Monday, December 18, 2006

The Lost Room

Everybody geeks about something.

Last week, the Sci Fi Channel aired an original mini-series about which I had been reading for a little while. The teasers indicated that the story was about a man who found a room in which mundane objects were given extraordinary powers. And, as is the nature of such teasers, it only scratched the surface of the story.

On May 4, 1961, at a little past 1:20 in the afternoon, an Event occured in room 10 of the Sunshine Motel near Gallup, New Mexico. The mini-series never goes into detail about what happened, but as a result of the Event, every object in the room--including the Occupant-- was imbued with a special ability. Also, as a result, room 10 was wiped off the face of the earth.

Now comes a detective, Joe Miller (played by Peter Krause), who is given a key to room 10 of the Sunshine Motel by a dying man, and with it we enter the very eclectic world of the Objects and their collectors. Some of the Objects have useful powers; for example, the key opens any door with a doorknob and keyhole to the relatively safe haven of Room 10. When the owner of the key departs the room, he exits to any door of his choice and thus has a means of near-instantaneous transportation. Furthermore, no matter the state of the room or the objects in the room before the door closes, when the door is reopened, the room is "reset" and returns to its original state, such that all new objects are gone (the basics of how this works and its uses are played out quite nicely over the course of the episodes. The writers and thus Miller become quite ingenious about how to use the room). However, some of the objects are less than useful; the radio, when tuned to the right station, makes its user grow three inches taller. And the powers of the objects grow greater and more useful when they are used together.

The primary motivation for the mini-series, however, comes when Krause's daughter goes into the room and it is accidentally reset, so that when Miller opens the door again, she is gone. The rest of the episodes are the convoluted path through this shadow world Miller must take to ensure the safe return of his daughter.

The writers build a serious mythology about the Lost Room and the people who pursue the objects, a sort of underground that the Lone Gunmen in X-Files would appreciate. In fact, a problem with the premise is the question of how such a fantastic subject could remain hidden from the public eye. First off, there are groups of people pursuing the objects--the Legion, who try to get the Objects in order to keep them from falling into the wrong hands, believe that altogether, the Objects pose a threat to the very fabric of reality, and the Order of Reunification, who believe that putting the Objects back together will give them the power to talk to God--not to mention unscrupulous individuals who serve neither side of this conflict. There are also fanboy-types who follow the Objects around from a distance, selling their tracking ability to those who pursue the objects. And finally there are the victims, such as those who have been touched by the bus ticket and find themselves teleported a few feet above the ground at another section of Gallup, New Mexico. As a sort of running joke, people that offend Wally, the holder of the bus ticket, find themselves wandering incredulously around the outskirts of Gallup. And other people must also have been affected by the Objects. So there is a good number of people who know about the Objects, but no one outside these groups *knows* about the Objects. It's an artifice and one that you accept as you watch the show, but after the fact it becomes a little troublesome as you try to work out the logic of it.

The show itself is a marvel of storytelling. Viewers can easily get wrapped up in this bizarre world and find that they care about who might win the probable battle between the factions, but taking a step back, they also realize that they spent an hour of time watching a TV show about a comb. I have to wonder if the creators are having a quiet laugh to themselves about the human ability to become fascinated with the most inane things, especially as this parallels some of the action of the show where various people build virtual shrines to the Objects that they own. The New York Times review of the show ( speculates that the Objects hold power over the viewer because they are the lost objects of a generation gone by, "the things our dads and granddads used to carry, loading them into suit pockets just as they were rushing to mysterious child-free places". But an interview with Krause himself ( seems closer to the truth, people put inordinate value on everyday things, often to the detriment of their relationship with people. This theory plays out over the course of the mini-series; dozens of people are unable to unravel the mysteries of the Lost Room over the course of decades, but they are primarily interested in the Objects as artifacts or power. But Miller unravels it all in a few days because he has a use for those objects--he wants to bring his daughter home. And this is the message that is most important--that Things aren't as important as People unless those Things are used to bring people together.

On the downside, Julianna Margulies plays Jennifer Bloom, a member of the Legion who becomes Miller's romantic interest. On the one hand, I don't know why the story fell into the fairly stereotypical need for a love interest; it certainly adds no value to the story and is only fleetingly played out, almost tangential to the main action. However, at the same time, their interaction typifies the theme as Miller makes another relationship whereas all the other Object pursuers are emotionally or socially stunted in some way. Over the course of the mini-series, it becomes clear that Miller is the only Object hunter that is genuinely liked by every other pursuer he meets.

And of course, being a Sci Fi Channel mini-series, the conclusion is open-ended, making it a perfect back-door pilot for an ongoing series. I fear that a series would be a great deal like Lost or X-Files, where the people who watch it would have their own language that people outside their circle could never understand. But then I think about conversations that I hear at my office, as people congregate on my hall to talk about the latest happenings in the world of House, and I realize that we do form our own societies anyway, with any TV show or any other past-time. Because, as the Lost Room explains, everybody geeks about something.


  1. Have you considered the other tropes in the miniseries? Two that come to mind easily are: 1) Miller is a police detective - of course, only police detectives could possibly be trained or have the "right stuff" to sort out the complex world of the Objects and the Lost Room. In fact, I'd say Miller is a Super-Detective with the skills of Batman or possibly even Ralph Dibny (the Elongated Man). 2) While Miller isn't a widow (a la only nice guys have kids but are not divorced, they're widowed - Sleepless in Seattle) he is painted as a nice guy who is a caring and loving dad struggling to get/maintain(?) custody of his daughter. Here's a police detective who has no flaws, no vices, whose only mission in life is to love and care for his daughter. A bit of flat character development? Or did the producers not have time to paint on some warts? Don't get me wrong, I was as sucked in to the miniseries as F. Speculator. And since it's pretty clear the producers are grooming this to be a weekly series, hopefully Miller will become a little more fleshed out.

  2. The thing about tropes is that they serve a purpose, but then become accepted shorthand (or just laziness) in storytelling. For example, what other profession could Miller have had that would have given him access to the things he needed for the story to progress? Who else has access to fingerprint labs, for example? Could the writers have told the story withou requiring their main character to have access to fingerprint labs? Sure, but it's easier to use the storytellign shorthand of making the protagonist a cop.

    One of the tropes I thought of was the "child in peril" one. Why does the child always end up doing the stupid thing that forces the hero into action? (I remember how the original Battlestar Galactica started out as a weekly "get the kid and his robot dog out of trouble again" story.) Why couldn't the person who got trapped in the room at its reset have been the cop's partner? First off, there would have to be establishing scenes of the deep and abiding friendship between the cops, and that would take up story-telling time (and money). Second, the cop would have had to drag his daughter to various places with him, which would become a load on the storytelling, plus paying the salary of a recognizable name for a child actor and all its attendant costs. And then, how fulfilling would the final scenes have been, when the cop's friend is returned to him? You can't kiss him and you can't hug him too long or you bring up different impressions that you perhaps intended. Could they have used the partner? Sure, but it would have required some hard(er) work on the part of the writers. Perhaps those kinds of threads can be worked out in an ongoing series, and perhaps I am being unfair expecting such detailed ideas being worked out in a show of limited time and money resources.