Friday, May 28, 2010

"We Have To Go Back!": A Look Back at Lost

"There was no mythology to speak of in place during the early episodes of the series. We were building it as we went along." - David Fury, Lost screenwriter, May 20, 2008.

"We're still trying to be ... firmly ensconced in the world of science fact. I don't think we've shown anything on the show yet ... that has no rational explanation in the real world that we all function within...nothing is flat-out impossible. There are no spaceships. There isn't any time travel." - Lost producer Damon Lindelof, Scifiwire interview, January 20, 2005.

Unless you were hiding under a rock last week, you're probably aware that the labyrinthine tangles of Lost came to an end after six seasons of mythological riddles. For the past few years, fans have been heatedly debating the show's myriad mysteries, struggling to find some sort of cohesive explanation for every smoke monster, time traveler and four-toed statue.

The finale, like most aspects of the show, was rather divisive. If you were a fan of Lost in any capacity, you probably fall somewhere along the spectrum of "best finale ever" on one end to "biggest copout ever" on the other.

For the record, I adhere to the latter school of thought. But enough blood and ink has been spilled on the Lost finale, and there's nothing worse than a blogger on the Internet bitching about how an episode of television wasn't commensurate with his exact expectations. Rather, now that the show has concluded, I thought it was be interesting to take a look back at Lost as one unified series. The producers have claimed over the years that they had an overarching narrative in place since day one (a claim that I highly doubt, given the quotes I provided above).

But can the show function as one grand narrative? In the last decade, the Internet and DVDs have allowed fans to watch every episode of a television series in order from start to finish, a feat that was difficult to do even back in 2000. As such, television has upped the ante. HBO series are renowned for their detailed and intricate plotting, but Lost was arguably the first network show since Twin Peaks to take the "don't miss a single episode" approach. It is a television series that is serial rather than episodic, demanding that the viewer watch in order, and promising increased payback to those who pay particular attention to small details. It's the perfect kind of show for the Internet age, well-suited for close re-watching and heated discussion on message boards and blogs.

But does the show work as a single unit? Let's take a look at each of the six seasons individually. If you haven't seen the show, there will be some spoilers ahead, but I'll try to be as vague as possible.


The set-up: A group of survivors from a plane crash are forced to band together on a desert island. Initially concerned with day-to-day worries such as food, water, and escape, they eventually begin to realize that it's no ordinary island. Soon, they are confronted with mysterious radio signals, polar bears, native inhabitants, and an unseen monster. Meanwhile, a collection of flashbacks reveals to the audience the convoluted histories of the central characters.

My take: In later years, Lost always veered too hard toward either mythology or character development. But the first season struck the balance perfectly. The large cast allowed for many different character interactions, and watching the group struggle to work together was just as interesting as the mysteries that were presented. The first season about Lost manages to be ominous without being goofy, and the flashbacks to the characters' past allow the castaways to be interesting and developed in such a way that later seasons would struggle to replicate.

9 smoke monsters out of 10


The set-up: The survivors have infiltrated a mysterious hatch, only to find that the island had previously been inhabited by some sort of shady research group. As some characters struggle with pressing a button that may or may not prevent the end of the world, others prepare to fight the "Others" - the group of hostile inhabitants also on the island.

My take: This is where the show hit it's first major snag, as many viewers were put off by the "magic button" subplot. This season is very slow-moving, but it does build toward an exciting conclusion, and the setting in the decaying research facilities of an unknown scientific enterprise is rather inspired. Still, the show is beginning to appear directionless, as a long-awaited conflict with the Others leads exactly nowhere, new characters are introduced only to be unceremoniously killed off and the character flashbacks become more and more irrelevant.

6.5 polar bears out of 10.


The set-up: Several major characters have been kidnapped by the Others, and the group must band together in order to rescue them from a small hamlet of suburban houses(!). At the end of the season, it is revealed that the Others may be hiding from a larger threat.

My take: The first half of the season is atrociously terrible, and is where even the most steadfast fans began to check out. Characters are kept in cages for episodes at a time for no reason. Meaningless mysteries are presented and solved - it is revealed there is a second island nearby, for example. The flashbacks have become completely irrelevant. This season is only saved by the ominous ending, the clever conceit of the finale, and Michael Emerson's inspired portrayal of Ben Linus, the creepy, shifty leader of the Others.

4 DHARMA Initiatives out of 10.


The set-up: Several characters team up with the Others to fight against a freighter with troops to invade the island. Meanwhile, the narrative flashbacks are replaced with flashforwards to the characters' futures, revealing some surprising future developments.

My take: The writers' strike led to an unfortunately truncated season. Still, this one is fast-paced and full of action, and the introduction of the new characters on the freighter led to some much-needed fresh blood in the cast. The use of flashforwards is also clever and rewards the viewer who pays attention.. On the other hand, the island's mythology is becoming more convoluted with no solution in sight, and many of the original characters are receiving far less screen time, as the writers struggle to find plot arcs for the large cast.

7 Crazy French Women out of 10


The set-up: A mistake in the previous season has led to the island jumping through time and space. The characters struggle to correct this chronological mishap, and then find themselves stuck in the 70s working for the mysterious scientific research group only hinted at in previous seasons. At the end of the season, it is revealed that two opposing forces have been competing for control of the castaways...or something like that.

