Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Truth And Reconciliation

For some inexplicable reason I found myself watching the final episode of FlashForward on Monday evening, a full week after it was initially broadcast. I’d given up watching the show long ago having stuck with it for the first half dozen episodes before deciding there was no point carrying on. The central conceit may have been interesting but it quickly got stuck in a rut and with no characters to care a damn about it was pretty easy to give it up.

Catching the finale might have seemed a redundant exercise because although I could remember some of the central characters I didn’t have much of a clue what was going on anymore. I’d been happy to avoid it altogether but Five kept dropping the damn show into the schedules of their trio of channels and I thought it might be worth wasting of hour of my precious time in came something quite miraculous happened. Although a few minutes in I found myself absently tidying the desk and then once I discovered a crossword, untouched from last week, I didn’t pay much attention until the final act when the show managed to end with both a bang and a whimper.

On the whole I don’t think I really missed all that much. Given that the series was cancelled after the season had finished filming there wasn’t going to be any real resolution. But in the end there was nothing surprising about the last episode of FlashForward, other than the reappearance of the kangaroo. Whatever complications arose in the narrative, they just seemed so predictable, so generic. It just fitted in with all the thousands of hours of rather unremarkable television drama that I’ve seen before, and will probably see since. It might have started off with a grand plan but ultimately FlashForward did nothing to raise the bar. Whereas, the previous week, there was the finale of Lost.

Pretty much everyone I know that watched Lost when it first appeared six years back gave up during the third season. To be honest, I couldn’t blame them. Around that time there was a point where the show did start to tread water as well as make the mistake of introducing a couple of inconsequential characters that nobody gave a damn about. In a way it was bound to happen. With any successful American television drama the network wants to keep it on air for as long as possible so the show’s producers don’t always know how long they’ve got to tell the story. In a way it’s as if Dickens, writing Oliver Twist in serialized instalments for Bentley's Miscellany, was being instructed as to how long the story should run by the magazine’s publishers rather than making the decision himself.

That’s fine and dandy for showrunners happy to bank a cheque every week, but not a particularly ideal situation for the writer/producers who actually want to tell their story. Perhaps fearing that by padding out the narrative for too long audiences would significantly drop off, leading to an untimely cancellation, Lost producers Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse took the inspired step of going to the network to secure an end date. I suspect I would have carried on watching the show regardless simply because of the presence of Terry O’Quinn who is an actor I’ll watch no matter the quality of the material, but once Lindelof and Cuse had a fixed timetable it was like they had filled the tank with rocket fuel as the show seriously took off.

I’d like to think that everyone who stayed with the show throughout the whole six–year run was rewarded by the finale. Though it worked for me, there had been rumblings leading up to the final broadcast that everything wasn’t well amongst the fan base, and after it aired it has been intriguing – and somewhat puzzling – to read the many reactions to the story’s resolution. It was just over a year ago that the stunningly perfect finale of Battlestar Galactica, which also had an additional half–hour added to its running time, incurred the wrath of fans wanting to know why there were so many questions were left unanswered, particularly those involving the character of Kara Thrace, who never wanted to be forgotten.

With Lost, viewers seemed to get rankled that so many things about the island went unexplained, whether it was who built the statue, who was the Gaia figure and what was her story, or why were women on the island unable to give birth? Some sites people up with whole laundry lists or rather inconsequential queries and when they included the relevance of things like Jack Shephard’s tats, you really wanted them to follow Bill Hicks’ advice to people in advertising and just kill themselves. Because in the end, Lost, like Battlestar Galactica before it, was all about the journeys the characters take rather than the minutiae of the situation they found themselves in.

Caring about the characters more than the plot mechanics, what made the finale for me was the look of absolute joy on Hurley’s face when the motel room door opens; Eloise Hawking, who has a clear understanding of what is going on, worrying that her son would be taken away now that she has become the mother she never was; Kate saving a bullet; Hurley and Benjamin Linus, before and after; Locke’s final conversation with Linus; the encounter at the hospital vending machine that replayed the exact conversation at the Swan site from the season opener, with a few lines of dialogue removed. Giving a completely different emphasis and meaning to their words in the latter of the two, that scene alone was perhaps the best illustration of Lindelof and Cuse’s magnificently handled long con.

Last year, when the Battlestar Galactica gripes became public I wondered about the nationality of a lot of the finale’s naysayers, expecting most of them to be American because their comments showed just how bloody thick they were by missing the point of the show completely. With it happening to Lost, this time it wasn’t their country of origin I was intrigued to discover but their age. There’s a time early in everyone’s life when they’re more interested in the story rather than the characters. Everyone eventually grows out of it unless they are either dead inside or a hard–core science fiction fan. Reading some of the frankly inane criticism I wondered if it had come from emotionally–stunted youngsters who would be better served watching the big, dumb summer blockbusters at their local cinema.

