Show of Commerce, Show of Art

Lost

John Locke wiggles his toes.

People are screaming around him, and he’s looking at the Gold Toe-socked digits with a hint of confused disbelief, like an infant discovering that it has a measure of control over those little things down there. Except he’s an older man, somewhere north of 60 years old.

The action is emphasized by the composition — toes in the foreground, face in the background — and a shift in camera focus, yet it doesn’t fully register. John Locke has survived a horrific plane crash and is lying on his back on a beach, with only minor injuries — a disjointed vertical gash above and below his right eye. You’d wiggle your toes, too.

This is the flashback that opens “Walkabout,” the fourth episode of ABC’s television drama Lost. Later in the episode, the audience discovers, also through flashback, that John Locke should not be able to wiggle his toes, let alone stand up or walk around or hunt wild boars (all of which he does). Locke was in a wheelchair when he boarded Oceanic Flight 815, and after it crashed, he was not only unhurt but healed.

You think back to previous episodes, to the brief glimpses we’ve gotten of this enigmatic codger. In the debut, Locke flashes an orange-peel smile — à la Vito Corleone before he kicks off in The Godfather — at Kate as she removes hiking boots from a corpse. When it rains, it pours, and while everybody else takes cover, Locke contentedly gets drenched.

In the second episode (part two of the pilot), Locke introduces Walt — the dog- and mother-deprived black kid — to backgammon, noting: “Two sides. One is light. One is dark.” (The obvious and racially insensitive metaphor underscores that Locke doesn’t seem quite ... present.) He asks Walt: “Do you wanna know a secret?” Most of his bizarre behavior adds up only in retrospect.

In the third episode, Walt reveals Locke’s secret, vaguely, to his dad: “A miracle happened here.” Locke makes a whistle, which he uses to attract Walt’s dog. Then the old man lets Walt’s father act as if he had found the canine. And at the end of the show, Locke is sitting on the beach, with a dark but disconnected look on his face.

Yes, there was a wheelchair in that third episode, used by Charlie and Claire to move luggage on the beach. And in this fourth episode, John Locke wiggled his toes.

The Skeleton and the Flesh

I am not here to solve the mysteries of Lost. As of this writing, the series created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindelof has aired more than 23 hours of material — an accumulation of seemingly significant detail that could support virtually any reading. It’s telling that Lost message boards even scrutinize apparent errors — in continuity and visible crew, for instance — because of the slightest possibility that they’re not mistakes. So I’ll leave the parsing, clue-catching, and theorizing to people with more time and energy than I.

What’s of particular interest to me is the way the show has been able to sustain itself so well, especially considering its limitations of setting, plot, and character. And that’s a function of its structure.

On a practical, crass level, the construction of Lost is a beautiful thing.

With a few exceptions, each episode has two components: its present-day narrative, focusing on the plight of the Flight 815 survivors, and some pre-flight backstory on one of the characters. The show started with 14 major characters, led by surgeon and go-to guy Jack.

For a series whose mystery and suspense are central to its allure, the idea of eating up airtime minutes with background that is seemingly irrelevant to the central plot is positively brilliant. When you don’t need to move the story forward for a couple handfuls of your weekly forty-odd minutes, it makes it a lot easier to sustain the series over a longer period of time. Four seasons of story might magically become five. And that’s a lot of ad revenue for a desperate television network.

And here’s the shocking thing: The backstory structure is only occasionally irritating as a retardant of narrative momentum. An even greater achievement: It’s also an artistic triumph, a skeleton that gives the series its distinctive shape, depth, and resonance.

The flashbacks themselves add the meat. They do not merely flesh out characters and give us a sense of their backgrounds; the vignettes satisfyingly relate emotionally or psychologically with what’s happening in this strange place.

In the second season’s “Everybody Hates Hugo,” for example, the corpulent Hugo “Hurley” Reyes struggles with the assignment of rationing food to the rest of the survivors, and the backstory deals with his hesitance to reveal to family and friends that he won a $114-million lottery jackpot. Both situations find Hurley uneasily in a position of “wealth”; he seems to relish the anonymity of paucity, yet he keeps finding himself in the spotlight because of his abundance. Even his body betrays him in this regard.

Hurley’s fear is understandable if irrational. After he won the lottery — using the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 — bad things began to happen: His grandfather died; his house burned down; the plane crashed. He therefore associates having plenty with grave misfortune.

