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You can learn things about a TV show just by watching it with other people. At the television critics’ winter get-together last week, 200 of us watched the third episode of the new season of “Lost” on a big high-definition screen. At regular intervals the whole room would erupt in laughter - it was the sound of 200 “Lost” fans being served up another unexpected, what-in-the-hell twist ... and loving it.


Whatever mojo television’s most ingenious thriller may have lost in its third and fourth seasons, it’s come back with compound interest in season five. Last week’s two-hour season opener easily eclipsed the fourth judge on “Idol” as the most anticipated non-political TV event of the new year. ABC has been eagerly serving up sneak peeks to critics for not just the usual reasons - to gain a return on what is easily the riskiest investment in the entire network lineup - but for a less obvious one. The show is brilliant again, and word needs to get out.


After the screening, out came the two men at the eye of “Lost’s” creative hurricane, executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. After swearing the room to secrecy, they spoke with considerable candor about the storylines in store this season and next. They seemed delighted to be answering fan site-worthy questions about characters and storylines, so much so that you might never suspect that they’ve served themselves pink slips already. These are the final two seasons of “Lost,” and paradoxically, it’s this knowledge - that the best job they’ve ever had is coming to a halt in 2010 - that has made the producers so happy.


Negotiating the end date to the show “completely liberated us,” Lindelof said. “We didn’t know whether the mythology we had had to last two seasons or nine seasons, and that was utterly paralyzing.”


Cuse agreed.


“Now that we know exactly how many episodes we have left has really allowed us to plan and to do this stuff with the confidence that we know exactly how much of a journey is left, and that’s been enormously liberating and really the key to the whole show for us as storytellers,” he said.


It’s also allowed Cuse and Lindelof to slim down the sprawling cast of guest characters, jettisoning them in various creatively violent ways, while returning focus to the core people who arrested viewers’ attention in the show’s first season.


That’s going to be a huge boon for fans of Sawyer (Josh Holloway), the one regular who did not make it off Lost Island in season four, and who therefore saw his role diminished as the action shifted to the outside world and the struggles of the Oceanic 6 to return to normal lives in civilization.


“This year, we’ve tried to sort of make up for lost time, as it were,” Lindelof said. “And Josh has just been doing amazing work.”


But the really big shift from previous seasons is the new emphasis on time travel.


“As season five unfolds, you will realize that time travel has been in the DNA of the show for quite some time, but we think the audience is now kind of prepared to go on that journey with us,” Lindelof said.


We may be, but Sawyer sure isn’t. If you thought he was unhappy to be caught in an endless rewind/fast-forward loop in last week’s episodes, wait until you see him this week. (By the way, last week’s second hour will re-air at 8 p.m. Wednesday, leading into “Lost’s” regular timeslot of 9 p.m. EST on ABC.) Also watch for Richard Alpert (Nestor Carbonell), probably the best addition to the show since Ben (Michael Emerson), to pop in and out of the castaways’ lives like an ageless sphinx, an H.G. Wells character with perpetual jet-black hair and goth eyelines.


The funniest moment of our Q-and-A came when someone asked about Carbonell’s eye makeup, and Lindelof responded, “When we first saw dailies of Nestor, we were like, ‘Someone’s gotta talk to him about the eyeliner situation,’ (but) he does not wear any mascara, no eyeliner, nothing. He is completely 100 percent sans eye makeup. God’s honest truth.”


The second funniest moment came when someone asked the creators if they didn’t think they were risking the show all over again with a whole new batch of storylines, including some that were “fraught with peril.”


“You say ‘fraught with peril’ like it’s a bad thing,” Lindelof replied. “We sit around and go, ‘Is it fraught with peril?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Let’s do it!’”

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