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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (7/23/13) 3:38am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  The Lost Room
Books:  <none>

The Lost Room
This is the 2006 SyFy miniseries about a set of mysterious, ordinary-looking objects imbued with magical powers.

It may be the poster child for "lovely idea, dull execution."  The basic idea is this: on May 4, 1961, at 1:20:44pm, a hotel room in the middle of nowhere... disappeared.  It blipped out of reality, to the point that nobody even remembered it was there.  It was only later that people reconstructed that room #10 at the Sunshine Motel must have existed.

Why?  Because since then, all the objects in that room -- a hundred or so everyday early-60s bits and bobs -- gained magical powers.  For example, if you insert #10's room key into any pin-and-tumbler lock, that door will open... into the vanished hotel room.  A comb gains the ability to stop time.  A wristwatch is capable of hard-boiling an egg.  (Not *all*  the powers are awesome, you see.)

This is an intriguing idea, and the writers build several interesting, self-consistent rules on top of that.  There are, for example, several additional rules to how the hotel room works, each of which comes cleverly into play in the story.

Meanwhile, they create an interesting history around "the Objects" -- one cabal of people wants, with religious fervor, to gather all of the Objects together; another one wants them all destroyed; and so on.  Some people throw massive resources into seeking out and gathering Objects.  Others get attached to objects with Gollum-like devotion.  Still others swear to have nothing to do with them.

Into this is thrown Joe Miller, an Ordinary Guy who stumbles on the key.  Shortly after this, his daughter disappears into The Room.  And then he's on an adventure to get her back.

All of this sounds very promising, so I need to tamp down your expectations: imagine the most ordinary show built around this premise that you can.  Imagine a serviceable script, functional direction, and not-bad special effects.  Basically, imagine tuning into SyFy at a random point in the mid-2000s and seeing something besides Battlestar Galactica, and you start to have an idea of what to expect from The Lost Room.

For having such an expansive and promising mythology, the actual show feels awfully limited.  For example, if Justified is a show about people who have better things to do than be characters in a crime procedural, The Lost Room is the opposite: its characters have nothing going on besides what is immediately relevant to the story.  In this world, if I'm a kindly old man who knows the last known location of The Wristwatch... then that's all you'll ever discover about me.  I won't have any hobbies or interests.  I may have a superficial mannerism or two, but nothing that adds up to a real point of view. I'll just deliver my information about the wristwatch in very plain English, serve my duty to the plot, and that will be that.

And that dialog will be very utilitarian.  The show has a ton of "let me explain this thing to you that we both already know"-style exposition.  I accidentally started watching the six-episode run with episode *three*, missing the first third of the miniseries, and didn't realize I'd missed anything until I watched the EPK afterwards. ("Wait, that excerpt wasn't in what I watched....")  The miniseries did a steady, workmanlike job of repeating what was going on (and repeating it, and repeating it), so that I instantly had all the information I needed to follow the story.

And when the show changes gears and goes dramatic, it tends to get vague.  Eventually, I invented a TV-criticism game called "Could They Be Talking About Marmots?"  Let's say you have a conversation like this:

Jim:  This is really important to me.
Mary:  You don't know what you're getting yourself into, Jim?
Jim:  I have to find them.
Mary:  Well maybe there are people out there.  People who don't want you to find them.
Jim:  Well I made a promise.  And if I don't come back with them, I've broken that promise.

In this case the answer is... yes! they could be talking about marmots.  There are so few specifics about "them" that "they" really could be large and social ground squirrels.  As far as I can tell, every time the miniseries aims for high-flown, dramatic language, every time they unmoor themselves from exposition about the Objects and the various cabals in pursuit of them, the dialog gets very, very marmotty.

On top of that, the show looks kind of cheap.  Mo Ryan coined the term "Vancouvery" to talk about the sort of cheaply-bland TV shows that arranged for principal shooting in Canada, and then worked hard to efface every specific, Canadian detail from those shooting locations, so they were left with something that felt like it was shot in a vague urban nowhere.

That's how The Lost Room feels.

The cheapness behind the show -- or the limits on what you could do with a decent-enough budget in the mid-2000s -- gets kind of overwhelming.[1] gets kind of overwhelming.  There's just something about cheap TV production -- maybe the lack of detail in the sets, maybe the video equipment they use, maybe the lack of a clear directorial style[2], maybe just the unremitting frequency of "two people in a room with no windows" scenes -- whatever it is, it makes the world feel small, like it doesn't extend a single inch beyond the visible frame.  The show also gets undercut by the occasional TV cliché; they actually do the "Zoom! Enhance!" thing with video footage, and everyone who points a gun does it at such close range that they could be disarmed fairly easily.

But wait, now I feel like I've tempered your expectations too far.  The Lost Room *is* a clever idea.  I found myself trying to poke holes in the world they'd constructed.  Surely if these objects existed, the whole world would know about them.  Hell, we'd be experimenting on them, and discovering fascinating new things about how the universe works.  I started making a tally of how many of the Objects could easily generate an infinite power supply.[3]

But just the fact that I was occasionally drifting off on these tangents tells you how fascinating the idea is.  The fact that I was trying to find logical inconsistencies should tell you that the world they've built is wonderfully self-consistent.  And occasionally the characters use these counterintuitive Objects in wonderfully smart ways.[4]

If they'd delivered a screenplay on the level of the world that they'd built, The Lost Room would be one for the ages.  As it is, though, it's still clever and fun.

For next time: I think I'll have a go at watching the little Canadian sci-fi series that could, Orphan Black.

[1] It's more likely they had a decent-enough budget for a cable miniseries, but it could only go so far with 2006 production technology
[2] ... beyond throwing in the occasional (and gratuitous) Dutch-angle shot.
[3] The Key, for example, could use the motel room to transport a massive weight to the top of Mount Everest over and over again.
[4] ... though it's never on the level of, say
Death Note -- but what is?

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