But even before those things befell him, Hurley didn’t want to tell people that he won the lottery; he was afraid it would upset the constants in his life, that people would view him differently and try to use him, that people would be angry if he didn’t give them what they wanted.

Poverty fosters friendships that are genuine, not based on ulterior motives. Wealth breeds ulterior motives.

With those things at work in his brain, Hurley wants nothing to do with the thankless responsibility that accompanies the food.

Much is happening in this episode. The fear in the normally easy-going Hurley is brought to the forefront, and is revealed to be more deeply rooted than previously thought; the character’s discomfort with his lottery jackpot was present before he decided the winning numbers were cursed. Persistent angst about not being liked even drives Hurley to attempt to sabotage the rest of the survivors; he’s willing to blow up a plentiful food supply to ensure that people don’t hate him.

The episode also establishes a contrast between Hurley and Sawyer. While Hurley essentially wants to divorce himself from the ample food, Sawyer hoards anything useful he can get his hands on. He welcomes the power and attention that come with possession, even when it causes him great pain.

This subtle connection is but one indication of this show’s intricate conception and writing. Even though it’s pulpy, brisk, suspenseful, and fun, it has a literary texture, ripe with meanings, themes, and ideas.

This novelistic feel is itself a contributing factor in the series’ success. Because of its contrived and carefully calibrated nature, Lost’s structure emphasizes the role of the author — a force beyond the narrative, artfully guiding and shaping it. This resonates within the show, giving the impression that what happens to the survivors of 815 is no accident.

Certainly, there are hints of this in the text itself, but they’re given added weight and meaning by the way the flashbacks are employed. There are even inter-flashback connections, as when Jack’s future wife — who had a broken back — wiggles her toes after spinal surgery that was thought to be unsuccessful. Or when Sawyer runs into Jack’s dad in a bar in Australia. Or when Hurley buys the box company for which Locke worked. Or when the guy living in the hatch happens to have met Jack once back in the States. It is a small world after all.

The Freshmaker

Certainly, Lost works for reasons much less academic. With a large number of major characters, it has a built-in variety. Although Jack is a dominating figure in the series, he has disappeared from the screen for long periods of time without being missed. This is a show built for longevity, a self-renewing source of material.

And the makers continue to mix things up. The flashback-free “The Other 48 Days” gave the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books version of the tale of the tail-section survivors, refreshed the horror of the plane crash, and gave tantalizing hints about the M.O. of the Others.

Even as the narrative expands — when you find out what’s in the hatch, when you catch up with the survivors from the tail section — the mystery deepens. The more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know shit.

That’s even true of the backstories. While we learn a lot about characters through the flashbacks, they often raise more questions than they resolve. Jack has gotten multiple flashback episodes, yet there are maddening holes in his story, particularly relating to his courtship and marriage. Kate has been revealed as a criminal, but her offense remains unknown. (The episode “What Kate Did,” slated to air November 30, will change that.) We still don’t know what put Locke in a wheelchair, although one might suspect that his kidney-stealing father had something to do with it.

It’s critical that the show’s writers treat each character with care. On the island, many of them have grown tiresome — Sawyer, Michael, Hurley, and Shannon above all others — but the scripts ensure that they remain fresh and human through the flashbacks.

And the episode-to-episode pacing is immaculate; the writers have a prescient sense of when the audience’s interest in a particular person needs to get goosed, or when someone needs to be uprooted from the island and revitalized through the past. (We can count our blessings that the intolerably severe Michelle Rodriguez will get the flashback treatment next week.)

The meanings of the flashbacks are sometimes obvious, but are often blessedly nuanced and ambiguous. The second season’s “Orientation” deals in flashback with a new romance for Locke, and how his refusal to let go of what his father did jeopardizes that relationship. His girlfriend tells him that he needs to move on, to take a leap of faith with her.

On the island, though, Locke seems to misapply the lesson. He’s trying to convince Jack that somebody must enter that ever-recurring string of numbers — 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 — in the computer in the hatch every 108 minutes, lest terrible things happen. Jack’s not buying it, thinking that the silly command was part of some twisted psychology experiment, not a way to forestall doomsday. Locke asks Jack to believe, to take that leap of faith, and eventually the surgeon relents.

But the computer loop is akin to the rut that Locke found himself in when he sat in his car every night outside his father’s house — a pointless but comforting repetition in the absence of an actual solution, or merely an obviously better alternative. Locke’s girlfriend says he must break out of these habits, must take a risk with her, even though it might end badly. The equivalent leap of faith in the hatch would be to let the 108-minute clock expire.