On the outside Lost might have looked like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but ultimately it was a tale of faith and spirituality, of friendships forged by disparate people who have to depend on one another if they are to live together rather than die alone, and ultimately getting closure. If all viewers wanted from the show was to find out what was in the box then they would, no doubt, have come away disappointed, especially when, during the last twenty minutes, it was revealed that there wasn’t anything there. But if they were happy to interpret it for themselves rather than have a bunch of straightforward answers served up on a plate, then the finale – along with all the episodes that preceded it – was an absolute triumph.

That said there were still folk who, despite not caring about the statue builders or any of the other inconsequential mysteries, absolutely failed to grasp what the show was about by getting it in their heads that the characters had all died from the initial air crash or some such nonsense. Perhaps the most astonishingly diametrically opposed views came from the same publication where Mary McNamara, the television critic of The Los Angeles Times, got it so hopelessly wrong that the humane thing to do would be to drive her out of LA and dump her in the desert, somewhere off the I-40 between Barstow and Needles, while Todd VanDerWerff, writing for the same paper, absolutely nailed it. (And if you haven’t watched the show and are planning to, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t go anywhere near either of the links just yet).

If it has taken me a long time to get around to writing this it’s because apart from catching the finale a few more times – and every time ending up a disgusting tear–stained wreck – I wanted to shuffle back through the episodes and watch the whole of the sixth series to see that it stands up. It does. With so many distractions during the weeks between each episode’s initial broadcast, it just hammers home that the best way to see long ongoing dramas is with a DVD box set, especially when there are so many little incidental details you’re liable to forget along the way, watching them so far apart.

For the people who didn’t like it the first time around, giving it a second chance on shiny disc might make for a far richer and rewarding experience. And who knows, somewhere down the line the youngsters who don’t get it yet might eventually realize that what we’re given is actually all we really want in The End.


At 12:38 am, Blogger qrter said...

To me, that whole "it was about the characters all along" is one of the biggest scams a writing team can run. You pile on twist and turn on twist and turn, write yourself into a corner, and come to the conclusion that there's no way you can really tie up even half of the loose threads you've been dangling in front of your viewers' faces during the years. Just turn around and go "hey, it was all about the characters anyway".

I am one of those viewers who felt disappointed by the last episode of Battlestar. One aspect I always found riveting about BSG was the constant push and pull between rationality and faith and then the ending episode promptly ended that ambiguity. It felt a bit unfair, and it just was an ugly, graceless bit of writing, I feel.

Oh well. At least we'll always have Mad Men..

At 11:24 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Hey fella,

Good to hear from you after so long. Well, I thought Lost had a great premise as well, but ultimately it was about the disparate band of individuals and the decisions they had to make, for good or bad, to survive. If you go back and watch the first couple of seasons it’s really all about establishing the characters and eventually showing how their lives intersecting before it really got down to the real heart of the island mystery.

For me that worked a whole lot better than FlashForward, which threw up a potentially intriguing premise then bollixed it up by populating the piece with a load of plums I couldn’t give a shit about. Lost may have left some loose threads but I thought it answered the really important questions, and most dramas never tie everything up completely because if they did the structure and pace would all go to merry hell.

If you haven’t read it already, Stephen Gallagher has written a great post about the finale of Lost in which he writes

For me it can never end successfully with a make-sense-of-it-all revelation, any more than The Prisoner could... it’s all about dread and uncertainty and wondering about what's on the other side of the door. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, the moment you actually open the door all that wonder condenses down into whatever’s there.

Still, as you say, there’s always the phenomenal Mad Men.

At 10:29 pm, Blogger SharonM said...

My experience of Flash Forward matched yours and in truth, I only stuck with it until the break because I know the brother-in-law of one of the actors.

Like you, I tuned in to the last episode, but it lost my attention.

I watched a few episodes of Lost a couple of years back but wasn't able to stay with it - wonder it that would have been the case if I'd started viewing it from the beginning.

At 7:10 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I still think that while FlashForward got it hopelessly wrong, Lost got it absolutely right. When I’ve had the time, and there has been nowt else on, I’ve watched the finale again and again and am still bowled over by it.

The complete DVD box set will be out soon. So if you get hold of one and have a hundred–odd hours to spare, I’d heartily recommend it. I can’t say more than that because I don’t want to spoil any surprises.


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