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Lost Season 6 and Overall Lost:The Series Thoughts

Posted by J on May 25, 2010

So Lost has concluded.   Here is a review of Season 5, Season, 4, Season 3, and Seasons 2 and 1.

How did it end?  Unfortunately this has to be explained, with a bit of (easy) exegesis.  It shouldn’t be so confusing.  Season 6 starts when Jack drops the bomb down the hole.  It explodes and prevents a catastrophy, which leads to the building of the hatch.  Everyone timetravels to 2007.  Jack becomes the protector of the island, kills the smoke monster, then dies after saving the island.  Hurley becomes the new protector of the island.  The plane with Kate and Sawyer fly away safely (how they had so much extra fuel, I can only speculate).  Then the flash sideways we see throughout season 6 is some kind of afterlife.  We know this because jack realizes that he died, and Ben and Hurley have an exchange about being a good #1 and #2.  It seems that everyone is really dead in the sideways.  In this afterlife they all have to “let go” and “move on.”  Make sense?

And now to my concerns. Let’s put aside the numerous small loose ends that the show never tied up.  These are preoccupying too many people who want their insignificant questions answered.  There are massive narrative problems to look at.  The first is this: we just spent an entire season watching an afterlife. Half of the season consisted of the characters in an afterlife world that ended in a sort of redemption, with them all sitting in a church and a bright light entering the sanctuary.  But this plotline is totally unnecessary to the action.  There is nothing in particular about the Lost story that calls for characters to enter an afterlife.  Yes the Island is mysterious and we see dead people, but the show has no internal justifications for what it does in Season 6.  Frankly, any story could add on a Coda with its characters in an afterlife, finding some kind of peace.  The fact that Lost concludes — in fact climaxes — with an unnecessary plotline is troubling.

A further problem is the syrupy New Age version of purgatory portrayed in this Lost afterlife.  The final scene, where Jack meets his dad, was critically important to a show where Jack’s dad’s person was a deep mystery.  But we are treated to mumbo-jumbo about the purgatory being a placed “that you [the characters] all created, so that you could let go.”  In this final scene, we are in a room filled with religious symbols.  It’s an extremely heavy-handed scene, screaming RELIGOUS SYMBOL, RELIGIOUS SYMBOL.  At best, this last episode of Lost is really the last episode of Touched by an Angel.

And then, why would the characters want to create an afterlife reality where they all meet and reminisce about a place that was ultimately troubling?  The nostalgic flashbacks that the characters envision in the final episode are absurd.  They remember the few happy moments, but forget all the lying, conniving, and undermining of group cohesion that characterized this entire TV series.  And they all love each other, which is bizarre, since the lovefest atmosphere rarely occurs on the show.  (I wonder what Sayid would think of seeing Ben Linus in his afterlife.)

The final show was hyper-emotional.  The music swelled, people cried, but ultimately the final show treated the heart and not the head.  Plotlines were not resolved.  The story was not fully realized.  Perhaps worst of all, it offered a definitive conclusion about the characters but not the plot.  The question of “Why are we on the island?”, the show’s abiding major question, was not addressed.  There is so much talk of fate and purpose and destiny on the show, but what has created that purpose and destiny, and for what purposes?  The show demolished its god figures in the final season when Jacob and the Smoke Monster were revealed to be flawed humans.  This left a deep void.  There is no god on the show, which is a problem when the show is about providence.  Any notion of “fate,” at least in a story, has to have an agency behind it.

I believe this: Lost is not a purgatory story.  It is not about characters on the Island who all find some relief in the afterlife.   It is John Locke pounding on the hatch door, asking “What do you want from me?”, and then the light pours up through the hatch door window.  It is Desmond telling Jack that he too was nearly at the brink, when all of a sudden he heard Locke pounding on the hatch door and turned on the light.  It is John and Jack fighting about whether or not to press the button.  It is Desmond turning the fail-safe key.  It is Jack, inspired by Locke’s faith, desperate to go back to the Island to fulfill his purpose.  It is Jack saving the island, and then dying.  That’s the heart of the show, and hopefully that’s what it’ll be remembered for.

Five Worst CGI Moments on LOST

For a show that employed hundreds of people to write scripts, edit, make music, find clothes, make props, design sets, coordinate stunts, and so on, Lost was mostly terrible at major CGI shots.  Let’s recount them.

1) The Island Underwater — In the first episode of Season 6, we see Jack look out of the plane.  Then the camera zooms downwards, breaks the surface of the ocean, and peers into its depth.

2) The Black Rock ramming the Egyptian Statue — Exactly how did a wooden ship smash into a hundred-foot tall rock statue, break the statue, land in the jungle, and survive in tact?

3) The Golden Light in the cave.

4) Any submarine in motion.

5) The reveal of the Egyptian statue.

Five Best Characters

1) John Locke

2) Jack Shepherd

3) Ben Linus

4) Mr. Eko

5) Tie: Hurley, Sawyer, Sayid, Desmond — It’s telling that no female characters make this list.  Would any even make a top-15 character list? I find the charge against the Lost writers true enough: that they weren’t successful at writing female characters or dealing with female issues.   Sun was their best effort, but any complexity she had was demolished when in Seasons 5 and 6 she was reduced to a husband-hunt, having nothing to motivate her but that, and when she did find him, they both died in the very next episode.  The female problem probably started with Kate, who in the second episode of the entire series is revealed to be a dangerous criminal.  Eventually we find that she’s a murderer.  The implausibility of this set up contrasts that were too jarring to be taken seriously: Kate’s background is always at war with what she wants and believes in on the Island, and also with her motives off-island.

Five Unresolved Mysteries

1) How, when the Oceanic Six returned on the Ajira plane, did some of the passengers travel back in time while others did not?  — This is most annoying mystery for me.  The writers tried to give explanations for the plane crashes and shipwrecks, but there is no explanation for this.  Time travel only occurs on the show when the Island is moved.  This by itself requires a lot of suspension of disbelief by the audience.  In the case of the Ajira plane, there’s no explanation at all for why some people travel back in time and others do not.  No electromagnetic event, no moving island.  Jacob never showed any such power.  Neither did the smoke monster.

2) Why aren’t babies born on the Island after the 1970s?  — The obvious answer is that the hydrogen bomb that Jack detonates in the 1970s emits radiation that gives defects to fetuses.  But this doesn’t make sense in numerous ways.  Wouldn’t the Dharma Initiative have figured out real quickly that radiation levels on the island were extremely high, causing fertility problems?

3) How did the Smoke Monster turn into the Smoke Monster? — In “Across the Sea,” we see Jacob throw his dead brother into the Golden Light cave.  He emerges from the cave as the smoke monster.  But then, in the final episode, Jack and Desmond go down the cave and nothing happens.  There doesn’t appear to be anything that could instantly turn someone into a smoke monster.  It didn’t seem possible, either, for a dead body to float down the cave, then into the pit of golden light and electromagnetism.

