One of us… one of us…

Lost has this habit of introducing characters that I care little about (in some cases, I actively dislike them). Then, within one or two episodes, the series builds them up… and suddenly they’re fascinating!

That’s when I know they’re doomed, and in the next episode they’ll be blown up or eviscerated or shot.

If there is something to my theory, chances are that Juliet is for the chop. We recently watched “One of Us”, the episode where Jack introduces her to the rest of the beach bunnies and says, “Play nicely, kids!” Never mind that the Others abducted Claire, tried to shoot Sawyer, almost killed Charlie. (Okay, that last one may be understandable enough. Ahem.) Is it just me, or is Jack one of the most consistently naive people on that, or indeed any, island? Or is it just when it comes to women smiling at him?

“Either you’ll treat her nicely… or I’ll pout. I do a good pout, me.”

Especially in this episode, Juliet’s really grown on me. She’s almost as fascinating as Benjamin “Henry Gale (hope you haven’t read Wizard of Oz!)” Linus was in season 2. Her backstory’s intriguing, and her motivations murky in a good, wanna-know-more way. Elizabeth Mitchell’s acting, especially in the scenes with Ben (see the YouTube video below, if you’re interested), has also become considerably more complex and interesting.

However, I think what I enjoyed most about this episode was how it started to tie up plot strands from the previous two seasons. While there are still dozens of big, red, blinking question marks when it comes to what watchers of Lost laughingly refer to as “the plot”, there are hints now that the writers do know what they’re doing. If the rest of season 3 can manage to do that while keeping things interesting for the last two seasons, then bring it on, I say. (Just don’t kill Juliet next episode, please!)

Two deaths and three funerals… followed by two more deaths

Yesterday’s TV evening was marked by a high number of funerals. The deaths I sort of expected – after all, we did watch Deadwood – but I could have done without the ominous onslaught of funerals. House, M.D. managed to do without a death, as it pulled off its last-minute Eureka! moment, House saving the hard-done by Marc Blucas at the last moment. (As if his breakup with Buffy hadn’t already done enough damage…) Then we zapped into some series with Craig T. Nelson (I don’t know what he’s doing on telly anyway – shouldn’t Poltergeist have taught him to stay away from the flickertube?) and an epic African-American funeral, complete with gospel choir. This was followed by the quite heart-rending Deadwood episode “Let the whores come” (and only Al Swearengen can pull off asking the whore who’s giving him his daily blowjob whether she’s dyed her hair and almost seem considerate).

ep23_seth_coffin.jpg

But the whole thing was topped by the double-funeral, followed by double-death (très E.A. Poe) of Nikki and Paulo, Lost‘s most hated characters since… well, depending on who you ask, since Kate or Ana Lucia or Jack or Charlie or Boone or Shannon or practically anyone. Except Hurley. No one seems to hate Hurley. (Okay, not true. There are people who hate him – but there’s only one TV Hurley that everyone can agree to hate.)

Hurley by name…

What is it with men and toys?

Honestly. You can’t take John Locke anywhere. Get to a nice, cosy place wired with plastic explosive, show him a set of buttons, and off he goes! A computer tells him to “Enter 77” (that’s also the episode title) in case of a hostile incursion, and he goes and does it. Never mind that this sort of thing usually activates the defense mechanism, and we’ve seen what the island’s defense systems do to people – especially people who decide to drive around the island while under the influence…

Still, the episode was very enjoyable. For one thing, it’s always fun to see Sawyer getting clobbered by Hurley in one way or another, and the ping-pong bet was nice. And while it still feels like they’re making the main plot up as they go along, it was focused and intriguing enough to keep me going. Mikhail Bakunin is an interesting addition to the Others, and Sayid is quickly turning into the Iraqi McGyver… but in a good way! (Plausibility has long been maimed and killed by the island’s smoke monster, which is okay with me – if I want realism, I don’t watch Lost. I watch Grey’s Anatomy instead…)

Kate and Sayid, forcing the writers at gunpoint to make sense for a change

It’s never lupus

Yesterday’s TV series evening was fun. First “Finding Judas” on House, M.D., then Lost‘s “Flashes Before Your Eyes”.

Slap the parents and House both, please…!

Actually, I tell a lie. The “Judas” episode wasn’t fun, though it was eminently watchable. For the first time, House really seemed to lose it completely, becoming a strung-out bastard who used his incisive mind not to help his patient but to hurt those who are on his side. If Tritter wasn’t so clearly a bastard himself, he would have proven that he has a point in much of what he says. House’s words to Cuddy, for instance, were cruel and his general behaviour shitty. His suffering from withdrawal explains it, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Obviously the episode was manipulative (even more so than most of House), but effectively so. I knew they wouldn’t amputate the little girl’s arm and leg, but part of me sat there thinking “Ohshitohshitohshit…” nevertheless. I’m curious to see where they’ll take the Tritter plot and Wilson’s friendship with House, as that storyline seems to be coming to a head. And I wonder whether it’ll ever be lupus…

“Flashes Before Your Eyes” was an intriguing episode of Lost, and a heavy focus on Desmond is always welcome. For all its meandering and self-indulgence, the series has been fairly good at introducing new and interesting characters: Ben, Mr Eko, Desmond. The episode also had some interesting twists, such as the Precog Scot trying to save Charlie (and not Claire, as it appears at first), and the clever use of the flashback convention.

It’s oh-so-British, innit?

I could have done without the fake Englishness of some of it, though. The series’ England feels as if its makers only know the country from bad movies and TV. Especially Fionnula Flanagan’s character felt fake, when she should have been eerie. Still, though, it looks like Charlie – possibly the character who annoys me most – is heading for a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper. Can’t say I’m going to be too sad. Then again, they made me kinda like Shannon and Boone just before killing them off. The Lost writers are obviously bastards.

