Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time # 1

So let us review our list of top 25 TV Dramas of all time thus far:

25. The Flash
24.  24
23.  Daredevil
22.  Broadchurch
21.  Star Trek
20.  Sherlock
19.  Dawson's Creek
18.  Quantum Leap
17.  Angel
16.  Alias
15.  Law & Order
14.  Firefly
13.  Star Trek: The Next Generation
12.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
11.  Arrow
10.  Doctor Who
9.  Gilmore Girls
8.  Veronica Mars
7.  The Walking Dead
6.  Fargo
5.  Freaks and Geeks
4.  Battlestar Galactica
3.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer
2.  Breaking Bad

And so now we have arrived at the number one best TV drama of all time.  I had the opportunity to re-watch the entire series once again in preparation for this final article and I am very confident in my judgment that the best TV drama ever made is:

Image result for lost tv show


I have never seen a show like Lost.

I don't think I will ever see another show like Lost.

In order to understand my absolute enchantment with this show you have to understand something about me: I love magic.

I'm not talking about the elements of legends and lore like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (though I love that as well).  I'm talking about the art of the illusionist.  It is a rare thing because the enjoyment of that art is found in its ability to deceive.  When I go to see a stage magician I don't want to be able to figure out how they are going to do their trick or how they have done it.  I want to be surprised and mesmerized.

And that is one of the main reasons I love Lost.

The series starts off as a high concept show that makes it stand out from most prime-time fare.  Survivors of a plane crash are stuck on a mysterious island.  The first 7-and-a-half minutes of the show are the best first 7-and-a-half minutes of any show I have ever seen.  It was mysterious and dangerous and exciting.

The show also did something unthinkable: it started with 14 main characters.  That is way too many and shouldn't work even a little bit.  It would leave too little time for any serious character development for any of them and the show would have to scale back and focus on only a few.  But they didn't do that.  Instead they threw all 14 of them into this crazy blender and slowly revealed who they were through their actions and through the extensive use of flashbacks.

In another incredible feat, the entire cast was incredibly distinctive in look and character.  It is shocking how quickly we came to know each individual person and their personality.  We started with:

Jack - headstrong doctor and natural leader
Locke - mysterious and dangerous man of belief
Kate - brave tough woman
Sawyer - villainous, hoarding con man
Hurley - fat, funny comic relief
Sayid - Iraqi tech genius
Boone - impetuous wanna be leader
Shannon - spoiled rich girl
Sun - shy Korean wife
Jin - controlling and possibly abusive husband
Michael - struggling single father
Walt - innocent who may have special powers
Charlie - drug-addicted rock musician
Claire - young pregnant girl

Many people noted the incredibly diverse cast.  What I note about it is how unnotable it is.  Nothing about the diversity feels like it is either politically correct quota-filling and it does not belabor the racial differences (except with Sayid in the first season when the show was airing while troops were fighting in Iraq).  Race was acknowledged but then dismissed as anything essential to the human person, which was quite refreshing for a modern show.

Somewhere around the middle of the fourth episode I thought I had everyone figured out.  I could see the trajectory of their story arcs and the eventual movement of the plot.  It deduced that it was going to turn into something like Lord of the Flies and The Stand with other sci-elements involved where these characters would divide into camps of good and evil.

Thankfully I was way off base.

While there are elements like the above I mentioned, the show managed to throw out so many of my expectations, especially in terms of character.  So much of what I thought I knew turned out to be untrue.  I believe this was completely intentional.  The creators, particularly JJ Abrams, played with first impressions and regular TV tropes and expectations and twisted them.  He pulled off some real storytelling magic.  I was tricked and I loved it.

And this was done with great care to the characters so that the surprises did not seem artificial.  By using the flashbacks, the show added layers and layers of character development that informed how they acted on the island.  And it was immensely satisfying to watch the characters grow, develop, or even devolve due to the events on the island.  I never expected the story developments I found in characters like Jin, who I wrote off as one-dimensional obstacle to Sun's development.  And I never imagined Hurley developing from the one-note joke he was in the first episodes into what he became by the end of his character's run.   But watching Jack's change from the beginning to the end of the series was so enlightening to me.  Aristotle said plot is character expressed in action.  Lost understood that everything about the show's outlandish plot revolved around making characters to whom we became deeply attached.

The acting is also some of the best I have seen on TV.  I mentioned before that Bryan Cranston is possibly the greatest TV actor of all time.  But close to him I would have to put Terry O'Quinn as John Locke.  His body of work on the show is a tour-de-force of power, passion, weakness, despair, and confidence.  He plays all of those contradictions in a way that attracts us to him even at times when we should be repulsed.  There was always something more going on behind that amazing charisma.  But Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Jorge Garcia, Josh Holloway, and so many others brought their A-game to their performances.  (Maggie Grace comes off a bit artificial but that may be partly due to the shallowness of how her character was written)

From an artistic point of view, the show had an amazing cinematic style.  The special effects were great (for television), and they spent a lot of time making the shots capture the epic vistas and the emotional cataclysms.  I love how expertly they move the camera around in a shot to maximized the emotional effect.

