Monthly Archives: February 2009

LOST: The Best Television Show Ever Made

Okay, that’s a bold statement.  Obviously, it’s an opinion.  But it’s my opinion and my blog, so I get to say it and then back it up, or at least explain why I think it’s so great.

I think everyone pretty much knows what Lost is about–or, at least everyone knows what it was about when it first started.  A group of people survive a major airplane crash and find themselves on a mysterious tropical island– a fictional Survivor combined with a suspense thriller.  As the story progressed on the island, we saw flashbacks of events in the lives of the survivors pre-crash.  Often these events shaped what the survivors did or felt on the island.  This theme–how our past too often controls or influences our present–is one of the main ideas of Lost.

Now, the writers of the show, particularly head writers and showrunners Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse (JJ Abrams has never had much of anything to do with the show, honestly–he helped come up with the main idea and directed the first episode, and that was it) have been pretty upfront about how and when they came up with the ideas that now make up the shows mythology.

At first, there was no plan.

Yup, they were making it up as they went along in most of that first season.  All the mysterious polar bears, the smoke monster, Ethan kidnapping Claire–they didn’t quite have a rhyme or reason for it.  

Then they realized they had a hit on their hands.  A huge hit.  An audience willing to give a surreal serial drama a chance–but one that had been burnt before.  Twin Peaks started our similarly strong, only to get so wacky and out there that it lost it’s audience after about 20 episodes.  Likewise, the X-Files racked up Emmy wins and a huge fan base, only to meander on so long that the show’s prevailing mythology became muddled and meaningless.  So Lost had a huge audience–but one that was going to jump ship at the first sign that the writers were fooling with them or stringing them along.

They came up with a plan, fast.

By the end of the first season, they had a good idea of what was in “the Hatch” and many other of the mythological questions posed in the 1st season.

By the middle of the second, they had an overall plan for where the story was going and how it would end.  It is a broad plan, with flexibility to tell new and smaller stories within it, room for characters to be added or taken away as needed, but it is a plan.  There’s a guy whose job it is to track this large board of unanswered questions and story points.  (I don’t envy him.)

There was only one more problem–they didn’t know how long they had to tell that story.  And so when season 3 began, and we spent six looonng episodes with our three main characters (at the time) locked in separate jail cells, and the dialogue went from cool-cryptic to annoying-cryptic, Lost began to feel like it would drown, like it was stuck in the mud and the wheels were turning.  People began to complain.  Ratings dropped.

So the producers went to ABC with a bold plan–“Let us end your cash cow.”  ABC had wanted Lost to run a minimum of seven seasons.  The producers felt that it would take five seasons to tell the story they wanted.  They begged, pleaded, and in the end, they won.  They would take 5 seasons to tell the story of Lost.  Only, seasons 4 & 5 (2 24 episode seasons) would instead be broken into seasons 4, 5, & 6 (3 16 episode seasons.)  Same amount of episodes, but ABC is given an extra year of programming.

And so with a new confidence, they finished out the 3rd year with a spectacular last handful of eps with a closing scene that seemed merely intriguing at first but became mind-blowing the more I thought about it.  They delivered a nearly perfect 4th season, and we’re now about 4 episodes into a very strong 5th.  Actually, if the numbers stay the same, after the one I just viewed there are exactly 30 left.  

But that’s history.  Why is Lost so good?  Well, partially because I truly believe the writers know what they’re doing.  They didn’t at first, but they realized that they had built a trust with an audience that had been burned in the past.  And it has been rewarding to really stick with the show and watch them unfold the story at their pace and structure.  And a truly complicated structure it is, which brings me to another thing I love:

Lost assumes its audience is smart.

You kind of have to be.  It doesn’t spoon-feed things to you.  I used to think that you could be a casual viewer, watching the story unfold and paying attention to the characters and enjoying it that way, or you could be a devoted viewer, exploring the deeper meanings and following the clues and figuring out what was going on through that.  But now I think that the latter is the only option.  A handful of eps into the fifth season has confirmed that you can’t be a casual viewer and follow Lost at all.  Recently, we were reintroduced to a character who had previously only had one scene, in the middle of season three, and had appeared in a photograph later in the year that you would only notice if you were looking.  We were supposed to know instantly who this woman was and her significance.  

A casual viewer would have no clue what was going on.

And I like this.  Not because I’m a snob who likes being part of the inner circle who “gets” the show, but I like not being spoon fed things and having to think.  I like that a lot of the answers people are demanding from the show have already been given, but they were given in the background, in little comments or signs or moments that you had to think about in order to understand.  When was the last time a network TV show forced you to think?

I also like it because it rewards research.  You can be a “dedicated casual” viewer, who watches the show and keeps close track of the characters just to follow the story.  But the show is also loaded with symbolism, literary references, and other ideas that are supposed to guide you to philosophical ideas.  Routinely are characters–even ones with only a scene or two–named after philosophers or theologians or authors who put forth ideas central to whatever the show is exploring at that moment.  Sometimes, this gets a bit obvious–witness the introduction of “Charlotte Staples Lewis from Oxford” last year.  But most of the time, it will fly right by you if you’re not paying attention.  There is at least one university offering a course in Lost, and with the amount of intellectual ideas coming from the past two seasons, I believe you could build a liberal arts degree around the show.  Recent explorations include the tension between science and faith, the nature of identity, the nature of reality and matter, the writings of several famous and not-as-famous authors.  Recent episodes referenced William Blake, Stephen Hawking, and obscure theories of physics.  (The best writer, by the way, that analyzes a lot of these things is Jeff Jensen over at ew.com.  He writes an essay before and after each new episode.)

