I Like to Watch

"Lost" borrows from its future to pay for its past, "House" oversells, undersells and then falls short, and "On the Lot" takes out a cash advance on a nonexistent payday.



Heather Havrilesky
June 3, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

Some day, everything that we love and cherish will be swallowed up by Procter & Gamble, digested, and then pushed out into convenient, individually packaged, sanitized, deodorized, noncomedogenic disposable wipes. All that is spontaneous and real in the world will be captured on a camera phone, thrown onto YouTube, blogged about by half of humanity, discussed by hair-sprayed TV mouthpieces, denounced by enraged special-interest groups, and legislated against, explicitly, to prevent exposing the general public to anything unguarded or unplanned or not yet vetted by a phalanx of market researchers and product-development specialists.

Today, though, we can still fall in love, and make big mistakes, and speak without thinking. "Fall on your face in those bad shoes," as Frank Black once put it. "Bloody your hands on a cactus tree, wipe it on your dress and send it to me."

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Yes, today we drink, for tomorrow we'll all be frozen fresh, vacuum-packed, cryogenically sealed, slated for global distribution, our deepest beliefs crumpled down to a bite-size sampler, our most heartfelt desires reduced to a point-of-purchase impulse buy.

Still smokin'
Maybe that's why it's better for Jack and Kate and the rest of them to stay on the island. Because in the real world, your daddy's not rich and your mama's definitely not good lookin'. Or rather, if we're talking about the world of ABC's "Lost," your daddy's a drunken asshole (Jack) or he's a drunken abusive asshole (Kate) or he's a rich control freak (Sun) or he's a con man who tricks you into giving him your kidney (Locke) or he's a long-lost ne'er-do-well played by Cheech Marin (Hurley).

Are the mean daddies to blame for the fact that once Jack and the rest of them finally leave the island (which we learn in a finale flashback that turns out to be a flash-forward), they all end up bearded and suicidal, popping pills and knocking over displays in the local drugstore? Are these people cursed in particular, or are they simply better off in paradise, thanks to some whim of destiny?

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From the very beginning, of course, the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 have embodied the persecuted modern human. Not only does the world turn their hopes and dreams into sanitized disposable wipes, but they're allergic to those wipes. Those wipes make their noses run and their skin break out in hives. Through flashbacks, we're shown that each survivor has had a chance at happiness that was thwarted: Kate left her cop hubby, Locke alienated his true love, Jack was a workaholic whose wife left him, Hurley won the lottery and was besieged by bad luck afterward.

The twist of last week's finale makes some sense, then, given the unrelenting misery the survivors endured before they landed on the island: Kate and Jack would eventually return to their lives, only to find themselves haunted by the notion that they weren't supposed to leave the island.

The question is, do we really want to be hemmed in like this, knowing that even once they're all rescued, everything will fall to pieces and they'll be doomed to go back? As nice as it is to throw in a truly surprising twist, this one feels like another limiting move, like turning unknown creatures into polar bears or transforming the Others into just another group of bickering, bossy lunatics like the ones we already know. Do we need a glimpse of the future to stay invested? What does it do for the story over the long haul? Doesn't it take a little bit of the fun out of seeing everyone rescued, something we've been waiting for all this time? Once the thrill of a good twist wears off, an ennui sets in: If a future off the island is the exact same flavor of frustrating as the past, then what's the point?

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There's a heightened sense, after each finale, that "Lost" is some kind of a masterpiece among TV dramas, and while I certainly agreed after last year's finale, the show is no longer quite so deeply, abidingly character-driven. During the first and even the second season, you could argue that the show was character-based: We plunged into extended flashbacks of key moments in each of the characters' lives, during which the worldviews and philosophies that they brought to the island were formed.