And that is part of the show's brilliance as well: the emotion.  Every artistic choice was made to maximize the emotional impact of the story, whether it was the cinematography, the acting, the set design or the music.  Special mention should be made here for Michael Gianchinno's absolutely beautiful score.  It is one of the finest, most evocative orchestrations and I have ever heard in the visual arts.  The "Shepherd's Theme" is so simple and profound.  And his finale "Moving On" never fails to stir my spirit.

The show also had a rich mythology that kept pulling you in.  Abrams calls this storytelling principle the "Mystery Box."  This means that you draw the audience in with a mystery, but the answer to that mystery leads to more questions and then those answers lead to more questions, and so on and so forth.  That is a fantastic way to hook the viewer.  For those who watched the show, remember how intriguing it was to hear about things like, "The Others" or "The Black Rock?"  

However, the "Mystery Box" principle is a good way to start a story, but a terrible way to carry it and finish it.  If you leave your audience hanging too long, they will get too frustrated.  That is why so much more of Lost's ultimate success and why it wasn't just a flash in the pan (like Heroes) is because of Damon Lindoff and Carlton Cuse who took over the show (though Lindoff was there from the beginning).  They understood something incredibly important regarding the show's main mystery: no answer would completely satisfy the audience.  But they had to give the most satisfying answer possible.  Their method of answering this problem was simple and brilliant: begin with the end in mind.

It is very clear that when JJ Abrams began this show, he did not have answers as to what the island was, what was the monster, who are the others, what was in the hatch, etc.  For three seasons Lost kept adding mystery on top of mystery.  But Lindoff and Cuse began the fourth season by announcing that the show was going end in season six.  Keep in mind, season three had the highest ratings of the entire series and the show could have gone on for a decade like X-Files.  But by making this choice, the creators now had a target to reach.  All of their storytelling elements were about inserting plot points that they planned to resolve by the end.  And no, not every single question gets answered (nor should it).  But you can see the years-long planning that went in to getting the characters to the last four episodes.

A great mystery should have an ending that is surprising and inevitable.  And that is how Lost played it out.  I would feel so smart if I was able to figure out one of the key mysteries years in advance, but most of the time I was off.  (As a point of pride, I figured out something that no one I talked to and no one on the internet at the time that I saw had figured out either.  I felt smart for once).

But to go a level even deeper: Lost is the most Catholic show I have seen in modern television.

There are some who will object to this statement and I do understand.  The two places to attack my position best would be to point out the sexual content typical of most things on prime-time television (particularly of unmarried couples) and the fact that most of the spirituality brought up is very generic and pan-religious.  Let me address these two objections head-on and then give you my reasons for thinking Lost to be unmistakably Catholic.

Yes, there are a number of sexual encounters outside of marriage that occur on the show, but much, much less than on typical prime time.  But it needs to be remembered that, especially towards the beginning of the show, the main characters are all deeply flawed and broken in some way.  Quite often, these sexual encounters are a demonstration of that brokenness.  Also I noticed that often when these encounters happen, something very sad and tragic follows.  These illicit sexual encounters have a very brief euphoric shelf life until sadness enters in.  In addition to this, marriage is help up as the ideal expression of these relationships and the best and strongest romances are the ones bound by matrimony.  And in an age when homosexual relationships are highlighted and strenuously promoted on TV, on Lost it only comes up once (to my recollection) and it is so tangential to the story that it has little impact on the sexual morality of the show.

As to the second objection regarding the bland non-denominational nature of the religious images: I have to make a cultural point here.  There are many people who immediately become closed off at the mention of Christianity and orthodoxy spirituality.  An interior wall often goes up that makes it difficult for the storyteller to convey the tale.  The show itself acknowledges this when someone says something that sounds like religious advice, the other characters become interiorly defensive at the idea of a sermon.  By talking about spirituality in a general sense rather than specially Catholic, the show can convey very Catholic ideas.

Tolkien understood this when he wrote The Lord of the Rings when he was very careful not to include any religion in the story so that his Catholic faith could be conveyed to the reader unopposed.  CS Lewis was able to bring in these themes by transposing them to the magical land of Narnia.  But Lost takes place in our world and in a place of many religions.  By allowing for expressions of other faiths (Sayid's Islam, Hinduism in the Dharma Initiative), the creators were able to include other specifically Catholic elements like characters who are Catholic monks and priests and include talk of King Josiah and St. Thomas the Apostle.  And in those extreme moments on the show, you have beautiful Catholic expressions like someone making the sign on the cross right before they die.

