I never watched Lost in its first four seasons. In fact, since September 2004, when the popular show debuted, I did my best to avoid reading about it, since the show seemed to be one of those based around a "mystery" of some kind. I knew that it was about a plane crash on a remote island, but that was about it. I didn't have much motivation to watch it myself, but if I ever did watch it, I wanted the full experience.
Around 2005/6, I caught up on Alias, the show that many of the same creative people, like J.J. Abrams, had worked on just before Lost. Alias was not a reassuring case for me, at least in terms of wanting to ever watch Lost. Alias was generally pretty entertaining at a show-by-show level, but was complete crap at the longer storylines. I suppose I could put it less bluntly by talking about the impossible demands on those writing for serialized television, where demanding fans want a jolt of adrenaline every week—which is what Alias delivered—as well as the contemporary vogue for intricate, season-long or series-long storylines, which, paradoxically, can never be resolved or the show would be over. All the same: Alias put up a pretense of a good "myth-arc" but betrayed it at the slightest opportunity.
And I should trust the same people on a new show that was apparently weighted much more heavily on the long storylines? Crazy talk. Right around the time that I finished watching all five seasons of Alias, Lost was moving into its second season, and the buzz I was hearing was that the show had gotten much worse.
Fast forward a few years though, and the situation started to look a little different. For one thing, I no longer quite agreed that the following assessment was always necessarily true. Last year, the blog Rands in Repose posted an entertaining piece about "Nerdfotainment" and in it, there's a relevant bit about Lost:
Nerds are systematic thinkers, which means, for entertainment, we want to exercise our systemic comprehension muscles. We want to stare at a thing and figure out what rules define it. In the case of Lost, Abrams get [sic] this. He sprinkles hints of systems within the system of the show. He tinkers with time and with personalities to paint brief glimpses of clues. And then he changes everything because he knows that if we ever feel we've figured it out, we'll bail.
I would have sworn up and down that this was the case for Alias: the essential "mystery" was never pinned down, always receding, always shuffling around, to the point where any sideways glance at the system revealed that it was in shambles. Lost might very well be the same thing—I had no idea about that—but I would have added The X-Files to the list of shows that got painted into a corner (my earlier use of the term myth-arc was a deliberate throwback to the dark days reading about The X-Files on early Internet sites and still being completely puzzled).
All that said, some shows have navigated the rocky waters between closure and ongoing storylines. Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I've written about several times here on Strange Horizons (most recently here), got around this problem by sticking around for 3 very short, very sweet seasons, and then wrapping up its big storyline in a definitive way. There's also a newer show called Burn Notice that is getting my hopes up fairly high.
So perhaps by learning from the mistakes of shows like The X-Files or Alias, seeing the examples of artistically successful items like Avatar or cleverly-constructed low-brow cheese like Burn Notice, it has become possible that a show like Lost could pull it off, by which I mean keeping us entertained every week and still having an overall narrative that works.
A few things triggered my quest to finally catch up on Lost. I'd been hearing, despite all my efforts at a news blackout on the topic, that the show had turned itself around after a season or two of not-so-great episodes (and what's more, that the show had actually become a piece of solid science fiction, which was very odd to hear). Another aspect was learning that Brian K. Vaughan, whose Y: The Last Man I've also written about here on Strange Horizons, had joined the team behind the show.
I'm afraid I must admit that a major reason that I started watching the show was to avoid spoilers as much as possible, by the simple expedient of watching the whole show myself! A little ironic that I'm now writing about Lost myself—there will be tons of spoilers ahead! Something about the show seems to make viewers want to talk about it.
Before the spoilers start, I will give this basic advice: if you're a fan of SF/fantasy in any way, and you haven't watched the show, get off your fanny, get the DVDs, then get back on your fanny and watch it! It's a really solid show, and, yes, a really solid science fiction show. Sure, some things are dropped, like any show, but the writers have proved remarkably canny about answering questions in unexpected ways. And as far as I can tell, the first few seasons, particularly the rough patches, were better when experienced in a big gulp.
I caught up to the new episodes just as Season 5 was starting—the latest season will conclude sometime in May, so I will take a look at the current run at that time. Here's what it was like to catch up on Lost, with a brief look at the four already-completed seasons.
Here's where it all started, and it's a great set-up: some likable people live through a plane crash and try to survive on a remote island. As if lack of contact with civilization were not bad enough, there's some kind of weird monster who kills people, such as the pilot of the plane. The first season spends a great deal of time on simple matters of survival, like food and water—in some ways, the survivors are lucky because it's (usually) easy to live off the land. But what is this island? Why can't they get off? Why is there no help coming? These questions are very slow in getting answers.
Lost made its mark in its early days by its structure: each episode featured a flashback focusing on the past experiences of a specific character. If the overall storyline was enormously stretched out, the character moments made all the difference. And even if the characters didn't always make decisions that made sense in terms of their characterization, or motivations were schematic—Sawyer is a con man so he has trust issues—the show felt much deeper than anything else on the tube. For example, in addition to all of my other dissatisfactions with Battlestar Galatica, I was constantly bewildered by the characterization in Season 4—why were these people doing what they were doing? Not much reason, or at least not much reason that had been explained in luxurious detail.
I think the moment when I was fully hooked on the show came in the fourth episode. It's the first one to feature Locke, an older, bald man with a strangely beatific smile. We find out why he loves being on the island so much with a beautifully played twist ending.
Two big storylines from the season get resolved in the finale. A couple of the survivors are determined to build a raft and get off the island, in the absence of outside help. And Locke and a few others have discovered a metallic hatch out in the jungle. The resolution to both of these come together to form a great capper for the first season. In comparison to how far the show has come since then, the answers are pretty small potatoes! But it was a fantastic ending for the existing episodes.