My take: This seasons is probably the most fun, although many fans were turned off by the sci-fi elements that no longer even try to disguise themselves. There are some interesting character developments, and the time travel conceit allows us to learn a lot about the island's history without the use of awkward monologues and stilted conversation. No major mysteries are solved, but the time traveling and likable supporting cast are so much fun that it's hard to notice. It's a goofy season, but goofy in a self-aware manner - in Season 5, Lost is just having a good time.

8 Magic Buttons out of 10


The set-up: The entire island plot has been revealed to be the machinations of two warring brothers - one good, one evil. The characters must band together to prevent the evil brother from leaving the island. Meanwhile, the audience is presented with a mysterious alternate universe where the characters seem subconsciously aware of their lives on the Island.

My take: The introduction of the conflict between brothers so late in the show makes it hard for me to care about this conflict. Previously important plotlines - like the Others - are dropped entirely and never explained. The finale is filled with action and adventure, but the actual stakes are still hidden behind a veil of mystery, so when the characters begin fighting over a mysterious cave with a pillar of light, it's hard to care without knowing what the pillar of light is or what happens when it goes out. Meanwhile, the half of the season spent in this alternative universe is resolved in the most cheesy and lazy of all possible ways. The show ends with dozens of major questions unanswered, and a copout of an ending that practically invalidates the plot of the previous five seasons.

2 Pillars of Light out of 10

In the end, does Lost work as a coherent series? I don't think so. Any individual season can be watched as a unit; indeed, the plotting of each season is very well-done. But though each season has an easily discernible plot arc, the show falls apart when the viewer watches seasons back to back.

For example, the writers could never truly decide what the central conflict was. In season 2, it was the castaways fighting the Others. By Season 4, it was the Others fighting the island invaders. By Season 6, it was the mysterious figure of Jacob fighting his brother. But each previous conflict is left unexplained and unresolved as the writers move on to the next one; the ante is continually upped, but without bothering to clear the mess left behind. It's hard to justify the Others running around barefoot kidnapping castaways on a "List" in season 2 with the Others in Season 4 or Season 6. Each season is elaborately plotted, but an intra-seasonal viewing reveals a large number of plot holes and a basic thematic inconsistency.

Part of this stems from the perils of network television, in which shows are often unaware of how long they have to live or die. One can hardly blame the writers for making up stuff on the fly, or retconning previous developments in order to change the stakes. But part of me wonders if network television was the best medium for Lost. It might have thrived as an HBO series - where shows are given much more creative leeway, and often allowed to conclude even amid struggling ratings.

But I truly think Lost should have been a miniseries, say about 24 episodes or so. It wouldn't have been able to include all the mysteries that the series did, but it turned out that half those mysteries were dead ends and red herrings anyway. Miniseries allow the writers to sit down and plan the entire plot from beginning to end, and that's what Lost needed. The writers proved they could plot an entire season from start to finish - each individual season is wonderfully consistent and self-encapsulated.

Lost as an ambitious miniseries could have not only prevented many of the writing mishaps, but also the casting problems inherent in filming a show in Hawaii. (At least one character had to be killed off because that actor didn't want to live in Hawaii anymore). Instead, spread across six seasons, it was far too easy for cracks to appear in the Lost mythological facade, and far too difficult to craft the show into one sustained story.

Finally, there are Lost fans out there who maintain that it's really a show about characters and not about the mysterious island at all. Besides the obvious rebuttal (why write a bunch of island mysteries at all, then?), there's another reason I don't think this is true, and another reason why I think the show ultimately fails at its goals: the characters on Lost were rarely proactive.

For most of the series, the central characters found themselves responding to one crisis after another. Walt has been kidnapped! Invaders are coming! We're in 1975 now! We have to go back! This makes for exciting, fast-paced story telling. But it also makes for shitty character development, as the characters found themselves taking an entirely reactive role.

It's hard to flesh out characters when all they do is react to one thing after another. Real character development requires characters making their own decisions. The best seasons - Seasons 1 and 5 - found the characters doing just that, having to decide the best choice for themselves. The weakest seasons saw the characters running from one incident to another, not making any decisions so much as simply reacting to what was happening in front of them. The strange island incidents became lazy storytelling plain and simple - shortcuts to get the characters where they needed to be in order to advance the plot. The characters themselves never made any decisions; they were herded into certain situations through transparent deus ex machinas. In the end, much of Lost was simply a bunch of characters running back and forth while Stuff Happened To Them. It was clear that the characters always served the plot, and rarely was it the other way around.

Lost attempted to create a new kind of serialized story-telling, involving interesting characters coping with intricately-plotted mysteries. It didn't succeed, but the attempt was a hell of a lot of fun. A propensity of unexplained phenomena and not-quite-developed characters ultimately prevented the show from achieving what it was aiming for, but I'm glad there was a show with such lofty ambitions on network television - a medium normally reserved for quotidian crime dramas and forgettable sitcoms.

But in the end, I'm afraid I have to chalk up the entire series of Lost as a failure, weighed down by its own grandiose aims, even as individual seasons of the show are successes. It's an interesting, creative, wildly ambitious failure, perhaps even a failure that's worth watching. But a failure, nonetheless.