An Evening at the Improv

In case of viewer backlash, all operatives should stall as long as possible.Do the “Lost” guys seriously expect anyone to still believe they’re not making it up as they go along?

I feel like a joiner, seeing as how it’s fashionable now to rag on “Lost,” but there’s just so much material there. They try stunt casting, and the best they can dig up is Cheech. Their heart-warming what-it-means-to-be-alive episode just covered old material and worse, dragged out one clunky in-joke after the next like a late-series episode of “Moonlighting.”

But this week’s episode “Enter 77” was just plain annoying to those of us who’ve been fans of the series. Everybody acted like a caricature of himself. Sayid is haunted by his past as a torturer, and resolves never to do it again. Even though he’s already come to the island, tortured somebody, and started wandering out of remorse — he’s not going to do it again, starting now.

And Locke, who used to be an interesting, endearing character, so stubborn in his need for an order to the universe that his faith in mundane routine set up questions about the nature of what it means to be human — now, he’s a videogame-addicted monkey who just can’t resist pushing buttons. Even when he’s supposed to be guarding a dangerous prisoner who’s already shot one of the group.

And those Dharma Initiative guys love to code up voice-mail systems for communications networks and urgent fail-safes against an attack, that only become available after you defeat a “grandmaster-level” chess program. (But considering that Locke beat the thing twice in the time it took Sayid and Kate to search the basement of a small farmhouse, maybe that’s not much of an issue).

But worst is the way they’re handling the new characters. Is this the way they’re going to tie up all the loose ends they’ve left dangling? By killing them, blowing them up, or pretending they didn’t happen? Creepy mysterious eye-patch guy looking into a security camera from a so-far-unseen hidden post with lots more tantalizing secrets for the castaways? Let’s go blow the place up without getting a good look, and then (from the looks of the previews) get rid of the guy two episodes later.

The mysterious woman who was set up to be the mastermind of The Others, conducting experiments on telekinetic Walt and running a mysterious primitive camp at the edge of the island? Give her one line of intelligible dialogue, then shoot her dead.

Not that anybody on this show would ever take a minute to actually read the Dharma Initiative handbooks they found — not when it makes so much more sense to just ask recalcitrant people and get inscrutable half-answers — but even if they wanted to read them, they’re all blown up now. It’s just as well; if the rest of the show is any indication, the books probably just contained an index of questions that led to blank pages.

And for yet another week, “Heroes,” the show it physically pains me to like, came up with a winner. How did things get to this state? I’ve got a theory, but it’s not a happy one.

What really got me into “Lost” at first was the notion that it was combining the best of “low art” and literature. It was a mash-up of philosophy and conspiracy theories, comic books and Kipling. It was evidence you could take all the twists and turns and explosions of an exciting TV series and present them in a way that didn’t make you feel as if you’d gotten stupider just by having watched. They frequently mentioned their admiration for Stephen King, and it was a good fit, I thought. He’s proudly populist, referencing rock songs in his novels, giving folklore an urban update and a literary thrust (e.g. haunted houses + alcoholism, witches + outcast teens). And with “Lost,” I was so happy to have numbers stations and polar bears and psychics all mixing together with free will and the question of faith versus science that I was confident something big and meaningful was always just over the horizon.

For all its bluster and pomposity, “Heroes” doesn’t have those pretensions. There are no lofty goals there. They’ll say that it’s all about character and ordinary people in extraordinary situations, but it’s not really. It’s pure plot, with a healthy dose of action and gore and effects, and just enough soap opera to keep you engrossed. It’s all formula. And it’s all working, possibly because it doesn’t aim higher.

You don’t think about the plot holes, or people acting out of character, or weird gaps in time and space, because the show doesn’t ask you to think. I’ve no doubt that there are fansites and wikis out there poring over the details in the show, looking for hidden meanings and symbols and easter eggs, but it’s all overkill. Everything is right there on the screen, which is where it should be. And the biggest difference is that I really believe them when they say that they’ve planned out the entire first season, and they know exactly where it’s headed.