4) How can you timetravel to the perfect time after detonating a hydrogen bomb on top of a pocket of electromagnetism?  –  Anyone who attempts to answer this needs professional help.

5) How did certain people get special powers?  — Hurley can see dead people, Miles talks to dead people, John Locke’s spine is fixed, Rose’s cancer is cured, and Walt is supposedly special beyond belief.  The only explanation is that the Island has a Golden Light.

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Posted in Silly but Entertaining, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

Battlestar Galactica (for those who haven’t seen the show)

Posted by J on April 13, 2010

Here are a few tidbits from reviews of Battlestar Galactica seasons.  I don’t want to give anything away.  If you watch the show, you must start at the beginning.  This is a serial TV show.

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Galactica is decent sci-fi, sometimes, which isn’t much of a complement.    In some distant time, humans live on twelve planets, none of which are Earth.  These humans are attacked by machines known as Cylons.  Humans  invented Cylons, long ago, and somehow the Cylons gained enough intelligence and gumption to attack humans.  A war broke out, both sides made peace, and then the Cylons disappeared.

Then the Cylons return, nuke all twelve human planets, and destroy 99.9% of humanity.  Only about 40,000 humans remain, scattered amongst several spaceships, hoping to find the lost colony of Earth.

The show’s best element is the mystery it’s premised on.  A few Cylon models are not just robots,but human-like robots.  These human Cylons are also monotheistic, talking about God’s love, God’s justice, God’s forgiveness.  We don’t know exactly what they mean, but they are contrasted with the colonial humans, who are polytheistic, believing in and praying to the “Lords of Kobol.”  Since the Cylons look like humans, they can infiltrate the human remnant.  This premise gives the show an instant and lasting mystery, as no one knows exactly who is human and who is Cylon.  Presumably any human character could be a Cylon.  Since the Cylons are hostile, practicing spycraft and subterfuge, engaging in suicide missions and terrorist attacks, the Battlestar Galacticans have a big problem.

We would rather watch all four seasons of Galactica than 98% of the movies we’ve ever seen.  The serial TV series is a great idea, allowing plotlines and character arcs to expand seemingly indefinitely.  If one individual episode is poorly done, the next might be great.  In Galactica‘s case, most of seasons 1 and 4 are great.  Season 2 is so-so. Season 3 is mostly terrible, but the payoffs in Season 4 are well worth wading through Season 3.  The only problem we had with Season 4 was near the end, when, during several episodes, the focus was on a pointless love triangle, rather than on developing the many recent, story-changing revelations.

The series’ end is intriguing . . .

The show overall is a fun show to watch.  A handful of episodes are legitimately great.  Three characters are great — Adama, Baltar and Roslin.  Baltar’s character arc may be the best that TV has ever had.   The moral lessons are mixed, but personally I enjoyed Baltar so much and enjoyed watching Adama assert his powerful yet humble and cool alpha-male dominance over everyone else that I can forgive Galactica its artistic and moral failings.  Thanks for the good show.

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Battlestar Galactica: Seasons 1 and 2

Posted by J on March 2, 2010

Here we go with another serial sci-fi TV show.  Thanks to Lost, this kind of show blossomed during the last decade, and Battlestar Galactica owes a little something to Lost, while mixing in a bit of 24 and Star Trek.

Galactica is good sci-fi, most of the time.    In some distant time, humans live on twelve planets, none of which are Earth.  These humans are attacked by machines known as Cylons.  Humans invented Cylons long ago, and somehow the Cylons gained enough intelligence and gumption to attack humans.  A war broke out, both sides made peace, and then the Cylons disappeared for decades.

At the beginning of the show, the Cylons return. They nuke all 12 human planets, and destroy 99.9% of humanity.  Only about 40,000 humans remain, scattered amongst several spaceships, hoping to find the lost colony of Earth.  Meanwhile, the Cylons chase these human survivors.

The show’s best element is the mystery it’s premised on.  A few Cylon models are not just robots, but they look and act like humans. They infiltrate the human survivors, and so the humans are never sure if one of them is actually a Cylon.  Since the Cylons are hostile, practicing spycraft and subterfuge, engaging in suicide missions and terrorist attacks, the Battlestar Galacticans have a big problem.

There is a major religious difference between the humans and Cylons.  The Cylons are monotheistic.  They talk about God’s love, God’s justice, God’s forgiveness.  We don’t know exactly what they mean — who is their god, after all? — but they contrast sharply with the colonial humans, who are polytheistic, believing in and praying to the “Lords of Kobol.”  In some ways this divide is supposed to resemble the contrast between ancient Roman pagans and Roman Christians.  In other ways, it resembles the contrast between modern-day fundamentalists (Muslims or Christians) and the accepted polytheism of American multiculturalism.

The human remnant is left to wander around space, scavenging for supplies and hoping to blindly come across a place called Earth.  They don’t know where Earth is, but it’s one of the lost colonies that might allow them refuge from the Cylons’ relentless attempt to dominate the universe and wipe out all of humanity.  It becomes apparent pretty quickly that, at least for the convenience of the show, the Cylons can pop up anywhere, anytime.  What the humans think they are going to do when they find Earth is unclear.  For all we viewers know, there is no safe haven in the galaxy.

When humanity gets down to its last 40,000 people, several problems arise.   Among their remnant, they appear to only have one medical doctor and one thousand journalists.  The medical doctor — a Bob Knight lookalike who smokes — is 70 years old.  He specializes in breast cancer, neuroscience, pharmacology, and obstetrics and gynecology, and that’s just the beginning of his resume.  You’d think the Galacticans would train doctors, pronto, but they’re actually more concerned with the policy decisions of their government.

And, boy, are they concerned.  The 1,000 journalists swarm to every press conference that the Galactican President holds.  This President, newly sworn in soon after the Cylon attack, is concerned with upholding the principles of democracy, whatever those are supposed to be.  She insists on maintaining democratic government even though the humans are attacked by the Cylons every few days.  It’s a time of total war and chaos, but it doesn’t matter.  The Galactican president wants to represent the people. 

As this example shows, Battlestar Galactica is an overtly political drama that straddles every side of present-day American politics, especially every issue involved in the so-called War on Terror.  It is so overtly political that, in one episode, we actually watch a few minutes of parliamentary procedure.  No one who has ever attended a meeting in which Robert’s Rules of Order was used has ever been anything but bored.  You can imagine how entertaining it is to watch in a sci-fi show.  But Battlestar wants us to understand how deeply its characters care about politics.  There is even one minor character (Tom Zarek) who, as a radical democrat, uses violent means to achieve political ends.  Other characters support Zarek’s desire to give “freedom to the people” and “form a collective that works for every individual citizen,” but in an act of moderation, they reject his violent approach to instituting “pure democracy.”  Still, Zarek is allowed a position on the Galactican high council, and eventually becomes Vice President, even though he’s a convicted terrorist and a hijacker!

