The accused: Lost, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (Season 3, Episode 9)
The crime: Proving that the Lost creative team had no “real plan” to tell their story.
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
This is a feature I have had kicking around for a while now, but it seemed fitting to jump-start the same week that I am participating in In Media Res’ “TV Failures” theme week. If you head over there, you can check out my entry for the theme, which consequently calls for the kind of analysis of episodic disasters that I hope to provide here with this feature. That post is more or less the opening justification paragraphs to what I hope this feature will start doing every other week. Similarly, the episode I mention in that IMR post is the same one I’ll be analyzing here today: Lost’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
When I randomly sit down to watch some season three of Lost a few months ago, I almost could not bring myself to watch ”Stranger.” Ever since I bought the third season on DVD, I always skipped that episode. Watching “Stranger in a Strange Land” live in 2007 was the first time I actually lost confidence in Lost’s cast and crew. I was fine with the dark and twisty second season and did not really mind the six-episode cage-centric pod that kicked off the third season. But the fact that the writers built an entire episode around how and where Jack got his tattoos was just too terrible for even the biggest Lost to ignore. This was especially true considering “Stranger” followed two of the series’ all-time great episodes in “Not in Portland” and “Flashes Before Your Eyes.” From 2007 onward, just hearing the episode’s title or its description made me flinch and fill with rage as if I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
But a few months ago, I bit the bullet and did not skip onwards to “Tricia Tanaka is Dead.” And in that moment, this feature was born. I hope you like it.
In the modern era of quality television, there is supposedly nothing more important than “having a plan.” Nowhere was this more true than with Lost, the series that rejuvenated an entire broadcast network and spurred dozens of hackneyed imitators. From the first moment that Oceanic 815 crashed on the island, those tall trees starting shaking and a weird noise came from the jungle, viewers were hooked. Unfortunately, the problem with attracting millions of fans is that most of them are going to want to think the destination was worth the journey. If you cannot stick the landing, what’s the point, right?
The fans, in all of their misguided rage, do have the right to feel that way. No matter what they say, no one would willfully sign up for six years of intrigue just to be smacked in the face with a sock full of nickels at the very end of that trip. Well, at least I hope not.
But the fan desires to be fully rewarded for years of dedicated consumption (in time, money and whatever else) directly clash with the business of American television. Rarely do business practices conflate with artistic desires. Of course, this means that television series rarely get to plan an ending and write towards. Too often, series are either canceled unceremoniously without any real conclusion or slowly lose quality like a deflating balloon until there is no one left to care about making the ending matter anyway. Television, it’s a fickle bitch.
No recent television series exemplifies this tension between business and artistry more than Lost. From the very beginning, the series was powered by a mystery wrapped in an enigma with a giant question mark bow put on top. And before you start ranting about how the series was really “about the characters,” let me just stop you. I loved the characters too, but most of those 17 million viewers were not tuning in to see inside the broken psyches of Jack, Kate, Sawyer and Hurley. It is not a provable fact, but if there is ever time to make assumptions, it is in this case.
In any event, by the end of the second season, Lost had introduced so many intriguing mysteries and questions that it appeared that it would take at least three full seasons to even answer them all.* Coming into season three, the writers had just introduced the Four-Toed Statue, pulled back the curtain on the sketchy Others and blown up the hatch that was supposed to keep the entire world safe. So naturally, when Lost returned for a third season, it spent most of the first six episode with its three main characters literally stuck in cages and cells, wondering why they were even there and what the point of it all was. You know, just like most of the people in the audience.
*Of course, that was when we were all working with the assumption that they would ATTEMPT to answer all the questions. Ha.
