Okay– two season finales, one week. Time for a big round-up of American TV related stuff. Fear the spoilers…
HEROES: S1 Ep 23- ‘How To Stop An Exploding Man’ VS LOST: S3 Ep 22-23 ‘Through the Looking Glass’
A realisation hit me just a few minutes after watching the finale for Season 1 of Heroes. Ever since last September, the speed at which Heroes has attained success has been fairly surprising, almost as much as the way it’s frequently delivered the goods, either with some of the wackiest cliffhangers known to man, or some genuinely outstanding episodes like ‘Company Man’. Essentially, it’s been embraced as the new Lost, and celebrated for actually answering its mysteries rather than simply spinning new questions on top of old, at the same time as Lost itself has– in terms of audiences– had its rockiest season yet. It’d be very easy to fall into this, but I think declaring that Lost is the prototype and Heroes is the final product misses out on one important fact.
Heroes isn’t the new Lost. It’s the new Babylon 5.
It’s an epic show that’s spinning a big-scale, long-running story. There’s a cast that mixes some fantastic performers with some worryingly oaken support. There’s a writing team who have some fantastic ideas, but can’t simply stand back and let the ideas speak for themselves, instead underlining them in ponderous speeches (or, even worse, in the dreaded forum of Mohinder’s Meaningful Monologues(TM)). There are certain episodes which are overwhelmed with cool moments and concepts, while others simply amount to wheel spinning while all the story-pieces are moved into place. And, most damning of all, like Babylon 5, Heroes is much better at the build-up than the delivery.
In an ideal world, I shouldn’t be feeling this way. After the gleeful insanity that was Episode 20’s ‘Days of Future Past’-style flash forward, Heroes was leaving me giddy as a schoolboy and looking forward to the final showdown in New York. What I should have been remembering, however, was that for all the fantastic, doomy build-up to episode 9 ‘Homecoming’ and the first major confrontation with Sylar, the end result was a rather messily choreographed action sequence that fell a little flat. It’s a standard that Heroes has fallen into a few too many times now, and instead of powering onto a major showdown, manuevering all the characters to New York seemed to suck all the energy out of the show. The Robert Altman-style ensemble-movie rhythmn of the season’s first half was easier to maintain when the scale was larger and the locations were changing every few minutes– shrinking the focus of the show down simply brought out the cliches, and highlighted some of the serious weaknesses in the show’s writing. At its best, the show is capable of quality stuff, and it’s hard to think of anywhere else where they might have gotten away with such a pointed criticism of America’s reaction to 9-11 and how it was manipulated for political gain, but too often, the show’s reach is much larger than its grasp. With a writing crew heavily populated by comics writers, it’s no surprise that Heroes does often come across as a televisual version of one of the traditional DC Universe titles such as Superman, complete with OTT dialogue and over-milked melodrama, but while they are capable of coming up with the goods, they don’t have a strong enough ensemble or a consistent enough series of directors to be able to disguise the flaws in the writing.
Biggest problem of the lot is show creator Tim Kring himself- who seems to being anointed by various members of the popular SF press as TV’s latest genius mastermind, when he’s actually one of the weakest writers on the show’s staff. Episode 23 was- if memory serves me correctly- the first episode since the pilot to be solely credited to Kring, and ended up with many of the flaws that resulted in the pilot leaving me a little cold- flaccid dramatic pacing, creaky dialogue, and a tendency to go for the cheapest audience manipulation possible (When in doubt, show a cute kid crying!). Plus, we ended up with a massive number of logic-defying plot-holes and inconsistencies that can’t even be soaked up by the show’s status as a ‘comic-book’ story– from the bizarrely under-populated New York, where the only people in existence seemed to be the main characters, to Matt Parkman’s insane decision to take on Sylar with a gun, to Peter not trying to fly himself away, or not asking Hiro to teleport him away to- say- the middle of the desert, rather than killing him, to Claire’s contribution to ‘saving the world’ so far being holding a gun and wibbling (Especially considering that she was aiming it at the wrong place, thanks to the show establishing in Ep 21 that only a hit in the back in the head would take either of them out). And let’s not even touch how Nathan flew instantly into sight and was able to follow on a conversation there was no way in hell he could have heard, or Hiro’s high-speed crash-course in swordfighting…
Heroes’ mostly realism-based approach to superheroes has worked best when they’ve played by their own rules, and backed up the crazier bits of storytelling with life-like reactions and responses, but it seems they’re only prepared to go so far. They’ve never gotten to grips with presenting Parkman’s mind-reading abilities in a way that doesn’t sound like bored actors standing in a voice-over cubicle reading stilted dialogue, and a lot of their most effective moments have been acheived by shifting the action off-screen– particularly when dealing with the carnage caused by Nikki/Jessica. Certainly, Heroes is desperately in need of a decent action director– shows like Alias and 24 prove that it’s possible to do movie-quality action scenes on a TV budget, and while there was never likely to be a CGI-heavy Matrix-style meltdown, the actual physical fights and confrontations in Heroes have often been downright sloppy, poorly staged and unexciting. The series is great at unleashing shocks and small, imaginative touches- but gets weak at the moments it needs to be strong.