Every Galactican cares so deeply about politics that, when the presidential election is held, there is a 99% turnout of the human population.  Apparently in the Galactican government, even children and the mentally infirm vote.

Back to the War on Terror.  Battlestar‘s major character is Commander Adama, who is in charge of the human remnant’s military.  Adama is the Political Everyman.  He represents military supremacy and yet espouses the Galacticans’ democratic sentiments.  In one episode, Adama calls a military tribunal to investigate a Cylon spy.  The President warns Adama that such a tribunal will turn into a “witchhunt,” which of course is what happens.  Adama finds himself interrogated at this tribunal, which he ends with his statement that the tribunal is a witchhunt that violates everyone’s civil liberties — and then he promptly has the interrogating officer confined to her quarters, just on his word.  In another episode, Adama arrests the President because she suborned mutiny on his ship, but realizes (after several episodes) that the fleet cannot be divided and that he must forgive the President and reunite humanity.

The Cylon infiltration clearly represents the War on Terror.  Everyone is a suspect, and torture is a legitimate tool of the human military.  The monotheistic Cylons make suicide bomber attacks, and use the human media to foment dissent.

The Cylons are also interested in reproduction, specifically human-Cylon reproduction.  You’d think that 40,000 humans would be the ones interested in reproduction, but no, the humans appear to care more about the abstract doctrine of equality than in their long-term survival. Their women, for example, still play major roles in the government and military, apparently using “protection” whenever they have a tryst in the co-ed bathrooms and military quarters.  By contrast, the Cylons have reproduced to practically infinite numbers.  They appear to have taken over the galaxy, mostly because they believe in their “one true God’s command” to “be fruitful,” rather than in equal rights and the necessary usage of condoms and IUDs. These demographic facts alone should tell us who will win, and very soon, but of course we are supposed to root for the non-reproductive humans.

Galactica often takes some hardcore political position and then challenges it with one of those Philosophy 101 “What-If” scenarios. In one episode, a human woman wants to have an abortion.  The President defends the woman’s right to an abortion, which has been legal under the Galactican government.  Well, of course when you’re down to 40,000 humans, during a time of war, you must reproduce or die.  The President realizes this and reverses her position, using an executive order to ban abortion.  Bizarrely, this becomes a campaign issue when the President is challenged by her own sitting Vice President, who takes the pro-choice position.

This Vice President is uber-scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar, the show’s one great character.  Baltar unknowingly collaborated with a Cylon woman before the Cylon attack, his actions resulting in the near-destruction of humanity.  Baltar is haunted and then entertained by mental visions of this Cylon woman, who tells him how to act in certain situations.  Is Baltar’s mental woman a manifestation of his own brain, a Cylon chip implanted in him, or a “angel of God,” as the woman often claims she is?

The 2nd season ends when Baltar, the newly elected President, fulfills his campaign promise to colonize a barely habitable planet.  It is clear that Baltar’s presidency would be a total disaster, given the doctor’s preoccupation with his own survival and no one else’s.  In the last episode of the season we see the Cylons, some of whom want to make peace with the humans, find the human’s new colony and set up a military occupation.  What are the Cylons there for?  What do they think they will accomplish with a military occupation?  Such answers bring us back to the realm of politics, both abstract and practical, which is what Battlestar Galactica always wants us to consider.

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Lost: Season 5

Posted by J on May 15, 2009

Lost has nearly lost it.  We think that the unraveling has slowly been occuring, but sped up greatly when in this season the main characters traveled back in time.   Mind you, the show is still pretty good sci-fi — better than just about anything else on TV right now — but that’s a long way away from the world-class, timeless-tale aspirations the show had in the first two seasons.  Let’s figure out why.

First, the show has employed the old sci-fi time-travel paradox.  Say you traveled back from 1985 to 1955.  You accidentally run into your mother, who is attracted to you instead of the man she is supposed to marry, your father.  Then you cause the key moment in your mother and father’s relationship to not happen.  You then have inadvertently changed the future, which means  you shouldn’t exist, because your mother and father do not marry and thus you are not born, but nevertheless you have not disappeared after all.  You still exist, but solely for the sake of the plot.

In fact, by merely traveling to the past for a few days, you have already changed the future.  You have caused things to happen that didn’t happen already when 1955 occured the first time (without you).  There is no debate about this.  You cannot avoid changing the future when you travel back to the past.   The past occurs with or without you, but both possibilities cannot have the same future.

Also, if you travel back to 1955, what has happened is that the future causes the past to happen.  Normally, 1955 precedes 1956. Thus 1955 causes 1956 to happen, which causes 1985 to happen, the year you supposedly traveled back in time.  But, by having you travel back in time to 1955, what your contradictory but entertaining story is saying is that 1985 causes things to happen in 1955.  This is a logical impossibility, as an effect cannot be a cause of its own cause.

Of course this is pure speculation, as no one has ever traveled through time (yet).  Yet it has long been recognized as a convenient but silly sci-fi scenario to get us to ask: “Could I change the past?”  This is the eternal question the Lost characters wrestle with through half of this fifth season.   A major problem with this is that it is not, and has never been, a deep human concern.  As a speculative exercise it can be intriguing, perhaps entertaining, but it will never strike us as a very moving or powerful question because it’s not a question that affects any of us at all.  Perhaps it will be on the day time machines are invented.

Consider some of the questions posed in the early seasons of the show.  “How do I deal with this group of people (strangers)?  Who do I trust?  How do I really know what I know?  How do I deal with these other people who think they really know something that I think is a bunch of nonsense?”  Now these are questions that we all, everybody in the world really, deal with on an almost daily basis.  Done well, a powerful story can be based on these questions.

Season 5, however, is mostly concerned in its plot and character development with a speculative problem of the realm of science fiction.  This can be entertaining, but it is not particularly thoughtful.    One of the biggest problems that sci-fi has had over its one-hundred year lifespan as a genre is that it always tends to put aside real human problems in favor of problems that have never happened and may never happen.  This is why sci-fi tends to create one-dimensional characters, whose job is simply to wrestle with the speculative problem at hand.  The characters on Lost in this season, a few of them already well developed, devolve into one-dimensional characters because they are worried about whether they can change the future by changing the past.

The show’s other, major problem is that there are simply too many characters now, many of whom are paper-thin.  These characters are part of the show’s mythology, so they have been getting more and more screen time.  But the writers seem to have forgotten that the mythology, the mysteries of the Island and such, must be a mere backdrop to the real foreground,the character interactions of the several people who initially crash-landed on the Island.  In fact, much of this mythology doesn’t need to be explored at all; we would simply be better left speculating about it after the fact than having so much of it revealed to us.

In the process of exploring this mythology, the writers have dumped their two best characters, Jack Shepherd and John Locke, whose views of the island — resulting in crucial decisions in leadership — were the greatest source of conflict early in the show.  But Jack was almost totally ignored (in terms of screen time) once he traveled back in time, while Locke is not really Locke but some other person.  Surely the writers are not dumb enough to have killed off a character they spent four seasons deeply exploring, perhaps the best character on the show.  If the real John Locke, the man who crashed on the Island, is really dead for good, the show’s title will aptly describe the situation the show’s writers are in.

