The Lost Room

Aired on The Sci-Fi Channel in 2006

What do you believe?

There's a certain joy to be found in things that are good but aren't brilliant - not because they fell short of their mark, but because they aimed right for their maximum potential and hit it even if that potential was short of 'brilliant.' There's a sort of brilliance right there, in fact - one that is present in every bit of craft made by those who know their limits and their strengths, and know they're not going to end up in the Museum of Modern Art Design exhibit but know in their hearts that they're turning out their best effort and aren't ashamed of it.

Sometimes, that ring of truth that such an effort sings out can, in fact, elevate it to 'brilliant' on a different vector. That act, the act of gauging the 'best achievable outcome' and then hitting it, is rare enough in itself that it's a form of brilliance.

This is even more true in television than most other forms of art, craft or work.

The Lost Room is that rarity - a television program that knows its limits, and set out to hit as close to those limits as possible so as not to ruin the outcome through overreach.

Television is a particularly treacherous medium for these kinds of works. By its very nature, TV wants more of what you make for it. If it just doesn't suck, but is reliable, that's enough for TV to want more episodes, more seasons, more spinoffs. More money. It's a rare television program that sets out at the beginning to just do what it can and no more.

Babylon 5 did it, although the game almost got away from JMS at the final season. He recovered, though, in my opinion, and B5 stands up there as one of the best 'single effort' pieces of television out there. It's by no means the earliest, though; one of the few that surpasses it came thirty years prior. The Prisoner was another such; a vision, executed in limited form. Both B5 and The Prisoner suffered a bit from inflation; having to have episodes that didn't directly serve the series' goal, but both triumphed.

Back to the point of this writeup.

The Lost Room was a miniseries of six episodes, produced for The Sci-Fi Channel and aired in 2006. I know, I know; yes, the Sci-Fi channel, now 'SyFy!' perpetrators of such crimes as Mansquito and its ilk. Bear with me.

What is it?

The Lost Room is a story about a man who loses his daughter, and his attempts to get her back. That's the simplest explanation. How he loses her, though, and what he becomes involved with in the search - that's what makes it so impressive.

I don't believe in ghosts, all right?
Yeah, me neither. I mean, magic bus ticket - sure. But ghosts, no.

Wally Jabrowski and Joe Miller

WARNING: Mild spoilers below. Nothing that isn't revealed in the first fifteen minutes or, indeed, the series promo trailer.

Imagine a key. Looks like a normal motel room key, cheap plastic keychain and all. But it's for a motel room that doesn't exist. See, it's for Room 10 - but the Sunshine Motel never had more than 9 rooms. But that's not all that's odd about it. If you put it into any door lock, and then open the door, the door will open - onto that motel room that doesn't exist. If you close the door, remove the key and then open it again, it will open onto whatever it normally does - the next room, your closet, the stairs, what-have-you.

If you take the key and walk into the motel room, where it is always the low-angled sunny stillness of late afternoon, and close the door behind you - then if you concentrate hard, you can open the door and step out of whatever door in the world you were thinking of. Just one thing - make sure you have the key with you. Because whatever is left in the room when the door closes with the key outside - vanishes. The room 'resets' to the exact same state it was when you opened the door.

Okay? Now. Imagine that there are dozens or hundreds of things connected to this nonexistent motel room, and all of them do strange and unexplainable things. They're called 'Objects.' They're indestructible. They're scattered around the world. And the Key is considered one of the most powerful of them.

And naturally, there are powerful people and groups who want to control them.

And we're off.

Who is in it?

There are some folks we know from other shows and some from movies. The lead, that of Detective Joe Miller (Pittsburgh PD) is played highly competently by Peter Krause from Six Feet Under. Jennifer, who wafts mysteriously into the scene, is played by Julianna Margulies of ER and the recent The Good Wife. Peter Jacobson, who would later be Dr. Chris Taub on House, MD is here. So too is Kevin Pollak. Margaret Cho and Ann Cusack have smaller roles.

The acting is, again, workmanlike in a perfect way. Nobody tries too hard, ruining the mood. Nobody reaches past their competence. And there is a lot of competence in this crowd. Sure, there are a couple who start to chew the scenery slightly, but it's television, that's okay - and the leads are cool and collected.

How does it look?

The production is really well done, and obviously done to a fairly tight budget for what it is. There are no super flashy cars, or outlandish sets. In a way, that's part of the brilliance of the production - you see, in this world, sort of like that of Intacto, the world is almost entirely as we think it is. But there's just this one little thread of wrongness, or of inconsistency - the Objects. So the world we see in the show is one that's very familiar. It's a standard, boring, television U.S.A. - one with city skylines as appropriate to show us locales, but generic and dull sets or locations for everyday action. And then, once in a while, we see something different and strange. The Motel, for example. Abandoned prisons. Underground vaults.

There are almost no special effects in this show, at least until near the end. What effects work there is goes into making things that don't make rational sense look so possible and ordinary that it's almost possible to miss them. Doors in free-standing frames that open into the Room, and people entering/leaving it, for example - done well enough that you have to really look to remind yourself hey wait, that's not possible. As you do, you feel yourself denying what's going on - because maybe the person sitting next to you on the bus is in fact holding the Wristwatch. Or the Comb. Or the Eyeglasses. Or the Ticket. You just don't know.

How does it end?

This is probably the most important factor in my judgement of this show. When it ended, I sat there staring at a black screen and thought about it for a time. Initially, I felt almost disappointed with the ending - but then I realized that they had done something really, really difficult. There are three ways it could have gone, in general; the writers could have gone for a grandiose ending, making this a First Person Story about a Hero. The problem is that the rest of the series hadn't been that. It had been about ordinary people confronted with strange and outlandish things. And you know what? They resisted the temptation. Which is good, because they would have failed - I can't imagine a grandiose ending which would have fit with the first five and a half episodes.

The other possibility was the Smug ending. One where everything, all the storylines and all the questions, are wrapped up in a neat and orderly skein right at the end - super clever and very smooth. One where the central questions of the Objects and the world created are, in fact, wrapped up tightly in the resolving storylines, placed inside the Room, and the door shut on them. Not only are they not answered, but they're effectively taken away from you at the end of the game and put back in the box, and all the other, merely human stories are resolved.

Nope, they didn't do that either.

They shot the rapids, here. They picked an ending which skates treacherously between those two extremes, but ends up with just enough of the human story resolved, and just enough of the 'central situation' changed - but which doesn't answer everything just because it can, and doesn't treat it as a game either.

We, the viewers, don't finish the story of the Objects. We escape the Objects, and strike out desperately for our normal existence once the screen fades.

And that's the point; that's how it had to go.

In case it's not obvious, I strongly recommend this if you like fantastic fiction - 'fantastic' in the qualitative, not relative sense.

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