I don’t know how Lost will end.  I know that this season is a heavy sci-fi season, and the final season will be a bit more character focused.  But Lost is how you do quality TV.  It’s one of the very few things on the tube that I can watch without feeling like I’m wasting my time.  Years from now, when the show is over and done, people will still be analyzing and finding reward in this dense, complex, intense, and entertaining masterpiece.

What I Wanted to Say at Staff Meeting

I’m a pretty good public speaker, I think–when I’ve planned.  If I have notes in front of me, I love it up there.  Teaching suited me really well, and I’ve loved the chance I’ve had to preach overseas or at my home church in Vermont.  

Spontaneous speaking?  Speaking when I haven’t really prepared?  Not so much.

Ira and I shared at Antioch’s staff meeting yesterday, and I had a lot going on in my heart that I wanted to say that did not come out.  Not that I was unclear or spoke badly…it just wasn’t what I wanted to say.  So I’m going to try here.  Of course, this will be a bit longer than had I actually prepared, because there’s no time limit.  Anyway, here goes.

1. I love being part of this group of people, this movement.  There’s no other people I’d want to be doing missions with.  We are a bit against grain–out on the support trail, as we tore through my aunt’s many Southern Baptist contacts in rural Kentucky, I would explain and explain Antioch and talk about what it was and how much I loved it, and still no one seemed to grasp it.  The only question I would be asked is, “So…you’re not a part of the IMB?”

But so much of what others would describe as unusual I now find normal.  I love love love that I can walk into that office and say, “I’ve been to 19 countries, most of them for missions” and most of the people would respond, “Nineteen?  That’s all.”

I love our movement because we are a diverse and random group of people unified by a common Love and a common mission.  The love of God has healed us, though we didn’t deserve it, and we’ve tasted what life is like when you follow His adventures for you.  And nothing else will do.  In the “natural”, we probably wouldn’t all click or stick together.  But we are a band of brothers and sisters, and all gifts are present.  Leaders, artists, servants, apostles, prophets…all there.  Mixed through all of us.  And so you get this great tapestry of different expressions of the heart of God, and I love it.

I love it also because I trust without question the people I work with, and the people who lead us.

We all know Jimmy & Laura are exactly who they seem to be.  But I want to just say that if you needed proof, look no further than their kids.  (You know how Paul instructed Timothy on the qualifications of an elder?  Sometimes I think we use it as a checklist: “Should Bob be an elder?  Well, let’s look.  Husband of one wife, check, doesn’t get drunk, check.”  But instead, I think Paul was describing the kind of person to look for.  You find someone living like that–there’s your elder.)  

Anyway, their kids are the fruit of their consistent love and discipline.  I taught Abby & Lauren the past couple of years at TCA, and I saw them, particularly Abby, dragged through the fire and shine like gold.  There was one day when Carl came to speak at chapel.  (I love Carl.  He is an anointed and challenging speaker.  And “Otherness” still makes me cry every time I hear it.  “But I refuse to be caught up in the midst of small stories that seem to be brilliant at the time but soon become faded glory…”  My flesh runs to those stories, but my heart soars to the Real Story and this helps me remember that.  Thanks Carl.)

Anyway, Carl spoke, and he challenged the upperclassmen in a major way to help build community at the school by reaching out and breaking through the clique walls and befriending someone other than the people you hang with every day.  And he gave them a specific call–that day, at lunch, sit with someone you don’t usually eat with.  Get to know them.  He asked everyone to do that.  And it was powerful.

Now, lunch was one period later.  I go into the cafeteria, really expecting, since it was so powerful, to see everyone mixed around.

Nope.  Only one person.  Abby.  Sitting with a group of freshmen girls, trying to enter their world.  Everyone else is in their usual spots, and you can see them kind of guiltily eyeing Abby out of the corner of their eyes.  Abby, who stood like a lone deeply-rooted tree against storm after storm at that school.

The fruit of lives well-lived.  Thanks for being who you are, Jimmy & Laura.

And the same can be said of Kevin & Stacy, of Danny & Kathy, Jeff & Dorothy.  They are who they seem to be.  They don’t lead and talk one way and live another.  They’re the real deal.  

I love our movement because of the way we worship.  World Mandate this year was incredible, and I think that we have the best worship leaders in the country.  It helped us in a major way get our hearts ready again for Sheffield.  World Mandate was so good for us this year, as it happened just weeks before departure.  After Saturday morning’s spoken word thing–the “They said China…but God said…” piece that Vincent was in–Ira and I looked at each other with fire in our eyes.  “We’re ready,” we said almost simultaneously.  “Let’s go.”

We are thrilled and honored to be going to Sheffield.  We both realize that there is nothing good in us to help anyone over there.  But we started this support process nine months ago, and God has spoken to us over and over and over again some very big things.  There have been running themes to the words we’ve gotten, and with humility we go over there expecting miracles.

I want to take a second to say how proud I am of my amazing wife.  She really did not want to be called to England, but after it became clear two years ago through all these divine things happening to her, she made a pledge to not speak negatively about the place we were called, and she has honored that.  And it has been fun to watch her slowly go from reluctance to acceptance to vision and excitement.

It is amazing that we serve a God who can take such foolish and broken people and use those people to rock the world.  And we are asking God to use us.  We have faith that we are going to bring joy to the team there, we have faith that we are going to see lives transformed, and that as we go, God will speak so clearly to us that it is as if we hear Him as audibly as Ira heard Him when He first told her about Sheffield.  We are vessels, and though we don’t have a ton of close relationships within this staff, we are so glad we are a part of this particular army at this particular time.

We’re going to Sheffield.  We have hope in our hearts, and we want to bring that hope and abundant life to a people who have decided there’s nothing to believe in. Wait till they see what God is going to do.