In Defense of Nikki and Paolo
The Accused: “Exposé,” an episode from the third season of Lost which focused entirely on the much-despised new characters Nikki and Paulo.
The Crimes: The first half ofLost‘s third season incited a now-legendary storm of fan rage. The show had plenty of legitimate problems. Half of the characters were imprisoned, for reasons that were initially nebulous and then just stupid. The mysterious Others were suddenly characters, and they were almost uniformly boring. Mr. Eko got killed by a giant smoke fist. Bai Ling happened. ABC made the curious decision to split the show’s run, with six episodes airing in autumn and the rest airing in the spring; the six autumn episodes were some of the show’s worst. (And while anti-Lost sentiment festered on the internet, NBC’s Heroes seemed to offer a younger, faster serialized alternative.)
Still, when people complain about season 3 of Lost nowadays, most of the problems inevitably come back around to Nikki and Paulo, the young lovers played by Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro. In stark contrast to other late additions like the Tailies or the Others, Nikki and Paulo weren’t intruders in the show’s main cast; they were introduced as if they had been hanging out on the beach ever since the plane crash. It was an interesting idea; unfortunately, it turned out that the other 35 castaways didn’t have very much to do besides hang out and wait for Locke or Jack to make a speech.
The show’s creators realized their mistake almost immediately, but rather than quietly retire Nikki and Paulo, they wrapped up their storyline in an episode called “Exposé,” generally considered one of the show’s most infuriating hours. There are no new revelations; most of the main characters are sidelined. (Click here to read Jeff “Doc” Jensen’s original recap of “Exposé.”) As a result, “Exposé” is one of those episodes (along with “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a.k.a. “How did Jack get those wacky tattoos?”) that fans hold up as an example of the show at its most pointless. If it’s not answering any questions, and it’s not about the main characters, and the end of the episode just feels like an angry in-joke, then what’s the point?
The Defense: It’s important to remember that Lost was not a story. It was a TV show. Admittedly, it was a serialized TV show, and later seasons would reflect the post-Wire novelizing vogue with ever-more-complicated plotlines. But Lost was first and foremost a TV show constructed in the early-2000s. The “story,” such as it was, was purposefully open-ended. The true genius of Lost was in its structure: By focusing on a different character each week, Lost was essentially an anthology show with forward momentum. While the action on the island might advance forward — and if it did “advance,” it rarely moved very quickly — the flashback sequences functioned as discrete short stories.
Different characters offered the writers the opportunity to explore different styles. A Hurley episode could be light-hearted. A Desmond episode could feature a cool, zip-zappy sci-fi plot. The Jin/Sun episodes were Scenes from a Marriage. Sawyer was always conning someone in a bargain-Elmore Leonard plotline. Kate was usually killing someone, accidentally or on purpose. We tend to criticize the anthology era of Lost. General consensus holds that the show got good again when it fully embraced the serialization. That’s true in some ways. But as the show went on, it also became more hermetically sealed, narrowing its focus to just a few characters. (If we’re to trust the show’s final moments, it was really the story of Jack’s redemption; a nice thought, but since Jack was consistently the fifth or sixth most interesting character on the show, it’s a little bit like saying that Friends was a prequel to Joey all along.)
“Exposé,” then, is the last gasp of the old Lost, of the show that played out like Canterbury Tales on an island, or like The Twilight Zone with recurring characters. And even if Nikki and Paulo are, by a far measure, two of the least-interesting characters the show would introduce, their sole centric episode is a weird and wonderful delight, a schadenfreude-laden romp which simultaneously glories in killing off two unloved characters and finds a bit of sympathy for all the characters on a TV show who have to play second fiddle to the protagonists.
The key to understanding “Exposé” is its opening flashback scene, which introduces Nikki as a stripper named Corvette doing a pole-dance routine. She goes into the backroom of the strip club…and discovers her boss receiving a suitcase of money. Important revelation #1: The boss is played by Billy Dee Williams. Important revelation #2: Billy Dee Williams is playing a heroic character named “Mr. LaShade,” who is apparently actually a villain named Cobra. Important revelation #3: When someone points a gun in Nikki’s face, she says the words “Razzle Dazzle!” and does a basic-cable kick. Important revelation #4: Billy Dee Williams shoots her dead.