This season’s final episode had its sloppy moments.  It only takes two hours to dismantle a hydrogen bomb, which can be easily done if you follow the instructions in a notebook?  When did Jack hit the shooting range (for a doctor, he’s quite good with a gun in these pointless gun battles)?  You can get tortured but emerge from it with no cuts and bruises?  You can get in a long fistfight but still be energized enough for a gun battle?  The show is a sci-fi fantasy, but there still are limits to our willing suspension of disbelief.

Having dogged on the show enough, we’ll repeat that it’s still pretty good sci-fi.  “316”, the episode in which the six plane crash survivors returned to the island, was one of the best of the entire series.  “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham” and “The Variable” were quite good too.

Pretty good sci-fi, sorry to say, is a disappointment for this show.  It is as if the show had (after its first two seasons) hit a homerun.  All it had to do was round the bases.  But after touching second, for some reason it stopped heading toward third and now is wandering around outside the ballpark.  For all practical purposes, lost.

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After Season 4 we made this observation:

The series is slowing peeling back layers of power, but we haven’t nearly reached the core yet.  First we thought the survivors could find their way off the island (Season 1).  Then we see that the survivors are naive, and that the Others possess the island’s secrets and the power to escape (Seasons 2 and 3).  Then, by Season 4, we see Ben Linus and Charles Widmore as the two major players gunning for control of the island, while everyone else, including the Oceanic crash survivors, seem to be mere pawns.  But then, clearly, something more powerful is controlling Linus and Widmore.  Is that Jacob, and is there something more powerful than him?

The answer is “yes, Jacob is the next layer of power.”  The final episode of Season 5 revealed that the island has yet another layer to its power structure.  Apparently Jacob and a rival, already nicknamed “Esau” on other sites, have been playing a long game on the Island, seemingly hundreds of years long.  Recall all of the black/white imagery — it comes up overtly every three episodes or s0 — and all of the instances in which people are playing board games.  This all apparently refers to Jacob and Esau, who wear white and black shirts respectively, and who appear to be playing games with people who come to the Island.  Somehow Jacob and Esau (perhaps just Jacob) control all events on the Island.  Esau wants to kill Jacob, apparently to take over Jacob’s position as Island ruler, or perhaps to “win” the game.

So what will happen?  With Jacob’s dying breath he sighed “They are coming.”  Probably this is a reference to our ragtag group of heroes, the survivors of the Oceanic planecrash.  If this show actually has a “good” guy and an “evil” guy — which is doubtful, because the writers love to reverse these roles and create ambiguities — Jacob is likely the good guy.  He visits all of our heroes, physically touches all of them, and gives some of them a choice but leaves that choice entirely up to them. Esau, meanwhile, seems to be tricking everyone by taking on apparitions and tempting them (especially Ben).  Perhaps all of the previous dead people who reappeared were just manifestations of Esau; perhaps our previous encounters with Jacob’s cabin was just Esau.  And the whispers in the forest too.  Remember when someone — Jacob, so we thought — whispered “Help Me” to John Locke. That may have been Esau.

We have no idea who the groups will be.  Somebody will back Esau, while others will back the apparently deceased Jacob.  And that will be the final contest, the coming “war” that Widmore told Locke about in Season 5.  Almost certainly Jack will see a manifestation of his father in the last season.  Also Jack will probably die, sacrificing himself while saving everyone.  The series started with Jack, so it will end with him.

There will be redemption for two characters who have been set up as irredeemably evil: Sayid and Ben.  The writers have leaned too heavily on their evil doings, while endearing them to viewers, to not allow them to do something redemptive in Season 6.

What does all this have to do with ancient Egypt (hieroglyphs, statues, etc.)?  We can’t imagine, but they better not try to explain it, because it will probably be something stupid.

What is the entire show about?  What might we say its worldview is?  There will probably no way to answer those questions definitively until the very end.

Posted in Pretty Good, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

John Adams

Posted by J on August 16, 2008

Note: This review only covers parts 1 and 2, for reasons explained below.

Remember the way the Joker’s lair looked in the old Batman TV show from the 1960s?  It was always tilted at an angle, as if the level on the camera were somehow broken.  Someone forgot to check the level on the camera that filmed this John Adams series.  The debates at Independence Hall look like the Joker’s lair, angled for no apparent reason, so that you can almost see the Penguin and the Riddler sitting with the Virginia state delegates, cackling wildly while they and George Washington plot to take over Gotham.

That’s not the only directorial problem in a series that suffers from weird shot after weird shot.  There are scenes where there’s an unfocused object in the extreme foreground, for no apparent reason.  There are even plenty of shaky, handheld-type camera movements for those who think eighteenth-century parliamentary procedure needs to look like The Bourne Supremacy.

Maybe the reason for this is to spice up the subject matter, namely John Adams, which is pretty dull at times.  Even Adams tells everyone how bored he is at the meetings of the Continental Congress.  They’d introduce a motion that two plus three equals five, he says, and then debate it for two days before motioning to approve it.  But then, in Episode 2, we see meeting after meeting of the kind of debate and discussion that Adams says he’s weary of.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of watching some Congressional committee go at it on C-SPAN, which no one these days has the patience to watch for two minutes.

So yes, John Adams suffers from being dull.  It’s not as if Adams himself was boring — take a look at his resume sometime — but the way he’s portrayed here should make any viewer wonder why we are watching a series about him.  Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson all come across as much more intriguing characters than Adams here.  The drama of the early Revolutionary War is barely seen, but when it is we are much more interested in it.  Even the Adams’ family’s daily life — Abigail Adams’ floor-scrubbing techniques, the family’s bout with smallpox — are more interesting than Adams’ many speeches about liberty.  At least HBO has created something that will make a better substitute in public high school history classrooms for the next two decades.

Episode 1, “Join or Die,” begins with the Boston Massacre.  Adams famously defended the British soldiers accused of murdering a bunch of Bostonians, so the episode is dedicated mostly to the trial, which comes off as just another episode of Law and Order except that the lawyers wear wigs and use big, Latinate words like “desanguination.”  The main point of this episode is to show that the American colonists were rabble-rousers who tended to use mob tactics.  They form a mob that leads to the Boston massacre, they scream for British blood throughout the trial, and then they tar and feather a British ship captain afterwards.   Above it all is Adams, who looks on the tar-and-feathering scene with disgust and says that most men are weak and need “strong government.”  It isn’t more than a few minutes later, however, that Adams is denouncing British tyranny in a church after just being elected to represent Massachusetts at a meeting of the Continental Congress.  All men have their contradictions, but this Adams doesn’t know what kind of story he is in, or else he’d be screaming for a more coherent representation of himself and his fellow colonists.

