Top 10 TV shows of the decade – # 1
Alright, before I drop the big one, let’s recap the rest of the top ten.
It’s hard for me to even articulate just why I love Lost so much, as my heart is fit to burst. I’m sure plenty of eyes rolled at the reveal of this number one, because it’s too populist, too much of an obvious choice, and because “they make it all up as they go along!” Eh, go ski down my cock. After five years and 103 episodes, Lost has given me more moments of “holy fucking shit,” or “fuck yeah,” or “I hope nobody walks in and catches my embarrassing weeping” than any show ever broadcast. The thing about Lost, other than it being absolutely awesome, is how consistently awesome it is, and how, all these years down the line, it’s still maintaining the same – or greater – level of interest. It’s incredibly rare in any show, let alone such a long running magazine-covers-and-SNL-parodies success as Lost, that the audience has any level of investment in the show remaining by the sixth season. Series have a tendency to burn out by running through their best ideas in the first year, writing themselves into corners, having to amend after the departure of cast members, or simply running out of steam.
The usual caveat for discussing lengthy series is “well, it was great, until the third season…” but Lost never had its (I hate this phrase, but I have no choice) shark-jumping moment. I’m sure the Lost-Trolls will disagree, and start smugly guffawing about the episode where Bai Ling teaches Jack how to fly a kite, and yeah, there have been a small handful of underwhelming moments, but nothing that comes close to making you consider giving up, and they always pull it right back. These are but microscopic scuffs on a diamond the size of the Death Star. Even the oft-whinged over Nikki and Paolo episode was a fun little departure, like a one-off interlude issue of a comic. Come on, “Paolo lies/Paralyse?” GOLD! And a pretty funny fan-servicing way of handling the obvious fact that their clumsy late introduction just didn’t work.
For a comparison, let’s look at Heroes. Now there’s a show where they really were making it up as they went along, although when it first debuted, it was the hottest show on TV. During the first season, the phrases “better than Lost,” “this year’s Lost” and “Lost-killer” were tossed around like bottles in a shit Nick Love hooligan film. And it was fun. Nothing groundbreaking, but entertaining fittingly pulpy stuff nonetheless, and there were characters you could get invested in, and a fast-moving, exciting plot. One of the Lost-beater arguments was that Heroes was better paced, and we were constantly getting answers, rather than ten more questions. Then they had a season finale that didn’t deliver on anything they’d been setting up. Christ, it didn’t even look anything like the future vision we’d already seen of it happening. With that went the trust that they’d ever pay anything off, and the show rapidly went downhill. Season two flitted between plot that was so relentlessly fast-paced it amounted to little more than throwing shit at a wall, and dull, meandering storylines that took up huge swathes of TV time. The latter were rendered completely pointless by the writers just binning them, an admission that they didn’t work, but a waste of everyone’s time in the process (unlike the Nikki/Paolo episode). Attempts at cliffhangers were pointless, because all the tension was gone, and once they did their first couple of short-lasting fake-out deaths, there was no sense of jeopardy. Seasons three and four continued down the path of hoping something would stick, with storylines regularly abandoned and retconned with all the care of a neglected baby that ends up with a cloying Facebook tribute group, and now the ratings are in the terlet. It might seem odd to spend so much time of a Lost article attacking another show, but I think we need these comparisons to appreciate that the accusations people often hurl at Lost aren’t true at all, and just how rare it is for a show to maintain a high quality over many seasons.
But enough of the defensive attack, and onto some of the many things I love about Lost. For one thing, it looks like a movie, a beautifully shot movie on a TV budget. It’s constantly amazing how much they get out of what must be a really tight shooting schedule and network pennies, especially now the series has expanded globally outside of the island, and other than the brief and comical “Gor blimey, Guv!” London scenes, which I mention only playfully, there’s never the sense of failing to fully visualize the epic scale of the story. The acting is roundly pitch-perfect, and for a show based around high emotion and big dramatic beats, there’s never been a bad performance. It seems mean to bring up Heroes again, but while we’re on the subject of acting; Peter Petrelli. My God, I’ve seen more believable performances from the single-toothed simpletons protesting lie detector results on Jeremy Kyle.
