LOST – All Good Things… (Retrospective, pt 1 [Non-Spoiler])
Part 1 of this LOST “All Good Things…” Retrospective is a non-spoiler opinion post aimed at everyone from the most hardcore fans of LOST to people who have never seen LOST before but would like to know why people have fallen in love with the show. Part 2 will be an upcoming deeper, fan-oriented post following LOST’s Finale. As such, *that* post will contain many detailed spoilers for those have not watched LOST or not completed watching it. Once again, for *this* post, I will only be talking about the show in general and not get into too many plot specifics.
I don’t usually have favorites. I’m restlessly indecisive when it comes to choosing things in life that seem to stand out above the rest. I don’t have a favorite movie. I don’t have a favorite album. I don’t even have a favorite color. But a favorite TV show I can announce with absolute confidence and certainty: LOST. It’s a curiosity to some friends and co-workers of mine that I find myself so obsessively drenched in loving this show. After all, television as a medium still suffers from the state of being commercially driven, and thus is understandably dismissed as inartistic, meaningless entertainment. Most TV shows are exactly that, after all. It’s frustrating because LOST is the diametric opposite. In fact, I think it’s more than a great TV show. It’s one of the single greatest artistic creations of the decade. That’s quite a claim, I know, but throughout this post I’ll explain why.
“In 2004, ABC called on producer J.J. Abrams to create a prime-time drama that capitalized on the success of Survivor: something tropical, Cast Away-ish, and closer to Lord of the Flies than Gilligan’s Island. Oh, they asked, and could you make it a towering, mainstream megahit, please? What executives got from the guy best known for a brainy college soap (Felicity) and an even brainier spy soap (Alias) was Lost, a fiendishly obscure, cast-of-thousands epic about … well … to say it’s about people on a magic island is selling it short. To say it’s about Everything — which its adherents swear it is — is a bit grandiose. So let’s just say it’s about destiny. And metaphysics. And quantum physics. And leadership, torture, time travel, synchronicity, Skinner boxes, geodesic domes, polar bears, doomsday equations, comic books, the Casimir effect, and the no-less-potent Cass Elliot effect. It was weird. Even weirder: It was a hit. A towering, mainstream megahit. You’d think a show like this could happen only in some alternate television universe. Maybe so. Maybe for the past six years we’ve been living in that universe. That would be so Lost.”
–Wired Magazine, April 19, 2010 (http://www.wired.com/magazine/18-05/)
I think firstly it’s reasonable to agree on what makes something a great piece of art. Wikipedia says, “Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.” That’s a fairly broad and ambiguous definition, and rightfully so; the spectrum of what is defined as art has been stretched to new limits, especially since the 20th century. However, I think we can agree that historically some of the greatest works of art–be they plays, paintings, or poetry–have deeply explored the human condition. The human condition “encompasses the totality of the experience of being human and living human lives.” From a literary perspective, it’s what supposedly separates “classic fiction literature” from “genre fiction.” Of course, there are authors who have straddled that fence such as Kurt Vonnegut (an acknowledged inspiration to LOST), who constructed works of science fiction but also explored aspects of the human condition such as war, fate, and the overall purpose of human life.
In essence, that is LOST. Yes, it is a drama/science fiction show. But it is also a meticulously crafted work of art that explores timeless themes and questions. Just a few of the topics explored in LOST include: determinism vs. free will, science vs. faith, game theory, the ambiguity of good vs. evil, behavioral conditioning, the supernatural, parent/child issues and countless other motifs spread ubiquitously over its six season run.
Never Judge a Show by Its Uninteresting Premise (Or at least keep an open mind)
Like many other LOST fans, though, I did not discover my appreciation for it during its premiere in 2004. In fact, I ignored watching it completely. I thought to myself: “A drama with people stranded on an island? Sounds like Laguna Beach meets Survivor.” However, after a long discussion about some of my favorite TV shows like Firefly, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica, a college classmate recommended LOST. I initially snickered; I thought he was a sucker. Then he made the outrageous claim: “It’s possibly the best show ever on television.” I responded, “How can it be better than Star Trek: The Next Generation???”
