LOST

LOST 2

Ten years ago today, a man in a suit woke up in a bamboo forest on a strange island in the Pacific ocean, walked out onto a beach, and ran into a scene of pure chaos.

The first scene of LOST, with this man running between pieces of plane wreckage, shouting orders and saving lives while people panic and scream and plane wreckage explodes, is one of the most memorable first scenes of any show in television history. From the very start, it was clear that the show was something different, something special. The beautiful Hawaiian scenery makes it stand out, as does the impressive set piece that opens the series.

The first episode is movie-like in its scale, its cinematography and its budget. Famously, it was the most expensive pilot (hehe) ever made at the time, and the chairman of ABC got fired for pitching and commissioning the show because of its enormous cost – but he got the last laugh. LOST became a massive, unprecedented hit in America and internationally.

Millions of people all over the world waited eagerly for another weekly fix of island mystery, character drama, emotional flashbacks and shocking cliffhangers. Each episode arrived with an enormous amount of hype. Each episode felt like an event. It was appointment television that you had to watch, or you’d miss out on what everyone else was talking about the next day, in real life and online. There hasn’t really been anything like it since, though Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have come close.

Other networks tried to copy LOST‘s success by producing shows with a similar formula: big cast + expensive pilot + high-concept mystery + sci-fi bits + flashbacks = Success. Flashforward and The Event were two such shows, hyped up by networks as the next big thing, but both were cancelled after one season and poor-to-mediocre reviews.

In their desperation to hook the viewer in with a big WTF moment, expensive spectacle and clever use of flashbacks (and forwards), these shows missed what made LOST so great.

Yes, people tuned in for the mysteries and the craziness and the endless twists and turns and big cliffhanger-endings that left viewers with their jaws hanging open and their mind reeling from what they just saw. But what got the audience really invested in the show, especially during the first season, was finding out who these plane crash survivors were.

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The Shield

the shield

The 2000s were chock-full of prestige dramas featuring protagonists that were conflicted, corrupted and very unlikeable. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are two of the most successful and well-known examples of this sort of drama, but there’s one that tends to get overlooked, even though it was one of the first of its kind and one of the best.

The Shield was a tough, dark police drama that focussed on a team of corrupt cops. The team members were very good at their jobs, catching criminals regularly and easily, but their questionable methods made their boss suspicious, and he was determined to bring them down.

I watched all seven seasons of it in a couple of months during that long, long break between the eight and ninth episodes of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season last year. It’s been on Lovefilm/Amazon Instant Video for some time, and this week it suddenly appeared on Netflix, so now’s a good time to check out this unfairly-ignored drama if you haven’t already.

Our ‘hero’ is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the leader of the Strike Team, a team that takes on the toughest crimes and cases in the fictional LA district of Farmington. Operating from an old church that was converted into a police station, Vic is arrogant, charismatic and fond of using brutal methods to get the job done. In the first episode, while in the middle of an interrogation with a suspect who is obviously guilty but smugly insists that he can’t be arrested because there’s no evidence, Vic turns off the camera in the interrogation room and beats the suspect with a phone book until he confesses his crimes.

Unlike, say, Walter White, Vic does not start nice and turn bad. He’s bad from the start, and as the series progresses, he only gets worse and worse. He is a man with a lot of confidence, a lot of greed, a fierce glare that makes even the toughest criminals whimper with fear, a schoolboy sense of humour, a deep love for his family and a need for control that makes him a fantastic and complex main character. You’re not really supposed to want him to succeed, but you do anyway because occasionally he does something really clever and badass.

Vic’s closest friend Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) is another member of the Strike Team. Shane is Vic with more greed and without the charisma or the competence, so he can be repulsive and unpleasant. He clearly wants to be just like Vic, but when he copies Vic’s unorthodox way of policing it doesn’t always end well.

Curtis ‘Lem’ Lemansky (Kenny Johnson) is the most moral member of the Strike Team, always the first to object or hesitate when the Team suggests that they do something particularly unethical. Often comes into conflict with Shane, who has far looser morals and is often the one suggesting the bad idea in the first place.

Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) is the fourth and final member of the team. He says and does so little in the first few seasons that he’s barely a main character, but he rounds out the team nicely and gets plenty of chances to shine later on.

To balance the corruption of the Strike Team and give you characters whom you can root for without feeling bad about it, the show also follows two detectives, Claudette and Dutch, who work together to fight crime by-the-book, along with other officers Julien and Danni.

Police Captain Aceveda (Benito Martinez) is in charge of the Team and the rest of the police force in Farmington. At the start of the series, he recruits another police officer, Detective Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond), and tasks him with infiltrating the Strike Team to get evidence of their misdeeds and send them to jail.

Will he succeed? Will the Strike Team get caught with their hands dirty? That’s what drives the plot of the series from the very start. As the series progresses, the Team finds themselves in deep trouble and watching them panic and scramble and narrowly escape justice, only to end up in even deeper trouble, is thrillingly tense.

The shit hits the fan on a regular basis, and the stress and pressure of covering up their growing number of misdeeds begins to take its toll on the Team’s relationships with each other, their families, and their consciences, and the team are forced to take more and more drastic measures to get away with their crimes. It becomes increasingly clear that this cannot possibly end well for them.