After the aforementioned break, Lost returned for what was to be 16-straight episodes with no repeats. Two awesome episodes kicked off that pod, but then came “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Part of having a plan means answering all the questions the fans think need to be answered and for whatever reason, the fact that Matthew Fox had visible tattoos and his character never outwardly mentioned them meant that IT WAS A MYSTERY. I remember that I had a few friends who were convinced that Jack’s tattoos held the answers to so many questions. In that respect, dedicating an entire episode to body art was actually part of “the larger plan.” Or at least it could be marketed as such. This was especially effective in the early spring of 2007, where Lost had, well, lost some of its luster so that critics and fans could spend time praising the faster-paced and supposedly better-developed Heroes. Lost looked especially slow and cumbersome in comparison to NBC’s new superhero series that had cool taglines and the benefit of knowing what to say in the press (i.e. “We’re not Lost.”). It is obviously hilarious to think about now, but there was a time that society was close to determining that Heroes was a better series than Lost – and that was somewhere right around “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Watching it now, “Stranger in a Strange Land” feels like a massive cry for help at best and an intentional tank-job at worst. Somewhere in the middle, we might call it an odd performance art about the stresses of writing a serial television program on broadcast television. Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse often cite the six-episode pod that kicked off as the place where they realized something needed to change with how many episodes of the series remained, but I do not think any episodes evokes that directive more than “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Not only is the entire flashback story dedicated to Jack’s aimless towards tattoo’d infamy, but it heavily features Bai Ling, one of the most hated people on planet Earth. There is no way you write this story and cast that actress if you’re still purposefully trying to make a good television series. For most of the story, Jack sulks around, breathing heavily, trying to figure out exactly what his
island fling does for a living. He assumes she’s a hooker, but it is much, much worse: SHE’S A TATTOO ARTIST. With a gift. Or something. From there, Jack’s worst tendencies take over, as he pushes his female companion to give him some ink, even though it’s not allowed. I understand that this is supposed to show us how dejected and down Jack was after losing his wife while emphasizing his bullheaded-ness we see on the island.
But mostly the story serves as a way for the writers to shake the massive bear cage full of fans: “YOU WANTED ANSWERS?, HERE YOU GO.” Oddly, the story also nicely reflects the relationship between writers and fans. Thailand and its mysterious people represent the Lost world. Jack is our audience proxy, initially charmed and overwhelmed by this new world’s spoils, but eventually too curious for his own good with the desire to know everything and know it right now. And Achara represents the production team, who are willing to pleasure us, but only so much and so far until we really get to know one another. Her gift of tattoo artistry is their gift of crafting this story and at that point in both relationships, Jack could not know and we could not know. And when Jack/fans pushed too hard, the results of their actions were not good. Jack gets his ass kicked on the beach, the audience is given one inane “answer” after another.
The punishment does not stop there, folks. While the flashback provides the audience the very stupid answers they claimed they wanted, the island story basically piles on as many out-of-nowhere reveals and questions as it can, again, presumably to show the fans and ABC what the stresses of writing a mystery serial across 150 episodes could be.
Fans had been wondering about the kids taken from the Tail section crash site since early season two, and same goes for the stewardess Cindy. Good news! Cindy randomly shows up to leer at Jack while he is stuck in a cage, so much so he has to yell at them “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” Cindy says that she is there to watch and that is probably true. If Jack represents Cuse and Lindelof’s proxy for their writing frustrations, Cindy is both the audience and ABC, standing around waiting for something to happen but unaware if they will actually it. Thus, bringing back Cindy and doing absolutely nothing with her is yet another way for Lost’s creative team to present the possible dangers of what can happen when series that need a specific path are forced to stretch out that path because of the business practices behind it.
And we cannot forget the introduction of the Others’ sheriff and the branding ritual. Those threads were literally never discussed again, which makes them further apart of Lindelof and Cuse’s evil plan to make “Stranger in a Strange Land” intentionally the worst thing ever. Not only were the answers provided here not really useful or important, but the episode seemingly purposefully piled on even more questions that it never tried to answer. Be careful what you wish for, fans and networks.
The craziest part is that Lindelof and Cuse’s evil plan actually worked. Not too long after this episode aired, it was revealed that the two of them had been negotiating with ABC to set an end date for Lost and they accomplished that goal. ABC was smart enough to realize that Lost was its most important property and it was smarter to have that property humming along at its best quality instead of petering out three years too long. For once, the business and creative sides could come together to make a pact that benefitted them both tremendously. Lindelof and Cuse were able to write to their ending and ABC received three more years of one of television’s all-time greats, full with the massive hype that came with those concluding seasons.
Whether they were purposefully trying to write an episode that commented on the dangers of American serialized television in the 21st century, “Stranger in a Strange Land” most certainly feels like that in retrospect. Viewed in a vacuum, it is most certainly not only the worst episode of Lost ever, but a legitimately terrible episode of television altogether. But placed into context, “Stranger” suddenly becomes a much more intriguing and compelling episode, one that suggests some slightly nefarious – and genius – dealings on Lindelof and Cuse’s part.
This one is still hard to sit through, but I think it nicely exemplifies what I hope to do here with #TVFail. Some random episodes are terrible, but those failures can most certainly tell us interesting things about both the series and industry contexts that produce those episode.