I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried." I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play ... what happened?"
-- off-off-off-off Broadway playwright Jeff Slater (played by Bill Murray) in Tootsie
Two of the most important and popular television series of the past decade had their series finales this week. One, Lost, opted for a relentless, rather gooey positive ending, stepping literally in the last into the light. The other, 24, ended in a far darker, essentially shattering place. Spoilers await.
While each series has faded of late, each has been a much-lauded major hit. Lost and 24 both won Emmy Awards as best dramatic series. 24 has earned 68 Emmy nominations in its preceding seven seasons, while Lost has garnered 39 Emmy nominations in the five seasons before this. 24 star Kiefer Sutherland, a best actor winner, has seven nominations as best actor, with Cherry Jones winning for best supporting actress as the show's latest U.S. president. Lost's ensemble has produced two Emmy winners as best supporting actor; the great Terry O'Quinn as the seeker John Locke and Michael Emerson as the nefarious Ben Linus.
After six seasons, Lost ended as it began, shrouded in an aura of pronounced mysterioso, its insistence on being elusive and allusive with regard to its central mythology either endlessly beguiling or endlessly irritating. Or, to some viewers, both.
Not that I watched the show from its beginning for answers to its mysteries, which I figured after a while wouldn't really be forthcoming. (Which in a way added to the show's appeal, because if you can't figure something out you can just have fun playing around with it.) The appealing characters, the beautiful locale, and sheer escapism of the trippy premise were what kept me hooked.
As I wrote here on the Huffington Post when this final season began, I was convinced that the show's producers were toying with the audience, tossing out an endless string of unsolved mysteries and indulging in trapdoor plotting, which culminated in the thoroughly confusing fifth season of seemingly endless unexplained timeshifts.
Still, the show intrigued and its characters appealed. And if I didn't actually expect an explanation for the Island, somehow able to move through time and space and perhaps central to human existence, the Dharma Initiative, or the once seemingly all-important "Numbers," much less the myriad of lesser though once great mysteries that went largely unexplained (polar bears in the South Pacific, Egyptian statues, the centrality of little Walt, etc.), that was all right.
Which brings us to the finale. Which, in a way, was quite wonderful. Almost all the characters (at least those who worked out contractually) we came to know and appreciate had their grace notes and resolutions, much of it quite heartwarming.
Yet the ultimate resolution seemed a cop-out, a descent into a gooey sort of syncretic religiosity and New Age spiritualism that abandoned what had been the show's at first covert science fictionalism.
At the end of Season 5, after all the confusing sudden time travel without aid of a time machine, back in 1977 the valiant Juliet hit the ultimate reset button, setting off a hydrogen bomb near the source of the Island's electromagnetic power to alter the course of events. And in this final season's premiere, we see that the strategy has worked. The fateful Oceanic Flight 815 proceeds in 2004 without incident, and we see that the Island is now submerged.
The cataclysmic "Incident" has caused a branching of the universe, with the original (to us) versions of our main characters finding themselves back on the Island in 2007, where they had been when the timeshifting began. Season 6 proceeds on two tracks: The Island castaways track and the "flash sideways" track in which the airliner never crashed.
Which is all good, except we learn in the finale that the hydrogen bomb detonating next to a vast well of electromagnetic energy didn't change things (Oh, really?) and that the flash sideways timeline we've been watching all season is really a shared consensual hallucination, a purgatory where souls of our characters once they die go to work things out until they come into contact with a very significant other and then they all gather in a church for a nice wrap party before they go into the golden glowing light ... Or something like that.
Well, this is just a massive cheat which I didn't buy either of the two times I watched it. Yet I enjoyed it both times.
Why? Because I like the characters. And the production, which includes Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino's wonderful score, was spectacular.
Once you realize that the plot of Lost is essentially balderdash, an endless string of divertingly intriguing MacGuffins that don't really pay off, you focus on the characters and have fun playing with the mythology.
It simply is not a show like Mad Men, which actually does reward careful attention to detail and speculation about its meaning.
Early on, before all the flash forwards and flash sideways that took up so much of the show's time, there were the lengthy flashbacks. They seemed to be a way for the producers to vamp, to buy time while they spooled out the show's main storyline on the Island.
But unlike the main storyline, they were usually definitive. And the characters shined, so much so that I didn't care too much when the main plot meandered, as it did from the start, or sputtered into incoherence, as it did increasingly after the first three seasons.
Locke, Hurley, Desmond, Jack, Sawyer, Juliet, Kate, Charlie, Sayid and more -- even the benighted Ben Linus -- were all favorite characters at one time or another. It was very pleasant to see their flawed characters grow and end up redeemed and fulfilled. Tears were even formed watching the Lost finale, if not actually shed. It was a happy ending for a sophisticated soap opera with intriguing intellectual motifs.
Now on 24, in contrast, it was never a good idea to grow too fond of the characters. Only one character -- that would be a different Jack, as in Bauer -- made it all the way from the beginning of the series to its end. And only one character, irascibly charming infotech maven Chloe O'Brien, who began in Season 3, survived a series of those terrible endless days to the end by Jack Bauer's side. (With Chloe, at last, running the Counter Terrorist Unit, having come a long way from when the late lamented Bill Buchanan told her: "Chloe, we don't have time for your personality disorder."
All the others ended up sidelined like daughter Kim and stalwart Secret Service agent Aaron Pierce; dead like Buchanan, newfound soulmate Renee Walker, former President David Palmer (memorably played by Dennis Haysbert), wife Teri, and countless others; or ruined like Tony Almeida, former President Wayne Palmer, and longtime love Audrey Raines.
