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'Lost,' 'Idol,' '24' finales mark end of a TV era

Dale Roe

Finale TV really steps up this week with some of the past decade's heaviest hitters cultural icons, really signing off. "Lost" and "24" will leave living rooms for good. And the longtime powerhouse "American Idol" finds itself standing at the edge of a ratings and relevance precipice, displaying definite signs of vulnerability and creative exhaustion. Let's take a look. (For my colleague Michael Barnes' thoughts on another huge TV milestone, the end of the original "Law & Order," click here.)

‘Lost'

Series finale 8 Sunday, May 23, ABC (a recap special airs at 6 p.m.)

It's a good sign when frustrated fans say things like, "I want to punch this show in the face," isn't it? I mean, aggravated "Two and a Half Men" enthusiasts don't say that. They just stop watching, right?

After the show's interminable third season and before all the trippy (but awesome) time-travel mumbo-jumbo — when Sawyer and Kate spent seven or eight episodes locked in cages eating fish biscuits and I almost stopped watching — the show's producers, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, made a bold move (and not just because of me): They asked ABC for an ending date. They admitted they'd been spinning their wheels — they only had so much story to tell and if they knew when it would end they could plot it out, they said, with no more filler.

Yet what have we gotten this season? The beginning was marked by the introduction of a whole new group of characters, the Temple dwellers. These characters (and their Temple) were destroyed several episodes later. What was the point of that? An entire recent episode was devoted to the back-story of mysterious, never-aging Richard Alpert. Fine. At least we found out how the statue toppled. (Spoiler alert: It was knocked over by a tiny, wooden slave ship. No, really.) But this is what we get with so few remaining episodes?

I'm going to go out on a Smoke Monster-twisted limb and call "Lost" the most frustrating show in the history of television. I'm not one of those fans who whine for answers every week. Cuse and Lindelof have already promised that the finale would confuse us, and that's OK by me. I'm also OK with the fact that the show that's ending tonight is a completely different animal than the one I signed up for six years ago. (Have you ever tried explaining anything that's happened on "Lost" in the past three years to somebody who called it quits after Season 1?) Honestly, I've been willing to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. But that means the ride's got to be enjoyable. And this season's been kind of a wash compared to the creative resurgence of the past few years.

I guess my problem with "Lost" is that I find the entire underlying premise of the show — revealed to us in fits and starts over this season — to be bland, predictable, trite and utterly unsatisfying. I find myself saying the characters' lines before they do. It's almost a game now. I catch myself wondering if this can actually be, after all this time, all that it really boils down to.

Desmond and the sideways timeline remain, for me, the sole saving grace of this season and the best hope I have that Cuse and Lindelof (who, inexplicably, took credit for penning the Jacob/Man in Black, wheel-spinningest "Lost" episode of all time with only four hours remaining) can bring this series to any kind of a satisfying conclusion tonight.

Yeah. In my tropical dreams.

‘24'

Series finale 7 p.m. Monday, May 24, Fox

As the subject of countless parodies — it even had an homage episode on "The Simpsons" — it's easy to forget that "24" was once revolutionary stuff. On a strictly structural level, no previous serialized drama had ever before attempted to show an entire day play out in real time. It was a gamble for Fox to commit to two dozen episodes of a show that would demand an equally large commitment on the part of its viewers. "24" seemed oddly prescient. Debuting almost four years before Barack Obama became a senator, "24" predicted the election of an African American president (and, later, a woman).

And premiering only a few months after the 9/11 attacks (although conceived and developed much earlier), the show became a lightning rod for discussion of torture and other "harsh interrogation tactics." Referenced in political arguments — the head of Britain's MI5 secret service suggested that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld must have been fans — Kiefer Sutherland's Counter Terrorist Unit operative Jack Bauer still serves as shorthand for a specific type of gung-ho, security-at-any-costs mind-set, even as "24's" clock winds down. Just over a week ago, thedailybeast.com writer Benjamin Sarlin referred to a pair of Congressional candidates — Iraq War veterans who left the military after charges of crimes against detainees — as "Jack Bauer Republicans."

Whether or not Americans' stance on torture has evolved since 9/11, a rewatching of the premiere season of "24" reveals that the show's view remains frustratingly stagnant. Sure, Jack was prosecuted somewhere in there, but he remains free (although, again, hunted). And, yeah, his superiors at CTU routinely forbid his use of torture, but they always prove to be the arrogant knuckleheads who turn out to be wrong when Bauer saves the day.