Lost, but not forgotten

Since my love went on holiday today, we caught up on the series we’re watching yesterday, starting with Six Feet Under. One of the things I appreciate about the series is that neither the writers nor the actors feel that a story is only good if the characters are likeable. They have the courage to make the protagonists truly flawed – not the sort of flaw that you’re secretly supposed to like. (Did anyone mention Gene Hunt?)

Is that you, Butch and Sundance?

Nate, especially, has become a lot less instantly likeable. In the first season, he was the closest to an audience stand-in. He was, or seemed to be, the most normal member of the Fisher family. By season 4, he’s become self-righteous and self-pitying, but he’s still the character. He wasn’t rewritten or changed, he simply grew. And that’s one of the reasons why the series feels so real to me, in spite of a couple of melodramatic twists and turns: the characters aren’t static. Life has an impact on them, gradually shaping them, moving them in interesting directions. There are few series that manage to pull this off as well. No, scratch that – I don’t know any series that do it this well.

Lost, the second item on yesterday’s TV menu, doesn’t really do subtle character development (although it may be there, sometimes, in a handful of the characters). What it does, though, is this: the characters who die are given great send-offs. I remember finding Boone really boring… and then they went and made him interesting, and then they killed him off! It was pretty much the same with Shannon, arguably the most annoying character in the series, but then they made me think, “Hang on, perhaps she’s not that bad after all!” And then, BLAM! Cue one paranoid, pissed off Latina with a handgun, and bye-bye, Shannon!

Yesterday we watched Eko’s Last Stand. Now, Eko… Him I liked more or less from the very beginning. He was an intriguing character, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has charisma. Eko’s spiritual side was a great foil to the increasingly fanatical Locke in season 2. His backstory made for a nice change from most of the more ‘whitebread’ character bios. But yesterday we watched him being picked up by Smoky, slammed against trees and then tossed to the ground like a broken toy. And what do we get in the way of new characters? Nikki and Paulo, the Slumber Twins. Almost makes you wish that the two of them meet a sticky end very, very soon…

The last in the trio of TV series we watched yesterday was Deadwood. I’ve written about the characters before, apart from which I’m way too tired to make this entry much longer. Let me just say, though, that I love the series’ casting. And I get a certain sly, postmodern kick out of Milch’s casting of Garret Dillahunt, first as Jack McCall in season 1 (he’s the one who shot Wild Bill Hickock), and then as Francis Wolcott, geologist, sexual deviant and the person who buys Wild Bill’s very last letter. I imagine their casting calls come on a Moebius strip.

Jack McCall…

… and Francis Walcott - twin brothers separated at birth?

But is it what you would call ‘series acting’?

I like good acting. Not Oscar-winning acting, which I often think is mainly a case of “who’s best at manipulating the audience?”. That sort of acting tends to feel acutely self-aware, to the extent that I sit there, watching it, being painfully aware of the acting. (And I usually groan when someone says that this or that actor isn’t actually very good because he’s only got two facial expressions. Being able to produce a number of different grimaces doesn’t make for good acting. Watch Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others for a beautiful example of acting, based pretty much on the most subtle variations of one facial expression.) 

Ulrich Mühe

Strangely enough, TV series don’t necessarily need good acting to work. Of course, atrocious acting is as painful to watch in series as it is in movies, but limited actors can still work extremely well on television. The good thing about series in this respect is that after a season or so, deeply mediocre actors become the characters. Look at Jonathan Frakes who played Will Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Definitely not a good actor by any standards, and most people would hesitate even to call him mediocre; but by season 3, he was Will Riker. Any wobbles in the performance could be attributed to the character – “Ah, it’s Riker being full of himself! It’s Riker being nervous at meeting the Axitraxian ambassador! It’s Riker having had too much cheese before going to bed!” And somehow, by season 5 or 6 good old Jonathan felt comfortable enough in the part to stretch himself and surprise me with an actual good performance (!) in an episode called “Frames of Mind”.

Watching those HBO series I keep harping on about – The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under – I am constantly amazed at the high quality of acting. Thinking back to the series I watched, and loved, as a kid and as an adolescent, though… Most of them had fairly mediocre actors, for instance David Duchovny (although he does make for a great transvestite!). Yet somehow I never felt I was watching Duchovny being mediocre. I very quickly forgot about Duchovny and was simply watching Fox Mulder.

David “Nobody’s perfect” Duchovny

For me, Lost has that very same quality. Some of the acting in Lost is good – Terry O’Quinn comes to mind, for instance. But if you look at it critically, most of it is hackneyed character work. If the series is still remembered in ten, twenty years, it won’t be for the acting. And yet… Half an hour into the pilot, and I bought the characters. I don’t know whether that is a quality of the writing, or the directing, or simply a case of the actors being close enough to the characters not to have to act too much. Perhaps it’s also just chemistry between the cast members. I don’t know. But I know that it’s the characters I keep coming back for – even if Jack is a whiny bitch, Charlie is even more annoying than he was as a hobbit (Pippin at least had the benefit of a Scottish accent – here we’ve got Desmond for that), and Nikki and Paolo deserve a horrible death (preferably something out of E.A. Poe). (Note: We haven’t seen any episodes past “Every Man For Himself” in season 3.)

Two final comments for today: 1) Why is it that the Deadwood women keep ending up on the island? I’m waiting for Alma and Jewel to turn up… 2) Was it very noticeable this was a bit of a filler blog entry? If so, I apologise – and promise that tomorrow’s episode will be better. (In that respect, perhaps my blog is a bit like Lost: a long mid-season slump, but the “huh?!”-inducing revelations at the end of the season will keep all of you coming back. Mwhaha.)