[6 January 2011]
Conspiracies on television are nothing new. But secret, usually evil, plots dominated TV drama in 2010, from Lost, Rubicon, and Persons Unknown to 24, V, Flashforward, and Terriers.
24‘s final season started off strong but gradually went off of the rails. Regardless of season, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) always had to run around whatever city he was in and convince the higher-ups that there was something bad going on. Usually he was ignored until it was almost too late. Season 8 was ridiculously convoluted, piling on the layers and plot twists. A scheme to assassinate a foreign leader led to a threat to New York City involving poison gas, Russian mobsters, and finally, an evil Russian conspiracy that went straight to the top. Said conspiracy directly involved 24‘s best villain, the slimy ex-President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin). But his inclusion forced formerly upstanding President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) to act wildly out of character. It all ended with Jack Bauer basically going crazy and committing high treason in the name of Doing the Right Thing (and avenging his murdered girlfriend). The series finale provided very little closure, presumably because a 24 theatrical film is already in the works.
ABC’s V and Flashforward both got off to great beginnings with audiences then lost those audiences. Hiatuses that kept both shows off the air for roughly three months in the middle of their seasons had something to do with this. Creatively, both shows had their issues. V‘s conspiracy came from the alien invaders. Although they presented themselves to the people of Earth as friends, it was clear from the very beginning that the “visitors” had sinister plans. As Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) led a very small band of resistance fighters trying to expose the aliens’ plans, the show had a difficult time revealing those plans, so we didn’t really know what she was fighting against. This led to a lot of very talky episodes where the resistance tried to figure out what to do, until the season finale, when things finally took off. V returns 4 January, when the pacing might be adjusted. Not that I’m particularly confident about that.
Flashforward, on the other hand, squandered a great premise: every person on Earth passed out for two minutes and had a vision of his or her own future in six months. When some discovered that a handful of others were actually awake during the blackout and responsible for it (including the deaths of millions), Flashforward provided a great conspiracy hook. But the show tried to be everything to everyone and was worse for it. The FBI’s investigation led down interesting pathways, but there were too many other characters involved in soap operas that led to narrative dead ends. Behind the scenes, Flashforward burned through three different showrunners over one season, each with the bad plotlines and no recourse for getting out of them. Since we’d already seen the flashforwards, the show had to follow those characters until that day, six months in the future. It was a shame, too, because late in the season, when the show went all-out gonzo sci-fi, it was pretty great.
FX’s Terriers was a huge creative success from episode one. Sadly, a terrible marketing campaign and a difficult-to-sell mix of drama and comedy kept it from ever finding an audience. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James played a couple of unlicensed San Diego-area private detectives who stumbled onto a case way bigger than they expected. The show balanced all of its elements deftly, and kept its conspiracy, involving shady land deals and a trail of dead bodies, mostly on the edges except for when it directly affected the principals. This is another one of those cancelled shows that is going to be gradually discovered on DVD, Netflix, etc., and people are going to wonder why they missed out on it when it first aired.
Which brings us to Rubicon. AMC’s show had a difficult launch, losing creator Jason Horwitch after the first episode was shot. Fortunately, producer Henry Bromell picked up the show and shepherded it through a mostly great season. James Badge Dale played Will Travers, an analyst at the American Policy Institute, an independent think tank that analyzed intelligence data and gave conclusions to the CIA, NSA, and FBI. The season started when Will’s boss/father-in-law was killed in a train crash, leaving behind subtle clues to show that his death was not an accident. The key word there is subtle. Rubicon‘s conspiracy was so well-hidden that Will’s progress on it inched along for the first half of the season.
That inching along may have put off viewers. AMC has established itself, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as a go-to network for thoughtful dramatic television. Rubicon was a spy show with a very different focus than most. Instead of being about agents on dangerous missions, the show focused on the analysts in a squat brick building that pored through hundreds of pages of data to try and make tenuous connections. The less glamorous side of intelligence work almost never gets the spotlight, and it set the show apart from every other spy show, ever. What Rubicon really turned out to be was a workplace drama with a side of conspiracy. It was fascinating, but the pacing was slow. Patience is a quality in short supply with TV viewers, so it’s no surprise that the show was cancelled. This is another one that will play out better on DVD, when viewers don’t have to wait a week for the next episode.
