Non-Spoiler Review of Lost Seasons 1-4

This post is, of course, rather redundant to true fans of the TV show Lost because Season 5 has been completely aired, and most people are getting excited about what’s coming in Season 6.

So maybe this can be a little note for those who’ve never watched any Lost and are wondering if it’s really as good as it’s cracked up to be.

Well, I suppose first of all – what Lost is not: it’s not a subtle character drama, in the vein of Sopranos or any similar HBO series. It’s designed for America’s ABC channel, so all content is kept at a reasonably mild level, and all characterisations are the larger-than-life type that you find in a typical disaster film. The heroic doctor, the heroic girl, the loudmouth, etc. etc.

However, where this show has won over the hearts and minds of viewers is largely in two areas: a) its originality and b) it’s cleverness. And for me, I’d add c) it’s brilliant use of the 45-minute TV episode as a storytelling medium.

A little on all three.

a) I read an article once, which I now can’t remember where, which described two guys who have developed working out movie popularity down to almost a mathematical formula. They can read a script, and based on the script, work out how popular the film is going to be. And one of the things that really makes a film or show take off is actually not the big stars – but the location.

And that has well and truly been proved with Lost. We’re so used to seeing either big American cities (in the law/medical/police dramas) or small country towns or whatever in TV shows, that a show set almost exclusively on a tropical island is quite a novelty. Just watch a couple of episodes of Lost with its lush greenery and sparkling sands, and it just doesn’t look like any show you’ve ever seen before. And because it’s a different location, different stuff happens. People run through trees being chased by things. People hide in the jungle. People discover things hidden in the jungle. (It’s just like playing those adventures games we used to play on computers in the 80s/90s all over again.)

2) The cleverness. When Lost first took off, in nearly every single episode of its 25-episode first season, it raised new questions. Just when we wanted to know more about what was going on – a new episode came out that raised completely different questions. By the end of the first season, there were so many questions that were up in the air, that the word on the street was that the guys behind the show were just making it up as they went along.

As it turns out, we were quite wrong. Slowly, bit by bit, every question is being answered. There are certainly more arising, but those who have continued to follow the show (there have been drop-offs along the way) have been rewarded with bigger and bigger answers.

3) But for me, it’s not just the cleverness of the plot that I like – it’s the structural beauty of the show. Like all good shows that we love, it has created a formula. For instance, those of us that follow House M.D. are familiar with the formula. Someone mysteriously gets sick, House solves the case over the next 45 minutes. Show over.

And Lost too developed a unique style. In any given 45-minute episode, it would pick one character, and during the episode, we would see flashbacks of a past time in that person’s life. Simple concept, but it worked beautifully.

First of all, it gave us a structure to follow and really worked to mix things up and keep it interesting. (After all, all those trees and jungle could get a bit boring.) But most importantly it worked because while the present-day island parts were raising questions in our minds, the flashbacks were answering questions. So by taking from us with one hand and feeding us with the other, the creators of the show were able to lull us into a sense of trust – trust that they would explain all the mysteries to us.

Where this worked exceptionally well is in Season 1 – probably still my favourite, even though I’m aware the action really hotted up in Season 4.

But Season 1 worked well because in the opening minutes we were simply dropped into the middle of a unique situation. A man in a business suit wakes up on his back in the jungle, looking dazed and confused. He looks around and sees a white dog. That makes him even more confused. Then he hears a noise, runs through the trees and out onto a deserted beach.

Then we see it . . . a burning wrecked plane and people scrambling around trying to escape. As the man in the suit runs around rescuing people, we find out that there are about 14 speaking parts (plus lots and lots of extras that never say a word).

At first, because we don’t know these people, we can only judge on first appearances. The guy in the suit is Jack, a doctor. He seems to be quite a hero. Then there’s the nice girl, Kate, that he meets. There’s Hurley, a larger overweight Spanish-American. There’s Michael, an African-American guy trying to connect with his young son. There’s Locke, the bald guy who carries hunting knives with him.

And at first we make snap judgements – “I like her. He’s nice. That guy’s a creep.”

But then, over the season, we start seeing flashbacks of these people’s lives. And then, one by one, we start to realise that there are reasons these people act the way they do. And so the first great mysteries of Lost that get explained are the back stories for these characters. And so every episode, we found out something new about someone which made us feel like we knew a little bit more – which temporarily made us forget that we had no idea where they were, why there was a killer monster in the forest, and polar bears running around.

