Sunday, 12 June 2011

Lost & Caprica

I've finished watching the final seasons to Lost and Caprica, finding that both could be fascinating and exasperating, and that they were effective in very different ways. The reason that I combine the shows in one post is that I saw their conclusion within a  few days of each other and their respective success/failures interest me in response to one another. Do you want well-done character beats that mean little  as it is a genre exercise ultimately or crazy idea-led stories with real-life ties.

In my experience its usually one or the other. The set-up of a complex series of characters tends to make development tricky, with a lack of idealisation in characters redemptions, actions multi-layered and difficult to take a side on, leading to what is in most cases is inertia. Pulp tends to pop along with bells and whistles, is fun. On Lost was that no matter how complex they tried to make the story it was ultimately safe and very unthreatening in ideas, being the hero's journey, which is a cop-out for ideas as its based on a sentimental lie that people rise to the occasion no matter what, rather than conmpromises and inertia leading to actiosn that can take on a positive or negative state. In Lost no-one was ever going to be confonted with anything too complicated. The characters could go dark but there was ultimately a mysterious reason, that could serve as a cop-out to some degree. It never quite got as ambitious in character or situation, or as feral as I would like.

Caprica, like Battlestar Galactica, had a more complicated take to life, to fate, even to the great narrative cheat, divine intervention, where the divine is an ultimately psychotically destructive and disgusting, used when a society has broken down with no chance of escape, the intervention lead on from the insanity of the characters that lead to destruction. It was ambitious but with Caprica the drama was less than involving. A show like Deadwood or Caprica's sister show Battlestar Galactica can have stories of complex ideas and emotions, as well as defined characters that can be linked to genre, can be out of control, so the prinicpal drive is the chaos but the genre brakes are there but can be used carefully, as safe elements for the audience to hook onto, such as characters like Adama.  The Sopranos and Mad Men have these safer elements. There is traditional elements in any long-running drama that are always fake, sentimental, that create a sense of life that is not entirely true, that make the more difficult elements easier to take, even if they can be subtly subverted, to tie into audience projections on a character. But characters are the glue to be worked from in television, and tend to be the thing that sinks a show, as the characters get to be too idealised and sentimental. Caprica never really mastered character involvement week to week.

Lost lasted for six seasons, had advantage in being a complete series arc, as well as having stronger dramatic characters, while Caprica was complex, grown up, had superior ideas, and was linked to the story of Battlestar Galactica, a show that Lost never truly could compete with in quality. If I were to be honest, Lost was the more enjoyable show, but it could also be by far a worse show than Caprica ever managed.

Lost started strong, sagged in the middle of season 2 to the later parts of season 3, recovered and was at its peak until the end of season 5 then had an interesting but very confused final season. It was a fantastical suspense show that wasn't always very good at suspense, as it relied heavily on idiot plot, where character have to be idiots for the plot to work. Its strength was in its fantasical set-up and some of its characters, its weakness was in it could be deeply unimaginative on plot solution, on variation of story beats, and had bad instincts on its central characters, making them dull in ways that sentimental deands on characters can be on TV shows.

I'll start with the negatives because I'd like to end on the positives. The central character Jack was meant to be a hero but was a self-righteous moron, a surgeon with a severe impulse control problem. The writers at least recognised this about the character and did increasingly interesting things with it, expanding it around its weird contradictions. The female lead Kate was dumb, a self-destructive loser, was the world's worst fugitive, who was set up to be a kind person with a mysterious past, the ultimate TV cliche. Alas in plot she was always making things worse for herself with entirely useless actions, her reasons being a fugutive was selfish and unforgivable (and very stupid). the character was a disaster of smugness and bad writing and plot movements, working always on the wrong side of playing audience needs to play on underdogs. She only became reasonable halfway through season 5, when she became a little more selfless and self-aware of her own basic stupidity, like the Jack character. The actors playing these parts did a good job but they were acting the dregs when it came to characterisation, with pitiful attempts to play on genre expectations that always seemed to lack any real human tocuhes. The creators seemed to have a blind spot when it came to realising how much these characters were failing.

The mysteries could also be annoying in that I ultimately it had the internal logic of an episode of The Magic Roundabout, and was under-cooked. The writers set things up and generally didn't know how to resolve them dramatically, so moved on to the next idea and explained it away as being mysterious. That's acceptable a few times on a show but occured about five times a season at best. There were many episode of Lost that felt like a how not-to write a TV show in regards to its mythology. The suspense beats could feel the same way. Again its flaws went back to basic takes on genre expectations done badly.

On the other hand, much of the pleasure came from the wonderful situation, of the mysterious island, the Jules verne meets The Shining set-up, with eighties tech, creepy monsters, a thirst for killing off characters once they had served their purpose. It was an infallable set-up that the writers kept finding fun ways to add to, from the crash survivors investigating the island, the ghosts on the island, the hatch, the others, with flashbacks, flashforwards, time travel where the characters set-up some of their future, and even the sideway alternative universe. All of these were intriguing situations that had great moments of pulp character and suspense. As stories expanding from a genre base, the show made strong ties between the character's past, from before they ever met, which gave a feeling of further complexity. The show kept being inventive and atmospheric, having mysteries that worked for weeks or years as suspense tools, which is one of the main needs of a long-running show. The shame came in the reveals, such as in season three, where the others weren't as interesting as the two season set-up had promised. This type of weak ending to mystery is always a dissapointment and was a genuine repeating flaw of the show, suggesting a fatal lack of imagination in details beyond a genre-influenced point. But the show continually built well from its pulp origins, and did a lot around its flaws.

