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Goodbye to All That: A Final Farewell to '24,' 'Law & Order' and 'Lost'

by Ryan McGee, posted Dec 21st 2010 2:00PM
Law & OrderCountdown to Festivus on Dec. 23: On the third day of Festivus, TV gave to us ... three longtime shows that bid farewell.

2010 saw the premature end of many series. 'Terriers', 'Rubicon', 'Party Down', 'Better Off Ted' and a host of other programs went to that DVR box in the sky long before many of their fans were ready to see them go.

But three programs that helped define excellence in television over the past years also said farewell. 'Law & Order,' '24,' and 'Lost' all featured primary players named Jack (McCoy, Bauer and Shephard, respectively), but also share an indelible mark on the small screen landscape. In fact, very little was small about any of these entities.

While fans of the latter two shows knew about their respective, imminent demises, the loss of "Law & Order" after the completion of its 20th season came as a surprise to many of its fans.

However, just as many might have been surprised that the show was actually still pumping out new episodes through this spring. After all, it's so ubiquitous in reruns on other networks that it was hard for some people to realize that it still held a prime-time slot. Just as the sun used to always set on the Roman Empire, the sun is still setting on some syndicated airing of this popular crime drama.

But to call it merely a "crime drama" does a disservice to the seismic importance of the template laid down by the original (and for many the best) iteration of this seemingly inexhaustible series. It's not just that it spawned so many offshoots, both here and abroad. During the 20-year run of the show, reality shows slowly took over prime television real estate, as viewers eschewed scripted tales for merely manufactured ones. (Who needed a writer's room when you could simply stock a house full of 20-somethings with an open bar, right?)

But 'Law & Order' flipped things around: it took real-life events and turned those into compelling, often shocking, always satisfying procedural magic. In 'Law & Order,' the institutions, not the characters, formed the overall continuity.

But its lack of emphasis on the personal lives of its participants didn't mean that the show didn't produce memorable character after memorable character. Every fan of the show probably has their all-time dream team (I'm a Briscoe/Green/McCoy/Carmichael/Schiff guy myself), with their personal pressure points, political slants, and shortcomings all coming out through their unfailing dedication to their profession.

That they didn't always win never distracted from the fact that they never stopped trying. In its finely honed craft, its attention to the rhythms of New York City, and ability to constantly rotate in cast members in a way that felt organic yet fresh, 'Law & Order' will stand the test of time as the litmus test against which future crime procedural will be measured.

24There have been shows that were perhaps more culturally relevant than '24' during its nearly decade-long tenure, but few, if any, were more culturally reflective.

Now, what does "culturally reflective" mean? That doesn't mean that '24' was a somber think-piece of a drama. Far from it. What "culturally reflective" means is that it held up a mirror to what was going on in the zeitgeist of a post-9/11 world more directly than any other program on television. Other shows such as 'The Wire', 'Battlestar: Galactica' and even 'Lost' explored life in a post-9/11 in more metaphorical terms, but the political landscape played out much more directly on '24.'

'24' wasn't an intentional response to 9/11, but it did debut in the aftermath of it. As you might recall, its actual premiere was delayed because the first episode featured a massive plane explosion. That plane didn't crash into a building, but there was enough worry about people drawing comparisons between one and the other than Fox delayed the show a few months in order to lessen the parallel.

But a two-month wait didn't outlast the public's psychic shift, nor did it appease a latent (and not-so-latent) need for some type of revenge. In stepped Jack Bauer, a man who stood in as the representative of the country's need for action, for justice, for bucking bureaucracy in order to accomplish what needed to be done . For those that felt helpless, Jack was their onscreen avatar, hammering away one day at a time.

After the first season's success, the show spent the next few years replicating its essential formula while putting new faces on familiar threats. But by the end of the fourth season, '24' seemed to realize that things had to change, much in the way that the traditional view of the War on Terror had to change. So after four years of Jack-as-one-man-assault-squad, the effects of those years of violence started to weigh not only on those around him, but Jack himself. His self-imposed exile in the aftermath of infiltrating the Chinese consulate led to the shocking deaths of several key members of the '24' universe in the opening moments of season 5, setting up the show's greatest overall arc -- Bauer vs. Logan. The show that all but celebrated the American response to 9/11 just four years later made The President of the United States the freakin' Big Bad.

Over its final three seasons, '24' showed the limits of Jack's "torture first, ask questions later" approach, both on his ability to successfully overcome the threat at hand and his ability to maintain sanity in the process. '24' ultimately made Jack Bauer a martyr, a man that defended his homeland and ironically ended up without a home.

By doing so, they called into question the price that he paid for saving his country those eight times (and countless others off-screen as well). But they also called into question a country that needed a man like Jack Bauer to exist in the first place, a man that represented what we thought was our best but in many ways also represented our worst.

'24' may not have been the best show of the decade. But it very well may have been the most important. The symbiotic relationship between the show, its viewing audience and the ever-shifting realignment in a post-9/11 world will be studied for generations, making '24' one of the most vital shows of the past decade.

As for 'Lost'...let's just say I've literally never written more words about any one topic. Ever. For nearly three years, I had the opportunity to blog about the show four to six times a week. Every week. That 'Lost' could support that much analysis is a testament to how densely layered it was, from the incredibly rich mythology, huge number of mysteries, and indelible characters. That most of that three years of writing was rendered almost completely useless by the final episode is something I consider to be a feature, not a bug.

Let me explain.