There are two things in particular that Lost does better than any other show. Cliffhangers and holy shit reveals. Lost is the king of that ending that makes seven days seem like a thousand lifetimes, and every season ends with me begging random street thugs to hit me over the head hard enough to induce a nine month coma. Yet – and here’s the part the Lost-trolls will disagree with – these cliffhangers always bring the pay-offs, which is why audiences stick with the show and why each “How can you end it there??” is as powerful than the one before. The issue of Lost’s mysteries is one that always dominates discussion, but there’s such an infinitesimally fine balance between keeping viewers coming back for more and having them switch off altogether, and the way they’ve kept that drip-feed pacing exactly right over half a decade is an astounding feat. Yeah, there will probably be a few dangling threads left at the end; Walt’s powers, Libby’s boat, but look how much we’ve learnt and how far we’ve come. Remember when the polar bear was a big mystery? The hatch? The Dharma Initiative? Charles Widmore? We’ve been on a journey, my friends.
As far as the reveals go, I’m sure for a lot of us, the defining moment where we decided this was a special show, our show, was the shot of Locke wheeling out from behind the desk. Although for the first UK airing, Channel 4 thought to introduce us to Locke in the promotional material as “former wheelchair user John Locke…” Great. Season three’s ending was quite simply, the greatest twist of all time, hands down. Twists are generally so overdone, especially since the Saw movies, where everybody’s now obsessed with throwing the audience off with crazy shit for the sake of it, regardless of what little sense it makes. ‘Through the Looking Glass’ destroyed the expectations we’d all had since the first episode, that regardless of which direction the series went in the meantime, it had to end with some of the cast making it off the island. That was always our end point, our goal. We’d probably never even see them in the present-time outside world. But with that one line, “We have to go back!” all bets were off, and things weren’t so black and white anymore. That’s just the greatest example in a show filled with scenes like Michael’s offing of Ana-Lucia and Libby (perhaps the most jaw-dropping 60 seconds of television ever broadcast), the appearance of the Others’ boat in the S1 finale, the map on the hatch door in ‘Lockdown,’ and countless others that made my jaw drop so many times I have to Blu-Tack it shut when I sleep.
As in my Carnivàle post, Lost is another show with an original mythos at its heart, drawing on existing mythology and expanding out into ARGs and cross promotional cameos. The flashback structure was incredibly inventive, and kept fresh by its evolution into flashforwards and fucky non-linear storytelling that served the mysterious plot in a way typical narrative never could.
For a show with one of the biggest casts ever seen, it’s a credit to how fleshed out the characters are that if you could pick a favourite, there were probably three or four waiting to take their place with a well-dropped line or moment of badassery. Locke, Mr. Eko, Desmond, Faraday, Ben, Sawyer, Miles – whenever you’re having an internal battle about who your favourite character is, you know it’s a great show. With Ben Linus, they’ve created the most complex character in recent memory. Deceitful and cunning to the last, but with a kind of twisted logic and snakily charismatic “what did you expect?” that, like battered wives – and Locke – we delight in falling for time and again. Witness the scene where Alex is killed and Ben’s mask slips for the first time, for some phenomenal acting from Michael Emerson. It’s all behind those eyes, those amazing bugged out Ben Linus eyes. Locke himself is an unbelievably tragic figure. Finding the island to be his redemption, the purpose he’d suffered through an empty, wasted life for, and the realisation that he’s a special, chosen one and not just some lonely box-factory cripple. As we know by now, none of that was true, his faith was completely misplaced, and he was always just dancing on someone else’s strings. The repercussions for Locke from last season’s finale were so heartbreaking that I wanted to pull open that crate and climb right in alongside his corpse.
There’s no one overpowering character and nobody whose death or exit the show wouldn’t survive, and while there are some weaker, less interesting characters, Kate’s numerous flashbacks aside, their presences aren’t obtrusive. One of Lost’s most astonishing achievements was redeeming Charlie from being the whiny little turd you wished would hurry up and die to someone who actually did die, in a manner which transformed him into a beloved hero that you can barely remember without sobbing. Lost does do those emotional moments so well. Christ knows I’m a loveless, coal-hearted bastard, but when Rose pocketed that chocolate bar for Bernard, and when Penny picked up that phone, my eyes released a severe flood warning to my face.
It seems crazy to think back to how contained the show was in the first season and how it’s gradually opened out, year by year to the point that the characters are at now, and with last season’s finale expanding the show out to a cosmic level, with the island acting as a playground for the old gods. The final season will cement, or not, Lost’s status in the highest echelon of entertainment history, depending on how everything pays off. Personally, I have every faith that it’ll live up to the towering expectations of quality they’ve set for themselves so far. Especially if they bring back Shannon.