It might very well have been the strangest, most exciting teaser of the new television season. After a frustrating and disappointing finale to their first season, the writers of ABC's ratings juggernaut Lost, which begins the second part of its sophomore season this Wednesday, were clearly itching to lure viewers back with something remarkable, something strange, something as incongruous and weird and just plain neat as the most memorable moments of the show's first season. And so they did. Without ever seeing his face, we watched a strange man as he went about his morning routine in a gorgeous, candy-colored explosion of '60s interior design. The cheerful, full-bodied music he moved to couldn't quite drown out the increasing oddness of his actions, and we were already starting to guess the truth when an explosion rocked his pleasant domicile. This man, this apartment, this entire unlikely existence, were at the bottom of the infamous hatch, which our main characters had just blown open. It was breathtaking, and mind-boggling, and just plain fun—all the things that had made us love the show when we first saw it.
Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. After that stunning teaser, which very nearly did away with all the cynicism I had developed towards Lost over the lackluster second half of its first season, the writers never again approached the same level of oddness. Having successfully baited their viewers, they proceeded, over the following nine episodes, to make safe, uncontroversial, unsurprising choices. The leadership conflict between Locke and Jack was boiled down to an asinine and simplistic faith versus science dilemma. The terrifying Others were nothing more than a few dirty pairs of feet. The major character who died was the most pointless and boring member of the cast. Despite a few arresting images (most notably the pristine beach being pelted by the wreckage of the tail section in "The Other 48 Days") and a few emotional highlights which, sadly, the writers seemed unable to convey without resorting to musical montages, the neatness seems to have bled out of the show. The teaser that opened the second season was a reminder of what Lost used to be—the strangest and most exciting show on TV—but in the episodes that followed, that show was nowhere to be seen.
For all of Lost's popularity, no two television critics can agree on what, precisely, the show is about. It's a character exploration, insists one television columnist, pointing to the delicate examination of each survivor's psyche in the by-now-standard flashbacks which often take up the majority of a Lost episode's air-time. It's a show about community, another TV critic will claim, and point out the ways in which the show charts the evolution of the survivors' island encampment. And a third reviewer will tell us that Lost is a science fiction mystery, very exasperatedly bringing up the monster, the hatch, the button, the polar bear, the horse, the slave galleon, the Others, and every other strange and confusing plot twist we've encountered over the last year and a half.
The truth is that Lost is all of these shows. In the first and rather superb half of its first season, the three shows moved together like interlocking gears, one level of the story feeding and enriching the others. As the show's popularity soared and ABC's executives began to re-envision it as a weekly staple of their schedule rather than a ten part miniseries, that flawless interlocking movement began to falter. In the first half of Lost's second season, the three shows have not only ground to a halt, but are actively engaged in stalling each other. One level of the story is now used to distract from the others, to keep them stationary for just one more week. Whatever Lost used to be about, it is now about longevity.
Continuing a trend that started towards the end of the first season, the flow of information on the show has slowed down to an intermittent trickle. On the personal level, the ubiquitous flashbacks, which last season were so instrumental in introducing us to the characters, have become an albatross around the show's neck. Instead of teaching us new things about them, the flashbacks have repeated what we had already been told about some characters (Jack has a saviour complex and married a former patient, Locke's father stole his kidney, Michael desperately wanted to keep Walt), contradicted everything we'd been previously told about others (as little as two years ago, Shannon was a perfectly functional albeit slightly aimless teenager with a bright future ahead of her, who only became the soulless user we've known for a season and a half because her stepmother was cruel to her) and sometimes done nothing but fill up space (after a stultifying series of near-misses, Sun and Jin meet by complete accident).
The only truly successful character exploration in the second season's first half was the Hurley episode "Everybody Hates Hugo". This is largely because the big-boned millionaire remains the only compelling, believable character in the cast, but it's also because we not only learn something new about a character—that even before his lottery win and subsequent ill fortune, Hurley was desperately afraid of change—and because, for the first time since the middle of the first season, the flashback scenes and the island scenes work together and feed off each other. We can see how Hurley's past experiences inform his choices on the island, and how the island situation mirrors his past. The episode also works within the show's greater thematic framework: fear of change is the cardinal sin that has brought most of the survivors to the island, and it was refreshing to see the writers return to that theme.
