Go with a smile!

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Back in the old days when I was working for the Factory, there were at least two colleagues of mine who were really into the TV series “Lost”. It was the dawn of the smart phone age (In fact up till now, I don’t have a smart phone. I’m watching “Lost” on the same laptop which I’m bashing this out on, which is the one that I bought for myself for my trip to Mexico just before I left Singapore. ) So it’s some form of curiosity that brought me here, since somehow this is the one show in the 00s that people talk about. To be sure, the TV series of the 00s are a sad and sordid affair mostly. If it’s not boring shit like “Who wants to be a Millionaire”, it’s manipulative reality TV shit like “Survivor” or “American Idol”. Where the 90s was the decade of the consumer rebelling against the producer and demanding more intelligent, or at least more independent minded fare, the 00s was the decade of the producer taking revenge and lulling the consumers into a long torpor.

But there are a few good exceptions. I have to remind myself that “Lost” is one of the all time greatest TV shows. It’s a classic, up there with the Sopranos, Mad men, Six Feet Under, the X Files, the Wire and Breaking Bad.

The first thing is – this is the classic allegory of America. “Lost” is what America is all about. It’s a story of the frontier, and the brave men and women who brave the elements, and how they struggle and find something in each other. How people from vastly different backgrounds come together and grapple with their common humanity. The story of immigrants is both the story of their new life, as well as the lives they left behind.

In a way, America is this totally crazy and wondrous place, a human laboratory where a lot of invention takes place. Weird and wonderful creative ideas sprout out of nowhere. In history, this is the place which has an unparalleled record of innovation. The phonograph. The light bulb. The atom bomb. Airplanes. Putting a man on the moon. Jazz. Rock and roll. Hollywood. The internet. The personal computer. ENIAC. In a lot of ways, America is a very crazy place.

I had been acquiring the old DVDs for “Lost”. It’s pretty affordable now: DVDs are pretty affordable after x number of years (usually x is 4 or 5). I bought the first season at a closing down sale of Blockbuster a couple of years ago, and I didn’t watch it until after I graduated from the University of Mexico. The DVD extras often contained commentary on the episodes, and they talked about how they were able to establish the characters based on certain techniques for the pilot episode. Yes, it is possible to join Netflix, but I don’t know if I’d ever watch enough stuff to justify that, and anyway I don’t have a steady internet connection. If I have the physical DVDs, then I can always sell them off in Singapore and get more than my money back. One thing I liked about “Lost” is that it made me think back on my days as a playwright. I liked to write plays which had plot twists, where something truly improbable happens, but the improbable thing happens in order to illustrate some truths about peoples’ characters. So the problems that people were trying to resolve were very similar to those that I used to think about. As another playwright gave me as advice: a few things can be incredible, but most of the things must be believable. Credibility is one of the most important things you can have as a work of fiction. That contributed to the school of thought about playwriting. It had to be some kind of a social experiment. It had to be believable. For me, I was more interested in plot, so it was imperative for me that you figured out the plot. If you concentrate on the plot, you have a nice narrative arc, and even if you don’t do the characterization very well, people can always enjoy the story. And plot is not incompatible with characterization, since one of the best ways of establishing character is to put a person in a situation and demonstrate how he’s going to respond to things. For me, plot drives character.

I suppose at one point I would have said that “Lost” was my all time favourite TV show, even ahead of “X-Files” which I used to videotape every week during the first season that it played on TV. But now I’m not so sure. It was great in the first season when everybody was getting to know each other and there were a few shocking revelations. It was great in the second season when they could always hang out in “the hatch”. (Was the station called “the pearl”?) But with the third season, when it was about the Others, a few episodes dragged, and when the episodes were not dragging, it was exciting, but the core batch of survivors were no longer chummy and trusting each other. Locke had his own agenda, and Jack, because of Julie, started getting mistrusted. Suddenly even Sawyer had to be the good guy.

There are a few nods to other things in pop culture, which is something that came up in the 90s. A lot of the characters are named after philosophers like Rousseau, Locke, Edward Said, Burke, Austen, Mikail Bulkanin. There are nods to hippie communes of the 70s – the Others camp slightly resembles that one. Mikail Bulkanin looks like a typical Bond villain. The DHARMA initiative suits look like the ghostbusters suits. I thought it was hilarious that they had a hatch in the middle of a tropical island, and that the island was a part of a great big scientific study. I suppose geeks like these things, things that look like university campuses.

There was also a big nod to “Solaris”, which I saw in Snowy Hill. That was a classic Soviet movie about a guy who went to a space station near a planet which somehow had a mystical connection to your subconscious. It was able to impersonate dead people in order to show how the characters would interact with them. (Sounds familiar?)

