Through no fault of its production staff, the fourth season of 'Lost' almost ended in disaster. Responding to complaints that their show had too many open mysteries with no resolution in sight, the producers had announced a definitive end-date for the series just prior to the Season 3 finale. According to the plan, 'Lost' would draw to a close after its sixth season. The tradeoff to this is that the remaining three years would run with a shortened schedule of only 16 episodes each (compared to the usual 23 or 24), aired in consecutive order with no repeats or breaks starting each January. Season 4 began production with this intention, but fate had other plans. In November of 2007, the Writer's Guild of America went on strike, grounding production of all scripted television series to a halt. 'Lost' had only 8 of the season's episodes in the can at that point.
During the strike, the cast and crew had no choice but to sit on their hands and wait. Meanwhile, the network began airing the completed episodes in January as originally planned. After 14 long weeks, the strike finally ended and the writers (along with everyone else) went back to work. Unfortunately, too much time had passed for the show to make its intended schedule. The producers and the network came to a compromise that the fourth season would run for 13 episodes (the last a 2-hour finale), with a month-long break in between the original batch and those just starting up. The 'Lost' crew frantically raced to meet their new deadlines. In order to accommodate the shorter run, many of the expected story points for the season had to be condensed or consolidated into fewer episodes. Somehow, miraculously, they pulled it off. Despite its abbreviated length, the fourth season of 'Lost' is just as mysterious, suspenseful, and dramatically compelling as ever.
As we last left things, the series had made a surprising break from its normal episode structure, in which the main storyline on the island is intercut with flashbacks to the characters' back stories. The Season 3 finale ended with the mind-bending twist that what we had assumed was Jack's flashback in that episode was in fact a flash-forward to a few years in the future, revealing that he and Kate will both make it off the island. With the producers' new game plan laid out, we now know that this episode was the mid-point of the show's overall six-season story arc. As it turns out, it was also a major turning point structurally. In the fourth season, almost every episode follows the new flash-forward pattern, and we learn that Jack and Kate aren't the only Losties that will return to civilization. By extension, we also find out that not everyone does. What we don't know (at least not immediately) is exactly which other characters will go or how they leave. It also becomes abundantly clear that the events of Jack's flash-forward are far from the end of the 'Lost' saga.
Meanwhile, in the main timeline on the island, things pick up almost exactly where they left off. The survivors of Flight 815 have made contact with a freighter just offshore, and a helicopter is sent to pick them up. Or so they think. The disparate crew members of that ship have their own plans for the island, and few of them consider rescuing our heroes a priority. We should expect no less.
Thus far, each season of the show has had its own focus on a particular set of characters. While the first season was all about the main batch of crash survivors (the Losties, as we know them), Season 2 spent time integrating and eventually discarding the tail section passengers (or "Tailies," if you will). Season 3 expanded our knowledge of the mysterious Others inhabiting the island. Now, Season 4 introduces the Freighter Folk (or "Freighties," as some fans refer to them). Joining the cast this season are Charlotte, Miles, Faraday, and Lapidus, among others. The new characters are as richly drawn as any in the show's run, each with their own motivations, agendas, and sympathies. And just when you thought Ben was a menacing villain, along comes Keamy to put him in his place.
As you can imagine, the flash-forward gambit is a difficult trick to pull off well, such that each episode jumps forward into the story's future without giving too much away. Without spoiling anything myself, rest assured that the show manages the conceit brilliantly. The fate of certain characters will be revealed here, and others left more uncertain than ever. Some existing mysteries will be resolved, and more opened up. As always, the series is an elaborate puzzle of astounding complexity. Standout episodes include 'The Constant', which blends complex concepts involving Quantum Mechanics and time travel with a personal story of heart-breaking emotionality; and 'The Shape of Things to Come', in which all hell breaks loose between the Losties and Keamy's crew, and Ben makes a devastating tactical error.
If I had any complaint about Season 4, the premiere episode lacks the sort of shocking revelation that we've come to expect from each of the prior years' openers, and the finale's big twist ending isn't nearly as surprising as the producers may have hoped. (How can it be, when the characters actually tell us in advance that it will happen?) The string of post-strike episodes (from 'The Shape of Things to Come' onward) occasionally feel a little more rushed than usual, though the hectic pacing does work dramatically. The visual effects during the finale look particularly rough.