That’s not to say Locke is necessarily incorrect in his intuition that the code must be entered; I only mean that if the events depicted in flashback are taken as instruction, he hasn’t learned. Like Hurley, Locke at times lets fear overrule common sense.

That’s one of the charming things about Lost: The characters aren’t just flawed in the dramatic sense of being imperfect in ways that must be exploited by the plot; they’re flawed in genuinely human ways — frequently petty, scared, stupid, bull-headed, jealous.

And the show has made a critical transition in its use of horror. Initially, there were strange creatures in the jungle — the still-unidentified metallic-sounding airline-pilot thrasher, a polar bear, and wild boars. But don’t you expect monsters on a television island?

That motif has been scaled back in favor of elements that are more disconcerting, more ambiguous, and more psychologically resonant: whispers, a dead father, a crazy French lady, the Others, apparitions of Walt, chummy guys named Desmond ... . Most chilling was the way Hurley’s thankless task of a survivor census revealed that there was someone among them who wasn’t on Flight 815.

Thematically, the show continues to grow. Many have noted Lost’s dominant themes — such as absent or asshole fathers — but the second season has introduced new wrinkles. The contrast between the ways the two different bands of survivors have organized — one loosely governed, the other militaristic — adds a welcome political element to the series.

And the prospect that the entirety of Lost is part of some social experiment brings to the fore troubling ethical questions — an expansion of the show’s consistent concern with mores, actions, and consequences. Without ever being preachy or ham-fisted, Lost is a deeply moralistic work, dealing nimbly and seriously with issues such as the withholding of important information, the social contract, collective and individual responsibility, the perils of generosity and greed, and the tension between spirituality and logic, faith and science.

Fear the Future

Still, I have concerns.

Those episode-closing scenes set to pop music are painful clichés, for one thing. (Although it was a good gag when Hurley’s CD player stopped working, making it ... The Day the Music Died.)

And the series has a tendency toward “Chris Carter moments” — named for the X-Files creator’s desperate need to withhold critical revelations at any cost, mostly through editing and point of view. When Sayid gets knocked out as he’s trying to place his transmitters, the audience doesn’t see who did it. Sure, there’s some suspense created by the technique, but it’s cheap.

And beyond that, isn’t it more interesting to watch Locke, knowing he did it, interact with Sayid and the rest of the survivors? The character would be more unpredictable, more dangerous, and also more poignant. Locke is a man who feels a certain kinship to the island; because of what it gave him, he owes it ... something. And he seems petrified of what might happen if he ever leaves.

The X-Files/Lost comparison only goes so far, though. Carter didn’t believe in the loyalty of his audience, worried that they’d abandon him if he ever revealed too much. As a result, the show’s mythology ran around in circles, divulging meaningless detail and never advancing. Abrams and company would appear to have a better core story, and they also trust the audience more, exceedingly generous in adding new information, new layers, new textures, new twists.

But as good as Lost is in ways big and small, its future fills me with dread. Great shows envisioned with tidy, finite story arcs often become unwieldy and bloated once they become profit centers. The X-Files is one obvious example. David Chase intended to whack The Sopranos long before now, but he keeps giving it a reprieve, and the show, while still compelling, often feels like it’s in a holding pattern until somebody decides to truly, really end the damned thing.

So while I love Lost and where it’s headed, I fret about its final destination. By that, I don’t mean the ultimate solution to all its mysteries, but whether it will be subjected to the endless hit-TV-series death march, in which a show’s success makes it impossible for the network to pull the plug. That approach is fine for Friends, but not for something with a circumscribed and carefully mapped-out narrative.

That’s the nature of network television, though; it’s a medium that generally repels artistry at every turn. Writers aren’t asked to put out the first 100 pages of a novel before the publisher sets a final page count, and movie studios don’t force filmmakers to release the first few reels of a picture before setting a budget and running time for the remainder.

But that’s essentially how television works; shows might get pruned before they can conclude their stories, or they might be put on life support indefinitely, excruciatingly drawing out the narrative, sucking it dry until nobody gives a shit.

The irony is that Lost is a series that artistically exploits commercial television better than anything else I’ve seen; its structure and smart, detailed writing ensure that it can be extended longer than its core story would normally allow — to a point. I worry that it will slowly, inexorably yield to the medium, stretched to tedium and frustration.

At the very least, I hope it’s a good struggle. And maybe, just maybe, Lost will emerge victorious.

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