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.