And thus the saga went. This simple formula, though, had a cumulative effect. Every episode was perfectly balanced between present-day and flashback and would carry forward an episode arc. But then every episode was carrying the arc of the season forward. And every season is carrying forward the overall story arc.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all perfect. There are some episodes (especially in Season 2) that were redundant. It was like they had 18 episodes worth of ideas and they had to make 24. So you sometimes got some episodes that didn’t really carry the overall story forward or provide any memorable back story information about the characters.

But those were well and truly made up for by the episodes that did. What’s more – come the third season – the pattern that we were used to became like a piece of classical music – if you were creative enough, varying the pattern could become a memorable experience in itself. So there are some episodes that are legendary in their effect on first-time viewers, because the creators of the show played games with our perspective of what we expected to see. This is especially apparent in the opening minutes of the new seasons. The filmmakers excelled at making people wonder if they were really watching the same show they were viewing last season.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. I’m working my way through Season 5, and I’ll be hoping to catch up with all the internet hype I’ve missed for Season 6. The one thing about being slow is that I miss the community that has grown up around Lost as fans have swapped theories and tried to work out what is going on. So I’ve deliberately tried to avoid as much reading about Lost online as I can to preserve the delight of seeing each episode unfold without knowing what’s happening next.

To sum up – when the whole thing is finished, unless the creators well and truly run out of steam and stuff the whole thing up – it will be one of the most satisfying, and epic tales that have ever been told. It will be one of the greatest examples of serialisation ever created. The creators have used the limitations of the 45 minute TV episode and the 22 (give or take)-episode season to craft a new type of storytelling. It’s like a master novel-writer was told that they had to write a novel that could be released in a set number of small books of 15,000 words each.

What they’ve achieved is amazing. But don’t just take my word for it. I’d try it for yourself. If you can get hold of Disc 1 of the first season, watch the first four episodes. I’m especially keen to see what you think of Episode 4 (Walkabout). That was the episode that sold me on this series and, for me, is probably the defining episode of the whole series. If it sells you on it too, then you’re going to have great fun with the rest of this series.

If it’s not your thing, at least you found out early.

And Then There Were None – Letter in a Bottle

“…I determined to commit not one murder, but murder on a grand scale…”

Well, there we go – the explanation of the whole thing. I thought it very neatly tied the whole thing together. I remember the first time I read the first page or so of this letter – especially since Wargrave’s name doesn’t appear till the last page – thinking, “Hang on . . . this sounds like Wargrave. But he’s dead, isn’t it?”

Once I’d got that settled in my head that maybe he wasn’t, then the whole explanation made sense. Part of the fun of this denouement is just the grand style in which Wargrave unveils his plot. (A grand unraveling is usually a trademark of Agatha Christie’s book, but normally it’s done by this detective. Here we have it unveiled by the murdered.)

I haven’t watched it yet (but it’s on my shelf ready to go), but I understand that Agatha Christie’s stage adaptation of this novel, and subsequent film versions have a slightly different ending. (I’m not sure, but I think it goes something like Vera shoots Lombard, walks back in the house, Wargrave comes out, and then in another twist Lombard shows up to her rescue, because they’d planned together that he should pretend to be dead.) While this allows for a nice ending, for me, the true effect needs to be the chilling realisation that the Judge killed everyone and then killed himself. A far more effective ending, and certainly the one I’d use if I was making a film of it today.

So there you have it – And Then There Were None. I still think it’s the original and best of these type of stories.

We’ve mentioned some of the spin-offs from this story. Obviously, any story where there’s a bunch of people being picked off one by one owes a debt to this story.

Harper’s Island, the recent TV series, mercilessly ripped off the concept, only to stuff it up horrendously. Identity (which Dave worried was the same twist) clearly owes a debt to this story. If you haven’t seen it, and you have the stomach for it, Identity is a very clever usage of the idea of 10 people being killed off one at a time, but with a logic of its own, and a completely different ending.

In terms of the killer, there’s a certain similarity between Wargrave and Jigsaw, the killer from Saw (which you need to have even more of a stomach for). Jigsaw (also suffering from a terminal illness) takes it upon himself to harass people who he doesn’t consider worth living. That’s a completely different premise, and quite a bit nastier, but the writers (at least of the original film) had the same sense of cleverness about it all.