Has any TV series ever been more influential in the real world than 24? I don't think so. Though it was conceived well in advance, in a cultural sense, 24 came to epitomize the reaction to 9/11.
Presidential candidates in both parties, most of them with no military experience, discussed "Jack Bauer scenarios." I remember interviewing a very dodgy Rudy Giuliani about what he insisted on calling "enhanced interrogation techniques."
What to do with the clock ticking down, a devastating terrorist strike on the way, how far to go, where to draw the line, if anywhere at all?
Intelligence work in the real world usually takes time and is often very unexciting. Not to mention uncinematic. The clock isn't always ticking down, and it's psychotic to imagine that it is. And torture, while it sometimes works, is both erratic as a source of information and disastrous as a national policy.
After little use of it in the beginning, the show enshrined torture as a motif, the go-to surefire plot device -- at least when conducted by Jack Bauer -- to unravel the conspiracy and stop it. Well, at least that iteration of it. There were always wheels within wheels within wheels on 24.
After much real world debate, the producers of 24 -- who generally, and ironically, conceived overall plots that were far more indicting of the right than the left -- de-emphasized the torture element of the show. But it all left Jack Bauer a very damaged soul, as we see clearly see in both this finale and over the arc of the series.
All the actions, no matter how justifiable or not, have consequences, most of them quite negative, for most everyone involved. There is no murderous Ben Linus invited into a super-groovy ever-glowing afterlife.
After an uncertain first half of the season, with the audience seriously eroded for good by Fox playing the show through the Winter Olympics, Season 8 kicked into overdrive.
In the end, Jack Bauer cracked, and nearly goes as far as his longtime compadre, the resurrected Tony Almeida, did in Season 7, in a ruthless rampage for revenge. But Chloe, finally, talks him out of it, as Bauer is about to blow away a former American president and current Russian president. The scene in which ex-President Charles Logan (read Nixon), disgraced at home but a player in shadowy international politics draws President Suvarov into Bauer's sniping kill zone, carefully standing a meter away from the Russian as he waits for the bullet to come through the window, imagining that he will not be killed as well, is brilliantly staged.
The plot, as usual for 24, is convoluted, even more convoluted than that of Lost, but fortunately more logically played out. It turns on an historic peace deal between the West and a fictional Islamic power clearly modeled on Iran, playing out at the United Nations. Virtuous U.S. President Alllison Taylor, ably played by Cherry Jones, an Emmy winner for the role last season, sees this as the crucial capstone to her agenda. But the leader of the Islamic republic is assassinated, despite Bauer's best efforts, and the peace deal further endangered when it emerges that Russia is secretly behind the effort to scuttle the deal. (This mirrors, in a funhouse sort of way, real contemporary geopolitics, in which Russia and the U.S. both seek to contain Iran, but Russia wants to keep the U.S. pinned down as much as possible as it re-establishes its historic hegemony around its enormous borders.)
Our president learns the hard way of Russia's hand behind it all when she brings in disgraced ex-President Logan -- who was behind the assassination of ex-President Palmer, an Obama forerunner, and stalwart of 24's early seasons -- forced from office with his deeper crimes covered up.
Logan, a great villain played by Gregory Itzin, a past Emmy nominee for the role, blackmails the Russians with his knowledge of their role into resuming their support of the peace treaty. But as the conspiracy comes ever closer to unraveling, Logan draws President Taylor ever more to the dark side, appealing to her alarming combination of idealism and egotism.
And in the process, again ably invoking one of the 24's enduring conundrums: Do the ends justify the means? And if so, how far can one go until they no longer do?
In the end, with Bauer actually foiled for once, the president, viewing his farewell message to his daughter, has a change of heart and pulls out of the peace deal as she's about to sign. She also decides to resign and remand herself to the attorney general to face charges. And the increasingly unhinged Jack Bauer, who has committed coldblooded murders this time in his zeal for revenge, is badly wounded and nearly killed before being forced to flee the country, with his longtime friend and ally Chloe (the ultimate power nerd, in an always interesting portrayal by Mary Lynn Rajskub) ending the series by shutting off a surveillance drone video feed of Bauer. "Shut it down," she orders, as the screen pixelates and fades to black.
Lost and 24 clearly had their flaws, especially as they went on. Lost was probably at its best in its third season. 24 was at its best in its fifth season. Shows like these are high-wire acts, where it's easy to slip. Or perhaps they are souffles, prone to flatten with the wrong noise. In any event, they are harder to do than even the best of the procedural shows, like NCIS, which is merely the most popular scripted TV series around and does not get nearly the media attention it deserves.
The X-Files probably pulled it off the longest. The problem for X-Files was that it lasted nine seasons instead of six or seven.
But at their best, both 24 and Lost were superb. Lost tantalized with intellectual mystery and delivered with appealing yet realistically flawed characters. 24 delivered adrenaline addict action never before seen on TV, with interesting if frequently overheated politics and one of the most classic anti-heroes in Hollywood history.
Each will live on, of course, in some ways. The studio is already promising "more answers" in the coming boxed sets of Lost.
And 24 is a likely feature film. Perhaps then it will be free of the need to constantly hype things every 15 minutes of time in its universe, an inevitable byproduct of the real time format of the TV show which probably had as much to to do with the extreme tactics employed as the political ideology of any of its producers.
RIP, 24 and Lost. Long may you run.