Obviously I gave the show a chance, and the rest is history. I became absolutely enthralled. It didn’t take long to start agreeing with his outrageous claim. If you decide to try to get into LOST, I cannot stress how important it is to start from the beginning in Season 1. LOST is the epitome of serialized drama for a reason: you must watch it in order to experience it correctly. Some view this as a crutch versus shows which each episode is a self-contained story, but it’s simply the shape of LOST’s narrative. They’re apples and oranges. It’s like comparing a collection of short stories to a 300-page novel. You can’t complain that you cannot skip around chapters in the novel because that’s simply not the way it was intended to be experienced. But that doesn’t mean that the novel is better than the short stories, either. They’re just different.
A Seemingly Quixotic Conundrum
Changing the show from a simple group of battered island castaways to an epic, science fiction story exploring deep themes about life and purpose drove much of the mainstream viewers away. But the mainstream’s exodus was the genesis for an intense cult following as the show’s fans created thriving Internet communities of web sites, blogs, forums, wikis, tweets, and every other 21st century buzzword you’ve grown to love and hate. The show’s complex plot and mythology almost demands repeat views in order to fully understand and appreciate, just like literary analysis demands re-reads.
This becomes a frequent excuse for people who refuse to get into LOST: “I don’t have the time. It’s too much.” Maybe that’s an excuse if you work 14 hour days every day with no days off and a family of 10 to take care of, but otherwise it’s just cowardice. Sure, LOST is an exercise in patience. Unlike most media today, LOST demands an attention to details. It’s the reason why many people don’t enjoy reading books: you have to put forth effort to obtain enjoyment.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s something to be appreciated about good shows that provide for a more comfortable escape. A couple of my favorite TVs shows right now are ‘Community’ and ‘Castle.’ They’re more episodic shows I can simply watch and enjoy without a second thought. But you’re cheating yourself of a great experience if you ONLY watch those kinds of shows. You shouldn’t be daunted by the challenge of keeping up with LOST, especially when you can take your time with DVDs/Blu-ray/etc. In fact, I recommend watching LOST slowly and giving yourself breaks in-between episodes and seasons. It allows you time to digest and think about what you’ve seen rather than soaring through it all at once.
Most LOST fans would agree that half of the fun of the show took place outside of the show itself. Simply theorizing with others about the show and what direction we thought it would go in has been a rewarding experience. There are LOST podcasts out there whose running duration is longer than LOST itself! Some fans even started up LOST Book Clubs to read all of the books mentioned on LOST, and comparing them to the show’s themes. The writers have graciously acknowledged LOST’s many influences, from film (Star Wars) to games (Myst). This just reinforces LOST’s epic quality. LOST is full of so many ideas and questions that it’s impossible to keep track of them all, much like life itself. LOST tangles together a cultural web of reality and dreams and ideas. And now LOST is a part of that web.
I was recently reading some dated LOST theories that were conceived back during Season 2 or 3, and it’s amazing how different the direction the show ended up going. But those theories were compelling, and many people really did believe these theories would prove to be true. Perhaps some of them would have been even more interesting than what really happened. For example, I thought the popular Time Loop Theory (which had an entire website devoted to its detail) even if proved wrong would have made for an amazing narrative regardless of its truth in the show.
I want to acknowledge the title of this section’s header, “A Seeming Quixotic Conundrum.” This is more than me being a pedantic ass with words. I want to emphasize the moments in Season 3 (and to a small extent, Season 2) where the writers seem to be going off on extravagant tangents and the show had no direction. This was due partially to the fact that the writers were unsure of when the show would end. It forced them to go down paths that may not have been necessary to go down. Toward the end of Season 3, though, the writers realized they needed an end date to the show in order to drive toward it. ABC agreed to keep the show on for 3 more seasons. That birthed new life into the show and invigorated it. In fact, the end of Season 3 contains some of the best episodes ever of the show (The Man Behind the Curtain, The Brig, etc). I love the fact that the show is ending with artistic intent, instead of like most shows which are forced to end the show unexpectedly. This is why, though I’m sad to see LOST end, I’m glad it will end gracefully.
