May 24, 2010

‘Lost’ Loses; ‘Babylon 5’ Retains Title

LostDespite promotion of its “Finale Event” that would have embarrassed P.T. Barnum, ABC’s wrap-up of its six-season-long drama Lost was a disappointment. The science-fiction series Babylon 5 (see also the official site here) has retained the title of Best Long-running Series with a Coherent and Satisfying Main Plot.

Alas, last night’s two-and-a-half hour show had a hurried, deus-ex-machina character about it. The penultimate scene, a celebratory funeral in which it was revealed that all the main characters have died and have been living an alternative afterlife, resembled nothing so much as the ending of St. Elsewhere, an ending that seemed to dismiss the seriousness of the whole dramatic enterprise. Of course, that scene was intercut with Jack’s death on the island as Oceanic Flight 815 flew safely over him, an image that makes any proposed explanation of what was real and what wasn’t hopelessly muddled.

The ending of Lost was a “happy” one, despite everyone’s being, apparently, dead. The protagonists were off the island and were tearfully reunited with the loves of their lives. What more could the viewers ask?

A lot more, as it turns out. Although viewers were heavily invested in the lives of the characters on the show, that emotional hook was to the lives led on the island. The Los Angeles lives of the flash-sideways world in which the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 never happened were not well enough developed for us to care about them. Moreover, ambiguity as to their reality discouraged viewer engagement. The ending seemed to be one timed for commercial, rather than for dramatic reasons.

The biggest disappointment of Lost was the failure to answer any significant questions about the island on which Oceanic Flight 815 crashed. What is the nature of the force embedded in the island? (“Electromagnetic” is hardly an answer.) What is the relation of the island to the earth (or to reality itself)? Where did the original inhabitants of the island come from and how was the notion of “protecting” the island developed? Why did some people have very long lives on the island? Why were pregnancies problematic? What was the ultimate purpose of the Dharma Initiative? What was that wheel all about, anyway?

It is not unusual in science fiction to have story elements that never receive a full scientific explanation. We are talking about science fiction, after all. The best science fiction, however, keeps these elements to a minimum, using them as postulates that, once accepted, lead to a world governed by familiar scientific laws and consequences that might reasonably follow from the basic assumptions that are part of the suspension-of-disbelief pact between writer and reader (or viewer). The existence of a mechanism that allows faster-than-light travel, for example, is a common science fiction assumption. Without it, stories of galactic races interacting with one another would be impossible. Likewise, the Force in the Star Wars universe is a story element that is never explained but was an easily accepted premise for a good yarn.

Lost, on the other hand, seemed to keep piling mysteries on top of mysteries in gratuitous excess. In retrospect, one has to ask if they were really essential to the plot (or some equally engaging plot) or whether they were merely intellectual enticements to keep viewers coming back. The show has been notable for its high production values, literate dialogue, and credible acting. The producers broke faith with their viewers by leading them down so many garden paths that ended at the precipice of a dark, bottomless pit, however. That they provided entertainment and intellectual stimulation along the way is no excuse for their breaking faith with their viewers by leaving so many loose ends at the show’s conclusion.

So, why is Babylon 5 the winner in the Best Long-running Series with a Coherent and Satisfying Main Plot category? Its production values were not as high, its integrity was compromised somewhat by uncertain funding, its acting was not as uniformly of the highest caliber, and its five-year story arc was too frequently interrupted by engaging, but ultimately irrelevant, self-contained episodes. The short answer though is that the basic story line, one that, like that of Lost, involved time travel, was planned out in advance by series creator J. Michael Straczynski. Babylon 5 managed to tell a complex story over five seasons by sticking to the original plan, a task made easier by the fact that Straczynski wrote (unbelievably) nearly all the Babylon 5 episodes. Like Lost, Babylon 5 raised many questions over the years. Unlike Lost, it also answered all the important ones.

Finally, although action was a major attraction for Babylon 5 viewers, the show was as much about character development as it was about galactic conflict. The complex and evolving relationship between G’Kar and Londo Molari, for example, was nothing short of Shakespearean, and the acting of Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik was superb. Other performances especially worthy of note were turned in by Jerry Doyle (Michael Garibaldi) and Mira Fulan (Ambassador Dulenn), who also played Danielle Rousseau on Lost.