Well, hopefully, none of you felt cheated by the ending (my apologies if you did). This was fun enough that I might do another Agatha Christie at some stage down the track. I’ll see how it goes. Thanks to all who participated (either commenting or uncommenting) – especially those who showed the remarkable restraint of being able to read the book over three weeks instead of all in one go…

And Then There were None – Epilogue

Just so there’s no misunderstandings, this post is on the epilogue, the next post tomorrow is on a mysterious “letter found in a bottle”.

In some ways, this chapter is a bit of a nod to Christie’s normal detective novels, where the police come in and try to sort out the crime. And maybe if Hercule Poirot was on hand or Miss Marple, they’d have a better chance.

But they’re coming up with nothing. We’re now enlightened about the fascinating back story about why the boat never came to rescue the 10 during the week, the involvement of Isaac Morris (the Jewish gentleman referenced back in Chapter 1, if you remember three weeks ago) and a little bit more background on our characters. (Though obviously our killer knew more about their back stories than the police were able to uncover.)

So in some ways, this chapter just serves to reiterate the mystery and deal with any final theories that people might have. (I like the bit best where they’re trying to work out how the last three could have died.) And who doesn’t feel creeped out by the chair below Vera’s body being placed neatly back against the wall?

Without a doubt, U N Owen is the 1930s precursor to Keyser Soze.

And sometime after this investigation was closed – we’re not sure how long – a boat comes across a bottle floating in the water with a letter in it. That letter, which we’ll read tomorrow, contains the final missing pieces of information that shed light on what took place on Indian Island . . .

See you tomorrow!

And Then There Were None (10 Dead; 0 Alive)

In many ways, the best thing to come out of this novel getting renamed as And Then There Were None is that it sets up a promise that – staggeringly – gets delivered in the final chapter.

We could believe, when it just came down to Vera and Lombard (why does he always get referred to by his last name, but she always gets referred to by her first?) that Lombard was it. Like Vera, we instantly see the wolf snarl and the cunning as the mark of a man who could cold-bloodedly pick off eight people one by one.

But then – the magnificent twist: the countdown goes down to zero. I remember I read this novel out loud to my sister when I was a teenager and at the time, none of us knew how it was going to end. And we hit this chapter, and it really just set my teenage brain reeling.

What on earth happened here? Did I really read what I thought I read?

For my money, it’s one of the greatest “What the…?” moments in storytelling history. The rug has been completely ripped out from under us. We know what we’ve witnessed – but we understand none of it.

And it is in that state of confusion, that Agatha Christie rolls out the Epilogue. I’ll see you tomorrow night for that one …

And Then There Were None – Chapter 15 (8 Dead; 2 Alive)

Decided to change the rules a bit. I’m going to blog about Chapter 15, and then after that Chapter 16 (so you can read both chapters today).

I’ll do the Epilogue (the first part of it) and that will just leave us with the final section to read on Sunday.

So, anyway, here we are – almost as if knowing that Dan would raise the red herring theory, it’s dealt with in the first few pages by Vera. Is Armstrong dead or alive? It would stand to reason that if this were the red herring death, that he would still be alive.

It’s also the moment where I wish I was directing this, because I love the visual image – glorious sunshine, the three characters sitting outside on the grass or rocks overlooking the water. With the deathtrap of a house looming on the horizon. . . .

However, things move very quickly – and all because Blore decided he needed some lunch. I won’t spell it out – you’ve either read it or you haven’t, but needless to say our fourth and third Indian/soldier/nameless racial stereotype are dealt with in one hit, we find out that the red herring perhaps had more to do with fish than we thought, and everybody wants to read Chapter 16.

So, without further ado, I’ll quickly write up the post for that chapter…

And Then There Were None – Chapter 14 (6/7 Dead?; 3/4 Alive?)

Now all bets are off. Is it one of the remaining four? Is there someone else on the island? If it’s one of the four, who can it be? If it’s someone else, why can’t they seem to find them? It’s all going crazy.

We also get another look into the back story of the characters, especially Vera, and we realise that she actually was quite callous in killing off young Cyril. And up till now has been very good at hiding the truth of how evil she is. But does that make her evil enough to engineer this?

Blore seems scared out of his mind, but if Dan’s theory is correct – the killer may not realise what he’s doing. Lombard says he’s a bit rattled – but rattled by how close he is to being murdered – or by how close he is to being unmasked as the killer.