I almost checked out of the show last season because the cheerleading for torture seemed to cross the line from entertainment to propaganda. But this season, as Jack gets nuttier and nuttier while seeking revenge for the killing of his sudden girlfriend, Renee Walker, the violence has reached "Itchy & Scratchy" levels of cartoonish outrageousness: A few episodes back, Jack gutted a Russian assassin who had swallowed his phone's SIM card and removed it from the shooter's stomach, leaving yards of intestines piled on the floor. The sight of Jack in last week's episode, decked out in body armor with a black, bulletproof mask, looking like a demented welder, surgically sniping Secret Servicemen while calmly but relentlessly lumbering toward a cowering, former President Logan, was straight out of "Batman" and provided one of the most memorable images of the TV season.

As a friend put it, Jack Bauer's finally getting to do all of the stuff everybody's been complaining he did all those years that he wasn't actually doing it — at least not to this degree. The added "crazy" as "24" winds down is breathing new life and suspense into the series.

Still, there are problems. Jack's confidante, Chloe O'Brien, and President Taylor have suffered ridiculous and inexcusable about-faces this season. Tech-wiz O'Brien was first reduced to whiny incompetence and then, hours later, handed the commander's keys at CTU. Taylor, a beacon of virtue who sent her own daughter to prison last season for criminal activity, sacrificed her morals, suspending civil liberties and authorizing torture in pursuit of a peace agreement. These are, sadly, characters in service of a plot, not vice versa.

The whole concept seems tired, doesn't it? Oh, the drama has been increased — there were only a few big plot twists in the whole first season, now there are several in a single episode. But "24" has become predictable and repetitive.

Jack Bauer's had a good run. I don't see how Season 8 can possibly end well for him, but maybe the fans will fare better: A rumored series of movies would condense Bauer's day into a reasonable and fast-paced 90 minutes.

'American Idol'

Season finale 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 26, Fox

‘Idol' will be back next season, but it definitely seems like the end of an era for the Fox juggernaut. For starters, it's showing signs of becoming a jugger-not: Ratings are down 7.5 percent from last year, and "Idol" scored lower numbers than "Dancing with the Stars" a few weeks back, the first time non-special event programming has topped the show in five years (it was beaten twice this spring by the Winter Olympics on NBC). The face of "Idol," acerbic judge Simon Cowell, is leaving after this season, and the search for his replacement seems muddled and far too public. Meanwhile, the new Paula Abdul — Ellen DeGeneres — is kind of a flop.

But, most disappointing, the talent this season has been subpar and the judging is terrible and contradictory (let's call it "pitchy," OK, dawg?). After repeatedly building up this year's female talent, the judges were forced to justify those declarations by overpraising the less-than-stellar women even as they were picked off, one by one (neither Jack Bauer nor "Lost's" Smoke Monster could hope to have culled their ranks more efficiently than the voting texters of America). Mostly, though, it just hasn't been much fun to watch. Short-timer Cowell seems to be phoning it in; the contestants are clearly tiring of the judges' inconsistent advice and seem to be getting a little mouthy for their skill sets. And Ryan Seacrest is, well, still Ryan Seacrest.

No matter who takes the crown on Wednesday (I'm hoping hippie-chick Crystal Bowersox defeats the clear judges' pet — paint salesman Lee DeWyze) there's no arguing that the title of "Your American Idol" has lost some of its luster. Whatever happened to last year's winner, Kris Allen, anyway?

Still, the show remains at the top of the Nielsens and Cowell's departure provides an opportunity for a reinvention the "Idol" producers should jump at. (Already, Fox has announced the Tuesday performance shows will run 90 minutes and results show will shrink back to 30 minutes.) They gave in a few years back and let the contestants accompany themselves instrumentally; how about we finally allow them to perform their own compositions? Now that would set up some very entertaining train-wreck-style possibilities. Let's hope we get something more radical than this year's other tweak: celebrity judges during the audition rounds.

More finales

Sunday, May 23—

  • ‘America's Funniest Home Videos' (6 p.m.), ABC
  • ‘The Simpsons' (7 p.m.) and ‘The Cleveland Show' (7:30 p.m.), Fox
  • ‘The Celebrity Apprentice' (8 p.m.), NBC

Monday, May 24—

  • ‘How I Met Your Mother' (7 p.m.), ‘Rules of Engagement' (7:30 p.m.), ‘Two and a Half Men' (8 p.m.), ‘The Big Bang Theory' (8:30 p.m.) and ‘CSI: Miami' (9 p.m.), CBS
  • ‘Chuck' (7 p.m.), NBC

Tuesday, May 25—

  • ‘The Biggest Loser' (7 p.m.), NBC
  • ‘Dancing With the Stars' (8 p.m.), ABC
  • ‘NCIS' (7 p.m.), ‘NCIS: Los Angeles' (8 p.m.) and ‘The Good Wife' (9 p.m.), CBS

Wednesday, May 26—

  • ‘Criminal Minds' (8 p.m.) and ‘CSI: NY' (9 p.m.), CBS

Thursday, May 27—

  • ‘Flash Forward' series finale (7 p.m.), ABC