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Critic's Corner

The cheesiest show ever to change the face of TV?

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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I’m just wondering, what is up with the wig situation on “Lost’’? There’s Jungle Claire, for instance, whose skanky hair looks like it was torn off a Kmart Halloween mask from the 1970s. Or last week’s Mother Earth Cregg, who forgot to take off her hair net after walking through a dozen spider webs. Hey Mother Earth Cregg, where you going with that bird’s nest on your head?

Ah, “Lost.’’ Kitsch much?

Ditto with the show’s too-well-worn forest paths — where you expect to glimpse Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan or Shakespeare’s Puck — and that ancient-temple set, left over from the porn version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.’’ Not to mention the famous Frozen Donkey Wheel, which Ed Wood rejected for “Plan 9 From Outer Space,’’ and the flashes of light — Mr. Wizzaarrd! — for the time-travel sequences. Next up, “Mystery Science Theatre 3000: ‘Lost’ Edition.’’

On Sunday, when we say goodbye to “Lost’’ with a 2 1/2-hour finale at 9 p.m. on Channel 5, we’ll be saying goodbye to a unique, influential, ground-breaking, intelligent, addictive, and — come on, let’s admit it — cheesy series. Indeed, “Lost’’ may be the cheesiest show ever to change the face of TV.

For a drama that traffics in philosophy, religious allegory, physics, and literary references from Jane Austen to Kurt Vonnegut, “Lost’’ has a decidedly B-movie feel. After the remarkably cinematic 2004 pilot episode, set immediately after the Oceanic 815 plane crash, the adventure has been pretty schlocky. On the cusp of the mass release of 3-D TV, with “Avatar’’ pulling the art of special effects into the future, “Lost’’ comes off as an especially humble affair.

Even some of the acting is a little too spoof-ready. Matthew Fox, for instance, plays Jack with a series of facial expressions that have led to an online fetish known as “Jackface.’’ When Jack is angry or caustic, Fox contorts his face to the point of unintentional comedy. He has an almost silent-picture intensity, and the conspicuously fake beard he wore a few seasons ago did not help matters. Emilie de Ravin has been laughable as Jungle Claire, Naveen Andrews veers into monotony as Sayid, and many of the nameless Others and Widmore soldiers have smacked of amateur theater. Some “Lost’’ actors, notably Michael Emerson as Ben and Terry O’Quinn as Locke, are extraordinary, but as the writers have made their characters repetitive over the years, they too have flirted with self-parody. Cue Emerson’s crazy-googly eyes.

At the same time, this chunk of cheese has been a challenging, mind-bending adventure for its millions of viewers, as well as for its huge cast of characters. One great hallmark of the show has been fan passion and participation, as we look for answers every week around both the figurative and digital water coolers. It’s a model of active TV viewing, and interactive, too, as we dialogue with the show’s highly accessible producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. For six seasons, “Lost’’ has been a challenging game led by the duo affectionately known as Darlton, Lindelcuse, and, my favorite, Darlton Cuselof.

And what we talk about when we talk about “Lost’’ usually involves Big Thoughts, not just plot connections. While “The Sopranos’’ invited viewers to psychologically analyze characters, and “The X-Files’’ inspired all kinds of sci-fi conjecture before it fell apart, “Lost’’ has led us to notions from the worlds of science, philosophy, and religion. People who go on about how TV is a drug that blunts our imaginations are excluding “Lost’’ (and a few other shows, by the way) from their judgment.

Furthermore, the series has been a pioneer in the art of TV narrative, building TV’s most elaborate mythology yet, while dancing backward and forward in time. Time travel has been a TV staple for decades in such shows as “Dark Shadows,’’ “The Time Tunnel,’’ and “Quantum Leap.’’ But “Lost’’ has incorporated unpredictable tense changes into the storytelling, throwing plots and characters from the past, present, and future at us and challenging us to piece them together. The show has managed to leave viewers, and not just the characters, feeling lost in time.

And lost in synthetic hair? I think that the kitsch factor has actually helped “Lost’’ over the long run — and not just because it has enabled us to find ever-new ways to affectionately tease the show. The low-key effects have given “Lost’’ a strangely intimate feel, an important human warmth that you can too easily lose with an abundance of digitized special effects — think of the sleek, too cool “Fringe.’’ Rather than dazzling us with visuals, “Lost’’ aims to shake us with concepts.

“Lost’’ is almost quaint in a weird way, as it harkens back to those science fiction movies from the 1950s. Those stories were about aliens, giant ants, and zombies; “Lost’’ is about alienation, polar bears, and zombies. It delivers a classic collective nightmare of disorientation, with bad wigs, blinking lights, and “Gilligan’s Island’’ contraptions as consolation.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.