Lost was a fine show, and I am grateful to ABC for six years of engaging television. I just wish that it could have been more.

5 comments:

  1. Begging your pardon, Lionel, but I don't think you got some major plot-points of the Lost finale.

    that scene was intercut with Jack’s death on the island as Oceanic Flight 815 flew safely over him

    It wasn't Oceanic 815 flying over him (that WOULD HAVE, truly, "make any proposed explanation of what was real and what wasn’t hopelessly muddled")

    No, it was the Real Time departure of the Ajira flight (which took off from neighboring Hydra Island, w/ its own "Ajira Six": Pilot Frank, Miles, Sawyer, Kate, Claire, and Richard Alpert: the latter having the most 'splaining to do! Although IIRC, he's left the island before, so maybe not).

    It seems that all of the "Sideways" LA universe of S6 was in Jack's head alone (either in death, or near-death). As such, time is irrelevant here. Keep that in mind, when you consider

    it was revealed that all the main characters have died and have been living an alternative afterlife

    While we are to believe that everyone in the church is, in fact, dead, that doesn't mean that either the past years of the series they were all dead, or that all the characters alive at the end (the Ajira Six, plus Hurley & Ben. I honestly can't remember about Desmond! I think Rose and Bernard were still alive, too.) didn't have long, long lives AFTER the end of the show's time period. Time is simply irrelevant, to their being together for Jack's death experience.

    Don't get me wrong: I'm not entirely satisfied w/ the ending (if only because it's too Jack-centric, when he was probably my LEAST favorite character! Well, perhaps excepting Charlie). But its conception of The Afterlife (Afterlives?) is a little more sophisticated than it seems at first blush (and I had the same first blush you did, Lionel! I had to think about it some more, and another observer confirmed my second take). As a personal preference though, I have to say that I think that dying w/ a sweet Labrador at your side is a pretty good way to go!

    Babylon 5's finale "Sleeping in Light" was pretty freaking awesome . . . however, it's never been quite able to wash away the true AWFULNESS of S5. J. Michael Strachynski simply didn't have 5 years worth of story (when the show was given a Last Minute reprieve at the end of S4: THAT is when the show SHOULD have ended).

    Just my 2c!

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  2. JCF,

    You’re right about the airplane. Let me get back to you on the matter of Lost.

    As for Babylon 5, the series was planned for five seasons. Because it wasn’t clear that there was a backer for season 5, the season 4 finale was reworked to make it a satisfying ending for the series if it needed to be. I’m not sure what it might have been like had the series’ future been assured. In any case, I’ve always liked the title of episode #422, “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars.”

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  3. We don't have cable, and until the broadcast stations began to transmit digital signals we weren't able to get a clear view of ABC here in our corner of Highland Park. So basically I missed "Lost." My daughter was a big fan, though.

    I on the other hand am now pondering life beyond "24."

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  4. Bruce,

    Lost is available on the Web. My son has seen most of the program via Netflix.

    I was an early fan of 24, and I have the entire first season on videocassettes. If I happened to miss a program on Fox, either because I forgot or programmed my VCR incorrectly, I could catch it on FX. The rebroadcast on FX finally ended before the program became available on the Web. I missed one episode on TV years ago and have never watched the show again.

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  5. JCF,

    The more I think about “The End” the more confused I get. Did the atomic blast undo the crash in episode 1 or didn’t it? The producers seem to want to have it both ways. The story split into two parallel universes at the beginning of season 6. Those universes seem separate at the conclusion of “The End,” but the apparent parallelism in the drama may not reflect the intended time sequence, if indeed time even has meaning at that point. Sorry, but my search for coherence in season 6 comes up empty.

    Your comment about Jack is interesting. I can think of lots of reasons for the finale to focus on Jack. You’ve made me realize, however, that finding characters in Lost that I like or admire is not an easy task. It seems a premise of the show that everyone who comes to the island is flawed.

    I think I’m going to think about The Episcopal Church and recreational mathematics now.

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