Bubbles in the Primeval Ooze: The Lessons of “Lost”

Now that we’re two years removed from its now rather notorious series finale, it seems like a good time to revisit Lost, and to consider the lessons it imparted to its viewers, to its inheritors, and to its medium.  The consensus, if such a thing can even be said to exist in the fractious post-Internet world of television, is that Lost is at best a deeply flawed success and at worst a game-changing failure, a show that tapped into a timely hysteria for serialized enigmas but left little behind but a scrap heap of inferior imitators; this perception is compounded by the fact that, because people are always more prone to remember the last thing you did than the first, its legacy cannot be spoken of without mention of its last episode, which is widely perceived as a clumsy cop-out, the disappointing payoff of a massive investment of time and emotion.

Having re-watched the entire series, I think this view of the show is more than a bit unfair, and highlights the inconsistencies in our selective memories when it comes to television — a medium which, it is true, encourages just that sort of short-sightedness because of its fragmented and ephemeral quality. While Lost is sometimes remembered as a noble failure because of the uneven quality of its later seasons, The Sopranos, which suffered similar loss of focus as it began to gray, is viewed in a much more positive light, and Twin Peaks — whose second-season calamities far outnumbered its first-season miracles — might as well have been filmed on strips of gold.  Of course, the latter shows earned that indulgence by presenting a much higher standard of quality in the first place; Lost at is best was rarely as good as The Sopranos at its worst (though much better than Twin Peaks at its nadir).  But most of the show’s post mortem writers seem to have come to bury and not to praise, and there’s a risk that we might forget what made it so compelling in the first place.

Lost‘s biggest problem, if you credit the conventional one-liner that’s become as much part of its mythology as the Smoke Monster, is that the writers were “making it up as they went along”.  Here’s a little peek inside the creative process, though, for the uninitiated:  all writers make things up as they go along.  That, in fact, is what writing is, especially in a specialized collaborative medium like television, and even more especially in serial fiction.  There are precious few people who could plot out a complex series with a sprawling cast and a ridiculous amount of backloaded information years ahead of time and have it make any sense; no one wants to see a television show as plotted by Harry Stephen Keeler.  One of the only shows to accomplish this, in fact, was the universally acclaimed (and criminally underwatched) HBO series The Wire.  And its ability to pull off this astonishing task — even when, by the fifth season, the levers and pulleys were starting to show — was one of the reasons it was universally acclaimed.  Lost didn’t have that luxury; it was a network show, and a dazzlingly expensive one at that, so it was beholden to all sorts of intangibles that kept it from sticking to any kind of master plan even if one had existed.   And since its creative staff couldn’t admit what every writer knows — that in any kind of long-form fiction, there is a significant amount of deviation and improvisation over time — they had to pretend otherwise.  And since the pretense was so obvious, fans became angry at being told the lie they themselves demanded.

That significant expense (Lost remains the most costly ongoing series in American network TV history) brings up another point:  the show looked then, and looks now, fucking fantastic.  It was one of the first television series to take advantage of hi-definition digital television at its zenith; it was meant to be seen in hi-def.  And though the isolation and indulgence of filming in Hawaii took its toll on the cast and crew, it certainly didn’t hurt the way the show looked; almost every scene on the island is eye-tearingly gorgeous, and I’d be willing to bet that some of the disappointment in later seasons was as much to do with the fact that the plots took them off the island as it did the quality of the writing itself.  The pilot to Lost is the most expensive ever made, but it is also one of the most perfect creations television has ever delivered.   The notion that TV has become more like movies generally refers to the increased level of quality in recent years of small-screen programming, but in Lost, we have a show that looks as good as a movie as well, a fact that is in danger of being lost because our culture is steadily losing its appreciation of the visuals in visual media.

The acting on Lost was inconsistent, but it was rarely terrible.  It’s another factor that often gets overlooked, for a number of reasons; for one, few of its cast have gone on to bigger or better things, and for another, the three main characters were played by the three least interesting actors:  Matthew Fox could deliver moments of emotional power as Jack Shephard, but he was just as likely to give himself over to calf-eyed gurning; Evangeline Lilly was as dull an actress as Kate Austen was a character; and Josh Holloway didn’t often transcend the requirements of his modeling days as Sawyer.  But Lost was an ensemble cast, and regardless of their work since, the actors outside of that quickly abandoned central triangle often brought their A games.  Michelle Rodriguez and Adewale Akinnouoye-Agbaje were hypnotic in their roles as people irreparably damaged by their violent pasts (and were the prime example of the show’s folly in killing off its most interesting characters too soon); Yunjin Kim was a terrific find, and the show made great use of quirky supporting actors like Ken Leung and Jeremy Davies; and two of its most important roles — Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke and Michael Emerson’s Ben Linus — were played masterfully, to the degree that almost every scene one or the other of them is in is a scene that’s worth watching.  Even in the most absurd moments (as with Jeremy Davies’ wacky adventures in time) or the most unrewarding characters (Hiroyuki Sanada’s inexplicable Shaolin monk), no one phoned it in from the big island.