Episode 2, “Independence,” is the C-SPAN-like episode we mentioned above.  There are interesting moments, however.  Maybe the best is when Franklin and Adams are reading Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.  Franklin, who is portrayed excellently in this series as a shifty character prone to ironic humor, starts to edit the document.  Jefferson complains that every word was precisely chosen, but Franklin insists that “sacred and undeniable” is pulpit language, and that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” is a much more palatable and pragmatic choice.  You get the feeling throughout these two episodes that church doctrine mattered less to these guys —  it is totally absent, after all — than eighteenth-century philosophical abstractions.

Scenes like this demonstrate that the series should’ve been reconceived as Founding Fathers or From Colony to Nation or something broader like that.  The mix of personalities we’ve known since grade school, portrayed here with a good degree of accuracy, is quite dynamic at times, so that focusing on Adams seems merely opportunistic, coming on the heels of David McCullough’s best-selling, pop biography of Adams as it does.  We couldn’t make it to Episode 3.  Adams’ was a life of debate, negotiation, and politics, and so it seems likely that the rest of the series will have the same problems as the first parts of it.  Let us know if this isn’t true.

FYI: There’s a brief shot of unexpected full-frontal nudity when the British captain is being tarred and feathered in Episode 1.  The series is rated “TV-14,” probably just for that.

Posted in Period Drama, Poignant but Boring, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

Lost: Season 4 — Some Remarks

Posted by J on July 8, 2008

We don’t have much else to add to what we have said about “Lost” previously.  Season 4 will probably turn out to be the narrative oddball of all the Lost seasons.   We already know what happens before and after it, so much of the season is spent describing how we get to the place we all know they are going.  To us, this isn’t as compelling as Season 1 and 2, but we still enjoyed much of it.

We should say that it’s a near-miracle that we’ve made it through four seasons of a TV series.  We don’t get cable, and we know few bigger TV haters than us. (Such prudes we are!)

“Lost” has yet to pull back the curtain and show us its worldview.  There are ghosts, mysterious figures, time-travel devices, and several apparent resurrections from the dead.  But how can these things happen?  We think everything hinges on who Jacob, the mysterious puppetmaster of the island, ultimately is.  His figure has been almost entirely shrouded from us, the audience, though the characters speak of him as if he were a god or superbeing.  Put it this way: if Jacob is good, then John Locke’s calling is entirely justified and Jack has acted like a faithless fool.  If Jacob is evil, then Locke’s blind faith has been for nothing and the Oceanic Six’s trip back to the island ought to be a big mistake.

These possibilites are important, because “Lost” has been playing with familiar Christian themes of calling and purpose.  Calvinists can almost rejoice, because this is one of the rare film/TV narratives in which the issues of personal election and predestination figure prominently.  Locke, for example, believes his actions are purposely ordered by the intelligence that is presumably guiding him, which is probably Jacob.   Few others believe that, but clearly they are making choices that fit perfectly in the grander plan of whomever is controlling the island. All of the events have happened, we are told, for a reason.  Jack and the other five survivors are not supposed to leave the island, but they disobey, so they pay for that disobedience and are practically called back to the island.   It isn’t that the show is necessarily Calvinist — it’s probably closer to favoring a pagan version of fate over free will.  But do watch, for instance, at the number of times different characters utter the line “Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” only to be later compelled to do something by the island or another person.

Interestingly, the show’s writers have made the title (“Lost”) symboically rich by reversing its meaning.  In the three previous seasons, we were meant to think that the airplane-crash survivors were “lost” on a desert island.  But now, they are not lost.  It is the island that disappeared which is.  And now they must find the island they wanted to leave.    This point was symbolized by the crash of the helicopter, which, just like the airplane crash in the first episode, marks the point at which something is lost.  Starting with Season 5, the island is the place to escape to.

One of our friends put it this way.  The series is slowing peeling back layers of power, but we haven’t nearly reached the core yet.  First we thought the survivors could find their way off the island.  Then we see that the survivors are naive, and that the Others possess the island’s secrets and the power to escape.  Then, by Season 4, we see Ben Linus and Charles Widmore as the two major players gunning for control of the island, while everyone else, including the Oceanic crash survivors, seem to be mere pawns.  But then, clearly, something more powerful is controlling Linus and Widmore.  Is that Jacob, and is there something more powerful than him?

Posted in Pretty Good, TV Series | 2 Comments »

X-Files (TV Series)

Posted by J on March 13, 2008

250px-msf74.jpgThe Industrial Revolution has given us a lot of headaches. Thanks to the advances in technology and productivity since 1800, we work sedentary jobs, not having to milk cows, chop wood, make clothes, and live an Amish lifestyle. But that means we get fat. Especially in the winter. What to do but buy a piece of modern technology–an exercise machine, or in our case a treadmill. That’s the cure for our winter fatness. But with the treadmill comes other problems. Just what do we do while we run the Red Queen’s race? Because we need to be spoonfed entertainment, we can’t remain content running in place. It’s too boring. So we enhance our technological setup, just to get a workout. On our treadmill is an MP3 player. Next to it is our lone TV and DVD. And this setup sometimes feels a bit frightening. It’s too cluttered, too mechanical, too wired, too much.

The X-Files–our choice of viewing for our winter treadmill runs this year–also understands the headaches of the Industrial Revolution. In the show’s case, the main headache is that a bunch of aliens are in cahoots with the federal government in trying to take over the world. This not quite our clutter problem in the bedroom, but it’s close nonetheless. Anyway, The X-Files is nine seasons worth of the fear of conspiracies, computer technologies, global economic systems, and human mutant sewer-worms.

Now we didn’t watch all nine seasons–very far from that–but we did get the gyst of the show. All you have to watch, dear reader, is the very first episode of the first season and the very last episode of the last season. Maybe you could throw in a couple of others too, but the last episode explains all, saving us lots of time and lots of hours not spent listening to bad ’90s TV synthesizer music. Now C.’s reaction when she first realized that we were watching the show was, “Um, dear, isn’t that really creepy?” which implies that in her mind it’s either Satanic, gross, or stupid. To the first we say “no,” to the second “sometimes,” and to the third, “What do you think? It’s a TV show.”

But the show isn’t stupid all the time. There are actually brilliant episodes thrown in here and there. We appreciated one (not brilliant, but decent) dedicated to making fun of television viewers. The episode involved a man capable of changing reality with his brain. Of course he didn’t think of a tropical island fantasy or an endless supply of Dairy Queen blizzards, but he envisioned himself on The Brady Bunch. He imagined the B.B. house and its occupants smiling at him because that’s what made him happy. In the course of the show, this psychic freak gains a real father and is told to stop fantasizing altogether. Why? Because it’s killing him. Even better, Agent Doggett advises us all to shut off the TV while stating that our Brady Bunch freak now “has something better to do: live in reality.” This got us thinking about our own treadmill setup.