One of the problems with the show's growing over-reliance on flashbacks is that what little character development there is has become limited to one person per episode. Whereas in the show's early episodes we learned about the characters as they learned about each other, forming relationships, friendships and enmities, the second season has all but halted the examination of the burgeoning island community. Beyond some desultory development of the show's various romantic pairings (which, since such pairings are by their very nature exclusive of others, doesn't contribute to the growth of the community) and the strained friendship that grows between Michael, Sawyer, and Jin as they make their way back to their own camp, we've seen little to suggest that the survivors have created a cohesive group. Real plane crash survivors would surely have developed intense bonds and enmities in the time that Lost's characters have spent on the island, and the second season should be offering us a glimpse of the inevitable reevaluation, familiar to anyone who's gone away to camp or college, in which the characters begin to see that the friends they clung to when they were uncertain of their place in a new setting may not actually be people they want to spend time with. In what we've seen of the second season, however, the show's writers seem less and less interested in this aspect of the show. The characters rarely talk to each other any more, and when they do it's to say things intended for the audience's understanding, not their fellow survivors'.
I suspect that the decision to focus on the emotional state of only one character per episode is largely motivated by the writers' desire to slow down the rate at which the show's various plotlines progress. They don't have to tell us whether Charlie has fallen off the wagon, for example, until his next flashback episode, which could be months from now (by which time, if the writers continue to paint Charlie as a priggish, judgmental troll, we may no longer care). The infusion of new blood in the form of the remaining tail section survivors might indicate a renewed interest in interpersonal relationships—the Locke/Mistereko friendship is already showing great promise—but I fear that the writers will simply use these new characters as fodder for more individual flashbacks, and that Lost, the social experiment, will vanish into thin air.
Which brings us to Lost, the science fiction mystery, and to the surprising discovery that for all the complaints about the writers' parsimony with information, quite a bit has happened during the second season. The survivors finally made it all the way down into the hatch and discovered that it contains either a fiendishly cruel psychological experiment or the key to the world's destruction, not to mention a loopy Scotsman with bad taste in literature; Michael, Jin, and Sawyer encountered the tail section survivors, and we learned a little bit more about the Others and their motivations; the infamous orientation film (with its secret deleted scene) hinted at a terrible accident that took place on the island, and Sayid's mention of Chernobyl when examining the powerfully magnetic, concrete-encased bugaboo inside the hatch certainly seems to confirm that hypothesis; and finally, as the second season went into hiatus, we discovered that wherever Walt is, he has access to Instant Messenger.
And yet, it's hard for me to think of the second season's plot progression as anything but grudging and unsatisfactory. Partly this is because most of the episodes have been padded and repetitive—to the point of showing us the same scene over and over again from different camera angles. Charitable reviewers have been praising Lost for maintaining tension and keeping its viewers in suspense, but I can't help but see this propensity for repetition as yet another stalling tactic, the writers trying to squeeze in just one more episode before they actually have to reveal something new or progress the plot in some infinitesimal way.
A more pressing problem with the second season's approach to plot development is that while the writers have given us a great many details to mull over, none of them have come together into a coherent whole. No questions have been answered, nor has any picture emerged of what the questions might be. The writers are bombarding the viewers with information without bothering to indicate what that information might mean, or how to separate the wheat from the chaff. It's very cool, admittedly, that the shark menacing Michael and Sawyer has a Dharma Initiative tattoo on its tail, but what does it mean? It's hard to show patience and trust the writers when such non sequiturs begin to overwhelm instances of linear plot progression. We might say that Lost's problem isn't that it reveals too little, about either the characters or the plot, but rather that the writers show us too much, drowning us in questions and information so that by the time we get an actual revelation, such as what Kate actually did, we've grown numb and can no longer appreciate it.
