“First Look/Last Look” is an occasional series in which I pan for TV gold in the fetid riverbed of the new fall season. While I always hope this experiment will yield at least one show that I want to add to my regular viewing—if not reviewing—schedule, I’m not holding my breath. Call me pessimistic, but, in most cases, I expect my first look to also be my last.
Ten strangers—all young, conventionally fit, and of carefully-coordinated hotness, of course—wake up on a deserted tropical island with no memories of who they are or how they got there. Can they work together to survive? Do they have sinister secrets in their pasts? Is it possible—just possible, mind you—that there might be more to this mysterious island than meets the eye?
I am ashamed to admit that I watched three and a half episodes of The I-Land before answering "I don't care" to these and all other questions it raised. The series is wretched enough that one episode should have been more than sufficient to drive me away, but I confess: I fell for the marketing. "Lost meets Black Mirror," Netflix's copywriters assured me, and indeed the series seemed to be such a comically shallow aping of Lost that I assumed the first few episode had to be deliberately awful. Surely, I thought, the general wretchedness—of plot, of dialogue, of acting—was part of some brilliant meta-commentary yet to be revealed? Was it a winking homage? A clever deconstruction? A hilarious spoof? Better keep watching!
There is, after all, a certain cynically addictive, manipulative magic to streaming television. The producers know that the show only has to make us just curious enough to surrender to binge-inertia and allow each episode to auto-play for eternity. And "puzzle-box" shows (like Lost and its endless imitators) would seem tailor-made for the format: As they constantly lay out tantalizingly improbable mysteries, we are always going to be tempted—if only from eye-rolling curiosity—to watch just one more episode, and see if anything actually turns out to make sense.
And so I kept watching this uninspired and dumbed-down thing called The I-Land, which actually played out less like someone had tried to rip-off Lost, and more like someone was attempting to drunkenly retell the story of Lost after having binged the first two seasons, stoned, many years earlier. I sat through two episodes in which cardboard characters—led by a game Natalie Martinez, who deserves better, and Kate Bosworth, who reads all of her lines as if with a gun to her head—ran back and forth across the same generically pretty stretch of beach. I watched them stumble upon vital supplies—which had been mysteriously left in the sand for them to find!—and then hide them from each other for no particular reason. I watched two characters explain—with all the followable logic of a toddler on acid—how certain recurring numbers had some cosmically conspiratorial significance. I watched characters who had not spoken more than a line of dialogue to each other suddenly and inexplicably form passionate attractions and/or violent enmities. I watched, in short, two episodes of painfully unconvincing characters, criminally derivative plotting, and almost fascinatingly terrible dialogue.
"By the way, I wasn't trying to rape you," says one character (after—of course—literally trying to rape someone). "There's no such thing like that in a place like this. There's just sex and no sex. We didn't have any sex." The toxicity of the sentiment reminds us that The I-Land is written by once-infamous chronicler of asshole-dude culture Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors). The crappiness of the sentiment's expression reminds us that the last time we heard LaBute's name, it was more than a decade ago, and it was for writing and directing the excremental Nicholas Cage remake of The Wicker Man.
Still, LaBute's once formidable reputation for producing provocative work was part of the reason I kept watching The I-Land. Most of all, however, I was waiting for that promised Black Mirror twist, which I foolishly hoped might provide a brilliant explanation for something that only appeared to be dull, derivative, and dumb. Maybe everyone's a robot! I thought. That would explain why the dialogue is so stilted, and why no one's responses seem even vaguely human, and it might even explain whatever the hell Bosworth is doing with her performance.
I will not reveal what the "twist" actually is. (Use your imagination, but do not strain it: Honestly, there are only about three things it could be, and the answer here is a combination of two of them.) But I will say that when it is eventually revealed in (for small mercies) the third episode, the only really surprising thing about the twist is that it does exactly nothing to explain—let alone excuse—the levels of badness that have come before.
There are probably, of course, even further twists still to come in the last four episodes, but I won't be around to experience them, and I don't recommend you are either. Take my word for it: There's no conspiracy, there's no masterplan, there's no postmodern puppetmaster making a salient point, and there's no payoff. The I-Land is not bad on purpose: It's just bad.
All seven episodes of the The I-Land dropped on Netflix Sept. 13.