What’s most frustrating about the series climax is that it’s left me focussing on the show’s deficiencies, when there has been so much fun in the last 23 episodes. After a shaky start, the Eps 1-11 run turned into compulsive television, peaking with the flashback episode and the ‘picking up the pieces’ episode that left me thirsting for more. Of course, it couldn’t quite sustain this, coming back from the Christma hiatus with a run of weaker, less engaging episodes, and the suspicion that maybe the first run had been a fluke. Then, they got the rhythmn back, and ‘Company Man’ is still one of the most impressive single episodes of the year– but since then, the show has struggled, and the limitations of serialised storytelling are getting the better of it. After building up ‘the Bomb’ for the entire season, we simply needed something a hell of a lot more exciting and gripping than we got.
There were, of course, still some moments of unremitting coolness. Molly Walker’s hint of ‘Someone Worse’ is obviously a hint at the approaching Big Bad of Season 2, and it was oddly affecting to see Jessica finally working together with Nikki. Claire’s decision to escape by hurling herself out of the window was fabulous (although how exactly she was prevented from escaping before by Nathan and Nathan’s mum was unexplained), and- above everything else- there’s Masi Oka as Hiro, still proving to be the beating heart of the show. The child-like grin he let out when told by Ando how bad-ass he looks was fabulous, and Oka has even made the frustrating wheel-spinning his character was made to go through in the season’s second half watchable.
So, most of the strands of the first season were payed off– even though the sight of Sylar’s blood-trail leading to a sewer did lead me to more of a groan than a laugh (I’m hoping against hope that his corpse been dragged off by someone else– because if he’s still alive, won’t he still have his powers, and thus be still able to blow up New York?). We even got a bit of eminently predictable noble self-sacrifice from Nathan, although the refusal to do any close-up shots of the brothers before detonation hopefully means that Nathan’s due to turn up burned and amnesiac but alive sometime in the future (Otherwise, they’ve just blown up one of the best actors on the show, and somehow the oaken Milo Ventigmilia has survived…). The decision to start Volume Two in the last couple of minutes of the episode was audacious, although anyone with a brain will have predicted a journey into Japanese history for Hiro at least ten episodes ago, but the overwhelming feeling I got from the Heroes finale was, after the sugar-rush of the few exciting moments of the episode had worn off, a vague feeling of disappointment.
American TV has been veering away from long-form serialised storytelling for a while (with Drive being the latest victim), and there does seem to be the general opinion that Heroes is ‘getting it right’- that, for the most part, it’s not asking any questions that it isn’t prepared to answer, and it’s giving the right amount of pay-off. This is all true, but thanks to the flaws of the writing, and the weaknesses in the cast (Especially Tawney Cypress, who showed in her brief cameo in Episode 23 why it’s such a relief her character was killed off), the pleasures of Heroes are very often only surface deep. It’s the joy of a jaw-dropping cliffhanger, a ridiculous yet enjoyable plot-twist, two plot-strands unexpectedly meeting… but without the meat to back it up, it’s a shiny, surface pleasure. A fun milk-shake of a show, but one that isn’t up to paying off everything it’s built up. I’m curious to see what happens in Season 2, and whether they’re able to sustain forward motion without repeating themselves- certain comments from Kring about maintaining the ‘Origin’ nature of the show have me slightly concerned- but I’d be hard-pressed to say that I can’t wait. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of fun in store, but ‘How To Stop An Exploding Man’ didn’t deliver the goods, and any future pleasure from Heroes is going to be tempered by its flaws, and the knowledge that it could all go wrong at any moment.
And then… there was the Lost finale.
As turnarounds go, the upswing of quality that has happenned in the last sixteen episodes of Lost is nothing short of mindblowing. The initial ‘pod’ of six episodes were packed full of flaws, and even the initial instalments of the 2007 run were hardly inspiring me with confidence. While ‘Not In Portland’ set up Juliet’s character interestingly, ‘Flashes’ was a flawed, undramatic idea, while ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ seemed to prove that all we were in for was more spooky talk from the Others and very little action, along with some of the least interesting flashbacks the series has ever shown. Departing from Hydra island was a definite relief, but the problems that Lost had been experiencing throughout Season 2 seemed to be so heavily ingrained that they were never going to depart.
