The second season of everyone’s favorite Gilligan’s Island-meets-The Matrix drama left off with several unexplained questions and one doozy of a cliffhanger. And though Season 3 addresses a precious few of the lingering issues, by the end we are left with even more unexplained riddles and lingering problems. So much so that the show begins to walk a fine line between engaging drama and self-parody, as the near-ridiculous heights to which the drama gets ratcheted are sometimes too outlandish to be taken seriously. But through it all is a solid yarn of character-based dramatic storytelling that keeps things from spinning entirely out of control, and keeps the interest level high enough to hold the interest of even the most impatient of viewers.
Whereas the first season was mostly exposition, introducing us to the characters, their backstories, and the island, the second season went a great deal farther into what was actually happening on the island. We were introduced to the Dharma Initiative, the Hatch, the Others, and the mystery behind characters like the french woman was swept away. But Season 3 takes things in a different direction, as the group of survivors is now fragmented physically as well as interpersonally. Sawyer, Jack, and Kate are imprisoned by the Others, and the rest of the Oceanic 815 survivors get by as best they can without their leader while also trying to rescue their friends. Much of the first several episodes deal with the Others, who become much more humanized and less like faceless evildoers. In fact, if there is a theme to Season 3 it would be the pulling back of the curtain, as some of the mysteries about the Others are found to have perfectly normal and rational explanations. Even the mysterious smoke monster becomes more understandable, and we learn of its limitations as well.
One reason the series has always worked well is that the dramatic tension is a natural extension of the characters and their situations. In Season 1, we wanted to know who these people were and how they were going to survive. Season 2 furthers this idea by introducing new conflicts and revealing more about larger issues like the Dharma Initiative. But Season 3, partly due to the compressed time frame (the events of the entire season only span a few weeks’ time on the island), tends to fall back on some relatively cheap 24-like tactics to hold viewer interest. Watching Jack engage in yet another shouting match with Ben, or having an endless stream of people being held at gunpoint unless so-and-so does such-and-such, or ending episodes with cheap cliffhangers tends to deviate from the spirit of the show. It’s not bad, just unnecessary, and possibly a response to somewhat downward trends in ratings too. (The first episode of Season 3 had almost 19 million viewers. By the end it was down to just under 14 million.) What is a travesty, though, is the killing off of some characters, both long- and short-term, that started near the end of Season 2 and continues here as well. Killing off a beloved individual just to up the ratings or stymie a case of writer’s block is cheap, and it’s sad to see Lost treading down this path.
One of the biggest issues I have with the show is how characters just never give a straight answer to anything. It seems as though many of the conflicts, problems, and deaths could be easily avoided if Ben and his friends sat down with Jack and the survivors and calmly explained what in the world was going on. Even the most simplest of questions are met with enigmatic answers followed by a quick fade to the title card or a commercial break. I still trust that the writers know what they are doing, but there are a couple times when it seems like the reason Jack or Sawyer can’t get a straight answer out of Ben or Juliet is because the show creators don’t even know what’s going on.
However, when the show gets it right, it really gets it right. Ben emerges as one of the more complex and characters in recent television, and the exploration of what is really going on with the island becomes thoroughly compelling. Character flashbacks continue to add new levels of depth to Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley, and the rest of the core gang, and Desmond’s penchant for predictions is pretty potent as well. There is even one character who kicks the bucket right at the bitter end, but in a meaningful and perhaps even inspirational fashion. The budget is clearly bigger than ever before too, which means we are treated to grandiose sets, large explosions, and a lot more sheer grandeur than before. The downside to all this? Some characters are left behind, and by the end of the season if we didn’t have the occasional group shot to remind us of the 40-odd people on the island, one would think the survivors were limited solely to a mere handful of misplaced good-looking mid-20’s SoHo dwellers.
Lost is still one of the best shows on TV, and its rich blend of science fiction, drama, and mystery remain almost as compelling as ever. But a few cracks are beginning to show around the seams by the end of Season 3, and I just hope things improve a little for the next go-round.