In front of a movie a couple of weeks ago, one of the now-ubiquitous ads to which the captive audience was subjected was for the fifth season premiere of Lost, which aired tonight. I recall thinking that the scope and tone and visual style of the show seemed remarkably well suited to the big screen.

At the same time, though, the show offers something more than any single two-hour movie. My posts about comics should certainly make it clear that I enjoy serial fiction… such a format is really the only way something as episodic as television (or comics) can approach the depth and texture of a novel. Moreover, I’ve written before about how much I enjoy intelligent, imaginative science fiction, which Lost certainly offers in spades.

And for the record, I’m also a sucker for a good predestination-paradox time travel story. So, as of tonight, I’m more hooked than ever.

After a stellar, boundary-pushing and ratings-grabbing debut year, there was much grumbling during the series’ second and third seasons that it might have lost (ahem) its direction, that the writers were floundering. When the network made a commitment to wrap the show after six seasons, though, it seemed to invigorate the creative staff, and the fourth year was widely hailed as a return to form (notwithstanding the interruption of the writers’ strike).

A return to form, however, should not be mistaken for a return to formula. The fifth season has kicked off without missing a beat, with a gripping and intriguing two-hour episode that ranks with the best of what has gone before. At the same time, however, it continues what is clearly now an established pattern of shifting the show’s dramatic focus and dominant theme with every new season (criticism be damned). This underscores the flip side of serial fiction—that to be truly satisfying, a work can’t be dragged out indefinitely. Having a clear ending in sight is a luxury most television series are denied… but with one, it’s also possible to deliver the dramatic beats and smaller arcs on the way to that final destination with much more effective pacing. Season Five, therefore, while focusing on a whole new assortment of dramatic tensions and character dynamics, nevertheless manages the impressive trick of seeming like a completely logical outgrowth of previous events—even events that seemed inscrutable just a few episodes ago.

The Oceanic Six, the sub-group of central characters whose unlikely escape from their mysterious island, and subsequent dispersal to various less-than-happy fates, we saw detailed last season, are now on the verge of reuniting for an attempt to return to the island and the colleagues they left behind. It’s not rushed or contrived, however, and events are driven as much by the familiar personal motivations of each of those six as they are by the attempted manipulations of “Other” Benjamin Linus (however many cards he may yet have up his sleeve). Jack is driven by his inability to live up to his self-imposed sense of responsibility; Kate by the concommitant urge to evade responsibility and keep secrets (with her “son” now both defying the former urge and embodying the latter); Hurley by his desire to be taken seriously (even while, ironically, he clearly is increasingly crazy); Sun by her desire to avenge her husband. Ben’s motivations, as ever, remain inscrutable.

Meanwhile, simultaneously yet “three years earlier” (i.e., back in early 2005; the show does an impressive job of keeping its internal timeline organized), those colleagues back on the island find themselves deprived of the few trappings of civilization they had managed to accumulate, and metaphorically cast adrift just as much as their “rescued” friends, but in time, not in space. Indeed there are multiple levels of time-slippage going on:  the island itself has plainly disappeared from the moment it previously occupied, but (some of) the people on it are also slipping repeatedly into the past and future.

While time-travel wasn’t part of the show’s concept at its initial launch, and quite probably would not have been welcomed by audiences had it been, at this point in Lost‘s evolution it makes absolutely perfect sense both within the story, and as a device to continue telling the story (beyond the now-familiar flashbacks and flash-forwards)—as the characters find themselves in positions to interact “again” with characters and situations that they (and we) discovered only piecemeal during the previous seasons. The writers have thought through their ground rules and made it clear that the past cannot be changed (although it can be created—hence the predestination paradoxes), but at the same time have created a loophole in the person of Desmond, whose unique ability to keep his consciousness and memories intact outside of linear time was set up gradually over the preceding two years.

And in the midst of laying out all of this, the show manages a few clever metatextual winks at the audience as well… as the buff and frequently shirtless Sawyer spends much of the episode looking for a shirt, for instance, and then moreover the decidedly non-buff and never-shirtless Hurley has to find one himself just a few minutes (and three years) later.

It is any wonder this show has not only spawned a loyal fan base, but downright encyclopedic compilations of its intricate backstory?

It’s fascinating, it’s thought-provoking, it’s emotionally intense, and it’s constantly surprising (yet not arbitrarily or implausibly so). I’m not a huge television watcher, but this is unquestionably some of the best television around… worth not only the time and attention to watch, but the money to collect the box sets as well.

I’m genuinely thrilled to find out where it will take us next.

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3 Responses to “Lost horizons”
  1. Andrew says:

    It seemed like a good idea at the tine, but I suppose it failed before it even started … things like this happen, and they happen quite a lot lately!

  2. “Growing consensus”? Check out TelevisionWithoutPity.com… the cumulative opinion of roughly 800 readers voting there rates the four hours aired so far this season as A, A, B+, and A, respectively. (And these are people many of whom were not pleased with much of seasons 2-3.)

    Granted, time travel is a divisive thing… some people just don’t like it as a story element in general, in Lost or otherwise. But if you’re okay with it (and I personally love it—I think it’s really opened up some fascinating possibilities), then everything else is firing on all cylinders. I think both the big-picture plot and the individual character motivations are clearer right now than they’ve been in a long time, I don’t find the tone uneven, and on an episode-to-episode things remain suspenseful.

    I’m curious what specific things are turning you off about this season so far. Any examples spring to mind?

  3. michael says:

    I read this back when you posted it, but I wasn’t yet sure what I thought about the new season. Three episodes in, I am leaning toward the growing consensus that the show has definitively jumped the shark. The writers’ effort to salvage what they had allowed to fall into disarray is admirable for its inventiveness, but I find it very difficult to care about any of the characters anymore, to understand and endorse their “motivations,” or to accept the increasingly arbitrary shifts in direction and tone. No wonder everyone I know (other than you) who watched the show is disenchanted. I’ll stick it out till the end, just to find out what that will be. I just hope Hurley buys it long before then.

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