In terms of the writing staff's expectations of the show, those changed from looking at a potentially small run, like a miniseries, to having to handle a completely open-ended show after the viewing numbers went huge and Lost was a bona fide hit. Season 1 was generally slow in pace, but came together with some lovely grace notes. That said, it's easy to let slow episodes drift out of memory if you're watching a whole season in one weekend!
Two things happen at the start of Season 2: the survivors get into the aforementioned hatch, and it's revealed that another group survived the same plane crash. The tail section of the plane fell into the ocean, and the so-called tailies had it much rougher on the island than the Season 1 regulars. Ah, the tailies. Introduced, killed off before the season was over, and then never referred to again!
This is probably the worst season, both in context and in retrospect. In retrospect it's particularly obvious, since so many of the characters and storylines from this era of the show have been dropped and never referred to again—and that takes a lot on a show like Lost which is constantly dredging up bits from the past. I liked a few of the tailies, like Mr. Eko, a former drug smuggler and criminal who is trying to make up for his past (like many of the characters on the show), but the writing staff could clearly tell that these characters were not clicking for the show.
Tailies aside, the other storyline, a more productive one, was learning about Dharma stations, and the introduction of one of my favourite characters, Desmond. The hatch turns out to be an installation of the mysterious Dharma Initiative, and inside this particular hatch, there's a mad-eyed Scotsman named Desmond. He doesn't seem to know much about Dharma, or care to find out, but the survivors really do, since it seems they are all stuck on the island. Desmond becomes crucial to later seasons.
So at this point, I would say that the show was in search of two related things: a way to credibly lengthen the stay in a maze of storylines, and its very own Spike, a charismatic villain to ramp up audience interest. It gets an incipient Spike in the form of Henry Gale (later known by his real name of Ben), and he's one of the all-time great bad guys. Just like in Buffy, this kind of character gives the show a lot of juice, but it's a dangerous thing, structurally speaking, to turn so much of a show over to a scene-stealing villain like this.
Season 2 continues the Lost tradition of decent season finales, no matter what has come before. In this round, the story of the hatch is definitively wrapped up, and the big three characters (to date anyways), Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, get captured by "the Others." Will we learn more about the Others in the next season? The answer is . . . yes!
As we knew all along, the plane crash survivors were not alone on the island. In Season 3, we get thrown deeply into the society of these "Others" and into the intricate schemes of Ben, the leader of the Others. Why did the Others want to capture Jack, Kate, and Sawyer? What are they doing on the island? We get some answers, but these always seem to lead to deeper mysteries, as in Rands in Repose's formulation. The endless-layers-of-onion situation would change by the end of the season.
Ben is the biggest presence in this season, but I really like Juliet, the other major new character of the season. She gets a great introduction in the very first episode. One thing that she can't compete with Ben on though: getting beaten up! Ben's not strong, physically, but he takes a blow to the head like nobody else. He gets thrashed regularly, but somehow always comes out ahead.
I would say that Season 2 had the longest run of crappy episodes, but Season 3 had some doozies here and there. In particular, I would point to the ninth episode where Jack gets some tattoos on a trip to Thailand as the absolute nadir of the flashback style. There was still a ways to go before the structure would change, and I'm glad that the producers seemed to realize that there wasn't much left that they could do with the flashbacks.
As Season 3 was wrapping, the producers struck a deal: Lost would end after Season 6. As far as I can tell, this was the key development that will let the show escape the dilemma of endless serialization vs. satisfying conclusion.
The wrap-up for Season 3 was, again, fantastic. Some heroic sacrifice leads to a new development, namely, the ability to send radio signals off the island. For me, the best part of the finale was something else entirely. What we thought were flashbacks in the episode were in fact flashforwards. This sounds like a disaster in the making, but it shook up the basic structure, and Season 4 is dedicated to making this device make sense.
The flashforwards continue all through Season 4, all predicated around the fact that some survivors get off the island. But how did they do it? It probably has something to do with the freighter, just offshore, that they can now contact via radio. And how will those big meanies, the Others, react to this encroachment on their island? The flashforwards are a fascinating device, and it completely changes the basic structure of a typical episode of the show. Character insights are still revealed, but it's a completely different context. I felt like every episode was a good workout for the mental muscles I ordinarily only use to figure time-travel books or movies. A flashforward is not time travel per se (something which the show tackles soon enough), but I think this is where some reviewers, not accustomed to the mental routine required to put these kinds of pieces together, started to say that the show was too complicated (see my comments below). The episodes were inarguably some of the best in the run of the series, but they were also definitely outside of mainstream storytelling techniques.
By this point, the show had given viewers an enormous amount of information about the island, why so many strange things happen there, and why so much violence and conflict takes place around control of it. Season 1 looks quaint, with its concerns about food and water and the fact that the survivors were taking so long to open the first hatch that they encounter, after so many revelations. I'll talk more about the island itself and the nature of some of the mysteries in my next column—is the show SF at its core? How can they possibly wrap up this amount of material?
Season 4 is a short one due to the writers' strike that happened in 2008, and it suffers a bit for it; all the same, it's still much better than the preceding two. And the headlong pace doesn't stop at any point. That pace has been the biggest clue that there's a possibility of resolution, that a specific endpoint, which requires a great amount of groundwork, lies somewhere at the end of the story.
I'll talk about Season 5 in my next column. But briefly: in my local paper, the TV listings mention the episode of Lost each Wednesday—the show is still popular enough to warrant the mention—but the level of snark is amusingly consistent: the show is too hard to figure out. For a casual viewer, that's certainly possible. I admit that I'm not the person to judge that, having just watched four seasons in a row and now happily watching week to week!
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