And then, of course, there is the doctor – but he’s not in this chapter. We’re left with only three Indian boy statues, which would indicate that he’s dead.

But there’s no body.

And as Dan will be the first to point out, if I don’t:

Four little Indian boys, going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

So on that rather ambiguous note, I’ll bid you goodbye until tomorrow.

And Then There Were None – Chapter 13 (6 Dead; 4 Alive)

Now this chapter is where the cinematic potential of this story to be redone as a really scary slasher flick comes to the fore.

I love the levels of paranoia in this chapter – five people just sitting watching one another’s every move, checking that the drinks aren’t tampered with.

And then, despite all that, they’re still outsmarted by our very clever killer. Actually, with the whole costume thing – all the missing objects of the last few chapters now being revealed – I’d say a very clever, very twisted killer.

Hang in there, folks . . . only a few days more.

Oh yeah, Dan, and they gave you all the inner thoughts of everyone while they were sitting in the lounge room as well . . .

And Then There Were None – Chapter 12 (5 Dead; 5 Alive)

Well, we’re at the halfway mark now, as another of our suspects bites the dust. Oddly enough, she was our chief suspect from yesterday. We’re now down to five. Unlike that other island serial killer show, having less suspects doesn’t at all make it clearer who is likely to be a killer. (But if you do watch that island show, you would have well and truly worked out the identity by then.)

I’m quite enjoying the character of the Judge, because having worked in the law courts, the way he speaks is characteristic of the way Judges deliver summings up or sentences: very deliberately, point by point, logical.

How else could he persuade everyone to submit to strip-searching?

Actually, while all their actions (locking up the drugs, hunting for the gun, etc) logically make sense, all of this is really about persuading you, the reader, of the rules of the game. It’s Agatha Christie’s equivalent of the conjurer showing you that there’s nothing up his sleeves.

There’s a house, five people, missing gun, drugs all locked up. We’re all clueless. That’s the situation.

See you tomorrow!

And Then There Were None – Chapter 11 (4 Dead; 6 Alive)

Well, without wasting any time, the week kicks off with our 4th victim. See, I was right about Rogers being crossed off the list of suspects.

The good thing is, it leaves us with a more manageable list of suspects:

– The corrupt detective Blore

– The devil-may-care adventurer Lombard

– The religiously severe Emily Brent

– The coldly logical Justice Wargrave

– The “access to all poisons” Dr Armstrong

– The guilt-ridden Vera Claythorne.

This is where we start to notice how 2D these characters are, as well. They just don’t seem to be overly phased by the whole thing. (e.g. Lombard’s amusement at Blore and thinking that he’d be likely to be bumped off because he has no imagination). In fact, if it was me, I think I’d be divvying up the cold food, sending everyone to their room, and not letting people come out until someone comes with a boat.

Either that, or I’d get everyone camped in the lounge room. But then, for sure, the murderer would stay awake longer than everyone else and kill everyone else while they were asleep.

I’m getting morbid, but despite everyone trying their best to eat breakfast calmly, there’s a heightened sense of craziness in the air. This is what I love about this particular novel. In a detective novel, the crime has been committed, so there’s no real tension – just the enjoyment of unravelling whodunnit. In this book, though, all the characters are playing for their lives, and if they don’t work out who’s behind it soon, they’ll be next.

Looking forward to tomorrow!

And Then There Were None – Chapter 10 (3 Dead; 7 Alive)

Sorry this was later than the scheduled 8pm – it took a bit longer to get my daughter to sleep than I thought.

Well, I’m sorry that there have only been two murders this week (thus leaving the lion’s share for the final week of our reading project), but hopefully that will make the last week that more quick and bloodthirsty…

I find this chapter doesn’t contribute to theories so much as just indicates how these suspects react to the stress of the whole thing. If it was me, I’d be freaking out, wanting to sit in the corner of a room, armed with a gun and various sharp firearms.

These characters react in different ways – we see Vera and Philip form themselves into a bit of a duo and the Judge and the Doctor do the same. Menawhile, Emily Brent retreats into her own mind and Rogers is just nervous.

However, of all of these, Rogers seems to be the only one I’d cross off the list of suspects because we seem him on his own and he’s trying to ensure that no more Indian statues get stolen.

Or is that just a red herring?

Guess we’ll all know next week – either way, we’ll all have our doors bolted for the weekend.