A Visceral Experience
Returning to its Wikipedia definition, recall that art often “affect[s] the senses or emotions.” Almost everyone I know who watches LOST has had one more moments of “choking up” or crying. Some easily affected people tear up at every little kiss or embrace they witness, but others like myself are rarely pushed to such emotions through stories in any medium. This is a testament mostly to LOST’s great character development and ensemble cast. Characters die, and dead is dead. But LOST covers the entire spectrum of emotion so thoroughly: curiosity, grief, anger, compassion, despair, fear, guilt, happiness, hysteria, lust, shame, apathy, hatred, love. For fans of LOST, each one of these words can conjure up countless scenes from the show in which they or a character experienced respective emotions deeply. As you grow attached to the characters, like any good show, you gain a sense of sympathy–even for some of the show’s notorious villains such as Benjamin Linus.
There are scenes in LOST that have impacted its collective viewership with unanimous awe. Obviously to keep this post spoiler-free I can’t dive into specifics. But as far as good dramatic television goes, LOST hits emotional beat with finesse. There are few shows that have people jumping out of their chairs in excitement as frequently as LOST has. The characters are a part of something epic, but the audience is along for that ride.
The Show About Nothing or The Show About Everything
Earlier in the post I made the claim that LOST was one of the greatest artistic creations of the decade. I’ll admit that sounds a bit outlandish, and certainly makes me seem narrow-minded. I’m not saying it’s *the* best; I only ask that it be considered among the best. After all, in the past decade in novels there been profound social commentaries such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In television along with LOST, Mad Men has been a triumphant success and an artistic masterpiece, delivering superb drama, striking characters, and compelling insight into American culture’s past and present. Gripping films like No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Departed stand draped sanguine (pun intended) success, while others like Waking Life and Eternal Sunshine kept us existentially in check. And of course, let’s not forget the most important medium of the decade: gaming: Half-Life 2 represents an astonishingly successful hybrid of intense interactivity and compelling narrative.
So, why LOST? Perhaps because of its thematic epicness. Perhaps because of its intricate and painfully flawed characters. Perhaps because of its unparalleled rich backstory and mythology. Perhaps because of its emotional impact on millions of viewers who honestly, after six seasons, still get butterflies in their stomach at the thought of every new episode. Perhaps all of the above. And the fact that it’s fucking amazing.
The Enigma of Life
Questions. So many people have become frustrated with LOST because it often answers questions with questions. Many people distanced themselves from the show around Season 2 or 3 because of this. I don’t want to repeat things I said in the previous section entitled “A Seemingly Quixotic Conundrum” but many of those thoughts apply here. In addition to those thoughts, however, I want to emphasize how important the questions are. Some of the questions are wildly open-ended like, “What is the Island?”; “Did they crash on the Island by accident or was it orchestrated?”; “What is the ‘monster’?”
Everyone alive wants answers. Not just about LOST, but about everything. But answers aren’t that easy, and sometimes the search for those answers is more important than the answers themselves. Questions like, “What is life?”; “Do I have free will or are we all part of some cosmic plan?”; “Who am I?” People have spent their entire lives searching answers to questions like that. Sometimes the answers aren’t always fulfilling. Sometimes they don’t always make sense. Sometimes they just lead to new questions. Sound familiar? LOST’s constant obfuscation is part necessity (keeping the show interesting) and part fact of life.
I think by the show’s end we will have a lot of answers. But we will still have questions. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Intrigue and imagination are two of the aspects that have made the show enjoyable. The theorizing, the debating, and the dreaming. If we’re left with question neatly answered, it ruins that boundless curiosity. One of my favorite TV show conclusions is Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which its final episode “All Good Things…” ends during a poker game in which Captain Picard optimistically remarks, “So, five-card stud, nothing wild. And the sky’s the limit.” Now, I’m not expecting something as facetious as that, or as random as The Sopranos’ ending. I think LOST’s end will feel very final. But I also think it will leave a lot of room for our imagination to continue to run as wild has it has since the show’s beginning. That’s all we can ask for. And if you haven’t seen LOST… what are you waiting for!