Audiences love Lost for its labyrinthine twists, rich back-story, and Hurley's "aw shucks" Newfoundland puppy gaze. I adore the show for a different, morbid reason. It's perhaps the only dramatic program ever to make spontaneous combustion really damn funny.
[NOTE (4/24/10): This article contains spoilers about The Wire, a non-scifi show that has been off the air since 2008. If you have not seen The Wire, stop reading and rent Season 1. It's a good show, and I don't wish to screw up anyone's viewing pleasure. In other news, J.R. was shot by his mistress.]
The sudden death of a character is nothing new in the grand scheme of television. Possibly the most unsatisfying leftfield passing in recent memory was that of Omar Little from The Wire. Omar, a hardened stick-up man, survived by the skin of his teeth for five seasons, only to get popped in the side of his head by an elementary schooler. Heck, the sudden-death contrivance goes back even further than that – Star Trek's redshirts were such paragons of disposability that their attire is now synonymous with "sacrificial lamb." And this narrative twist is by no means confined to television. It wouldn't be a proper week on io9 if we didn't post this clip at least once:
No, what's marvelous about Lost's contribution to the random, funny death canon is this - Lost is not a comedy by design. Sure, Sawyer's bon mots are always giggle-worthy (Sawyer: If this was a scary movie I'd be with a hot chick. Not you Barbar. Hurley: It's Babar), and Michael's propensity to scream "WALT!" every 30 seconds is unintentionally a hoot. But on a whole, Lost is a show about people perpetually furrowing their brows in confusion due to the nonstop battering ram of mysteries that threatens to split their Corpus callosums in twain. (For example, "What's the deal with these fish biscuits? Why are all these weirdos wearing fake beards? Has anyone seen Frogurt?") It's a dramatic show about dramatic people having a dramatic time.
And yet, when people blow up on the show, it tends to be positively gut-busting.
I'm not talking about Juliet getting all John Henry on the atom bomb or Michael's redemption on the Kahana. I'm referring to the poor souls who handled the Black Rock's dynamite: the mewling Dr. Arzt and that overly cavalier Ilana. For those of you who may have forgotten about the poor doctor, witness his final moments:
In that deliciously ironic scene, Dr. Arzt blew himself up during a dynamite safety lecture. In terms of the Lost narrative, Dr. Arzt (whose name always reminded me of Mr. Mister, that's a nod to all you German speakers out there) suffered a massive, explosive death for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Sure, his splashy passing taught the other castaways a valuable lesson ("Dynamite is dangerous!") and heightened the tension when they had to gingerly haul it to the hatch. But could Arzt have survived and bumbled around in the background for a couple seasons like Vincent? Of course. But would it have been as funny? Goodness, no.
Lost may not be the most realistic program on TV (what with its magic wine bottle metaphors and immortal mayors of Gotham City), but its characters are normal people who are placed in extraordinary peril. And when one of them turns into a human piñata Tex Avery-style, our first instinct is to laugh. It's a grotesque reaction when you ruminate on it. Dr. Arzt may not have been a marquee player, but he certainly wasn't a redshirt. He enjoyed entomology and complaining.
Let's take a look at Illana's death. Like Arzt, Illana was in the middle of some sanctimonious spiel about how she knows best for the castaways. And then - like The Gap Band - she dropped the bomb...on herself.
I don't know about you, but once I saw Illana twirling that dynamite around like a salad strainer, I was subconsciously praying for an Arzt redux. What's Illana's relationship to Jacob? Why was she in the hospital? Who cares! The only way this scene could've been more entertaining is if she was jangling a maraca full of Semtex in her free hand. Nevermind the fact that my favorite hottie of the show is dead (Claire's stock plummeted after she turned into Nell), TNT = death = comedy. It's a perverse equation.
I'd like to think that these dynamite scenes were some covert tribute to Bertolt Brecht's verfremdungseffekt to make the audience feel more like Jacob and Smokey - our laughter at these scurrying, fragile ants onscreen transforms us into wanton gods - but I think it has more to do with the fact that life is funnier when it's a Merrie Melodies skit. Whatever J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse's intent here, I'm going to refer to characters getting arzted from now on. It's akin to getting axed, but has more bang to it. Welcome to my lexicon, arzt. Boom.