And I defy anyone to watch the final season of Lost and not find deeply Catholic imagery.  The sacramental nature of the last four episodes alone was enough to convince me of how rooted the show is in the truths of the Catholic faith.  See the use of the blood and water, the blessings, the cup, the light, the original sin, the sacrifice, the salvation and redemption.

The show was a constant struggle between faith versus sin, doubt, and bad faith.  Just when belief seemed possible in something magical occurring on the island, that belief was snatched away by some scientific alternative explanation or some seemingly pointless tragedy.  And in that way it mirrored the world in which we Catholics experience our faith.  Most struggle with faith, hope, and love in a world that makes it so difficult to believe, and to see the good, and do the good.  And in this fallen world, there is no victory without sacrifice.  To attain the glory, we must take up the cross.

Which brings me to the final point about this show: it is transcendent.

For six years I thought I was watching one kind of show.  And though it evolved, I was not prepared for its ultimate message.  Much of what I thought I understood turned out to be me my own faulty perception and I realized I completely missed the most important things.   That is part of the magic trick.  The show made my thoughts move from simple entertainment to deeper thoughts of philosophy and beauty and then finally directed me to something even higher.   I have since re-watched much of that final season and it still fills me with wonder like no other show ever has and I don't believe ever will.

Sometimes it takes a few episodes to really understand what it is that you are watching.  The pilot to Lost was fantastic, but I've talked to a lot of people who say that the first Locke-centric episode, "Walkabout," is the moment that the penny dropped and they understood what the show really was.  I remember seeing the episode and being enthralled by Terry O'Quinn's performance.  But when the big reveal happens at the end I felt exhilaration and the thrill of the unexpected.  "If this show can do this to me on a regular basis, I will keep coming back," I thought.  Looking back at the episodes before, I now understood the groundwork that was laid to work on such a high-concept show.

By this point in the series, many of our main characters were separated on the Island and there was a strong sense of disconnection in the story.  To make matters worse, the creators of the show tried to foist two terrible characters on us: Nikki and Paulo.  Other characters had been introduced in very organic ways.  And we didn't mind focus an entire episode on non-main characters like Rose and Bernard.  But Nikki and Paulo were introduced to us as background characters that we just didn't notice from the beginning.  On top of that, they were incredibly unlikeable.  All of this led to a perfect storm when this Nikki/Paulo-centric episode hit the airwaves it began to feel like the show was running out of steam.  But then...

"Through the Looking Glass"
Seven episodes later, Lost did an amazing course correction.  This was the turning point of the series where everything changed.  All the old tropes they had used before and began to seem tired, like the flashbacks, suddenly took on a whole new meaning.  The anticipations we were feeling came from a much different perspective.  I remember the moment it dawned on me what I was watching and I was shocked that the producers were willing to so radically change the formula of the show.  And that made all the difference.

(see above)

"The End"
In the last few seasons, Lost became a teleological show: it all became about the ending.  So the show had to deliver.  And it did.  I have been trying my best to keep as free from spoilers as I can, and I will continue to do so here.  But it is very difficult to convey what was so moving about this episode without ruining it.  First of all, the show understood that finales are not the place to do something edgy and hip (like the horrible Sopranos finale).  Instead, finales are a place where you say goodbye to characters you know and love.  Second, the episode was an incredible mixture of action, humor, melodrama, and mysticism.  It closed the loop on so many character arcs and relationships.  Third, the finale had such an amazing cinematic symmetry.  If I said that Lost had the greatest opening 7-and-a-half minutes of any show, it also has the greatest final 7-and-a-half minutes of any show.  When the penny finally dropped for me, Lost went from being profound to something so rare on television: it was sublime.


Lost is a show the likes of which I don't think I will ever see again.  Many people tried to duplicate its high concept, its large ensemble, philosophical jargon, its transcendent spirituality, but none have ever come close.  This show opened up a whole new window into life and truth and I cannot think of a higher compliment than that.

I am so glad I found Lost.


  1. Don't forget the "Life and Death" musical piece!

    Completely agree on the "Expose" episode; that's the only one I skip. I would put "The Constant" as my favorite though; all-around brilliant. Desmond was my favorite character until he went bland in season 6, which I would say is my least favorite season behind 3. But maybe now I can watch it with a new perspective.

    Also, the last episode is the only visual art that's so far gotten me to bawl my eyes out.

    1. The Constant was a great episode and should be in the top 10. And I agree about the finale. I turn into a big crying ball of feels when I watch it

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