Then, we had episode 10- ‘Tricia Tanaka is Dead’, and a funny thing happenned. The writers started to remember that Lost is allowed to be funny. The tale of Hurley trying to fix up a battered old Dharma VW camper van was hardly revolutionary, bore a strong resemblence to ‘S.O.S’ from Season 2, except with a happier outcome for the hope-generating escapade, and even featured flashbacks which weren’t particularly relevant, but for the first time, Lost felt like it was pulling out of the doldrums and allowing itself to entertain. The balance of the first season, where the darker storylines would often be reflected against lighter material, wasn’t completely gone, but with Kate ending the episode by predictably setting out to rescue Jack, I was expecting, as with Season 2, that the long-awaited ‘Quest for Jack’ would probably stretch across a fairly large number of episodes, probably climaxing around episode 17 or 18 in time for Sweeps.
What I wasn’t expecting was for Kate, Locke and Sayid to find their destination two episodes later. What I also wasn’t expecting was for the show to bounce back with a run of surprisingly sturdy episodes, which also started giving us something we’d been waiting for for so long– genuine answers, and genuine progress.
Season 2 had seen some dangerous habits devlop in the show’s storytelling, and it’s my belief that many of these developed simply because of the conflict between Lost’s essential nature as a serialised drama which simply HAS to have a defined end point, and American TV’s habit of spinning out a succesful show for as long as is humanly possible. One of the defining features of Lost’s first season– especially the first 11 episodes- was the fact that seismic shifts in the series were allowed to happen. Almost every week, we were being given major revelations which changed our perspective either on the characters, or the nature of the predicament they found themselves in. The problem was, how do you take a format like that, and spin it out for as long as possible? You make Season 2, which took the interesting but over-enigmatic mystery of the Hatch and the Button, and stretch out the resolution for the entire 23 episodes– from the moment we got to the end of episode 3 of Season 2, it was obvious that at some point we’d find out what would happen if the button wasn’t pressed, and the show proceeded to string out the mystery, and didn’t have anything to fill the gaps. The Fake Henry Gale plotline was another strand which really had only one logical conclusion, and yet took an astounding amount of time to get there, while in between, we had lots of characterisation, lots of moody tension in the Hatch, but the show was spinning wheels, and only occasionally– such as in the Claire flashback episode, where we discover what happenned to her during her abduction by Ethan– delivering the kind of major plot information the show was so desperately in need of. Some of the mistakes in Season 2 were unavoidable– such as the growing realisation that Matthew Fox and Michelle Rodriguez didn’t really have any chemistry– but others, like killing off Shannon the moment her character was starting to progress, were major miscalculations.
One of the biggest problems, however, was the growing preponderance of ‘Easter Eggs’- hidden reveals, clues or connections buried in the episodes, some of which are noticable on first watch, and some of which required a DVD recorder and a damn good HD TV to make out. These started out as fun little extras, but by the second half of the season, there was the feeling that the writers were playing to the fans and mistaking these little devices for genuine progress. Half the time, many of these reveals had no impact on the actual story, or weren’t discovered by the characters– it became less about watching the characters try and figure out the mystery of the island, and more about waiting for someone to actually ask a sensible question, or share their knowledge. The biggest of these was the Ultra-Violet Map hidden in the Hatch, and revealled in ‘Lockdown’- an amazing piece of work that’s packed with clues and fascinating fragments of information about the Dharma Initiative’s operations on the Island, and yet it was never onscreen for longer than about twenty seconds. Despite all the detail, the only thing that really became relevant was the question mark at the centre of the map– otherwise, the rest was utterly irrelevant, and the matter was settled when the Hatch was detonated at the end of the season. No more map, no more clues.
As a result, I went into Season 3 expecting the same slow progress, the same wheel-spinning– and yet, from episode 11 onwards, it was a very different story. We got seismic changes from episode to episode. A new Dharma station was introduced- and blown to smithereens within forty minutes. We found the Others’ sonic fence, saw the Smoke Monster, finally visited ‘Othersville’, discovered that Locke’s dad was (a) responsible for his paralysis and (b) on the island, and much, much more. Even Ben, who had seemingly been recast as the resident all-powerful, manipulative bad guy, started to become more interesting, and gain hidden depths.
It wasn’t just limited to the ‘major arc’ episodes. One of the most surprisingly affecting was ‘D.O.C.’, where the previously downright uninteresting plotline of Sun’s pregancy and whether or not Jin was the father suddenly connected up with the Others’ pregnancy issues in a very major way. The kind of novellistic, perspective changing narrative that they hadn’t managed for a while, the end results were surprisingly powerful, showing that even the less connected episodes could still live up to the promise of the first season.