The show’s tone is grim, dark, haunting, and conspiratorial. It’s a sci-fi detective show on steroids. There is no escape anywhere for Agent Mulder (our hero and truthseeker), an FBI agent who works within the government system to discover and reveal the government conspiracy. With all the technological devices run amok in the show, and with all the mutants, freaks, and alien invaders, The X-Files plays off of a lot of understandable modern fears. Namely, an increasingly powerful government, the increasing likelihood of global government, and the rapid social changes brought about by mass immigration and globalization. Whew. But hey, at least in The X-Files the government is generally the bad guy.

The show throws bones to religious conservatives. Maybe it’s on their side, maybe not. In episode four of season one, we learn that Mulder believes in a vague “higher power.” That show ends with Mulder weeping in a cathedral. This is a fine gesture, since Mulder has nothing else to cling to. Mulder’s partner, Agent Scully, is a lapsed Catholic turned hyper-rationalist, but there are plenty of signs that she wants to believe in something supernatural too. The last scene in the series finale makes these kinds of gestures, but goes no farther than gestures. After learning about the alien conspiracy in full, Mulder and Scully muse about the possibility of the afterlife. Mulder wants to believe that “maybe there’s something after we die.” Then he sees the cross around Scully’s neck–the visual symbol for hope here–and then the entire series ends. Well so much for those aliens taking over in 2012. We’ve got crosses of gold!

It’s not that we’re being iconoclastic here, it’s just that we’re not sure how serious to take these gestures. It feels like The X-Files exploits sacred objects or symbols, but that could be because it just does that in a hokey way. At least the show is not outright hostile to Christians, which 92.5% of everything on TV is.

But now that spring’s almost here, we can forget our treadmill and go outdoors as we please. No more TV while running in place for us. We won’t miss aliens with telekinetic powers, but we might miss Mulder and Scully’s search for truth. That’s a noble quest. We just wish that Mulder and Scully had figured out that the truth is not “out there,” but instead it is God with us.

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, TV Series | 1 Comment »

Lost: Season 3

Posted by J on March 10, 2008

After two high-quality seasons, this third season of Lost opened with a baking mitt opening an oven, the pop song “Downtown,” and a suburban book club. The members of the book club are discussing Stephen King’s Carrie. One club member claims that Carrie stinks “because there’s no metaphor.” Another, however, quietly tells him to shut up because it’s her favorite book.

We had those two reactions to most of this season. Yes, we like the show and it has successfully hooked us to this point. But what does it all mean? Season 3 doesn’t have much of a metaphor, or a greater meaning, that we could comprehend.

Let’s explain. If Seasons 1 and 2 were about anything–and they did had a tremendous amount to say about sociology, don’t get us wrong–they’re about the challenges of belief. John Locke, Eko, Desmond, and Jack all faced up to the problem of the hatch task. The show’s growing mythology props up this problem. The island provides not just plenty of mysteries, but visions, dreams, and a strange cloud-spirit monster–all of which enrichen the hatch task problem.

Season 3 changes the immediate problem. It pits the plane-crash group (we’ll call it Jack’s group) against the Others. As viewers our problem is that we don’t sympathize with either group. The Others were never worthy of that sympathy. They lie, manipulate, kidnap children, torture captives, brainwash teenagers, practice slave labor, perform unethical science experiments on pregnant women, and attempt to murder people–all while claiming that they’re “the good guys.” Meanwhile, by the middle of Season 3 we’re hardly sympathizing with anybody in Jack’s group, which is less a unified group than a loosely-bound collection of rogue individuals with their own personal agendas.

Consequently, Season 3 features a lot of low-level, action-packed drama. Capture, interrogation, escape, betrayal, two love triangles, lots of tense moments with guns — it’s all there. But what was the point of it all? In the case of most episodes, we had a hard time figuring that out.

To say something good about it, Lost is ruthless in its portrayal of the immediate effects of original sin. Even the most decent characters–Jack, Locke, and Sun–become increasingly violent in a place where there’s little accountability for violent acts. And almost all of the characters continue to hide the truth, lie, manipulate, and form sub-groups with each other based upon hidden truths. However, dramatically speaking, this great turn to the dark side is a great problem because it leaves us as viewers with no heroes to root for and almost no one to sympathize with. (Season 4 amplifies this problem by a factor of ten.)

The episodes featuring John Locke, Jack Shepherd, and Desmond Hume in flashbacks continue to be the strongest. The rest of the characters have remained flat (for example, every time we see them Ben’s a clever manipulator and Sayid’s a noble guy with a torturer’s streak), and it seems that the writers are content to alleviate that problem merely by cycling through characters, killing some off and bringing new faces on, which is as exhausting as it is confusing.

The turn at the end of Season 3 to flashforwards was a momentarily effective plot twist. Unfortunately, while it’s supposed to make people yearn for what will happen next, it mostly eliminates the tremendous narrative possibilities with the flashback sequences, in which character motivations can be questioned and comparisons can be made between a character’s past civilized life and his new existence on the island. Now, with the flashforwards in Season 4, we’re only left asking what has really happened.

Worst of all, Season 3 amps up the sex content. While there was little else but a few bikinis in the first two seasons, the third (and currently the fourth) are unnecessarily pornographic. We’re now turning away our heads almost once per episode, which is a sign that we probably shouldn’t be watching it anyway. Viewer beware.

(Admittedly, this review could be too disillusioned. We miss the old John Locke, before he became a combination of King Lear and Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. And we miss Eko and his Bible stick.)

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, TV Series | 1 Comment »

Lost: Seasons 1 and 2

Posted by J on February 29, 2008

The most clever form of art-entertainment was the serial novel of the nineteenth century.250px-lost_title_card.jpg Either published in magazines or stand-alone pamphlets, the best of those novels (Dickens’ among them) were immense social worlds of characters and caricatures, whose relationships shifted in complex ways in long books that were published over the course of several months. What made serial novels clever was the “hook.” Since the novels came out in pieces–perhaps three new chapters at a time, issued once each month–writers developed ways of ending those three-chapter segments so that you would want to buy the next one, if only to see how the problem they left you with in one installment was going to be resolved in the next. We don’t experience those novels that way now–we may read Great Expectations in a two-day period instead of needing to wait for fourteen months for its conclusion–but they still have great appeal in part because they have these internal “hooks.”

Lost is the first serial television show we’ve ever seen. There could’ve been others before it, but our ignorance of TV makes us unaware of any other examples. Serial TV shows are extremely risky commercial ventures anyway, since they do not really invite new viewers and new viewers means more revenue, so there’s great reason that they are so rare. But with Lost the great risk in cost and production time has paid off. This is really not saying much, but it is the best TV show we’ve ever seen.

For reasons that will become clear, we’re splitting this post up in two halves. The first is an introduction for those who have not seen Lost, while in the second half we’ll offer observations on the first two seasons. Right now, in its fourth season, Lost has built a complicated story–80-some shows times 40 minutes per episode–and we couldn’t imagine someone jumping in at any other point than the beginning.