It turns out we’re actually watching the filming of an episode of Exposé, a show about crimefighting strippers which sounds so goofy that it could have literally been a late-90s USA show, running right alongside Silk Stockings and Pacific Blue. Nikki is a journeyman actress, a perpetual guest-star who doesn’t hope for much except for a memorable death scene; you get the sense that she’s already missed her shot at stardom. She’s also sleeping with her producer…but only so she can kill him and steal his diamonds. Which she does. Immediately. With a little help from her boyfriend, Paulo. In the span of about five minutes, we’ve gone from the set of a campy TV show, to a behind-the-scenes look at the set of the campy TV show, to a plotline that basically feels like it could come from the same show. (More wheels within wheels: Real-life Nikki steals diamonds; Nikki-as-a-stripper wears a faux-diamond bikini.)
There’s a playfulness in the opening scenes that you don’t find much in Lost‘s later seasons, when whole episodes were devoted to moving very specific chess pieces into very specific positions. The original plan was apparently to film an entire Nikki-centric episode that would have been an episode of Exposé — an awesome idea, and frankly, a much better-sounding episode than what results. Nikki and Paulo crash with the other castaways and spend the episode running alongside ambient bits of Lost lore. There’s a clip-show quality to these scenes. If anything, the main problem with “Exposé” is that it feels too wedded to the show’s mythology, with throwaway appearances from Dr. Arzt and Boone. It’s an early indication that the show would, at its worst, be strangled by its own continuity.
But what saves the episode is the present-day stuff. At the beginning of the episode, Nikki runs onto the beach, collapses, says something inscrutable, and dies. The discover that Paulo is also dead. Hurley and Sawyer lead an investigation effort. Theories abound. Hurley says that the Monster must have done it — didn’t Mr. Eko say the monster would come for all of them? The dead couple was carrying walkie-talkies: Could they be Others? At one point in the whodunit, Sawyer himself comes under suspicion — and this is when you remember that, in the early years of Lost, Sawyer actually seemed like somebody who could turn out to be a bad guy.
It’s probably too easy to go meta with Lost, but the fact that everyone’s theories turn out to be wrong — they were just diamond thieves, seriously — feels like a wink by the writers. Or maybe it’s less of a wink, and more of a scowl. There’s a weird and invigorating undercurrent of genuine anger in “Exposé.” Much of that is expressed by Nikki, the rare Lost character whose problems are almost entirely material. She’s not suffering from daddy issues or a Messiah complex. She just really wants money. Rewatching “Exposé” today, I was struck by the fact that Kiele Sanchez actually turns in a decent performance as Nikki; it’s more than a little reminiscent of her role in the hidden-gem B-movie A Perfect Getaway. (Rodrigo Santoro, conversely, does nothing with his nothing character. You can’t help but wonder: If there had been no Paulo, would we all have hated Nikki so much?)
In the end, the castaways put Nikki and Paulo into their graves — even though, as we see in flashbacks, they’re really just paralyzed due to a spider bite. Hurley tries to say some kind words. Sawyer says “Rest in peace, Nikki and Paulo.” They start in with the shovels…and right before the first bit of sand hits her face, Nikki’s eyes open. Hurley and Sawyer keep shoveling. Michael Giacchino’s score turns bombastic, with Bernard Hermann orchestra strikes, as the camera stares at the slice of beach where the two most-hated characters in Lost history were buried alive.
The Verdict: Maybe “Exposé” is just a nasty little joke, an hour of television about two incredible ignoble people ruled by vanity and craven ambition. If that’s all it is, then at least the joke has a great punchline. And it looks more than ever like an angry death-metal swan song for the first age of Lost — the last gasp of an era when the castaways could just hang out on the beach, even playing the occasional golf match, before the crosscurrents of various conspiracies came to dominate the Island.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich