I’m a pretty reasonable person when it comes to being on the opposite side of mass consensus. If the winds of popular culture start blowing in a different direction than I’m headed, I can at least usually appreciate why that’s the case. For example, I’m pretty confident now that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip will be cancelled, and while that stings a bit, I can see why the show hasn’t been widely embraced, and even why some of its early supporters have turned on it. That doesn’t mean I have stopped watching or enjoying the show, but just that I understand where its detractors are coming from.
But Lost, which returns tonight for its first episode since November, is a whole other story.
The common consensus on Lost seems to be that Season 1 was awesome, Season 2 dropped the ball a bit, and the six-part mini-arc that opened Season 3 was a huge disappointment. If you judge based on online commentary and TV criticism alone, you’d think that viewers and followers of ABC’s serialized island mystery show have been dropping like flies. In reality, its ratings have only slightly decreased in season 3, although the success of CBS’ Criminal Minds has certainly made things more competitive on Wednesday nights (which is why ABC is moving the show to 11 p.m. AST against CSI:NY; it will air at 8 p.m. AST on CTV). But there’s no question that Lost isn’t the water cooler sensation that it once was.
While part of me wants to take an elitist stand on this – “good riddance, the show is getting rid of the casual fans who don’t have the patience for it” – there are a lot of intelligent, smart TV viewers who are also jumping off the Lost bandwagon. So it’s these people that I address this post to, because I think their criticisms deserve to be refuted, if for no other reason than to reaffirm my affection for the most accomplished and interesting drama on network television.
In the interest of simplifying, here are the three big complaints about the current state of Lost that I want to challenge.
* * *
1) McNutt, I’ve seen glaciers move faster than Lost’s plotlines. When are we going to get some goddamned answers?
Lost has given us all SORTS of answers. We know what caused the plane to crash. We know who brought the polar bears to the island. We know what went on inside the mysterious hatches. We know who Henry Gale really is. We know a heck of a lot more about The Others than we did when they were introduced as ‘jungle people’ in season one. And – I could go on, but we’ll stop with this one – we also know that the island is, in some way, connected to the outside world (re: Season 2 finale).
So why are people so frustrated? It could be that for every mystery uncovered, more are presented to us, but this is hardly cause for complaint – if the show didn’t give us anything new to ponder people would have lost interest long ago. No, the reason people seem discontented at the show’s pace is that the BIG mysteries haven’t been answered yet. We don’t know what the hell the island is all for, we know very little about the Dharma Initiative, we don’t know the motivations behind The Others, etc.
But complaining that we don’t know the answers to these questions yet completely misses the point of Lost: it’s a goddamn mystery show! The series premiere proposed two fundamental questions to the viewer and the show’s characters: what is this island, and how does one get off it? No matter how many other mysteries or questions come up over the course of the show, these are the two crucial questions at its foundation. To expect to have them ANSWERED when the show still has a good 2-3 years left in its lifespan is absolutely absurd – if they were answered, the show would have no reason to exist. Plus, saying that we don’t have any answers ignores that we know an awful lot more about these questions than we did two-and-a-half years ago.
If you ask me, I think a lot the concern stems from a lack of confidence in the writing staff to adequately answer these questions. For my money, Abrams, Lindelof and Cuse have never once given me a reason to doubt them. They’ve constructed two seasons thus far with complete and satisfying story arcs that never have once seemed spontaneous or unprepared (minus the shooting of Ana Lucia, which I totally supported). Their interviews and podcasts show an assurance of direction that leaves me confident that they know what they’re doing. And they’ve said openly that they see the show having a roughly five-year lifespan, and have expressed a desire to not let things drag on longer than they have to. Sure, the possibility exists that they could totally screw the pooch and fuck all this up, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until they convince me otherwise.
2) Okay, you just told us that Lost is a mystery show. So riddle me this: why do we have to sit through flashbacks that have nothing to do with the island’s mysteries, huh?
Because there’s more to Lost’s mysteries than just the island, silly. When the show began, we not only knew nothing about the island, but we didn’t know anything about the stranded passengers either. Hence, Lost has one of the most unique plot constructions on television, where character development takes place simultaneously in the present on the island and is revealed to us through flashback.
I sympathize with those who see flashbacks that don’t connect to the island as “trivial,” but I respectfully disagree. Building on each character’s blank slate is central to the series, and even the “trivial” ones provide valuable insight into the motivations and history of the characters. Plus, they’ve provided their own mysteries as well, most notably “what Kate did” and how Locke lost his legs (the latter of which remains unanswered).
More excitingly, all indications are that the histories and pasts of these characters are far more intertwined and important than we might first have thought, given the number of crossovers that have happened thus far (centering in particular around Jack’s dad and Libby, who it seems is a crucial figure in all of this somehow). Something tells me that as the plot thickens, the flashbacks will become far more important in the show’s central narrative.
3) Okay, but even you have to admit that the six-episode story arc that opened Season 3 was smothered in weak sauce. Don’t you agree?
Alright, I’ll make a concession here: I too had issues with the opening story arc. However, my discontent is directed not at the show’s plot, but at the producers and at ABC for separating the first six episodes from the rest of the season.
When I had heard about the ABC’s plan to have a six week “mini-season” in the Fall before returning in February with no reruns through to the end of the season, I figured that Lost’s writers would treat it differently than regular episodes: that they’d build a cohesive and complete story arc contained within the episodes that would be satisfying on its own terms while hinting at the things to come. Instead, it was business as usual at Lost. Heck, they didn’t even bring the storyline to a conclusion by the end of episode six, relying on a cliffhanger just as they do normally.
I don’t begrudge the writers for treating these episodes no differently, but I think it was a huge mistake for ABC to put them out there on their own. This led many critics and viewers to treat them as something more than they actually were, and the lack of new episodes for two months has allowed for all sorts of articles about how the show has “lost” its way. I’m sorry, but proclaiming a show’s lack of direction based on six episodes is completely ridiculous. News flash: ALL serialized shows have slow periods. Even 24, easily the most intense and fast-paced of the bunch, has segments of transition where the story heads in a new direction and takes a few episodes to rev up to full speed. Whenever you change direction, it always takes a bit to get your bearings lined up again.
One of the things that I respect most about Lost is how each of its seasons is a self-contained storyline that comes to a clear conclusion at the end. Season 1’s main narrative drives were the construction of the raft and Locke’s desire to get into the hatch; both of these were resolved in the season finale. The same with Season 2, where the Henry Gale mystery and the hatch storylines also came to an end. In fact, I see very little difference between the beginnings of Seasons 2 and 3: both featured fantastic, revelatory premieres that were followed by a slow build into the main plotline of the new season. The only difference is that Season 2’s first episodes weren’t placed on their own as if they were something more important.
Supposedly ABC and the show’s producers are looking to go the 24 route and air Lost in consecutive episodes starting in the winter. Given the failure of this year’s experiment, I wholeheartedly support the idea.
* * *
I think it’s fair to talk about The X-Files for a bit, because while the show was a very different animal than Lost, it’s an important point of comparison. It’s a show that faced similar challenges: how much of its mystery to reveal, and how soon to do so. For five years, I think the show navigated these challenges rather well, but after a movie didn’t deliver on answers in quite the way that audiences had been promised, the show stalled a bit for the next two years. And then, in an absolutely terrible decision motivated more by Fox’s desperation than the show’s narrative, the series kept going for another two years after the departure of David Duchovny. The show ended tarnished and tired after nine seasons.
Lost, in many ways, has it much more difficult than The X-Files ever did. While The X-Files spent 2/3 of every season in storylines completely unrelated to its core mythology, Lost can’t escape from the island. There is an expectation that even character-driven episodes will provide some new clues or insight into what’s taking place on the island, and no matter how good the writers might be, it’s near impossible for them to meet this expectation in exactly the way that every viewer wants.
Look, I don’t pretend that a show like Lost is immune from criticism, but that criticism has to be justified and realistic, not just whining and complaining that the show doesn’t fit into our 21st century sense of instant gratification. I don’t think that judging a few episodes of the show removed from the rest of the season is justifiable given its season-long plotting and serialized nature. I don’t think that attacking flashback sequences that provide valuable colour and character development is at all reasonable. And I don’t think complaints about mysteries not being answered before its conclusion are realistic, given that answering the show’s biggest questions would be to destroy its foundation.
Here’s the thing: when all is said and done, the critics might turn out to be right. When the show comes to an end in a few years time, we may all be able to agree that the show’s creators dragged the mysteries on far too long, and that the answers we got were completely unsatisfying. But to make such broad declarations and criticisms at this point in Lost’s lifespan is to have no faith, no confidence, and no belief in the show.
And I want to believe.