Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The LOST finale: Waiting for the karma bus

My first reaction was denial. What? Purgatory? Limbo? Wishful thinking? "It was all just a dream" combined with a chintzy-looking portal to an afterlife that was nothing more than a 10K light in a door? You have got to be kidding me. Sitting in a room with a brace of like-minded fans amid the empty Dharma beers, there was stunned silence as the credits rolled. And not in a good way.

Up until those last few scenes, I was loving the finale, totally on board with each character’s choices and able to overlook the fact that okay, maybe they weren’t going to explain every mystery. I loved that Jack rightfully assumed his role as the island’s protector and the show’s main character, fought bravely, and died a hero. Hurley’s reluctant takeover as guardian with Ben as his lieutenant? Awesome. Kate declaring her love and then leaping into an unknown future? Gutsy and true. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom, but Aaron's backstage birth had me reaching for the Kleenex, as did the moment where Jin and Sun saw their baby’s heartbeat and remembered everything that had gone before. Even smaller moments, like Lapidus’s inevitable rescue and Ana Lucia’s surprise reappearance as a cop on the take packed a satisfying punch.

Best of all was Sawyer and Juliet's rapturously romantic candy-machine reunion - which, in my view, will go down as one of the great love scenes of all time. The spark that passed between them as they touched, rekindling a lifetime of bitter heartbreak into the flame of eternal love, was right up there with Bogie and Bacall saying goodbye on a windswept airfield in Morocco. The fact that it took place in the most mundane, unromantic setting possible underscored just how damn good the writing, acting, and directing of this show can be. No sunset or wedding dress or confetti cannon was necessary to convince us that these two were meant to be together – just a man, a woman, and a camera. (And a script). And maybe the candy machine was even a wink towards the machinations required to get us to this moment of sweetness.

But as much as I loved what had gone before, the last few minutes of the finale felt like a betrayal. All this incredible stuff we saw in the Sideways world never really happened? In any reality? Everybody’s dead? Nothing really mattered? WTF!? The last few scenes completely undermined not just the last season, but everything that had gone before! It reduced the Sideways world to typo-ridden fan fiction wallpapered over the Best TV Show Ever – or worse, an existential cop-out that was ultimately even bleaker than the Sopranos finale.

But when I checked in with the Internet the next morning, expecting to find fans bemoaning "The End" and massing for some Darlton revenge with pitchforks and torches, I was in for a shock. Most people, it seemed, loved the ending, though there were plenty of grumbling dissenters. The same words kept popping up in the comments – “emotional,” “cathartic,” “rewarding.” And that’s when I realized what Lindelof and Cuse had been onto all along.

These guys didn’t become super-successful showrunners and celebrities in their own right by accident. All that jib-jab they had been spouting over the years about faith versus reason had nothing to do with the show or the characters – it was about us. The secret of LOST’s success had nothing to do with smoke monsters or love triangles or time travel – it was about human nature. Like the archetypes advanced in Star Trek, you’ve got your rational Spocks and emotional Kirks, and you know who you are. You either want explanation or exaltation, and that’s the way it is.

The genius of the show is how it managed to captivate both camps and keep them relatively happy. Lindelof and Cuse used emotional storytelling to reference and explore intellectual and philosophical intellectual issues, toggling back and forth between the two modes with varying degrees of success. Though most people were watching because they cared deeply about the characters – their fates, their issues, their beliefs, and above all, their love lives – there was also a huge contingent of others who were feasting weekly on obscure literary references, sly allusions, overt allegories, snarky dialogue and trippy plot twists. Count me among them.

The use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and alternate realities was a clever framework to keep both types of fans happy for five seasons. But, in the end, there could be only one. The show’s creators were going to have to come down on one side or another – myth versus saga, fantasy versus reality, fanboys versus haters. I doubt there was too much debate about which one it was gonna be.

Because America is nothing if not fan-friendly. Whether it’s politics, economics, or entertainment, if it’s too good to be true, we’ll blow right past our credit limit and take as much as we can carry. Find a way to combine feelgood nostrums, unearned trust, and blinkered reality over rational thought and we are so there. We’re all about heart, not the head, and though it can be mightily exasperating, living in a nation of delusional optimists does have an upside. Each of us secretly believes we are the hero or heroine of our own show, and if the zombies or aliens or black helicopters ever come looking for us, we’ll be able to summon our inner Jack and get ‘er done.