The supporting characters really made the show work. There were many but these characters had very well developed growth, had stages, where the characters were always spiky and intriguing. Lost had some terrific points of interest week to week away from the leads, in Sawyer, Locke, Desmond, Ben Linus, and Hurley, all of whom had continually added complications, who created the sense of depth in the world, all of whom would have worked better as the leads and who were spared the hack-work by not having to be the sentimental projections to the intended audience.

Sawyer started out as a con man, had a very good reading on people, could be guarranteed in early seasons to be sarcastic, selfish, offensive, then selfish some more. The character, who never got off the island until the ending, managed to have growth under constant duress to become the leader over the years, to overcome a horrifying back story  with a great pay-off (which felt nasty and had a damaging effect on him, and always made the Kate story look whiney and annoying,), and had the most affecting love story of the series with Juliet, who along with Sun, was one of the few well done female characters. The nastiness of his character at the start allowed the rest of the story to play intriguingly. The writers of this show had trouble when you were meant to like a character instantly but give them a damaged character needing development, they worked wonders.

Locke was a sad story, a man who ruined his life due to delusional behaviour, who had a blind spot when it came to how much he knew, a faithful believer who thought he was asking the right questions but who never understood people. He was a driven character, restless, always pushing ahead. The strength of this character was that it allowed the writers to get their awe of the situation of the island, to personalise it and to keep it to character, to allow it to develop in human touches, as well as to show failure and the darker side of faith and the magic. Even within the genre restraints of the show, Locke always gave hints of craziness, of a series ready to go interesting and beyond its limits.

Desmond was an intriguing figure in that he started off a minor character that the writers obviously liked, who started to develop as a man tortured by the island, by his fate, being being able to see through time, when he wanted a simple life. It was actually a very simple short story planted in the middle of more complex arcs which made it always stand out, as a simple beat that could come in every so often to clarify. He was also the character that allowed the show to have complex plots within a flawed human figure, as Desmond was always a little weak but determined. It was good used of a character adding background detail without a lot of obvious effort.

Ben Linus was a terrific villain in this story in that he was written as an all-out villain but was always human and vulnerable. He was the face of the island at the start, who was forced to do horrible things to protect it, who was always manipulative and dangerous to ftriends and enemies. But his arc, following the death of his daughter in season 4, become one of the more emotional beats in the story, far stronger than the central character dynamics, leading to a great episode where he confronts why he killed his own leader, the effects of his daughter's death, and the rage that followed that, as well as seeing what his life could have been like without the island. The finale gave him a few lovely scenes where he starts to come to terms with his past. It was a character that worked best on the idea of what fate or other influences make you do, and was a great example of a show working aginst the limitation of a genre base.

Hurley was probably the least complex character in the series, in that he basically a decent guy given some very bad luck, but like Desmond, when placed against the other characters, he worked, and deepened with careful handling, year by year, so that the revelation that he was destined to become the Island's protector succeeded beautifully, as it kept the emotion simple. Essentially you gotta love a show where the studly hero's fate turns out to be cannon fodder for the fat guy. Again it was a genre base, the nice fat guy, but it was done with sensitivity as Hurley never had to carry the series.

So Lost was a show that's base idea and supporting characters created a sense of complexity. It never was genuinely complex but gave the illusion of being so at times. But the entertainment was consistent. Like many a good TV series, the strengths of a show tend to make you overlook the weakness that it builds.

Caprica was a crazy show that wasn't quite sure of itself at times, that wasn't always set-up well, could be paceless, that it had a couple of characters that it never had a clue what to do with who could drag the show down, but it had some wonderful moments with terrific sci-fi ideas, was starting to develop itself into a strong show, and started to push its stronger characters in interesting directions.

The pilot is a very good set-up to a series, and highlights its best set-up, the father-daughter dynamic, using the idea of AI and robots as a way to play the frankenstein idea against real-life home tensions, by making the monsters an already living daughter who has died and been brought back to life. The Daniel and Zoe Graystone characters were where the story was strongest continually, in that it used technology to play around how parent-offspring relations can be difficult, emotional and twisted on both ends, in what both sides want, in how selfish both can be. In the first half of the series it was the dominant focus, then lost its way as other elements came into play before returning for its finale.

Some characters who started a bit vague and could be not very bright who started to develop once the writers started moving the story forward so the flaws of the characters in the start-up of a series could be forgiven. Characters like Joseph Adama, a lawyer with mob connections who slowly becomes involved in the creations of the cylons (and is the father of the lead of Battlestar Galactica), Clarice, the head of the terrorists, who is vain, vicious but with emotions that get complicated, and Lacey, the best friend of Zoe who gets trapped into the machinations of the crazy religious terrorist cult were made interesting. Characters like Graystone's wife and an agent investigating the terrorists, depsite have decent actors playing them, never got interesting because the characters were not developed in detail and had little internal drive in character interaction beyond where the story placed them. These two characters tended to sink the show whenever they had focus.

The show was frustrating. It never fully got going but had terrific moments of father-daughter consuion and dysfunction, some creepy highlighting of religious madness and myopia among seemingly rational people, and had some good mob stories. It was a show with everything there but it never quite came together. And yet its characters are more complicated than  anyone in lost. its sitution is more intriguing than the games and overdone/kinda silly metaphors of Lost. The first half was too slow and was about ideas and a second half with better pacing that tended to have less emphasis on ideas. But despite all of this, its more unique than Lost.

Both of these shows are recommended but have deep flaws. But what one is more worthy of your interest?

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