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"Lost," "Mars": Our Favorite Serial Flavors Are Back
2006-10-04 21:14
by Mark T.R. Donohue

High anticipation can be a counterproductive thing. After waiting all summer for a new "Veronica Mars" episode, the chances that the third-season pilot would meet expectations were almost impossibly low. On the other hand the second season of "Lost" was such a weirdly mixed bag that I didn't know whether I was excited about a new season beginning or not. While "A Tale of Two Cities" was hardly explosive, and didn't use half the returning cast, I think it's easy to take it as a sign that the show is on a firmer footing for this season. Not least the plan to show the whole run without any repeats.

I am going to write about these episodes as if you have seen them. Spoiler alert, and so on.

In the second season "Lost" gave up a lot of momentum by almost punishing the sort of viewer who likes to endlessly scrutinize every last detail of shows like this one. This was an obvious mistake. "Lost" is kind of a remarkable moment in television history because not only has it built a massive audience while catering to these sorts of weirdos but it's even made almost its entire legion of fans into them. In Season Two, paying close attention wasn't at all rewarding because the show either laid things out without ever picking up on them or included random background details (especially during flashbacks) that didn't have any significance at all; they were just there to be noticed. There's only so long you can get away with doing that without exhausting your fans.

"A Tale of Two Cities" didn't tell us anything, really, except that the Others live in nice houses and have a book club. And a gazebo. And a shark tank. If you'd told me before the premiere aired that I was going to watch an episode that didn't have Hurley, Michael, Walt, Sayid, Jin, Locke, Eko, Charlie, Desmond, or Sun in it AND featured an umpteenth tedious Jack flashback, I might have given up and played the new FIFA game for a few more hours instead. However...on a show that keeps as much up its sleeve as "Lost" does, what's most important is getting to the viewer to buy back into the idea that it's all going to make sense one day. What's fun about the show is spinning your own theories, applying significance to clues, and trying to predict what's happened next. When you start to get the feeling that there's no point in trying to apply a logical framework to all of these crazy island goings-on because the writers haven't bothered to, a lot of the air goes out of the balloon. Watching this new episode I felt sucked back in.

They've turned over the cast quite a bit, which given the show's initial premise is pretty impressive. It's quite striking how much the show has changed since its initial few episodes. Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond) is now a regular. So is Michael Emerson, who plays Henry, only now we think his name is Ben. He's the third person we've been led to believe is the leader of the Others, after Beard Guy and the unfortunately named Ms. Clue. I hope that this time it sticks, because Emerson is one effectively creepy, manipulative dude. Elizabeth Mitchell is an entirely new addition who jumps right in with a big role in the first episode. She's Juliet, a sympathetic, though definitely complicit Other who might be a doctor. Someone named Kiele Sanchez is listed in the credits and IMDb says she plays Nikki but I didn't spot her in this one. I guess she's another Other. Heh heh, another Other. Rodrigo Santoro is in the cast list but IMDb doesn't even have a name for his character yet. Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Watros are out of the credits, obviously, since they're dead. Harold Perrineau and Malcolm David Kelley are out as well. Perrineau will be missed, but this doesn't come as much of a surprise. They really wrote his character into a corner last season what with the whole murdering his friends thing. I doubt we've seen the last of Michael and Walt entirely, but we'll see what happens. It's certainly a bit of a surprise given how important Walt was made to seem in the early episodes and the Others' obsession with him in the second season.

As for what we do see in the first episode, it's interesting the choices the writers make as to where to put Saywer, Jack, and Kate after their kidnappings. Sawyer ends up in a monkey cage, Jack is put in a rejected set from Saw III, and Kate is placed in a locker room shower. Yep, makes sense to me. Some sort of connection between the Others and the Dharma Initiative is strongly implied. Or at least Juliet wishes Jack to get that impression. The less said about the flashbacks in this episode, besides the nifty one right at the beginning, the better. At this point there can't possibly be anything new left to learn about Jack and his terrible, awful, no good, very bad father. I think what the writers were trying to do with this particular flashback, which involved Jack suspecting that his father was shacking up with his estranged wife only to be wrong, was point out that horrible relationships with your parents are a two-way street. Only, we know this already. The effect is similar to all of the Season Two episodes about Locke witlessly encouraging his father's reprehensible behavior. Digging up material that was subtext in earlier flashbacks and presenting it proudly as new text is hardly forward progress. That's the whole function of the flashbacks now: they allow the writers to fill fully half of each episode without actually presenting any new information. They're like bartenders who water down their drinks.