In the third season, though, not only have the flashbacks done little beyond retreading old ground, but they're not actually focused on revealing more aspects of the characters' personalities or perspectives; they're simply focused on showing us other stuff that happened to that character. They're plot-driven, in other words: Jack meets a weird, sexy lady and gets a tattoo. Locke's dad pushes him out a window. Juliet gets tricked into coming to the island. Yes, at the end of the better flashbacks, the character in question tends to make a choice that defines him or her at some essential level: Desmond breaks up with Penny, Kate dumps her husband, Sayid apologizes to his former victim. But even then, we're either seeing characters in impossible situations who are doing what anyone in their shoes would do (Hurley trying to break the lottery curse by giving away his money), or we're seeing just one dimension of a character's personality (Sun tells Jin's mother to stay away because Sun believes in lying to avoid uncomfortable situations, Kate leaves her cop husband because she can't commit to anyone, Jack seeks out his ex because he's an obsessive control freak). Not surprisingly, with the character development remaining fairly stagnant, the conflicts between characters on the island feel less and less dynamic and immediate, and are less connected to the essential philosophies that each character embraces.

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"Lost" is a smart show with an interesting structure that plenty of other TV writers and producers have tried to imitate with mostly limited success. But given the time devoted to exploring individual characters, couldn't some of these excursions feel a little bit more subtle or artful? Couldn't we learn something truly new about a character's motivations, instead of seeing the same old disapproving fathers, disappearing true loves and fatal flaws? As long as everyone's marching around proclaiming "Lost" the best show on television, a show custom-made for geniuses and the like, maybe the writers should set their sights on trying to touch the emotional resonance of shows like "The Sopranos" or "Friday Night Lights" or "Six Feet Under." If the flashbacks of Sun lying and Kate skipping town and Jack falling apart are simply swapped for real-time stories of Sun lying and Kate skipping town and Jack falling apart, then we really are stuck on an island.

House-warming
And while I'm meticulously setting up my high expectations like dominoes, just so I can watch them all get knocked down, let's talk about Fox's "House," the hypochondriac's horror show. Now obviously, "House" is the "CSI" of hospital dramas; you just take out all of the pedophiles and serial killers and replace them with drug-resistant bacterial infections and rare autoimmune disorders. What's impressive here is that the suspense and melodrama are always pumped up to the maximum volume, with a new cliffhanger every few minutes, even when it hinges on something as small as an unexplained muscle twitch or unusual rash.

My favorite episode this season featured a girl with a compromised immune system who did for common allergens what "Deliverance" once did for good old-fashioned sodomy.

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Mom: Why is her leg twitching like that?

Dr. Foreman: Fasciculation!

Dad: Is that serious?

Dr. Foreman: It's paralysis. And it's ascending.

Mom: She's gonna ... lose the use of her legs?

Dr. Foreman: To start with!

Dum dum dum!

Incredibly, after a full hour of investigating everything from strange foods to semen allergies, Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) decides that the girl must have a tick attached to her body, somewhere! In order to prevent Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) from operating on the girl to prevent her from dying, House pulls the emergency button on the elevator and searches for the tick. Finally, he finds it -- on her vajayjay! -- just as the elevator doors open and her horrified parents see House with his head between her legs.

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Sick and wrong, yes, but deliciously sick and wrong, in a slightly cheesy but ultimately good way. The absurd circus atmosphere would be unbearable, of course, were it not leavened by the rapid, angry banter batted among House, his boss, his three charges and his best friend, all of whom hate one another with a white-hot fury. (Yes, they also love and tolerate one another, which means -- you know what's coming -- they're just like family.) Take this very typical exchange between House and Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), one of his doctor underlings:

Cameron: He loves her. He did everything he could to make sure she wouldn't get sick.

House: What does that mean?

Cameron: Love is an emotion certain people experience, similar to happiness. No, maybe I should give a more relatable example ...

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Given the truly impressive tightrope walk that "House" pulls off on a weekly basis, I was shocked at how bad last week's season finale was. It all started with a pointless helicopter rescue scene, in which a Cuban couple is pulled from the water after their little boat capsizes. But (drumroll) the man won't allow himself to be lifted to safety without his suitcase, which it turns out is full of his wife's medical records. Eventually he loses the suitcase and is rescued, at which point he bellows something like "Take us to House!" The rescue team thinks he means "Take us home!" but then determines that he means Dr. House, the cantankerous but lovable infectious-disease specialist!