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Fringe

FRINGE

This time last year, the fantastically-freaky sci-fi drama Fringe finished its fifth and final season. Despite becoming a big hit in its first season, the show suffered low viewer numbers and budget cuts in its later years, and it was on the brink of cancellation several times. Fortunately, someone high up at Fox really liked it, and it was granted a fifth season to wrap up its story and take a bow.

The show centred around an agent working for a secret division of the FBI that investigated when weird shit happened. The premise invited plenty of comparisons to The X-Files, and there were certainly similarities. Case-of-the-week episodes where bizarre events occur to innocent people, mixed with the occasional ‘mythology’ episode that shed light on a more complicated, long-term story arc going on in the background, with the female agent that wants to believe working with a sceptical sidekick.

After the first season, during which the show was hit-and-miss and still figuring out what its strengths were, it became its own thing, thanks to the introduction of – well, I don’t really want to say. It’s a key part of what makes the show stand out, and is vital to the plot of the show from the moment it’s introduced, but it’s also a bit of a spoiler – a spoiler which every summary of the show that I’ve seen mentions in the first sentence, but a spoiler nonetheless. I’ll come back to it later.

During the early episodes, when the show was alright, but nothing amazing, and when the characters were still fairly one dimensional (Olivia is cold and stern, Peter is sarcastic, etc), I thought several times about giving up. I’d watched the first twenty minutes of the pilot when it aired on Sky1 before getting bored and changing the channel. When I gave Fringe a second chance a few years later and was slowly making my way through season one, there was really only one reason I was still watching. And that reason is Walter Bishop.

Walter Bishop, one of the greatest fictional characters ever to grace the small screen with his presence. Masterfully played by John Noble (who, unbelievably, never won a single Emmy for his performance in the role. Not even a nomination!), Walter is a mad, old scientist who is released from his mental asylum cell by his son Peter to assist the FBI, specifically agent Olivia Dunham, in the FBI’s newly-formed Fringe Division, dedicated to investigating events that involve ‘fringe science’ – science that is basically a bit weird and paranormal.

Walter, at first, seems like the typical mad scientist character and nothing more, but as we learn more about him, his past mistakes, and his relationship with his son, he becomes a fascinatingly complex character. Lovably goofy eccentric, ruthless evil scientist, tragic and broken old man, he’s all of those things and more. He can make you laugh with a random, nonsensical tangent then suddenly turn into a vulnerable, weeping mess and break your heart.

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Friday Night Lights

Hello, and welcome to this, the first ‘Rewind, Rewatch’ column/feature/thing. I started this for a chance to talk about shows that are no longer on the air, and as an excuse to write hundreds and hundreds of words about how wonderful and amazing they were. As well as acting like a long recommendation for a TV show, it also explains how I came across the show in the first place. Hopefully the feature will get more people to watch these modern classics.

fnl

At first glance, a television show about a group of Texas teenagers and their parents who all really, really like American football doesn’t sound like the most interesting thing in the world. It certainly didn’t to me before I started watching, mainly because I didn’t know anything about American football, or care to find out.¬†Even after watching the series from start to finish, I still only know the very, very basics (touchdown = good, quarterback = important?). So, at the time, it seemed unlikely that a soap/drama centred around a weekly game of high-school American football in a small rural community, probably stuffed with cheesy, sentimental motivational speeches and ‘surprise’ last-minute victories, would appeal to me, or be anything more than dull or mediocre.

It also didn’t help that when I think ‘television show about the lives of people in a small community’, I think of a show about a place where miserable, humourless grumps spend all their time in the local pub yelling and arguing with each other over nothing, a place where every happy occasion is interrupted by some ‘shocking’ melodramatic tragedy, that leads to more misery and shouting – nothing actually interesting really ever happens, but the death rate sky-rockets during the festive season. EastEnders, basically.

The last thing I wanted to watch was an American EastEnders, mixed with a sport I knew or cared little about, and a high-school drama full of love triangles and teens whining about their problems. So many different elements I didn’t like, so much potential for bad acting and overwrought melodrama. No thank you.

Yet it had received glowing reviews, enthusiastic praise and pleas from fans and critics that ‘it’s not just a show about American football, honest, it’s good, it’s really really really good!’ (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea). So, one Tuesday evening, the first episode popped up on Sky Atlantic. There was nothing else on so, hey, why not give it a try? I could be pleasantly surprised if it was any good, or feel smug and superior if it was awful.

One of the best things about Friday Night Lights, for me at least, was that it consistently and thoroughly defied my expectations. Every pre-conceived thought I had about the show was proven to be completely and utterly wrong. Are there big motivational speeches and last-minute victories? Well, yes, plenty of them, last-minute victories, last-minute defeats, last-minute everythings. Are there love triangles and teenagers complaining about their problems? Oh, all the time. And yet, and yet, somehow, through a combination of brilliant performances from actors young and old, great writing that makes conversations seem completely natural, and a a hand-held way of filming that makes you feel like you’re standing in the room, watching over someone’s shoulder, none of these things became annoying or problematic*. Instead, you become immersed in the show’s world.

*(OK, there are some exceptions in Season Two)

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