Not to say that it was all perfect. Episode 14- ‘Expose’- was an attempt at a cute metafictional comment on TV guest stars and the ‘background cast’ of Lost, but, more prominently, it was the writers realising that their hope for a long-running meta-plotline featuring Paolo and Nikki would only end up distracting from the main story, and that the introduction of the characters in Eps 1-6 had only resulted in vocal online fans hating them. It’s good that they realised they could no longer afford to play around, it’s just a shame they didn’t figure out a better way of solving the problem– and it also showed that listening to online fandom isn’t always the wisest thing to do. Ep 14 managed some fun moments- and following the ‘pretend’ deaths of Paolo and Nikki with their real ones- at the hands of the regular characters no less- was fun, if a little archly manipulative and EC Comics-style for my taste, but Paolo and Nikki were cookie-cutter confidence tricksters with no depth or interest, leaving the episode a fun but empty storytelling experiment.
There were other miscalculations– particularly, the fact that Lost is still abysmal at handling accents. Anything involving either Desmond or Charlie tended to result in eye-wateringly bad efforts at English or Scottish, which wouldn’t be quite as noticable if they weren’t usually playing opposite the genuine article. But, despite this, Lost powered into its closing episodes with a number of new revelations- including the deeply spooky meeting with the Others’ mythical boss Jacob- and also surprised the hell out of me by essentially starting the season finale a week early in episode 21- ‘Greatest Hits’, which also saw the beginning of the end for the rehabilitation of Charlie– a character who spent the majority of Season 2 being either annoying or uninteresting, and yet they actually succeeded in making me care about him as he swam, seemingly to his death, into the Looking Glass station- only to find that it wasn’t as flooded as we thought, and that two cute gun-totin’ girls were standing ready to do him in.
Thus, we came to the season finale. Season 2’s finale was one of the high points, and somewhat redeemed the second half of Season 2 for me, and yet did end up feeling a little lacking in story. There was plenty of suspense, but not much actually happenned– yet the reverse was true for Season 3. I was hoping for ‘Through the Looking Glass’ to knock me silly, and much to my surprise, it did exactly that, and provided the most consistently gripping, surprising and downright thrilling material since the opening episodes of Season 2. Some elements were predictable, yet others were total surprises, and whatever the ups and downs of the episode, the one thing it managed was being absolutely packed to the brim with activity, and also throwing in a selection of seismic events that look likely to throw the show in a very different direction. It didn’t even disappoint in the showdown with the Others, as Lost reached an onscreen bodycount that was larger than the show had probably managed before in its entire run– from the first wave attack on the camp being wiped out, to Eye-Patch Man going postal on the girls at the Looking Glass, to Charlie’s final self-sacrifice, it was a fabulously violent episode, but one which also managed to bring so many plotlines to a peak. Most of all, it actually managed to show that- despite his incredibly twisted methods- Ben is working for the good of the Island, and the scenes between Michael Emerson and Matthew Fox were fantastically gripping.
What really made the difference, and fipped the episode on its head, however, was the last five minutes. The realisation that the flashes of Jack, drunk and strung-out on drugs, his life falling apart, weren’t a flashback, but a flash-forward to his life after he’s rescued from the Island was the kind of twist that left me staring at the screen shouting “What?!?” (even if I should have predicted it from the non-2004 era funky Raezer phone he was using). Of course, this being Lost, we don’t know exactly how it fits in– we don’t know who the mysterious dead person in the coffin is, we don’t know how the rescue happens, we don’t know if Jack’s confused talking about his father is convenient drunken rambling or proof that something damn strange is going on, but it’s certainly pitched Jack’s character in an even darker and more tragic direction than the season opener, where his jealousy over his ex-wife drove him to hound his father back into drinking. The idea that Jack is destined to lead by his desire to fix things, and yet destined to do the wrong thing, and doom the island (and possibly some of the castaways) by making the call to the mysterious freighter, and will eventually end up a drunken, shattered, suicidal shell, convinced that he has to go back to the place he was desperate to leave… it’s given the show a deeper, weirder, more mythic edge than I would ever have expected. Of course, the question is how the hell this will all factor into the future of the show– whether what we’ve seen is a possible ‘imaginary’ future, or the definite destiny of Dr Jack Shepherd– remains to be seen.
What is for certain is that, despite some ups and downs, Lost has pulled itself back from the brink, and has returned to being the jaw-dropping, gripping show it was in the first season. With the news confirmed that Lost will run for three more seasons of 16 episodes- bringing the total to 48- we’ve even got a firm end date for the show, which can only do the story that they’re trying to tell the world of good. There may be ups and downs. Lost may never get quite as much fun as this again– but for the moment, next January/February, and the beginning of Season 4, feels like a very, very long way away.
Time to start counting the days…