the key to obsession

The Sci Fi Channel’s original TV mini-series, The Lost Room, just finished its run on this side of the Atlantic. I’m always delighted when a TV show (especially one from Sci Fi, which has a very uneven track record) exceeds my expectations.

The story revolves around a room that is lost in time and space, but can be accessed through any door if a special key is inserted and turned in a tumbler lock. The key is one of approximately a hundred objects that originate from the room, but in our reality they have extraordinary, and often bizarre, powers.

Detective Joe Miller (Peter Krause) comes into possession of the key while pursuing a murder investigation. Quite soon his life falls apart and his daughter is trapped outside of reality. The series follows Joe’s attempts to uncover the central mystery about the room and find his daughter while dodging various cabals and lunatics who wish to possess the key.

This show does a number of things in a skilful manner:

* The exposition is handled with subtlety. Information about the room, how it works, and the objects associated with it is slowly revealed to the viewer in a fashion that teases and tantalises, but usually doesn’t frustrate. The writers deserve a pat on the back for this trick.
* The characters are interesting, and well acted. Joe has to work with several of his enemies at certain points in the story, and they are depicted as three-dimensional characters with their own motivations and needs. Joe’s colleague, Dr. Martin Ruber (Dennis Christopher) is a particularly good example of strong character building: he starts as Joe’s friend, but is changed by his obsession with the objects.
* There are twists and turns aplenty. Just when you think you know what is going to happen, a whole new aspect to the mystery is revealed.

The story is clever at tapping into our obsession with things. People attribute magic to everyday objects. They bid for them on eBay. They collect the silliest of items on a whim. These things can become talismanic to us, and scarily important to our lives. We invest in them in a way that can become unhealthy.

The Lost Room captures this mania, along with our ability to read a greater mystery (proof of the existence of God) into any inexplicable event. There are two groups competing to collect the objects, the Legion and the Order, and both of them have completely opposite theories about why the room came into existence, and the importance of the objects.

The least satisfying aspects of the programme for me were Joe’s relationship with object collector Jennifer Bloom (Julianna Margulies), which just didn’t seem believable, and the last twenty minutes of the show. I realised as I watched the clock that the writers were going to withhold information about the room, and set up a scenario for another series. It was somewhat frustrating since I thought this was a one-off mini-series. Plus, Joe has to take a particular action towards the end of the series that I thought could have been handled better. It had the bitter taste of a plot device.

The Lost Room is an intelligent show with an intriguing premise, which is executed with confidence. It has some flaws, but they are minor compared to its strengths.

This is a series I would buy on DVD. It’s ripe for a plethora of quirky extras (the Sci Fi Channel has already produced a number of shorts that play around with particular objects and their powers). This programme has the potential to be a jumping off point for spin-offs: the anthology of object stories, the tales of individual object owners done via graphic novel, the book about the origin of the room, etc. Shows that deal with obsession, breed obsession (the Wikipedia entries on the show are impressive).

While I think The Lost Room works well as a mini-series (the occasional story slumps are never too long), I’m not sure about its continued life. If Sci Fi plans a sequel series I hope it’s another 6-parter, and not an entire season.

It could end up being the “quirky object of the day” show, which would become tiresome very fast. I’d be happy if Sci Fi created one follow-on mini-series with a satisfactory conclusion, and left if at that.