In the world of television it is quite a feat for a show, especially a genre show, to be able to end on its own terms. To end when its writers and showrunners decide and plan for it to, as opposed to being canceled because the network wanted to bleed it dry until the ratings became nonexistent. When a network decides to cancel a show halfway through the season, fans of the show either don’t get any real kind of ending, or they get some sort of slap-dash tying-up of loose ends as quickly as possible.
Which is what makes Lost such a fascinating and frustrating example of genre television. Here was a show that achieved a rare level of pop culture dominance, was able to negotiate and establish an end-point for the story it was telling seasons in advance, and still backed itself into a corner it couldn’t fully get out of.
But while the show may have floundered with the sci-fi and mystical elements, it never stopped investing in its characters (well, most of its characters). If the show failed to provide narrative closure on the various mysteries of the island, it definitely provided emotional closure for its characters.
So, in honor of the ten year anniversary of Lost, the question then becomes this: Does the show’s inability to satisfyingly answer its central mysteries make the show a failure, or can it be redeemed by the things that it did get right?
I’ll open by admitting I haven’t watched a frame of Lost since it went off the air and that I have no intention of revisiting it in the future. I do own the first season (though I wish I hadn’t bought it in retrospect) and I’ll allow that certain episodes from that season, like the John Locke hatch episode, still work well on their own despite the faults of the show as a whole.
Overall, though, the show might be television’s biggest disappointment for me. I love genre fiction in all mediums, and grew up watching and being mesmerized by The Twilight Zone. What I loved so much about the early days of Lost was that it created the feeling of a long-form Twilight Zone episode – like we were finally going to see what made the “zone” tick over time. Ultimately, though, and despite the years of claims by the creators (read: horseshit) the show never had any mythology or story in place. Instead of a magician wowing us with levitation and disappearing acts, we got a magician failing to bring back his assistant then saying, “Oh yes, yes, allllll part of the trick.”
I’m right there with you, Linton, in that the show held such promise as a sort of slow-burn Twilight Zone. But the mysteries kept piling up, and most were answered unsatisfyingly (“There’s this light in a cave!”), shrugged off with perfunctory lines of dialogue (“Jacob had a thing for numbers!”), or waved away with bullshit (“It’s magic!”). And yes, it was a major disappointment in that regard.
But the show did have its moments. You mentioned the Locke episode from the first season, and I would argue that even as the narrative of the show began collapsing under its own largesse in the later seasons, it still managed to pull off these great moments. The Richard-centric “Ab Aeterno” is a stand-out episode in an otherwise convoluted final season, and is reminiscent of the relatively self-contained episodes of season one. And the relationship between Sun and Jin was always one of the show’s strongest, and they maintained the emotional beats of their story all the way through the end of the series.
So while the creators dropped the ball on creating the long-form Twilight Zone of our dreams, I have a hard time writing the show off as complete failure because it did keep me invested in the characters even as it became apparent the show’s answers to the plot were essentially afterthoughts.
I’ve heard the argument before that the show was really “all about the characters” and the plot should be either ignored or treated as secondary. For one, I think that’s incorrect in that the show made a huge production about the central mystery/mysteries of the world. Shows like Modern Family or The Sopranos can easily be said to be about the characters since their focuses, the American family and the mafia respectively, are known and understood “worlds.” But with Lost, the entire point of every season was what the island was, why everyone was there, what Dharma was, etc. After Lost wrapped, when I heard people saying the characters were what was important it seemed like an utter cop-out, and one essentially invented to help explain away the ending/last few seasons.
Also, I’ve always had a hard time swallowing the argument because I can’t think of very many examples in pop culture where people ignore cavernous holes in plot for the sake of character. There might be great characters within paint-by-number plots (James Bond, for instance) or actors that give great performances in otherwise humdrum films (look at the Best Actor/Actress category at the Oscars any given year and at least half probably fit the bill) but I don’t think we usually look at a film or show, admit it’s poorly structured/bad/sloppy and then say, “But those characters!”
For me, the show featured some solid characters backed by some strong performances, but if what the characters are saying or doing doesn’t make much sense week-to-week then their individual episodes can only have so much impact. As good as “The Constant” is as an episode, it doesn’t change the fact that the time travel of Lost never had much thought going into it in regards to either theory or plot function. It was just there because the writers thought it was cool.
The two-parter that concludes the third series of the revived Doctor Who is what I consider the low point of the modern run. It suffers from major tonal whiplash, and they way it concludes its plot is borderline offensive it its schlock. But I still re-watch it on occasion because, yes, those characters. Obviously David Tennant as the Doctor makes any scene with him engaging, but more importantly, John Simm’s turn as the Master is terrific, and I’m willing to overlook how flawed the story is because I enjoy what he does with the character.