Still, the first few minutes of this episode reminded us beautifully of why we got hooked on "Lost" in the first place: mystery! Stunning revelations! Preconceptions overturned! We see a bucolic suburban scene, with some painfully pleasant-looking suburban people discussing the book they've all read. Suddenly the earth shakes, they run outside, and there it is, Oceanic Flight 815, splittin' in two and crashing in the way only Oceanic Flight 815 can. It's the island! Henry is on the scene, and he takes charge. Henry seems to know immediately that there will be survivors. He sends some villagers off to investigate, giving them specific instructions to pose as crash survivors. It's always nice to see Ethan again, that two-timing Canuck so-and-so. So what does all of this mean? The second season hinted strongly that the Others were not living in the squalor they wished the crash survivors to believe. However, my expectation was that they were living in some kind of science facility, a less-neglected version of the various hatches. Last season's big Claire episode "Maternity Leave" certainly suggested this. Clearly their society is more complex still. In Juliet's scenes with the imprisoned Jack she gives the impression that the Others' village can communicate with the outside world. They definitely have very complete dossiers on all of the crash survivors. Also, the cage in which they shove Sawyer for this episode used to house bears. Polar bears? The fish-shaped food Sawyer finds certainly supports it. So, they're Canadian, they like to play dress-up, they have a book club, and they enjoy keeping polar bears as pets then releasing them to terrify and confuse innocent plane crash survivors. Diabolical.

The first "Veronica Mars" episode was genuinely bad for the first several minutes; I was watching in horror. They even remixed the Dandy Warhols' theme song for no good reason and replaced the cool, kinetic old credits with new arty-awful ones. As much as I like "Gilmore Girls," "Supernatural," and "Everybody Hates Chris," if the CW network had managed to ruin "Mars," I would become their enemy forever. Then the first Keith-Veronica scene showed up and everything was all right. Man, I wish Keith was my dad. Of course, then I would be having all sorts of wrong kinds of feelings about my sister. Which means at least I'd fit right in on the world of this show.

"Welcome Wagon" was a very slow episode, somewhat reminiscent of the second-season premiere except without the confusing flashback structure (probably in the vain hope that the new network will bring in some new viewers). The problem was that while "Normal is the Watchword" did feature a rather boring mystery-of-the-week, just like "Welcome Wagon," it was leading up to the shocking and effective reveal of the season's main storyline, the bus crash. Season Three isn't going to have a single major mystery for the whole season. There are going to be three smaller ones. The first one was one that was already introduced in the second season, about an on-campus rapist who shaves girls' heads. That made the shock ending at the end of "Welcome Wagon" utterly unshocking. Particularly because the character of Parker (Julie Gonzalo), Mac's roommate and a new regular, was so obviously painted as unsympathetic during the course of the episode that it was almost a foregone conclusion that something bad was going to happen to her by the show's close.

The other new cast member is Piz (Chris Lowell), Wallace's roommate, and the jury's still out on him. He's kind of a generic granola-eatin' guitar-playin' stoner dude, but it is awfully nice to see the often-emasculated Wallace given a new male foil. Lowell is more likable than his character, and I like the way he played Piz's disappointment when he found out Veronica was seeing Logan, but he's hard to buy as a possible love interest going forward. He's so not her type. Cheers to Ryan Hansen, who after two seasons of playing an insensitive clod had to negotiate some tough material involving Dick's reaction to his brother Beaver's suicide (and multiple murders). Hansen's performance in the episode deserved better company than a slow Keith storyline and a predictable mystery involving the theft of Piz's guitar for Veronica to solve.

On the other hand, there was a lot to like about "Welcome Wagon." I adore that Veronica is taking a criminology class from a professor and TA she obviously knows more than. I loved Hearst College's rather striking similarities to UC Sunnydale, which itself looked a lot like UCLA. Well, you know, there were only so many architects in California to go around when they were all built. Piz and Wallace had a very funny scene where they pretended to play hacky sack near a field of sunbathers. I'm ecstatic that Tina Majorino and Michael Muhney are regulars now, even though Mac got a little lost in the shuffle in this one and Sheriff Lamb didn't appear at all. Every time you think Jason Dohring is going to manage to get through an entire episode without doing something interesting he proves you wrong right before the credits. Here it was Logan's scene with Dick at the very end...nice body language.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the switch to more medium-sized mystery arcs, but there is one thing "Veronica Mars" has in common with its obvious inspiration, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer": even the terrible episodes are made totally watchable by the great dialogue and the pretty cast. Speaking of pretty cast, they killed off Kendall Casablancas. Pity.

2006-10-06 22:07:23
1.   Voxter
Yeah, but is Kendall really dead? We never saw her body.

I felt much better about the Season 3 opener than you did in general, but it did start of slow. And Veronica is still my
TV girlfriend.

2006-10-09 12:30:39
2.   neal
Hey mark,
I've been reading Bad Altitude for a while and saw your name but never made the connection to the 'westy' days.

Long live WstrnHms!

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