Friday, February 6, 2009

Lost: Digging Inside Season 5 - EW

by Jeff Jensen

Across the street from a neatly tended cemetery on the island of Oahu, there is a gated lot where the past, present, and future of Lost all come together. The Others' submarine, Henry Gale's hot-air balloon, Locke's outrigger — all beached on the grass like so many Black Rock shipwrecks. And inside a large soundstage, hidden away from prying eyes, Lost's iconic castaways are huddled on a top secret set, ****. The action being shot for the year's 12th episode is almost spoilerifically indescribable, *****

No, Lost definitely isn't playing it safe, even though it has every reason to do just that. Coming off a critically acclaimed, Emmy-nominated fourth season and entering its next-to-last year, ABC's brilliantly odd, infectiously frustrating crypto-drama (airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m.) could have attempted to keep its no-longer-huge-but-still-fervently-fanatic base sated and stable until 2010's Gimme all my answers NOW! series-capping season. Nope. Didn't even try. Instead, Lost has opted to start season 5 by baring its potentially alienating geek soul and challenging its audience even more with gonzo storytelling. Thought the show was confusing before? Try this on for size: Time travel. Quantum physics. Hydrogen bombs. And a Da Vinci Code-meets-Foucault's Pendulum-meets-Weekend at Bernie's conspiracy to save (or destroy) the world, the linchpin of which involves U-Hauling the corpse of John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) back to the Island. When the gloriously strange saga of Lost finally concludes next year, season 5 is likely to be remembered as the one when the series came out of the closet and declared itself. But here's hoping it doesn't lose everyone in the process: So far this season, Lost is averaging 11.3 million viewers, down 3.4 percent from last season, and a far cry from the series-high average of 15.9 million in season 1. But the producers say: Come what may. ''The fear is that Lost just became an AP class, and really, what's one's incentive for taking an AP class?'' says exec producer Damon Lindelof. ''But the show has gotten to that point where it had to let its freak flag fly. It needed to announce, 'You wanna know what the Island is? You wanna know why these people were brought to the Island? You wanna know what their purpose for being there is? Well, it might be a little weirder than you would've hoped.'''

But is it too weird? ''I was a little worried about the start of the season, to be honest,'' says Lilly, battling back a cold and enjoying some late-afternoon Hawaii sun in between takes. ''It might sound terrible to say, but the mythology of this show eludes me. I am all about the characters and the interplay of the relationships and the angst of redemption and retribution — all those good nuggets. So, in my biased view, I've been running around telling the world: 'Be patient! It's just the first half of the season! We'll come back!''' Her costar Matthew Fox has another, more optimistic take. ''It feels very different from what Lost has felt like in the past, but in a really good way,'' says the actor, sporting neatly parted hair and some dangling iPod earbuds. ''There will be many, many answers, lots of things from past seasons that left the audience thinking, 'That's never going to pay off' — but it does, in really cool ways that make you go 'Holy s---!' The season has a real feeling of things coming together, and it builds a groundswell of momentum for the end of the show.''

So, baffling or brilliant? Let the debate begin.

Of course, Lost has always been pretty off its rocker. Ghosts. Locke's legs. Smokey the monster. Those who've hoped Lost would avoid sci-fi answers may have been fooling themselves. ''Honestly,'' says Lindelof, ''the non-genre answer just isn't that interesting.'' And now it's clear the time-travel element of the Island (beyond just the flashbacks/flash-forwards) has been part of the show from the beginning. Among the clues: the never-identified cave skeletons (might they belong to time-tossed castaways?); the name of the company that recruited Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) to the Island, Mittelos, which is an anagram for ''lost time''; the sprinkled-in Stephen Hawking references. ''Whenever the show presents something about the history of the Island — like coming upon the Black Rock slave ship — these are things we are setting up for the endgame of the show,'' says Lindelof. ''This season, it's like the audience is finally opening up a present that was actually bought and wrapped years ago. At least, we hope they think it's a present.''

In other words: The producers have a master plan — and an exit strategy. But that master plan couldn't be unleashed fully until Lindelof and partner Carlton Cuse negotiated a series end date during season 3, a.k.a. The Year Lost Learned a Show About Castaways Stranded on an Island Can Last So Long No Matter How Clever It May Be. "The same way our characters were sort of locked in cages in season 3, when the show went awry,'' says Cuse, ''we felt locked in cages because we didn't know if our mythology had to go two more years or nine.''

Now uncaged, the producers face the challenge of telling their story successfully without unraveling the franchise. Cuse and Lindelof are keenly aware that time-travel yarns have had a spotty record of late (Life on Mars: struggling; Heroes: ugh; Journeyman: anyone? Bueller?) and that even the smartest stuff has the unfortunate side effect of causing serious brain crampage. The producers promise an approach to time travel backed by researchable science (Popular Mechanics even has a Lost blog analyzing it) and grounded in humanity. Cuse and Lindelof allow that the season premiere — in which a fragmented narrative mirrored the Island's erratic skips through time — may not have totally nailed that value, but they believe it was a necessary starting point. ''The complex episodes come early this season,'' says Cuse, ''but they lead to greater rewards downstream once the audience understands the rules of the game for the year.''

