Friday, July 05, 2013

Week 7 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Another week, another favourite episode. I feel like every week I think "Wow, I'm so happy I get to write about this episode because I think it's one of my favourites on the list," and then I remember what I'm doing and what the point of it is. Duh doy.

But seriously, this is one of my very favourites on the list. I'm fairly confident this is a top five contender, even though this list is in no particular order because narrowing down to 25 was hard enough. This turned out to be more of a piece on why this show works in contrast to lesser copycats, but I do touch on why this episode is great and all in all, I'm very happy with it. Also, new picture!

After the break: I managed to hold off a surprisingly long time before devolving this entry into unrelenting rage minor annoyance towards "The Event".

Lost, "Pilot, Part 1"
First aired on ABC Wednesday, September 22, 2004

“So I made a choice. I’d let the fear in, let it take over; let it do its thing. But only for five seconds, that’s all I was gonna give it. So I started to count – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Then it was gone.” – Jack Shephard

It will always amuse me that “Lost,” one of the greatest scripted dramas in TV history, owes its entire existence to reality television. And not just in the obvious “Survivor” sense.

When was reality television born? Your mileage may vary, what with “The Real World” and other MTV things like that – but for me, the night it put its suitcase down was Monday, August 16, 1999, with the premiere of an ABC game show called “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”

You might be able to guess from that “dog days of summer” premiere night that nothing much was expected from Regis Philbin and his Bat Cave of riches. Scheduled for an innocuous two week run, “Millionaire” became far more popular than anyone expected and returned for another two week run during the November sweeps period. When it became a regular series airing three nights a week in January 2000, the show was drawing upwards of 30 million viewers per episode. In other words, a primetime, big money game show had not only existed for the first time in decades, but it was the most popular show in America.

For the next year and a half, ABC pretty much coasted on “Millionaire”. Any sins elsewhere on the Alphabet Network were swept under the rug by the dominance of the Reege, much as Fox was long able to do with “American Idol”. In the 2000-2001 season, with “Is that your final answer?” firmly established as a household catchphrase and “Millionaire” airing four nights a week, the show dipped slightly as viewers began to feel burnt out. But it was still one of the biggest shows on TV. Along with “Survivor: The Australian Outback,” it carried the flag of popular culture from the turn of the millennium and into the summer of 2001.

And then, on a sunny Tuesday morning, the world changed.

In May of 2001, viewers cheered as Tina Wesson was crowned the second “Sole Survivor”. In September 2001, viewers hated that anyone would dare trivialize pain, suffering, and what it truly meant to be a survivor. With air travel slowed to a halt, flying regular contestants to the New York set of “Millionaire” became almost impossible. The network began airing celebrity specials, and in turn only ended up accelerating the show’s downward spiral. Frivolity just wasn’t cool after 9/11, and that meant reality television no longer had a place in mainstream culture. The last contestant took “Millionaire’s” hot seat on June 27, 2002, and thankfully the show’s quiet, semi-dignified death forever put an end to idiotic reality shows once and for all.

“Well then,” said ABC, now faced with the daunting task of immediately replacing 18% of its primetime schedule. “We are fucked.”

Or are they? Lloyd Braun, the head of ABC, happened to catch his network’s airing of the movie “Cast Away” while he was vacationing in Hawaii in 2003. He got the idea of doing “Cast Away: The TV Show,” expanding the cast beyond Tom Hanks and a volleyball into a large-scale series about a dozen or so survivors of a plane crash. Developed at break-neck speed in the 2004 pilot season and reportedly costing upwards of $13 million, “Lost” remains one of television’s biggest, if not the biggest, Hail Mary attempts ever. So big, so expensive, and so risky was the project that giving it the green light eventually cost Lloyd Braun his job.

That was before “Lost” premiered in the fall of 2004 to an audience of 18 million people. That was before “Lost” was one of a half dozen shows that season (“Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Boston Legal,” and what the hell, let’s count the summer 2005 premiere of “Dancing with the Stars”) developed in part by Lloyd Braun that completely righted the ratings ship for ABC. But no one could have known that during the development cycle. The fourth place network seemingly had no business taking such a large gamble. Although qualitatively speaking, the last decade at NBC has shown us that wild experimentation is not only the way the game has to be played when you’re losing, but it just might sew up a win. Facing danger and overcoming fear isn’t easy, but there’s a tremendous payoff for those who can pull it off.

What I’d never noticed before I rewatched this episode today, and part of what makes it so great, is that the pilot of “Lost” is about the people who made it.

Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, nonstop from Sydney to Los Angeles, crashes on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. A group of strangers, suddenly alone in the world, are forced to work together, take chances, make mistakes, and get messy in order to find their way back home. Somehow that sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?

And what is fear to these 48 strangers in a strange land? Fear is the realization that the scariest thing they have ever faced in their life has now been topped. With the seemingly innocent Kate sewing up a wound that our hero received trying to save his fellow survivors, Dr. Jack Shephard tells her about what is now the second scariest thing he has ever faced in his life: the first time he ever performed surgery, in which he accidentally tore open a sac of spinal tissue and fluid in a 16-year-old girl. He explains his own personal five-second rule, quoted above, cathartically processing his sense of dread before allowing himself to correct his mistake and move on.

Kate responds that had she been in Jack’s place, she would have run for the door. And if you’ve seen all 121 episodes of this show, you know that indeed that is exactly what she would have done. When Kate Austen is faced with a problem, she runs away from it. But as Jack tells her while she methodically sews up a painful cut with a small travel sewing kit, “you’re not running now”.

Lines like that are a lot of fun knowing the entire six-season stories of these people. But even not knowing, I’m not sure any other show I’ve ever seen established its characters from the outset better than “Lost”. The “pilot” is technically the first two episodes, as ABC opted to split them up and air them on separate weeks, but even in just the first 42 minutes, we get a very clear idea of who most of the 15 or so main characters we will follow week in and week out are.

The three stars of this episode are Jack, Kate, and Charlie: Jack is the hero, running around the plane wreckage on the beach trying to get everyone to safety. Kate is the heroine: a reluctant, fearful, but completely capable backup. And Charlie, while very funny and loveable, is relegated to the position of sidekick on their quest to find the plane’s transceiver. Sure, we don’t yet know Kate’s criminal past. Sure, we don’t yet know about Charlie’s drug use and the war he’s waging against his personal demons. Sure, we don’t yet know the history of Jack’s tattoos (sorry, had to do that). Rightly so, as those character expansions have no place in this first episode. But we have learned who these people are and will always be. That is what we need to know right now, and I am always astounded at how apparently easy it is for shows to either not know how to do that, or not understand that there is nothing more important about the beginning of any story no matter the medium.

Within their stories, even the most fleeting glimpses of other regular characters manage to accomplish this just as well. Our first glimpse at Hurley shows us that he’s a perfectly nice guy, but not super capable of maturely handling their new environment (I love the scene where Hurley asks Sayid and Michael what they plan to do about the “B-O-D-Y-S” in the fuselage and 10-year-old Walt, who he was trying to protect, corrects his spelling). Jin and Sun’s first conversation translated into English for us is Jin telling his wife that she mustn’t leave his sight and must always follow him wherever he goes – in less than 15 seconds, we know what this relationship and Sun’s life are like. And you have no idea how much joy I got when I remembered that, of course, it wouldn’t be “Lost” if the very first thing Michael Dawson ever did on the show was walk around the beach in the opening plane crash scene screaming, “WAAAAAALLLTTT!”

     Here's a guy from "Under the Dome" who calls himself
     Barbie. Who is he? I have no idea.
This is precisely why every lesser imitator of “Lost” failed. “Lost” was not a mystery. “Lost” was a multi-character study. When mysterious things eventually started to happen to those characters (and it took a solid season for that to really start), we cared because we knew and liked them enough to care. When vague “things” happen to Jason Ritter on “The Event” or Joseph Fiennes on “FlashForward” or Dean Norris on “Under the Dome,” the mystery show in question flails about trying to get us to care but can never succeed because they didn’t take anywhere near enough time to tell us why we should. There’s no fixing that. Forgive the pun, but they’ve already lost.

Here’s one of my favourite quotes about “Lost” ever, from a 2007 interview with showrunner Damon Lindelof. It perfectly explains what the show is about and why it works:

“This show is about people who are metaphorically lost in their lives, who get on an airplane, and crash on an island, and become physically lost on the planet Earth. And once they are able to metaphorically find themselves in their lives again, they will be able to physically find themselves in the world again. When you look at the entire show, that’s what it will look like. That’s what it’s always been about.”

What made this show the one and only? What made it not one of its copycats? "Lost" made the choice to be about something and have a point. It said "1, 2, 3, 4, 5" and powered through the fear where lesser shows just kept counting.

Next week: Stand clear of the sliding doors