Can we all have a moment of silence for Leslie Arzt? You know, the peevish ninth-grade science teacher who briefly emerged from the faceless crew of unnamed castaways on Lost to take his place among the principals during the last three episodes of the season, only to be blown up by a stick of dynamite in last night's finale? Ever since he uttered his first lines on the May 11 episode, this character was clearly earmarked for destruction, as expendable as one of the "red shirts" who used to get systematically picked off while exploring planets on the old Star Trek (my friends and I called all the red shirts by the same name: "Ensign Jablomowitz").
Arzt (played by Daniel Roebuck, a "Hey, it's that guy!" character actor whom you may remember from such roles as "Hearse Driver" in Bubba Ho-Tep) was given no back story or character development to speak of. His chief plot function was to serve as the resident expert on explosives, accompanying the main characters on a mission to recover dynamite from the wreckage of a slave ship on the island. Of course, the joke was that Wile E. Coyote would be a better explosives consultant than the self-righteous know-it-all Arzt—the only piece of advice he had to offer his companions about the dynamite stash, "put that down carefully," came only seconds before he blasted himself into a shower of human shrapnel (setting up one of the episode's best lines several scenes later: "You've got some Arzt on your shirt").
But in his last few moments on earth, Arzt gave voice to an issue I wonder about every time I tune into Lost: What's it like to be one of those other castaways, milling around humbly in the background while the main characters conceal their secrets, reveal their passions, and stare moodily into space during their flashbacks? Seated with Hurley (Jorge Garcia) outside the ship as the others ventured inside, Arzt suddenly turned on his tubby co-castaway with a bitter rant about the island's emerging social "cliques." "I'm sorry that I'm not cool enough to be part of your merry little band of adventurers," he began sarcastically and went on to describe a hierarchy in which the glamorous in-crowd saved the best food and the most desirable hut-building materials for each other, while the rest of the nameless castaways were left to fight over the scraps. "There were 40 other survivors of this plane crash. And we're all people too," he concluded almost tearfully.
Arzt's speech was funny for two reasons: because it cast the life-or-death struggle for survival on a desert island as a junior-high-school popularity contest, of course, but also because it poked fun at a fissure in the plausibility of the Lost universe. Lost has a larger cast of principal characters than most shows on television—about 14 people whose stories we follow closely week to week. But given that the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 stranded 48 people on the island (only a few of whom have kicked the bucket since), the show still posits a world in which two-thirds of the island's population exists mainly to stand around obediently, taking orders from the cool kids who run the show. What are the power struggles, the loves and losses and resentments, in this sub-protagonist echelon?
Lost is a cleverly constructed experiment in serialized suspense (though it runs the risk of sinking under the weight of its piled-on plot twists in the second season). But if the show's creators, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, are really interested in faking their audience out and taking the narrative arc of series television to places it's never been before, they'd do well to listen to Arzt's complaint and do some strategic character development among the ranks of the lesser castaways.
In the penultimate episode of this season, for example, the members of the rescue party set out on their makeshift raft as those remaining on the island saw them off with tears and hugs. Poor doomed Arzt got nary a closeup, nary a farewell—as far as I could tell, he wasn't even among the extras shown standing behind the main characters.Lost viewers are smart enough to take the hint: The science teacher is toast, no need to care about him. But toss out an Arzt flashback, an Arzt closeup, an Arzt quirk or two before he blows himself to pieces, and audiences will not only be truly shocked by his death (as they were earlier this season by the loss of Boone, a major character); they'll be moved by it as well.
This week's TV Guide announces that next season, Daniel Roebuck will be back as Arzt. Given the show's unique narrative structure, that may simply mean that his character will appear in other characters' flashback scenes, in the "Easter egg" cameos Abrams and Lindelof like to drop into each episode. Then again, the mystical properties of the Lost island may be such that Arzt's apparent death was in fact merely a disappearance down some metaphorical (or literal) rabbit hole. Ensign Jablomowitz should have been so lucky.