Seeing that plan play out has been heartening to Lost's cast, many of whom were left feeling alternately OMG! and WTF? by the season's first scripts. ' 'The first episode was wonderful, [but] it was also a lot to digest,'' says Jorge Garcia, adding that the storytelling of the Hurley-heavy second installment left him baffled enough that ''it totally went over my head that it was a Hurley episode.'' More worrisome to others was the possibility that a sci-fi emphasis might compromise the show's identity, limit its possibilities, and make the drama even less accessible to non-geek-minded viewers. ''I'm mixed about it, to be honest,'' says Daniel Dae Kim, whose presumed-dead Jin was discovered alive and well — and in the Island's not-so-distant past — on the most recent episode. ''One of the things that attracted me initially to this show was how universal the themes were and how different the kinds of stories it could tell. Now, I feel with the sci-fi we're becoming definable in a way that maybe we weren't in the first season. At the same time, I like how the writers are showing allegiance to the true fans. The people who stayed with us are being rewarded with the more complicated and nuanced storytelling that they've been hungering for.'' As for ABC's feelings about Lost's dive down the sci-fi rabbit hole, senior VP of current drama programming Kim Rozenfeld says, ''There were aspects that were certainly unorthodox, but we were comfortable because we knew how they set up the larger story.''

Despite her early season jitters, Lilly says she's committed to the producers' vision. ''You're either along for the ride and part of it, or you're not. And if you don't trust the writers, you might as well get off the boat,'' she says. ''I respect that they do things that could potentially alienate parts of their audience, because that means they are being true to their story and not being manipulated by outside pressure.''

And that story is still capable of addressing very relatable human themes. ''Usually in shows, the cliff-hanger is all about who's shacking up with who,'' says Leung. ''On Lost, the cliff-hanger is about the meaning of existence. What does it mean to be alive?'' Jeremy Davies — whose quirky physicist Daniel Faraday has emerged as a major player of late — credits Lost with allowing him to process the recent deaths of his father and a close friend. ''There have been so many compelling synchronicities between my life and Faraday's story line,'' says the actor. ''I'd be in a lot more trouble, personally, if I didn't have this opportunity to channel these energies within me.''

As for Lindelof and Cuse, they're channeling all their energies squarely onto the Island. ''We feel like the audience will be really clamoring to get back to the Island after these first seven episodes,'' says Lindelof. ''And they'll get a big massive dose of it for pretty much the remainder of the season.'' *****

**** ''Season 5 is about do they or don't they make it back to the Island, and every character has their reasons,'' explains Lilly. *****

***** Despite last year's helicopter kiss-and-whisper between Kate and Sawyer (contents of said whisper will be revealed soon), Lilly believes that the audience is rooting for Kate and Jack. ''But I could be completely wrong!'' she laughs. ''What I've noticed is that the audience tends to root for the coupling that gets the most screen time — and right now, what they're seeing is Kate and Jack.''

Whichever way romance blows on Lost, Fox hopes that it just doesn't...well, blow. He feels the show has sometimes indulged the lovey-dovey stuff for the sake of ratings. ''That's someone going, 'People love romance, so just turn the buttons and dial it up,''' complains Fox. ''Look, I understand that. But it has to be f---ing credible. Our world doesn't lend itself to conventional romance. Yearning? Yes. Desire? Yes. Passion? Yes. And when those things play out in the context of survival s--- that's gotta get done, where people's lives are f---ing at stake — that's cool. But romance? I haven't always bought it for Jack and Kate, and I haven't always bought it for Kate and Sawyer. The show's too intense for that.''

Besides, it's not like pandering to the audience is likely to grow it — not at this point. News flash! Lost — brainy, challenging, locked into an evolving, serialized story — is a tough choo-choo to jump aboard if you're not already up to speed. Ratings are likely to continue to inch down as opposed to up. But the producers aren't sweating it. ''For most showrunners, existence is predicated on 'If I get good ratings, I get to keep doing this,''' says Cuse. ''But we know Lost is ending, no matter what the ratings are. So we're just trying to make sure that we end the story well and we get it executed on film the way we want it.'' However, the storytellers hope that anyone who has ever been a Lost fan will tune in next year as the show moves into payoff mode and begins resolving long-term character arcs. Indeed, compared with this year, season 6 sounds like it could be something of a blast from the season 1 past. Lindelof teases that the sci-fi-heavy season 5 (which includes ****) ''sets up where we need to go in season 6, which will be much more grounded and character-centric than it is this year.''

Whatever form it takes, Fox believes they will go out strong — with or without massive ratings. ''People will remember it the way they want to remember it,'' he says. ''What I will remember is that Lost was one of the most innovative, risk-taking, smartest shows ever. That's how I want to remember it. And I think it deserves that.''

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