Introducing You to Lost

Lost‘s premise is a writer’s fertile playground for exploring whatever psychological or sociological issues the writer wants to. Desert islands allow for this playground. Whoever wrecks onto an island has to confront a new, different existence while coping with the loss and memory of a prior, civilized existence. In the case of shipwrecked individuals (Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away), the stranded person usually radically transforms. Crusoe becomes a proto-capitalist and a repentant son, while Tom Hanks becomes a quiet melancholic after leaving behind his hectic FedEx job and losing his Wilson volleyball pal. In the case of a shipwrecked group (Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies, and to a degree the reality gameshow Survivor), whatever is imagined to be human nature is demonstrated in the way the group forms and adapts to primitive survival. Desert island scenarios are about fundamentals. Crusoe’s existence is a commonly used economic hypothetical that demonstrates the fundamentals of scarcity, supply and demand, and exchange value. Lord of the Flies shows what upper-class British boys really are at heart (i.e., tribal beasts). Given this, it’s easy to see why Lost‘s producers chose to name one of the show’s best characters John Locke, after the English philosopher who thought that all humans entered the world a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which our sense experience is to be written. (Not coincidentally, Tabula Rasa is the name of the first episode after the pilot.)

In Lost, 48 people survive a plane crash on a large Pacific jungle island. Immediately they have one major problem: how do they get off the island? We quickly find out that their plane had lost radio contact for two hours and had altered its flight plan, which means that no rescue crew could know where their plane crashed. Then other problems crop up: where do they get food? who is going to do certain tasks? who is going to lead and who is going to be led? These problems might suffice as central problems for a decent series, but Lost adds a twist. The island contains a number of mysteries. Why is there a polar bear here? Why does it seem like there’s a large monster in the woods? Is there somebody else here? What do these things that we are finding mean?

Pretty quickly Lost engrosses us in a complicated story. The characters move from clue to clue in an attempt to better understand where they are living, all the while struggling to deal with each other and trying to survive. The island mystery is resolved slowly. If you do not have much patience, you will be a poor viewer of this show. Its producers are content to take years to pull back the proverbial curtain inch-by-inch. This is Lost‘s “hook”; at the end of almost every episode, a new development takes place.

If the “hooks” were all Lost had, it could still be inane. But the writers and producers are well versed in Western literary traditions, and we’re convinced that they understand Shakespeare in the depths of their souls. Lost pursues the origins and effects of inscrutable human motivations and actions as far as it can. This pursuit is embedded in each show’s narrative structure. The story unfolds with the clever intertwining of flashbacks with the main story that takes place on the island. Each episode, then, features moments from one character’s past and compares that past with what the character is doing on the island. This narrative structure allows Lost to create several complex characters in ways that other TV shows cannot; what begin as annoying types (an Arab, a Southerner, an Asian marriage) become individuals characters (Sayid, Sawyer, the Kwons). Its flashbacks are the equivalent of what first-person and omniscient narrators do in books: they pick spots to reveal key information or detail that enrichens the entire story. For formal reasons, most cinema is incapable of incorporating that narrative device, which is probably why we all believe that the book is better than the movie.

This is all we can say without giving more away. But there are caveats. This is a show with several women on a desert island, and it airs at 9 p.m. Once in a while, maybe every other episode, there is either a shirtless male or bikinis for the sake of bikinis. Also, two characters have extravagant crime backgrounds, one of which–a muscular 120-pound girl who looks like a prom queen on steroids–is absurd and unbelievable. But then believability is a secondary concern, far behind the question of what the writers are trying to tell us about individuals, society, and ultimate questions (such as one of the show’s favorites, should we trust in a providence that directs all things, believe in an inevitable but vague destiny, or shrug our shoulders and let chance bring what it may?). That’s one of the many reasons that Lost has fascinated us.

Observations on Seasons 1 and 2

Let’s now ask what Lost is telling us. The group of 48 is an attempt to be globally representative, but it’s not especially multicultural. There’s an Iraqi male, a Korean husband and wife, an Australian girl, and a French woman, but there’s little voicing of approval for alternative perspectives. Sayid (the Iraqi) is Western in almost everything but accent, and while the Koreans seem to have a more traditional Asian marriage (authoritative male/submissive female) over time they acculturate to Western film norms, which is to say that they learn to love each other in a feel-good Hollywood way where the husband becomes emotive and the wife is liberated.

The show is decidedly American. It has characters named Rousseau, John Locke, Boone, and Sawyer, and while the first two aren’t American names per se, they’ve long been appropriated to the American frontier. Its inclusion of an Iraqi has, we think, something to do with dealing with and humanizing for Americans a 17 year war in Iraq (1991-2008). Sayid is a technowizard who goes after a rich young California blond, and there’s nothing more American than that. Almost everyone else in the show is what we would call a loose individual, with faint if non-existent ties to family, tradition, and religion.

If there’s one overarching theme, it is father-hunger. This has never been overtly stated in the show, but each character’s island situation has been shaped–so we are told by the flashbacks–by past problems with their fathers. Dr. Jack Shepherd’s had the best father relationship, but a drunken incident during surgery compromised and then severed it. Sawyer’s dad killed himself and his wife. Kate’s was divorced, and she murdered her abusive stepfather. John Locke’s dad pretended to love him in order to steal his kidney. The Kwons are oppressed by Sun’s father. Claire’s lover abandoned his child. Michael never knew Walt and he remains completely and irrationally obsessed with being a father throughout the show.

Consequently the islanders lack firm leadership. That role goes to the reluctant Shepherd, whose only qualification is that he can fix injuries (sort of like an civilized and effective tribal witch doctor). Locke, Sayid, and Michael become rogue figures in their own way, and Kate and Sawyer always were. Both Shepherd and Locke are well developed characters who could easily be co-heroes, but the writers have wisely chosen to make their relationship gnarled and contested, one where crucial information isn’t shared because of pride and personal obsessions.

Locke’s search for the hatch is a metaphor for a search for greater meaning. The final result of that search (so far, at the end of the second season) is the crushing disappointment of finding the control room. There Locke realizes that his beliefs and dreams are meaningless. The island and the task of pushing Execute every 108 minutes are obviously mere psychological experiments. The empty control room is spiritual vacancy. He has forgotten the miracle of his cured paralysis, and the great effect he had on the other islander’s devastating personal problems (especially Charlie, the drug addict). This is contrasted nicely by Mr. Eko, whose faith is renewed by the empty control room. He has seen exactly what Locke has, but he has a far different reaction. He believes in the hatch tasks in faith. For Eko, even what is likely the Dharma Institute’s foolish psychological experiment in which humans act as gerbils is a providentially ordained task, while for Locke it is a soul-crushing sign of an irrational belief. (We are sure that Locke’s quest will be renewed; he was too powerful a character when he was on a mission, up until he entered the hatch.)

Eko is a refreshment. Usually Hollywood producers throw bones at Christians who ache for them (as when the black woman prays with Charlie at the end of a Season 1 episode). Eko, a Catholic Nigerian priest, adds doctrinal mystery and spiritual questions in a show that is screaming for them.