Nevertheless, the show pulls though and skillfully avoids the potential catastrophe wrought by the Writer's Strike. 'Lost' remains the most ingenious, frustrating, and frequently amazing show on television.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Lost: The Complete Fourth Season' comes to Blu-ray from Buena Vista Home Entertainment in a 5-disc box set subtitled "The Expanded Experience." That "Expanded" title is not explained anywhere in the disc contents or packaging. Presumably, it refers to the fact that episode 'There's No Place Like Home, Part 1' includes additional footage of the Oceanic Six press conference that didn't make the first broadcast run (but was included in the later "enhanced" re-run with trivia). If so, that extra footage is less than 30 seconds in length.
Annoyingly, Buena Vista has changed the packaging configuration since the Season 3 Blu-ray set. Although the discs are once again held in a single multi-panel keepcase, the cardboard box has been replaced with a simple slipcover. The two seasons are uneven heights and look awkward when stored side-by-side. The Season 3 booklet that thoroughly listed its disc contents has also been exchanged for a jokey Oceanic Airlines passenger safety pamphlet with instructions for what to do in the event that the plane is surrounded by black smoke, how to filter out scary whispering noises, and so forth. The back page has a basic episode list, but no plot summaries or detail about the bonus features.
The discs are Java-enabled and very slow to load in a standalone Blu-ray player, especially since Disney has burdened the first disc with annoying promos and trailers at the start. Additionally, all discs have lengthy copyright notices before the main menus. Strangely, whenever you access an Episode Selection menu, you will be asked to identify which disc you're watching. If you choose incorrectly, a notice appears that you need to change discs. The point of that eludes me.
Even in its 720p broadcasts on the ABC network, 'Lost' is easily the best-looking show on television. Its beautiful tropical locations and outstanding photography are the match of any feature film. When the third season came to Blu-ray, that set's video quality was essentially flawless and earned our highest score. Season 4 has most of the same attributes, but also one significant demerit.
First, the positives. The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented in the 16:9 aspect ratio of the show's HD broadcasts) is extraordinarily sharp and detailed. You can even make out the texture of makeup on the faces of actresses who have supposedly been living in the jungle for months. Colors are vibrant without over-saturation. The contrast range is perfectly delineated from the brightest to the darkest of scenes. In scene after scene, the picture screams, "This is what High Definition is supposed to be!"
However, unlike the previous year's Blu-ray, Season 4 has the persistent appearance of artificial sharpening. Light edge ringing is present in almost every episode. All things considered, the artifact is relatively minor. Viewers with smaller HD monitors will probably never see it, but those with large screens may find it a distraction. It's worse in some episodes (and some scenes within episodes) than others. It stood out to me most in 'The Constant'. As a result of this sharpening, even scenes without edge halos tend to have a harsh look to them, and film grain is a little too noisy (especially in night scenes). Season 3 had a more natural, film-like appearance.
Despite this, the Season 4 Blu-ray is quite impressive in most respects, and is a decided improvement over the 720p network broadcasts. But this time it's not quite perfect.
I have no such qualms about the audio quality, which is easily a match for Season 3. The uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtrack has excellent dynamic range from the piercing strings in Michael Giacchino's score to the howl of the Smoke Monster. Being a television production, surround usage is generally subdued other than some music bleed and ambient effects, but the action scenes build up to surprising power. In episode 'The Shape of Things to Come', gunfire rips through the soundstage and the explosions hit with a satisfying impact.
Dialogue is occasionally a little bright, but always intelligible. The beach scenes suffer from having environmental noises notched out, but these are minor nits to pick. 'Lost' is still one of the best-sounding shows on television, and the Blu-ray does it justice.
All of the bonus features from the DVD edition have been carried over to the Blu-ray, with most encoded in High Definition video.
'Lost: The Complete Fourth Season' has only 13 episodes, in comparison to the previous season's 23. Despite this, Buena Vista has priced the Blu-ray set at a high $69.99 MSRP. If you can get beyond that, Season 4 has many great episodes, and the Blu-ray once again excels with terrific video, audio, and bonus features. This is an easy recommendation for fans, though you might want to shop around for the best sale price.