Why Lost Season 5 on Blu-ray is a love-it-and-hate-it set

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

As any fan of Lost knows by now, the show has gone through so many permutations, explanations and revisions of its original idea that it's hard to remember what has actually happened thus far, much less consistently care about it. Part of the problem, of course, has been its erratic broadcast schedule, which in earlier seasons failed to find a comfortable groove, and then later pared down seasons to fewer episodes we had to wait longer for, even if the network wisely opted to show them without prolonged interruption.

But the arrival of season one on DVD (and later Blu-ray) highlighted the fact that this was not just another TV show but a pretty terrific exploration of the medium's capacity for long-form storytelling, and as a result was better suited for home viewing at the audience's preferred schedule rather than one decked with commercials, reruns or other distractions and obstacles to its serpentine continuity. And by all accounts, season five was considered one of the best in the show's history, thanks to its singular focus on both juggling and cementing mythology. Which is why the newly released, ridiculously elaborate "Dharma Orientation Kit" boxed set offers fans a chance to both celebrate and deconstruct the show yet again, and reconnect with it (and hopefully clarify some of its finer points) as it races toward season six.

Season five continues the series' immersion in science fiction mythology following the season-four decision to "move" the island. Essentially, the first part of the season follows Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) as they enlist Daniel Faraday's (Jeremy Davies) help to stop the forward-and-back motion of the island through time, which is not only massively confusing but damaging to their health. It's ultimately Locke (Terry O'Quinn) who is able to put things right, but soon after he recruits Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Hurley (Jorge Garcia) and Sun (Yunjin Kim) to go back to the island again at the behest of Ben (Michael Emerson) and Eloise Faraday (Fionnula Flanagan).

When time stops, Sawyer, Juliet, Daniel, Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Miles (Ken Leung) find themselves in 1977 and quietly build a life for themselves in "Dharmaville," which was then a new and optimistic venture for the organization. But when Jack, Kate, Hurley and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) end up in the same time period after embarking on a flight in 2007, the group decides—after much debate—to detonate a hydrogen bomb, which they hope will change the history of the island and save the original Oceanic Flight 815 passengers from their tormented, time-traveling fate.

As much as I (and countless others) have become obsessed with Lost, the fifth season seems like the first one in which the show's structural shortcomings are exemplified rather than ameliorated when packaged for home entertainment. Seasons two and three in particular were broadcast in a way that amplified the show's penchant for setting up mysteries and making audiences wait maddeningly long to see them answered or resolved, so being able to see them in one clip allowed fans to get to what they wanted to know faster. In season five, there are so many story strands playing out simultaneously—and so many developments in each of them that affect the others, and affect the show's mythology—that seeing a series of episodes in one fell swoop is not only confusing, it's frustrating.

More than ever, it seems like characters now don't ask important questions, or ask them, are interrupted by a noise or random event or, yes, a commercial break, and then abandon their pursuit, even when the answer might literally mean life or death. When someone seems to know why you're having terrible headaches and nosebleeds and you ask them what they know, not answering seems like it wouldn't be enough. Or someone magically appearing three years after you left them only to tell you that your return to the island was a fool's errand and a mistake. These instances where a character or the show itself chooses not to answer or explain, even for the sake of not repeating information revealed in an earlier scene, feel more glaring and awkward when a viewer can watch an uninterrupted string of scenes from the show rather than on TV, where (again) commercials or even a week of other TV programming offers a distraction.

That said, however, there's no denying that the show's creators and writers are doing some really spectacular and sophisticated stuff. The idea of "moving" an island is fascinating enough, but to shuttle the characters through the physical and logistical repercussions of that idea is endlessly fascinating; meanwhile, there are few (if any) TV shows in history that have more successfully analyzed the paradoxes, incongruities and possibilities of moving through time and participating or affecting the events of the past and future. Suffice it to say this is enormously helped by the indefatigably sensitive presence of Jeremy Davies as the show's erstwhile expert, but the writers have done an excellent job sustaining an exploration of the idea without either bogging it down in too much discussion or reducing it to a series of set-designed period action sequences.

The Blu-ray set is packaged as an initiation kit for Dharma recruits, complete with a VHS "orientation video," as well as a three-ring binder with embroidered patches, guidebooks to different Dharma stations, a CD soundtrack featuring music by Geronimo Jackson and of course the episodes themselves, which are housed in little sleeves that look like old floppy disks. While this is unquestionably a terrifically cool set for serious fans and longtime followers (especially stuff like the patches, which according to the content information "MAY" include the exclusive submarine patch), it may be a little superfluous for more casual viewers—especially since it's pretty huge and won't likely fit into your existing shelf space easily.

Meanwhile, the extras at this point for the show seem either redundant or pointless, primarily because they're either stuff we've seen on previous sets or other TV sets or they simply recapitulate the details of plots and story points that I admit I'm assuming most viewers would already have seen and understood. "Making Up for Lost Time," for example, probably should have just been called "Making Up Lost Time," since it's essentially about their decision to introduce the time-travel plotline as a way of exploring/revealing the background of the Dharma Initiative and the island. The problem is not their acknowledgment of this fact; it's that they really do little more than regurgitate the season's developments without offering any perspective from a conceptual or creative standpoint.

Mind you, if this was intended purely to be a recap of the season's creation or a promo device for online viewers, then I rescind my criticism. But there is a major difference between revealing that the cast and crew sometimes didn't know what time period they were working in and on and explaining the point of jumping all over time in order to tell the season's story.

"An Epic Day With Richard Alpert," meanwhile, follows actor Nestor Carbonell through the last day of shooting the season finale, which offers a fly-on-the-wall look at the production, but unfortunately (again) it fails to provide any more information or secrets about the season or the future of the series, such as it is. On the other hand, goofier extras like "Mysteries of the Universe: The Dharma Initiative" offer a more fun look at some aspects of the show's mythology and play on some of the real-world controversies about the show (in this case, a supposed lawsuit from someone who claims he conceived the show several decades ago). The production detail on this piece is impeccable—if anyone can figure out where the music in it comes from, please let us know—but "upgraded" from mid-'80s VHS, this offers a few interesting tidbits while otherwise being a study in the creativity that home entertainment producers can have even if they're not confessing a show's secrets.

Ultimately, Lost Season Five on Blu-ray is a love-it-and-hate-it set: There's something great about its collection of all of the materials from the show's penultimate season and something terrible about the way in which it unfortunately showcases the storytelling structures and shortcuts the writers employ in order to solicit our interest. For longtime fans, this is indisputably the best set yet released in terms of packaging, but I can't help but wonder if a complete series set with some sort of concrete timeline and clarification of every story development wouldn't be preferable. Because, like many, what I really want is a complete and straightforward explanation of what happened on the show and why, and right now this feels like a substitute or placeholder for a final revelation (or six).

In other words, the "Dharma Orientation Kit" provides much of the information that people probably need, but not everything they want, which is why it's beautiful and interesting but ultimately a little frustrating if you want to know where you are—and when, of course—as the series comes to a close.