I don’t know if y’all have heard, but the SciFi channel has been running a miniseries called “The Lost Room!”
Non-stop promotions aside, this is actually a damn fine show. (It concludes tonight, which would make this blog post seem useless if not for the fact I’m 100% sure SciFi is going to be rerunning it frequently).
A lot of science fiction and sci-fi/fantasy stories start with a high concept, and then go on to tell a traditional story based on that concept. Every history of “Star Trek” mentions that it was described as “‘Wagon Train’ in space.” Most episodes of TV series like “The Twilight Zone” and all the Star Treks were standard drama plots with a high concept thrown into the mix (what would a love story be like if one of the characters were from a symbiotic race that could change gender?) or used the high concept as allegory for something else (can’t you see that I’m half-black and he’s half-white?)
The thing that impresses me the most about “The Lost Room” is that it’s all about the concept. A preview I read described it as being like a videogame, and that’s apt. It’s true on the obvious level — the story really just boils down to a standard adventure game, with a guy collecting inventory items to solve puzzles.
But the videogame comparison goes deeper, in that this is the most successful non-game art I’ve ever seen that conveys that feeling of engagement that’s unique to videogames. That feeling of being dropped in a world with new rules, and the satisfaction that comes from figuring out how to use the rules to accomplish something.
It helps a lot that the series doesn’t insult your intelligence. Especially when it very easily could have; pretty much every single character in the story knows more about what’s going on than the hero does. That could’ve devolved into a lot of really tedious and clumsy exposition, but it ends up making the hero seem like even more of a bad-ass. Explain something once, and he’s not only figured it out, but figured out how to use that knowledge to get farther than any of these other people have been able to.
He’s not a hero because he’s been dropped into the role of protagonist; he’s a hero because he’s actually accomplishing things. The best example is when he uses the properties of the motel room and the missing objects to figure out how to open a locked safe. It was just ingenious.
I’ve been trained to watch TV from “on high,” sitting on a platform just underneath the writers as we both look down on the characters and wait for them to clue in to what’s going on and catch up with the rest of us. With this, I feel like I’m having to hurry to keep up. A villain will shout, “take all the doors and burn them,” and it takes me a minute to realize what that was all about.
And characters don’t spend a lot of time staring with Spielbergian wide eyes and open mouths at the wondrous properties of these mysterious objects; they jump right in and start playing with them. Testing them with stuffed animals, smashing them with sledgehammers, and using them to break locks, break out of prison, or spy on people. A lot of stories introduce the Ring of Power or the Bag of Holding or Portable Hole and then make you wait for that one crucial plot point to come where the hero remembers the object and uses it to save the day just at the last minute. In “The Lost Room,” people have already exhausted every possible use of an object a dozen times over by the time the audience has figured out exactly what it does.
It’s not perfect; the whole love-interest “don’t break my heart” bit was goofy, and I’ve read previews that suggest that the final pay-off is kind of weak (I’ve only seen four hours out of six). But I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it, and not only am I excited about the conclusion, I already wish it were an ongoing series.
My biggest complaint is that I wish Peter Krause would stop harping on about his daughter and the Prime Object and start trying to find the mysterious missing razor. Any guy over 18 (at least those of us who weren’t raised on estrogen-rich soy products) knows that the perpetual haven’t-shaved-in-a-day look takes a lot of effort, and watching six hours of it makes you feel uncomfortably itchy.