LOST stays Lost

What was the appeal of LOST?

LOST was a show written by geeks, for geeks.  You might not have known it at first.  The vast ensemble cast came in comprised mostly of relate-able mainstream archetypes (reluctant hero, morally ambiguous rogue, secretive femme fatal) and while these border on the banal, the writers' succeeded in fleshing them out.

LOST's first season - with its wild boars, mysterious attackers and hidden monsters - might have been more at home in a Saturday afternoon serial, had it not been for the truly great characterizations.  Without this first season, and its patient, character-based writing, the rest of the series would probably not have existed.  This season was pivotal to the success of the show, because it did a great job of introducing the important characters in all their complexity, introducing the environment and some of the primary mysteries.  A a consequences, viewers were invested.

As a side note, each subsequent series that ABC later launched in an attempt to create the next 'LOST' - such as V and FlashForward - failed because it refused to take it's time building a foundation in this way.  Those 'copycat' shows were too impatient to launch into their ensemble casts and labyrinthine plots and never took the time to give us characters we cared about.

Some of the best adventure tales in mainstream entertainment (Star Wars comes to mind) are directly influenced by Saturday afternoon serials.  LOST was no exception.  A lot of the stories I was told growing up involved - amazingly - a mysterious island with all sorts of wild creatures, an active volcano, and hidden passages.  It's no surprise then, that I felt entirely at home with LOST almost from the beginning.

Subsequent seasons reinforced the overall theme of the show: a cyclical tale of crash survivors repeatedly escaping and returning to an island and following their individual destinies with this mysterious place.  Additionally, LOST was filled with plentiful allusions to science, philosophy, and religion.  This was most obvious with characters named Hume, Faraday, and Locke, but there were religious symbols scattered throughout the sets and with a heavy numerological element.  This careful pluralism helped keep the show from getting too preachy and kept me invested.

After the first (strong) season, the science fiction element began to creep in a bit more boldly.  This was a blessing for geeks and a turn-off for most other viewers.  The 'hatch' subplot in Season 2, wherein characters had to press a button every hour or so to prevent the world from ending, was hugely reminiscent of of B.F. Skinner's psychological experiments from the mid twentieth century.  This season utilized a campy retro style - old educational instruction videos - to relay the sense of history on the island.  This retro-psych sensibility that invaded LOST's second season was unusual, bold, compelling and even a little humorous.  Philosophy majors and history buffs got an extra kick out of it.

On the other hand, this increased focus on plot detracted from the character development that had made the first Season so vital and so compelling for mainstream viewers.  The writers' tendencies to tackle unconventional, unpredictable narratives was refreshing and provided a nice counterpoint to the networks insistence on accessibility and banality.

By the time LOST and its parent network, ABC, hammered out a deal to finish the show off in three final truncated seasons (a deal struck, by the way, just as the din of the writers' strike was fading), the writers began to take bold steps toward an even more unapologetically fantastical LOST, one that would take these initially very characters and put them in even stranger scenarios.  Anyone who might have been on the fence about whether they liked LOST or not was pretty much forced to take a side after this. Largely, it worked, but the narrative, while compelling and fantastical to sci-fi geeks and comic lovers, became rootless for everybody else.  The show's ratings plummeted but it retained a hardcore fan base that followed it to the very end.

The plots carrying the last few seasons - military commandos, secret agents, dormant bombs, time travel - played out like any adventure serial from the 40s and 50s.  Fans of the show at this point would have been hard pressed to call the show profound or meaningful.  The plot remained unpredictable and compelling but for every plot device, there was a missed opportunity to keep us engaged in the characters' interior lives the way the first season did.  This is a tough thing for any writers' room on any show.  How do you tell the story you're anxious to tell without selling the characters short?

The final season of LOST alienated even me.  At this point, all of the surviving characters seemed to be living concurrently in two different dimensions, one off-island, one on-island.  Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the show-runners, were clearly sensitive to this viewer outcry about the confusion.  They only made it worse by filling their weekly podcasts with all kinds of defensive comments about what it didn't mean, what it did mean.  They seemed annoyed at having to deal with this this monstrous fan-base their show created.

My problem was, nothing was getting explained, and the plot seemed to be spiraling further and further away from any sort of resolution.  I was compelled by bold the dual-dimension plot device but frustrated by all the flack and new characters being thrown into the mix.  Many of the characters never served much purpose - in my opinion - other than to keep the show brimming with new characters.


When it was revealed that the off-Island dimension was, in fact, post-death, pre-Heaven purgatory, and that the characters in this dimension had all, in fact, died, I felt really let down by LOST.  Let me be more specific: it wasn't so much the revelation that our characters' resolutions could only be achieved after death, but the overpoweringly blatant Christian iconography in the show's final ten minutes (a ten minutes that nearly undid all six seasons prior to it).  Cuse and Lindelof were always so careful to balance their own beliefs with a careful  pluralism, the pluralism I described above, which kept me from feeling preached to.  But the final scene, with our characters communing at Church, sitting in the pews, a the character 'Christian Shepherd' swung the doors open to a bright light... it was too much for me.  I'm not saying that telling a story about dead people wandering around in purgatory isn't already heavy-handed, cause it is, but the imagery stuck with me in a really negative way.  I had a sense, a sense informed by my own biases, that we'd been kept on the edge of our seats for an entire seasons only to be shown a pious, preachy deus ex machina in the final ten minutes.


Despite my problems separating the very end of the series from the rest of it, I've begun to revisit my feelings.  It was mostly great.  My favorite stories growing up were about what LOST was about - mysterious islands, strange dimensions, weird objects, memorable villains.  The first book I ever wrote - an illustrated short story written in third grade - was about UFOs.  You could say that whoever dreamed up LOST came from a creative space similar to my own.

You have to hand it to LOST.  It was a messy, multi-dimensional show with flaws.  What messy, multi-dimensional show doesn't have flaws?  Inevitably, time will be kind to this forgotten Island... at least for me.

What about you?  Were you a fan of LOST, or could you care less?


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