It’s easy to find someone to trash Lost on the Interweb, such as: It’s an episodic mystery strung along over five, soon to be six, seasons. It has raised more questions than it will be able to answer. Some of its “mysteries” just feel like incomplete stories, some if its ins and outs feel contrived or just plumb drawn out.
I think these people also oppose hamburgers for being juicy and convertibles for being drafty.
Last night’s Lost (season 5, episode 11, “Whatever Happened, Happened”) is just one in a series of time travel episodes that make me want to clap my hands like a circus seal — and if you’d told me I’d one day write that line, I’d have removed your “Allowed to Talk to Me” privileges. Time travel is usually the world’s worst story bugaboo, a real logic meltdown … typically a sign of writers being out of ideas and so desperate for something Amazing To Do that they’re willing to snort any old plot device they can scrape together. “This is your brain; this is your brain on a time travel plot…”
But the Lost guys know better. Not only do they stick it with a time travel story, but they keep the show my No. 1 TV highlight of the week by doing what they’ve always done. Here’s how:
1. Delivering on great character moments (that just happen to come 30 years in the past). Take Hurley. When he believes he’s changed the past, he starts examining his hands, explaining that he’s “checking to see if I’m disappearing. Back to the Future, man!” Thanks, Hugo, for keeping it real.
Or when Sayid, the world’s most lovable torturer, ends an episode (season 5, number 10, “He’s Our You”) by accepting his fate and shooting the bad guy — not just the bad guy, but the 12-year-old version of the bad guy. What a morally squishy moment, and a memorable one, too.
Or when that dying boy — the young Ben Linus, Lost‘s mercurial villain-instigator-puppetmaster — needs a surgeon to save his life, and the audience can see the great impending decision rolling Dr. Jack Shepherd’s way: Will he save the boy’s life or will he refuse to help? We all know Jack to be a goody-goody, so it comes as no surprise when he —oh, snap! Did he just refuse to save the life of a child? My tally of “Totally Awesome Surprising Character Moments on Lost” just got another tick mark. Which is, of course, the best tally to have.
2. Writing tight dialog. On-again, off-again, but-always-star-crossed love interest Kate seethes at the good doctor after he refuses to aid the dying boy.
Kate: I don’t like the new you. I like the old you…
Jack: You didn’t like the old me, Kate.
Or take Sawyer, the con-man with a calloused heart. He’s been living comfortably on the island for three years, before his fellow crashmates return and things go to hell: A burning VW bus rolls out the jungle and crashes into a house.
Jack: What the hell happened?
Sawyer: Three years, no burning buses. Y’all are back for one day…
3. Confronting the Audience Suspension of Disbelief Threshold head on. The Back to the Future exchange prompts Hurley and Miles to have a clever back-and-forth about the standard conundrums of time travel stories, thus winking straight at the audience and saying “Yeah, we know these stories are usually pretty preposterous. But we know what we’re doing.”
Plus that sort of pop-culture tennis match is the hallmark of producer Brian K. Vaughn, low-culture specialist and author of some of the world’s best comics. When he joined the show, you could see his Mark of Zorro everywhere.
4. Fastforwarding narrative at the just the right moment. The episode “La Fleur” deposits our characters in the 70s. Gives them some tense conflict with the creepy hippie Dharma Initiative. Sawyer does a little fast talking and … “Three Years Later” he’s head of their security, wearing a dorky jumpsuit, barking orders to Dharma underlings. When done right, that fastforward can be surprising and tantalizing; Alias was the last show to serve it up to me, and I ate it like a lasagna noodle then, too.