What we've seen in the first half of Lost's second season is not the three interlocking shows—the character exploration, the social experiment, the mystery—that made it such a pleasure to watch during most of its first season, but rather the failure of each of those shows. We can no longer trust the writers to tell us anything new or psychologically truthful about the characters. We might as well give up on watching a community evolve and adapt to its surroundings. And it is no longer accurate to call Lost a mystery. A mystery is a story that contains a puzzle, which the characters within the story try to solve. In its second season, Lost's writers have all but jettisoned the story and left us only with the puzzle—which only the viewers can solve, as no single member of the incurious and uncommunicative cast of characters has anything near the information that we have accumulated.
This new show, Lost the puzzle, seems to have captured the hearts of many fans, who not only analyze and obsess over every detail of the regularly screened episodes but also seek out additional narratives—mini-episodes for their mobile phone, Lost novelizations, official websites, books mentioned on the show—in the hope of finding the one clue that will help them unlock the puzzle. Which to my mind shows a tremendous, and in all likelihood unwarranted, amount of faith in the show's writers and their willingness to play fair; not only that they know what the answers to the questions they've raised are but that they would actually reveal those answers, or give their viewers enough tools to discover them on their own, on anything but their own schedule.
It's a sad truth, but it's a lot easier to create the appearance of a clever, profound mystery than it is to create a real one, and in many cases viewers will choose the shiny fake over the real thing (how else to explain the fact that mystery-obsessed Lost viewers haven't flocked in droves to Veronica Mars, which rewards observant, dedicated viewing with character and plot continuity and genuinely satisfying resolutions to its season-long mysteries?) Just ask former X-Files fans, who for years allowed show creator Chris Carter to promise them 'The Truth' when all he had to offer was a bunch of warmed-over conspiracy theories hastily sewn together. The natural human tendency to see patterns in chaos does the writers' job for them, and all they have to do to maintain the mystery is sprinkle in a bit more oddness here, a few incongruous details there, a cryptic line of dialogue, a suggestive dream sequence—the audience will take it from there, and praise them for it.
But the real problem with Lost isn't that its writers don't know where their story is going. Some of the most continuity-conscious series on television had writing staffs that worked with only a vague notion of how the episodes and seasons ahead were going to play out, and their shows benefitted from that flexibility. The writers of Farscape, a show known for demanding its viewers' attention and for being difficult to jump into, decided to introduce a neural chip in protagonist John Crichton's head—thus establishing a plotline that determined the course of the show's entire second season and beyond—after watching an episode in which Crichton interacted with a hallucination of his arch-nemesis, Scorpius, and deciding that the two worked well together. Writing, after all, is a creative endeavor, and a large part of being creative is being able to extemporize, to take strange ingredients and turn them into a fantastic dish.
I have no doubt that Lost's writers are capable of taking us to new and exciting places—they are, after all, a highly-pedigreed group—but it is becoming painfully clear that neither they, nor the show's producers or its parent network, are interested in going anywhere. It's become a fashion in modern television to mask formulaic shows—the networks' bread and butter—in the guise of tightly plotted, continuous stories, which tend to encourage viewer loyalty. Alias has made retooling its appearance while endlessly repeating the same story into an art, and the aforementioned X-Files was also quite adept at hitting the reset button every half-dozen episodes. Lost is rapidly becoming one of those shows, but with a fandom so thoroughly invested in the idea of a continuous story—or, at least, a coherent mystery underlying the story—one wonders how long the writers can continue stringing their viewers along.
The ubiquitous puns are wrong. Lost isn't adrift, or directionless, or floundering, or even, well, Lost. Its writers know exactly where they are. A more accurate, and certainly more dispiriting, description of the show in its second season is that it is standing in place, and unlikely to move anywhere in the near future. I'm still watching, but largely because, although I'm no longer enjoying the show, I still have an emotional reaction to it—mostly anger. I'll stop watching when Lost no longer makes me angry and simply begins to bore me. If the second season thus far is any indication, that day may not be very far off.
Abigail Nussbaum is currently wrapping up a Computer Science degree at the Technion Institute in Haifa, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Israeli SFF quarterly, The Tenth Dimension, and she blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.