Another way “Lost” is similar to something I would personally write is this: it may be science fiction, but it doesn’t neglect the traditional elements of storytelling, like plot and characterization. There’s a lot of magic around, but the magic is used to advance the themes in the storyline, rather than to cover up holes in the plot. Although – there are some instances where something not very credible happens in order to serve the purposes of the plot. For example, a lot of people conveniently escape capture, facilities are blown up, people are conveniently killed off so that they can no longer reveal plot points before it is the right time to reveal them. The deaths of Ana Lucia and Libby took place because the actresses who played both of them were caught for drunk driving. Mr Eko was killed off because his actor did not feel at home in Hawaii, which is a shame: I wonder about how those three would have been like if they had gone through the series.

Myself, I identify with the characters of “Lost”. I am happy-go-lucky like Hurley Reyes, I’m a musician like Charlie Pace, I’m a big nerd like Daniel Faraday, and I’m sarcastic and quick-witted like Sawyer. But the one I identify with the most is John Locke, the guy with the intuitive connection with the island. Of course, as a Singaporean, I instinctively understand what it’s like to be on an island with magical properties.

One aspect of the show, and this was probably true of a lot of TV series that were made in the new millennium: it benefitted a lot from viewer feedback. The writers at any time probably didn’t allow the viewers to dictate what was on the show, but they also could benefit from taking into consideration all that feedback. In a way, the show was largely made up on the fly: in this aspect it reminds people of the Arabian 1001 nights. But they also had to follow a certain arc of the story.

In the first three seasons, the format of the show was that it interspersed events on the island with the flashbacks of the characters’ lives before the island. And every one of them was unhappy in a certain sort of way (except maybe Nikki and Paulo, but they’re not very important characters). Then what happened was there was an episode that was derided as the worst ever “Lost” episode: “Stranger in a Strange Land”, (and not surprisingly it co-starred Bai Ling). It was an episode with no other ostensible purpose than to explain Jack’s tattoo. That was when it was decided that there would only be three more seasons (And those seasons would be shorter than the first three). Then there would be a change to the formats. Season 4 would be flash-forward: the attempts of the survivors to get off the island would be interspersed with their lives after the island, which would also be unhappy in their own way. Season 5 would have a lot of time travelling, and they would be going in all directions. I haven’t watched season 6 yet but I heard of the concept of “flash sideways”.

One interesting concept that was brought up in time travel was whether it was possible for people to go back and change their destiny. Up till season 5, it seemed that the answer was no. In fact, there was a big rebuff to “Back to the Future” when Hurley was trying to figure out whether his hand was fading away yet. But if you were to read the script that I wrote for the 24 hour play writing competition, I wrote about a person who declined to change his past, in spite of his being given the opportunity to do so. So I did write a play that was pretty similar to what would have appeared in a “Lost” episode – except, of course, my play was written in the 20th century.

The last three seasons are somewhat different from the first three. The first three were about unraveling what happened to the survivors, and trying to unfold the mystery of the island. By season 4, most of the questions had already been answered, and it would be about raising new questions and answering them. So in a way the plot was freed up to move forwards, instead of being mired in having to always be answering questions about the past all the time. That said, all the way until the sixth season, we did not really understand the nature of the smoke monster, which was introduced in the pilot episode.

There was probably a lot of suspension of disbelief involved in the storytelling. You had to believe that the island had natives, that there were polar bears, that there was an underwater station jamming the radio signals, that somebody had built so many stations around a desert island in the middle of nowhere in order to study its mythical/mystical properties.

But ultimately the series succeeds because of what I call the human interest stories. There were other movies where the main characters escaped to a monastery or a sanatorium to make sense of their lives – Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”, Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain”. And back when I was in Snowy Hill, I liked these stories, because in a way, Snowy Hill was my sanatorium. There’s an element of religiosity to those stories. There’s a lot of murder, just like in the Bible. People are looking for solutions to their personal situations. The character development is good. Jack is the all action hero, extremely stubborn but committed to people. Kate is the caring and brave heroine, but flighty and sometimes dishonest. John Locke is the typical priest – spiritual and a commanding leader but also liable to think that he has to lie to you for the greater good. Sayid is capable but cold blooded. Sawyer can be caring but he can also be selfish, and is a closet intellectual. Juliet can be a caring doctor but she is equally capable of backstabbing people in order to get her way. She isn’t short of people who want to get into her pants (Jack, Benjamin, Goodwin) but eventually she ends up with Sawyer. I suppose the reason why you care about all these people is that they’re good and selfless in their own way – even Sawyer. Half of Lost is people trekking through the jungle to find something, and I suppose it’s a series designed to appeal to the hunter-gatherer in all of us.


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