The show at times appears to privilege certain viewpoints, but we all should be aware the the writers and producers do this only to add layers of ambiguity on top of layers of ambiguity. Consider one of the show’s great themes: chance vs. fate vs. providence. In the episode where we learn Claire’s back story, the narration emphasizes the powers of the psychic, who apparently envisioned the planewreck and thus made sure that Claire did what he told her to (i.e., raise the child alone). Then in Hugo’s episode, numerology is considered. The numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42 are cursed, or they at least hold some greater power and significance (an idea countered by the rational doctor). How else could Hugo have heard the numbers, win the lottery, then end up on an island where they are prominently involved? But both psychic powers and numerology are downplayed later, however, when we learn that the psychic is a phony and that there is a possible connection between the island and the psych ward where Hugo learned the numbers. These views are thus deliberately made ambiguous. The same is true of Eko’s faith. Wasn’t he directed by God to the very island where his brother was killed? But why does he keep pushing the buttons when he knows that they are only a part of a psychological experiment? (A possible answer, if we take Locke’s position: he has abandoned the search for truth by believing in something irrational.)

What we expect from Lost is that there is more truth to be discovered–that the island’s existence is not meaningless or the product of a psychotic’s imagination (as the clever but ultimately unrewarding episode “Dave” suggests). The show is leading to that moment of truth, and in making us wait patiently for it to be revealed we are sort of in the position of Old Testament saints, who waited centuries for the mystery of the ages to be revealed in Christ. In this new Christian age we are part of the already/not yet–Christ’s kingdom has come, but it has not come in full, a moment we all await eagerly for. Lost incorporates a structure that’s long been a part of Western narratives; there is a mystery to be unfolded and a greater revelation to come. This is not to suggest that the show is “Christian,” if such a label can be applied, but that it could not be gripping and potent without its Christian elements. We shall see, however, if the next four seasons live up to what the first two have promised.

A List of Great Episodes

  • The Pilot
  • Walkabout (John Locke’s paralysis)
  • The Moth (Charlie’s drug addiction)
  • In Translation (Jin’s backstory)
  • Numbers (Hugo’s story)
  • Man of Science, Man of Faith / Adrift / Orientation (Locke and Shepherd square off in the hatch)
  • The 23rd Psalm (Eko’s backstory)
  • Dave (is it all a dream?)
  • ? (Eko and Locke find the control room)
  • Almost any other episode that features Shepherd’s, Locke’s, or the Kwon’s backstory

Addendum: We wrote this before watching the final episode of Season 2, “Live Together, Die Alone.”  It further confirmed that every moment involved with that hatch was magnificently written and visually constructed.  Even better, Lost‘s writers and producers affirmed Eko’s belief in his mission in the hatch.   Enjoy this as much as you can: it’s rare for a faithful Christian to be so positively portrayed.

Posted in Great, TV Series | 3 Comments »

The Office (American TV Series)

Posted by J on January 28, 2008

A thought-experiment we recently encountered: What performers, artists, directors in popular culture are worth our serious attention in the last 10 years? The criteria for this question’s answer are that the artist/cultural production must be technically competent and also have an overall positive influence.

If you are like us, you had a hard time coming up with an answer.

Sadly, The Office would not fulfill the requirements. When we began watching Seasons 2 and 3 recently, we believed it might have a chance, hilariously refracting as it did at least two previous work experiences we’ve had. Yet the show is awash in foolish sexual talk–gradually increasing it throughout the third season–and has a fixed hierarchy of idiotic cultural caricatures. It’s no surprise to us that the show’s one Christian is supposed to be funny because she’s an uptight jerk, and that the one farm boy/nerd is funny because he’s a farm boy and a deranged nerd. They both, of course, are having a secret affair.

While the show is filmed documentary-style, including in-character interviews and movements only a handheld camera would make, it does not play equally with every character. Jim Halpert, the suburban fratboy who plays pranks on Dwight Schrute, the aforesaid countryboy and nerd, gets off easily. Everyone else is the subject of subtle jokes rooted in social criticism, made solely by the show’s mockumentary tone. Halpert, however, gets to be at once in and out of the world of the office. His casual, “who cares?” demeanor, combined with his frequent glances at the camera, given as the other characters say something stupid, make him the show’s hero of sorts. His frequent flirtations with the office secretary are constantly forced upon us, as their friendship-slowly-turning-into-romance is a constant, trite subplot (the fact that’s she’s already engaged does not keep the morally-challenged Halpert from wooing her by “being her friend”).

This is all too bad. Otherwise, the show blisters many of the stupidities of modern-day white-collar work, while charitably respecting the characters caught up in them. It is something like Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, but whereas Melville’s narrator sighs “Ah Bartleby, ah humanity!”–conjoining Bartleby’s ethical issues related to work with humankind’s–The Office doesn’t bemoan the tendency for the business world to create isolated individuals. Instead, it smirkily sympathizes with the attempted forging of human communities–located in the modern office, in this case–among people who seem to want them but don’t really know how they work.

The workplace–here, the regional office of a dying paper-supply company–is a poor but necessary substitute for traditional, closely knit social groups, such as families and churches. It has to be, since none of the characters seem connected to anything else. The young MBA student, who is dating the Indian (Asian) girl addicted to fashion and gossip columns, seems taken off guard when the girl’s traditionalist parents ask him what he’s saving his money for. “Uh, I’d like to travel. Oh, and an XBox.” They had expected the answer to be a dowry and child-related expenses (1). No one in The Office seems future-oriented, except Stanley, who admits to grudgingly showing up for work solely in order to retire. The office itself is the place for social bonding (demonstrated by the frequent parties and gatherings that seem to coalesce for different reasons), though these bonds are tenuous and superficial.

The boss of this office, Michael Scott, is a typical fish-out-of-water, but in an intriguing way. Handicapped by political correctness and business management-speak, Scott constantly fails the systems he thinks he’s constrained by. Not that he minds being constrained by them, but he cannot help breaking the ethics of political correctness while trying to be politically correct. The joke is that any boss like Scott would be fired instantly, but in the world of TV fiction everyone puts up with him, proving still that silly comedy is the last refuge for anti-P.C. thought. Though the show sometimes involves him in nonsense–such as when he engages in an affair with his female boss, and the two enact a role reversal whereby Scott takes on typical feminine qualities– Scott is a great exemplar of a modern American dolt. (Watch him, for example, try to buy a condo or conduct a safety seminar).

Though we cannot give our full recommendation, we’ll list several particular episodes (see the comments section) that serve well to demonstrate what we’re trying to get at here. Our one caution is that The Office, like just about everything else today, is flippant about sex. However the episodes we list generally avoid the topic altogether.

Notes:
(1) See the episode in Season 3 titled Diwali, maybe the best one of all.
— Also, Netflix subscribers can watch this show online instantly.

Posted in Clever but Immoral, TV Series | 3 Comments »