Persons Unknown may have been the year’s biggest mystery-based debacle. I can’t say for sure because I couldn’t bring myself to watch The Event after NBC’s terrible marketing campaign (“The plane crash is not The Event. The Presidential Assassination plot is not The Event. The earthquake is not The Event. What Is The Event?” Sorry, I already don’t care). But a friend of mine nailed it when he said, “Persons Unknown is the worst show I’ve ever watched all the way through.” The show ran on NBC in the summer, and I suspect the only reason it wasn’t pulled off the air was because NBC really didn’t have anything else to replace it.
The premise was that random citizens were kidnapped from their lives and placed in a two-block facsimile of a classic American downtown. They all woke up in a hotel with no knowledge of how they got there or where the town was located. The only other people in the town were a night manager at the hotel and a fully staffed Chinese restaurant. Oh, and there were cameras everywhere, recording their every move, and there was a deadly electrical force field surrounding the town.
It’s a nice setup, right? Created by The Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie, the show went on to undermine all that, but stayed just interesting enough to keep a few hangers-on watching to the end. It promised that by the end of the 13-episode season, the conspiracy would be fully untangled. So we watched as eight strangers, most either boring or unlikable, got to know each other. They alternately struggled to get out of the town or moped around, bummed that they couldn’t get out of the town. Meanwhile, a pair of tabloid reporters in San Francisco tried, mostly futilely, to sort out the mystery, meaning that people had disappeared and nobody seemed interested in pursuing the cases.
As the victims in town argued all summer, it was like watching a scripted Big Brother. One of these was Janet (Daisy Betts), revealed eventually to have more “potential” than any other kidnapee. But no matter how much the show told us she was special, it utterly failed to show it. Janet was reasonably good-looking, maybe slightly above average in intelligence, and she loved her young daughter. But there was nothing to set her apart from her fellows. Maybe it was plausible Joe (Jason Wiles) fell for her, but it made no sense for two other men to become instantly smitten with her—smitten and obsessed to the point where they betrayed their own conspiracy. Such plot turns were increasingly bizarre as Persons Unknown limped toward a conclusion that made it obvious the producers had no intention of wrapping things up.
Instead, the show introduced the usually bald character actor Robert Picardo in a flowing white wig as a surprise conspirator, brought one of the reporters into the town with a new group of strangers, and sent our main group to “Level 2” of the conspiracy. They woke up together on a tanker ship in the middle of the North Sea—near where we felt while watching.
Lost was an exponentially more successful conspiracy show—even given the fact that it was less about conspiracies than mysteries throughout its six-year run. Lost started with a bracing two-hour premiere in September of 2004, and ended with a whopper of a two-and-a-half-hour finale in May of 2010, exactly where its creators planned. And let’s be clear: shows with a whiff of fantasy or science fiction rarely get to end on their own terms, especially on major broadcast networks. (The most recent example is probably The X-Files, which began brilliantly, then ran out of steam about halfway through Season Six, only to die three seasons later.)
The effort to maintain Lost‘s integrity was calculated. When the show as a hit out of the gate and stayed that way through the beginning of Season Three, producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse successfully negotiated an endpoint with ABC. During the final season, they used the sideways world to look at their characters in different contexts, a sort of “What if the plane never crashed on the Island?” As they essentially came back from the dead, their plotlines became character studies. At the same time, battle lines were drawn as those loyal to Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) fumbled around trying to stop The Man in Black (Titus Welliver). Jacob was always a soft touch for the crash survivors, so it was difficult for them to believe in him. The Man in Black, on the other hand, was very direct once he revealed himself. He promised everyone a way off of the Island.
The action on the Island moved along during the final season, providing answers to many questions. But so many mysteries arose over the course of the show that some had to be left open. At least that’s what Lindelof and Cuse claimed, and I tend to agree with them. Still, it was a tough pill to swallow for fans who felt like they’d invested time and energy through six years. And really, the sideways world was a bit of a cheat, accommodating early theories that the Island was a form of purgatory, and that the characters had all died in the plane crash. Lindelof and Cuse had denied this all along, and then, it was a sort of purgatory, where the characters met up after they died and before they entered the hereafter.
Still, the final season of Lost was a complete joy to watch. I thrilled at some of the explanations and scratched my head at others, but it was a great ride. Every week was full of new revelations and great twists, and disparate strands did mostly come together at the end. Such deft storytelling ensures Lost will be watched and rewatched for decades to come.