Wednesday, May 26, 2010

TV Series Finale: Lost Lived and Died By Its Characters

In the fall of 1983, I was helping a friend move out of our shared apartment. She had this big comfy chair that had been a royal pain in the arse to get up the apartment's very narrow staircase, so to move it out I suggested we throw a rope around it and lower it over a small second-floor balcony at the front. I volunteered to do the lowering. It wasn't that heavy, so I was up there alone. I lifted the chair over the railing and started to lower it. After a second, I noticed that the chair's legs had caught on the balcony's slight overhang, so I put my thighs against the railing and swung the chair out.

Then the railing collapsed. I fell about 18 feet, but God intervened that day, because the chair landed on its side and I landed, ass down, on the chair's arm. It broke my fall. I still bounced off and landed on the ground knocking myself out. I have no memory of the actual fall, but one of my friends who witnessed it said I did a perfect swan dive. I also have only fragmentary memories of the next hour, and that was only when I moved or was moved by the paramedics.

It was something like this. I blank blank blank blank remember blank blank blank each time blank blank me onto blank blank and then onwards to blank blank, my memory only completely coming back blank when they crashed me through blank doors of the Emergency room. Because of the well-placed chair, I came through the fall with only a concussion, whiplash (that I still suffer from to this day) and some bruises, but no breaks and more importantly, alive and not paralyzed. To this day, I sometimes reflect on that fall and wonder why I survived or why it happened, and when I'm feeling all "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"-like (1962) wondering if I did survive or am I really living this life in the seconds before I hit. It was this spirituality that was at the core of the now-completed TV show Lost, a show that started with a group of people surviving a horrific plane crash on an isolated island.

There has been a lot of noise on the internet since the finale about its success/failure, but for me it was (with qualifications) a huge success. As those of you who watched the complete series and the finale know, the creators/show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cruse (JJ Abrams was listed as a co-creator, but he really had nothing to do with the show after the pilot) tended to shove a whole hell of a lot of flags up flag poles to see what would be saluted. Or, to put it another way, flung a lot of spaghetti and sauce at the wall where some of it stuck, but a lot of it didn't. Meaning, I think that after the pilot they really had no clue what the island was or where they were going with it. In fact, I believe that it was not until they got half way through Season 5 last year did they really know what they were doing. Dozens of things were never resolved (I won't list them all, because many of them are covered by others on the internet) because they were wrong paths that were abandoned, tied off and, now that the series is over, allowed to wither and die. In fact, this seemingly cavalier attitude got me so angry at the show that I stopped watching for five episodes during Season Three when they stupidly killed off the great character, Mr. Eko (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). I found out later that four of the five missed episodes were amongst the worst of the series, so my timing was good. I came back only when my wife said the show had improved and I discovered that, due to family tragedies (his parents died back to back while he was shooting the show), Akinnuoye-Agbaje had asked to be written out.

It had improved, but not until Season Four did it really hit its stride for me. I no longer cared overmuch about resolving the MacGuffin of 'what is the island', but instead for me it was the characters and their interactions that kept me watching. These were all damaged people who were brought together to heal and find a path to some sort of happiness: Jack Shephard (Mathew Fox), John Locke (a character who, before the plane crash, survived a horrible fall, but unlike me he ended up in a wheelchair -- played by Terry O'Quinn), Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Jin and Sun (Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim) Desmond and Penelope (I particularly loved these two, or Des and 'Pen-a-lope' as we called them - Henry Ian Cusick and Sonya Walger), Sayid (Naveen Andrews), Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan), Juliet Burke (Elizabeth Mitchell), even conflicted bad/good guys Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) and Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell), plus others. Through the years, I came to care for these people because the acting was solid (and frequently great especially by the likes of O'Quinn, Holloway, Cusick, Walger, Andrews, the two Kims, Carbonell and Emerson) and often the journeys they were pushed through (whether in the present, past, future or 'sideways') were, when you could wade through the mud of obfuscation, compelling.

And when the writing got it right, it could be some of the finest stuff on TV. I submit that two episodes in particular, Season Four's "The Constant" (featuring Des and Penny) and Season Six's "Ab Aeterno" (Richard Alpert's moving back story), are just about perfect.

And then we came to the finale, "The End". It was tricky and not all of it worked. Sometimes it got a bit cheesy and occasionally maudlin, but it was also frequently deeply moving (as a friend of mine said yesterday, "if you didn't get emotional when Sawyer and Juliet finally reunited, you're made of stone"). This season, there has been an 'alternate world' depicted along side the island story where the plane never crashed and everybody went on with their lives. The finale revealed that everything on the island happened (not purgatory or any of the other theories), and the MacGuffin was given a, I think, acceptable resolution. The sideways story? If you saw the ending of Titanic (1997), you know what this is (sidenote: as I've mentioned before, James Cameron is a borrower, so even his ending with Rose (Gloria Stuart/Kate Winslet) at the end of her long life reuniting with all the passengers on the Titanic was 'adapted' from Robert Benton's sublime ending for Places in the Heart (1984) - which, ironically, co-starred Terry O'Quinn). The sideways story was where everybody had gone to wait after they have died. Although all the characters looked like they did during the show, it was revealed that some died younger than expected, while some made it to a ripe old age. However, until they were 'ready,' nobody in this sideways story knew they were dead. They had to be 'awakened' to their 'real' island lives so they could all move along together to whatever came next. It was a counter spin to the repeated mantra of the show (and the title of a second season episode): live together, die alone. These characters got to live together and die, or at least move on, together. This was a precarious ending. It could either work or collapse into ridiculous nonsense, but for a variety of reasons, this worked better than I hoped. Is it a great ending? Is this a show for the ages? No to both (though there is no argument that it sure was unique), but there was so much I found thought provoking that I am glad I devoted part of my last six years to this show.

So, is this world here and now just the holding area as we wait to be awakened and move on? Well, I guess I won't know until I come to the end of my life, but for now, it feels pretty real and I don't feel the least bit lost.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. His is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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