Next thing you know, this Cuban refugee is at the hospital (did the rescue team fly him there directly?), waiting as his wife is subjected to every mind-blowingly expensive medical test in the book. "Hmm, I don't know. Let's do a full blood panel, a PET scan, an angiogram, and then put her on bypass." Yes, that's right, foreign-world peoples! You may think socialized medicine is the answer, but little did you know that here in America, not only does every citizen get personalized, around-the-clock medical care from a team of doctors who become not just personally invested but obsessed with curing his or her ills, but illegal aliens can merely swim into our waters, and they'll be summarily plucked up by highly trained rescue professionals and flown straight to the medical specialist of their choice for a thorough battery of tests. A little advice to immigrants packing their bags and medical records as we speak: Just make sure that helicopter doesn't drop you off in New Orleans.

Back to the "House" finale: The Cuban lady is saved in not-so-spectacular fashion, and what's worse, House not only says goodbye to underling Foreman (Omar Epps) but also fires underling Chase (Jesse Spencer). Then underling Cameron tells House that she's ready to move on as well, right before (or after?) getting busy (in an extremely casual, understated fashion) with fellow underling Chase. (The actors are also dating in real life, tee-hee.) In the last scene, House unpacks a brand-new guitar, presumably a gift from his best frenemy or his charges, and strums thoughtfully.

Harrumph! Is that all there is? So the finale begins with a mundane situation (a sick woman) blown up into a silly, melodramatic rescue scene that makes no sense and adds nothing to the episode, and then it ends with a legitimately dramatic turn -- the departure of all three of House's underlings -- that's treated as utterly mundane. The whole thing was sloppy and ill considered. It reminded me of that episode of "E.R." in which Dr. Romano (played by Paul McCrane, see also Jack's evil brother on "24") was crushed by a falling helicopter, and no one noticed, and then when they did notice, they weren't sad about it. It's a good idea to shake things up and give House a new team he hates even more than the last one, but at least respect your audience enough to give such a major change the pomp and circumstance that it deserves.

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Pomp up the jams
Of course, most televised pomp and circumstance is undeserved. Witness Fox's "On the Lot" (8 p.m. Tuesdays), a collaboration between super-producers Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg that pits aspiring directors against one another. While I loved the breakneck pace of the first few episodes, in which the directors had to pitch a movie, create a short film in teams of three and shoot a scene using a professional crew, all within the course of a few days, everything screeched to a halt the second the show assumed its regular "American Idol" format.

Yes, even though this is a battle among 18 filmmakers, even though it's plainly obvious what's good and bad about the short films they create for the competition, we're forced to watch each film with a big, live audience, then hear the repetitive assessments of the three judges, Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall and a rotating guest judge, usually a prominent director. If Fox didn't intend to torture us, we'd get to watch all of the films and hear the judges comment very briefly on each one. Instead, the judges hem and haw, repeat themselves, and repeat what each other just said, even though they're all smart enough to get straight to the point and elucidate exactly what's wrong or right about each film. Not only that, but we've got to sit through the endless post-performance interviews ("What did you think of what the judges just told you?") -- you know, all the crap that makes watching a full season of "American Idol" a colossal waste of time.

And let's not forget the voting. As if glancing over the weekly top-grossing films weren't depressing enough, we're forced to watch directors get eliminated not by the judges but by the folks at home. Do we really want to stick around long enough to see the crappiest filmmakers win? Doesn't that happen enough already at the box office?

As riveting as it is to watch these filmmakers trying to smash their talents into the whimsical novelty gift that is the one-minute film, "On the Lot" could be a hell of a lot more entertaining. Given the firepower of these producers, the sharpness of these judges (who doesn't love Carrie Fisher?) and the obvious talents of some of these aspiring directors, you'd think the format could be a little more inventive and the pace quicker and livelier. So far, though, "On the Lot" looks like a bunch of big names trying to copycat their way into an "American Idol"-size payday. (And failing -- ratings for last week's two-hour episode were abysmal.) Once again, a really good idea is transformed into yet another overhyped, pop-cultural disposable wipe.

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Next week: "The Sopranos" goes into its homestretch, plus (finally) more bombastic hotheads brought to you by "Deadwood's" David Milch!

* * * * For more coverage of the season finales of your favorite TV shows, click here.


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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