Sunday, May 29, 2005

TV: "Lost" for "24" hours

So the TV season has officially wrapped up for us, with this week's finales of "24" and "Lost" marking the end of the shows we officially watch. (Which really isn't that big a list - it also includes "Scrubs," "Arrested Development" and "The Simpsons," and that's about it for appointment TV. Oh, and I do like "Justice League Unlimited.") Anyway, "Lost" and "24" are our two big serial dramas, although in tone and execution they're widely different.

We loved "24's" second season, the one with the nuclear bomb explosion, but lost interest about halfway through season 3 when Jack Bauer started running around Mexico. This season started with one heck of a bang - the kidnapping of the Secretary of State by Islamic extremists and his threatened public execution - and although it had ups and downs, it remained a reliable thrill ride the entire time. I, like most, find "24" equal parts exciting and infuriating. The willfully cartoony, careening plot is brain dead as often as not. It's unintentional comedy, with the writers sweating to stretch out their non-stop 24-hour plot with new menace after new menace. (I can only imagine watching all 24 hours of a season in a row would show what an insanely relentless storyline it really is - and when do these characters eat?) What saves it from bombastic lunacy is Kiefer Sutherland's remarkably grounded performance as Jack Bauer. Sutherland has grown up from his old movie "bad guy" roles in stuff like "Lost Boys" into an actor of immense presence and gravity, and no matter how inane the plot gets - we're invading China! we're killing the President! the new President is looney tunes batshit! hey, here's the old cool President! -- Sutherland's steely resolve keeps it in focus. And that's what will keep me coming back for Season 5, I guess, with its promise of less CTU soap opera (it's the world's only counterterrorism organization that has the social interaction level of a high school drama class) and more lone wolf Jack Bauer action.

"Lost," on the other hand, is a more thoughtful show all around, even with the invisible dinosaurs and mysterious goings-on in this desert island. "Twin Peaks" style, it's piled on mystery after mystery, yet so far I don't think it's running the risk of getting stale. The finale this week was another excellent episode, balancing character and excitement, leaving us several big questions for next fall (what's down the hatch? who were the pirates? what's up with Locke? why doesn't Hurley lose weight?) but answering a few (who stole the baby?). I keep seeing message board posts from folks irritated the writers aren't giving away every little secret, whining about lack of closure and so forth. Yet I don't see that as the sole point of "Lost" -- it's a journey, and the heart of the show is really the meaty character flashbacks to their pre-castaway lives. The saga of constant loser Sawyer, secretive Sun and conflicted gangster Jin, fumbling addict Charlie or newfound father Michael - these are equally as rich and exciting as the latest island drama. (Only hottie Kate's flashbacks fall short, mired in feeble bad-girl antics and shock value that never feels sincere.) I'm curious to see if in season 2 some of the other faceless castaways get in the spotlight (although if they suffer the fate of blowhard - literally - 'Arzt,' then maybe they should stay in the background). After a sterling first season, "Lost" remains the show I'm most eager to see return next year.

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