Three years were spent analyzing hieroglyphics, works of literature, spacetime theory, and a host of other things that eventually proved to be background to a fairly simple, yet incredibly moving, examination on what it means to lead a fulfilling life. The Island was a fantastical backdrop upon which Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse could construct a morality play, pure and simple. Of course, calling any part of this show "simple" to anyone that spent years trying to figure out whose eye poked out of the haunted cabin might land you in the emergency room.

The tension between those that found the end of the show satisfying and those that found it infuriating still rages on. It's like "Taste Great" / "Less Filling," but with enough anger to fuel at least four iterations of the War of the Island. Those disappointed with the finale felt that the show introduced more questions than it ever planned to answer. Those happy with the finale felt that the questions themselves were actually the wrong ones.

Had the show "solved" all of the mysteries of the Island, then it would have essentially answered a closed set of trivia questions. Profoundly interesting and awesome trivia questions, but trivia all the same. That's not to disparage people that still want to know everything surrounding the nature of The Purge. But it's hard to say that the show didn't answer that so much as simply assigned it lesser importance than the true nature of the so-called "sideways world," a phrase coined by Darlton soon after season 6 to throw people off the scent of what was really going on. In doing so, they pretty much guaranteed that a good chunk of their fanbase was going to cry bloody murder in the final few moments of the show.

Let's approach the duality another way. Knowing the identity of the civilization that built the statue gives color to the world of 'Lost'. It fills in one chunk of Island history fairly definitively. But that knowledge doesn't allow for the type of applicability to the viewer at home as the answers in the sideways world did. The former answer is self-contained within the show's universe. The latter offers a possibility for the universe outside the viewer's door. To paraphrase the late John Lennon: life is what happens when you're busy looking for glowing caves.

If '24' looked at the nature of the United States after 9/11, then 'Lost' in its own way took that view global, literally placing a world-spanning cross-section of humanity onto a neutral site to see what would happen when the lines of nationalism faded in favor of common human survival. The answer was fantastically messy: for the few millennia of the Island's history, people behaved pretty much in the same greedy, violent way as they did off it. Those aboard Oceanic 815 broke that cycle, not because they magically adhered to Jack's motto of "live together, die alone" at all times, but because they used that motto as something to strive for, even if they couldn't actually get there in their actual lifetime.

But the work they did, and the inherent goodwill they had for one another, forged something spectacular and ended up giving their lives meaning. And that sideways world mattered so much because it wasn't something they tried to consciously create. It wasn't a reward dangled out to them for proper moral action. It was the result of every single interaction from the time they crashed on the Island through the moment Jack saw his few friends successfully leave it. Their actions, their emotions, and their feelings towards one another were what mattered on this show.

Having Hurley take over the Island was a masterstroke that only emphasized this humanist approach to sci-fi: the one man that constantly gave things away (his lottery winnings, the food in the Swan hatch) was the perfect person to rule an Island that people for thousands of years had only sought to possess.

In fact, if you decide to do a re-watch of 'Lost' at some point, or if someone you know is about to start for the first time, follow this simple rule: watch what Hurley does. Use him as your virtual torch walking through the jungle of this show. He represents better than anyone the overall ethos of this show, the Everyman that became the ideal for every man, woman, and child in terms of living a worthy life.

Like so many, he came to the Island broken. But it wasn't the Island that healed him. It was those that supported him there. Those that looked to the Island or Jacob to save them were looking in the wrong place. Those that eventually met in the church in the sideways world arrived there because their eyes finally opened.

They lived together, and because they did that, none of them had to die alone. Giving those characters that grace note meant 'Lost' succeeded far beyond what many could have dreamed when they saw the pilot. The show many not have been what any of us expected, but it gave us exactly what many of us needed.

See you in another life, 'Lost.'

Which of these shows will you miss the most? Any last words for any of them before the year is over? Leave your memorials below!

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Thank you, for GETTING IT on 24 (anyone who says 24 is a simple pro-torture show never actually watched it), and for summing up exactly how I feel regarding Lost. Great column.

December 22 2010 at 2:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks for the best write up of lost, ever. I've always felt that those who hated the ending never really understood the show. Thanks too for putting me in the mood to rewatch it.

December 22 2010 at 12:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to 1fanboy2many's comment

Probably the best assessment of Lost that I've read since the finale. Thank you.

December 21 2010 at 7:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Indeed, 24 WAS the most important series of the past decade, if not all time. But it's also the best.

Lost didn't "screw the pooch" at all. I believe there's a deeper magic at work here. We will see Lost in another life...

December 21 2010 at 6:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
c jones

you are the only one to make me thing the eight excess hours of sideways/purgatory might have some meaning. The finale was great but made those prior 16 1/2 hours meaningless. But I'm slightly less annoyed by them so thank you. (But when I think of what we missed not having those 8 hours set on the island... Better plots, longer battles for the sub, more fake locke vs everyone...)

December 21 2010 at 4:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to c jones's comment
c jones

think, not thing, in the first line :)

December 21 2010 at 4:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm squarely in the "LOST screwed the pooch" camp. You mis represent the camp...Those of us who cared about the actual show, and not whether Kate ended up with Hurley or Vincent, hated pretty much the whole of season 6.

I'm deeply saddened by the cancellation of L&O...especially since they reproduce the exact same show in L.A.....What a load. They could have given the show it's year to beat Gunsmoke.....Lousy

December 21 2010 at 4:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I miss the anticipation of waiting a week to watch a new Lost episode. It was something to look forward to. It'd start off "ugh I'm at work, OH WAIT tonight is LOST!"

December 21 2010 at 2:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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