Granted, I’m talking about a two-episode arc as opposed to a series long slog into incoherence, but I disagree that you can’t care about or even praise characters if the story they are in is a mess. Hell, that’s the reason House lasted as long as it did. After a certain point all the medical mysteries blur together, but House himself is eternal.
So while I definitely think Lost performed one hell of a bait-and-switch, and basically tricked the audience into watching it, I really can’t fault people who still like it and derive enjoyment from it because of the characters. To say that it absolves the show of its sins goes too far, but I also think it muddies the notion of being a failure. The show did fail in terms of satisfyingly telling us what this island really was, or what Dharma was, or why half of anything on that show happened. But all stories, even ones sold on the intricacies of their plot, are more than just that plot. Just as a truly great show or movie needs to succeed in every aspect, a failure should fail in every aspect.
Or, to put it a different way, the fact that you can care at all about the characters when the story is structured so sloppily is pretty freaking impressive.
I recognize your point about still liking series (or media properties for that matter) with their flaws and all. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is one that gets a lot of flack, and while I think the third stretched itself too thin and the fourth got very sloppy, I still enjoyed large portions of each and would own them.
But I think “looking the other way” on some scenes or a season or two (see Community’s “Gas Leak Year”) is fine when the overall product is worthwhile, but I still don’t believe Lost is. And I disagree with the notion that a TV show or movie has to fail on every level to be a failure. Certainly some flaws can be ignored or accepted, but there has to be a high-water mark and it comes well before a property reaches the status of Manos the Hands of Fate or According to Jim.
Plenty of movies and shows that are considered bad might have good or passable scenes or episodes, or good performances, but we still wouldn’t call them “successes.” The movie Prometheus, another spawn of the genius that is Damon Lindelof, is a complete narrative and logical mess, though most would allow it has interesting concepts and gorgeous cinematography. Those positives do nothing to help the myriad of problems the film has, so I think Prometheus has to be labeled a failure just as Lost should be.
I’ll close out with what I think is Lost’s greatest sin: not knowing when enough was enough. I had been on-board with the show through season two when everything was scientific and that seemed to be the direction everything would go. Then seasons three and four came along and a lot of mystical elements were introduced so then there was a mix of science and magic. One of two things were going on: these elements were going to be logically connected at some point, or the writers were just making up shit. But at the end of season four – the logical break between the 2nd and 3rd acts for a show slated for six seasons – the island disappeared (i.e., the biggest moment in the show/narrative happened). This was the “I am your father/I’m Tyler Durden/Dorothy kills the witch” moment. At this point, with two seasons left, the writers should have been tightening the reins, pulling all the narrative threads together and finishing out the story. Instead, we got two more seasons of wheel-spinning and an episode and a half of a thrown-together conclusion.
So in the end, after six years and some 100+ episodes, the writers of Lost couldn’t be bothered to tell a story. They had a captive audience and more money than just about any show in history, and they wasted both on smoke and mirrors.
Just to be clear, I would never call Lost successful. As you rightly pointed out, having successful moments or elements doesn’t necessarily make a bad story magically good. A lot, as you said, has to do with the overall product. And that’s where I think the waters are muddied with Lost. When you look at the big picture there is so much going on, ranging from good to passable to oh-hey-it’s-like-a-CORK-guys, that it eludes easy classification.
It doesn’t work. Anyone who wants to argue that Lost has a solid narrative is deluding themselves. But for me it still comes back to the character work that the show pulled off. I can’t speak for why you kept watching until the bitter end, Linton, but for myself and I’m sure many others it was because we cared about the people populating the ridiculous land of magic tomfoolery that the show became. The character closure was the only satisfying part of the ending of the show, and considering how much of a mess everything else was, they had to succeed spectacularly in the character department in order to just stick that part of the landing.
Again, I don’t want you to confuse my defense of Lost as admittance of it being good. I just have an issue calling it an outright failure. Few TV shows have reached the kind of cultural phenomenon that Lost did. It was a show better watched week to week as opposed to binge-watching, giving you and your friends time to wax philosophical and exchange theories on why things were happening. None of those theories were correct, because the writers were too busy trying to outdo each other in coming up with new cliffhangers to stack on top of one another. But it was a unique experience, and created a level of engagement among its audience that even “great” shows rarely achieve.
That doesn’t make Lost a good show, and it doesn’t make it a successful one, but it does make it hard for me to say it was a straight-up failure.