on the lengthy ruminations on the series’ history if y’all want.
• I take over this feature from the more than capable Andrew Dignan and Justine Elias, who both did some great writing on the series (Dignan, in particular, really forced me to sharpen my arguments in favor of the show when he was writing about it). I hope to follow in their footsteps well enough.
• So everybody has a 70 hour window in which to get back to the island? How many episodes will that work out to? My money’s on four or so, which would place the return to the island sometime in February sweeps.
• I haven’t seen it yet, but most everyone who saw next week’s episode, “Jughead,” at TCA says it’s one of the series’ better outings. I’m hoping for good things!
• See, and I didn’t even talk about Locke, whose journey through time probably had the most import for the series twisty mythology. Feel free to dissect what he was up to in comments, and I’ll try to chime in. The short version: O’Quinn, as always, is terrific (most of his sequences are just him reacting to things by himself), and Nestor Carbonell makes a good foil for him. As always, Locke’s storyline ties the most into the heart of the show’s mythos, and I like hearing lines like “The next time we see each other, I won’t recognize you.”
• And I ALSO didn’t talk at all about that terrific opening sequence, which was full of sly nods to the fans, head-spinning plot implications and one of the series’ finer needle-drops (on Willie Nelson’s “Shotgun Willie”).
• I usually try to work this stuff organically into the review itself, but the two-hour/two-episode nature of the premiere means it was too clumsy to get in there. “Because You Left” was written by Lindelof and Cuse and directed by Stephen Williams. “The Lie” was penned by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and directed by series head director Jack Bender.
• Petty, copy editing thing: capitalize Island or leave it lower-case? I’m thinking capitalization is the way to go, since it’s decidedly a specific place in the show’s mythos, but I went with lower-case in this piece because ... I don’t know why. I realize exactly three people who might read this will care, but what do you think?