As the wacky skits on the post-finale Jimmy Kimmel show suggested, Lindelof and Cuse aren’t leaders of a cult or keepers of the flame. They’re just two guys working on a TV show, and in the end, they did the job they were hired to do – keeping the most amount of people happy while not blowing too much of ABC’s money on special effects. As a fellow TV writer, I salute them. As a fan, they owe me a drink.

Because let’s face it, I was kinda hoping that LOST was going to break the mold on this one. After six seasons of genre-busting storylines and giddily inventive character development, I really thought that somehow Lindelof and Cuse were going to find a way to pull it off. Somehow they were gonna unite both of the narratives we saw in season six and create some kind of jeopardy, some irreducible logic, some hard choices. Somehow the Sideways characters were going to have to sacrifice their lotus-eating ways in the alternate dreamworld to save the Island. They’d have to commit to reality over fantasy in order to save the world. Maybe some would survive and earn a future happiness, but only after others fell tragically by the wayside. Somehow.

But no. Lindelof and Cuse could have gone that way – and they clearly thought about it – but with some clever sleight-of-hand (“The Island is definitely not Purgatory!”) they punted. They made a choice to close out one of the most original shows ever with the schmaltziest ending of all time. “This is a place we all created so we could find each other”? Gag me with a fish biscuit!

Still, the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit – it was true. The show was a place where a lot of people found each other. From watching with friends to following the passionate analysis online, it was a new kind of entertainment experience, a fireside tale that embraced the brave new world of instant connection. There was always someone you just had to call every Tuesday night at 10 or check in with first thing Wednesday morning to go over what you had just seen. And browsing the fan forums post-show always amazed me – some of the comments and discussions it provoked were often as intelligent, insightful and entertaining as the show itself - though you might have to machete your way  through a jungle of petulant trivia and pointless dreck to find it.

So, in the end, was the LOST finale the biggest cop-out in TV history? Yes. But it as also a fitting end to the show that had us all gathered with friends over those Dharma beers on Sunday night. Whatever you thought of those final scenes, this was the show that got us talking philosophy with total strangers in grocery stores, at cocktail parties and in chat rooms. It was the show that got people to think about big stuff and examine the smallest details. No other show came close to inspiring the level of excitement, devotion, and camaraderie that LOST did. So, if in the end, they went with the Unitarian cast party while Ben sat outside waiting for the karma bus,  I guess I can accept that.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Across the wine-dark sea: an epic for our time

All the web hate for last night's episode really got me thinking - what exactly are people so upset about? It seems clear to me that LOST has never been a tightly-scripted contemporary sci-fi narrative -- it's much more like the sprawling epics composed by ancient bards riffing by the firelight as they swigged from their wineskins. Like classic poetry passed down through oral tradition, there are all kinds of detours and dead ends, stand-alone stories and evolving mythic themes that ebb and flow through the episodes - as well as the ongoing stories of our heroes and heroines. Maybe there's no way it can all add up, but so what? Personally, in a corporatized entertainment culture of predictable plots and formulaic storytelling, this sort of far-out, anything-goes, kitchen-sink inclusive narrative works for me. It may be the secret ingredient to the show's cult appeal as well - which is why it is so damn hard to duplicate.

I think the frenzied fans who will not rest until they find out the "answers" to everything are kind of missing the point. Remember all those Sopranos fans who felt ripped off when the series didn't end with an epic bloodbath? (Hats off the David Chase for denying them!) Don't be like those mooks, watching the show for all the wrong reasons.

Axis Mundi: The navel of the world

As several of my LOST buddies can confirm, back in Season 3 I hypothesized that the island is an "axis mundi" or portal between the cosmic and earthly worlds. (The axis mundi can be represented by natural phenomena such as a column of smoke or fire, a tree or a well, or even a manmade structure such as a temple, ladder, lighthouse, obelisk - sound familiar?) Basically, it represents the "omphalos" - the navel of the world, a sacred place where all life begins. So when the glowing spring was revealed in "Across The Sea," I definitely felt that I had been on the right track all along. Though its significance has not been clearly articulated (and might never be), I like that DL & CC are going for big mythmaking and not merely "explaining" everything in scientific terms.