The show’s scripting was its Achilles’ heel.  Its dialogue was capable of coughing up memorable lines, but it was rarely great and often silly.  Its (generally clever) structural format, as well as the need to fill space as the show’s popularity led to one new season after another, often necessitated egregious padding.  Most of the worst of this involved Kate, but there were also unforgettable duds like Hurley’s imaginary friend, the utter miscue that was Nikki and Paulo, and, of course, “Stranger in a Strange Land”.  It’s nothing short of astounding that “Jack’s tattoos” hasn’t become cultural shorthand for a wet shit of an episode from an otherwise excellent show the way “jumping the shark” has come to mean the end of a show’s useful life.  Lost wasn’t good at being clever, and it frequently lost the thread of its own tale, and it failed miserably at making any kind of moral statement.  (I dare you to give a meaningful summary of why Jacob and the Man in Black were at each other’s throats, or what point of view either they or their minons represented.)  It made about as much sense as any show about magnetic anomalies, time travel, and smoke monsters could ever make, which is to say none at all.  It wasn’t even particularly good at plotting.

But what it was good at — what it was supremely, unprecedentedly, and stunningly good at — was storytelling.  From the very first episode until approximately midway through the fifth, there wasn’t a single episode that failed to do an amazing job of stringing action sequences together in order to create in the viewer an almost tangible need to find out what happened next.  This isn’t the most vital function of art; I’d even argue that it’s a largely superfluous one.  But when it’s well done, the effect is as staggering as watching someone catch a bullet with his teeth.  It’s something that soap operas are very good at; it’s the quality with which Stephen King has become this country’s most successful author.  It is nothing more than the art of telling not a meaningful or enlightening or beautiful story, but an effective one, and Lost had it in spades.  Its cliffhangers dangled like a condemned man’s noose; its emotional moments — its revelations and reunions, especially — possessed the power of a prizefighter’s punch to the gut. It was expert at managing what Roland Barthes identified as the proairetic code — the sequences and actions that propelled the reader into the narrative, and the way those sequences and actions helped impart overall meaning to the text.  The most amazing trick of the proairetic code, one capable of being mastered by something as low as wrestling or as high as Shakespeare, is to involve the reader in the creation of the text; its complexity creates conspiracy, and inspires the viewer to create narratives where none may exist.  This was obvious from the very beginning with Lost, as it provided us with enough narrative hooks and background enigmas that we couldn’t help partake in speculation and and theorizing.  Thus did it engender a world even more complex and full of wonder than even the show’s creators were capable of imagining:  Lost had millions of writers instead of dozens, and the fact that the worlds they created weren’t real, or even relevant, doesn’t make the aggregate richness they added to the experience any less wondrous.

The show did other things well (it’s quite tightly directed overall, and it took fine advantage of new media to enhance its watchability), other things poorly (it never talked when it could scream, and it encouraged certain aspects of the now-dominant nerd culture a bit too shamelessly), and other things fair-to-middlin’ (Michael Giacchino’s score was often loopy and obvious, but occasionally brilliant).  But one thing it gets blamed for is the endless secession of imitators, none of which could hold a candle to it, that it inspired.  So high were its ratings and so tightly did it lock in to its cultural moment that no one can let it go; even today, subpar serial tales of mystery pollute the airwaves, giving us goopy drama with a creamy center of slowly doled-out secrets.  But Lost no more bears the blame for the persistence of shows like The River and Alcatraz than Quentin Tarantino deserves to be called a third-rate director just because all the hip, casually violent crime dramedies that came in the wake of Pulp Fiction were third-rate.  If something successful can be imitated, there will be imitations, especially in Hollywood, and Lost deserves credit for its frequently masterful handling of serial storytelling, not blame for the fact that someone paid a lot of money to get us to watch The Event.

It’s the quality of immediacy, of addiction — the desperate need to find out what, if anything, comes next — that made Lost such a runaway success, but I wonder if, in the long run, it’s also what’s worked against it.  The qualities that make it easy to mock and deride — the Jackface, the weird science-fictional flip-flops of the last two seasons, the frayed edges we all spotted once we decided a fast one was being pulled on us (and honestly, no possible ending to Lost would have satisfied its fans), Michael braying for WAAAAALT — are bits and pieces, quick to come to mind and lots of fun to huck tomatoes at.  But the things we loved about it aren’t easy to remember, because they require us to go through the elaborate and time-consuming process of sitting down and watching it again, and remembering the cold hand we felt dragging us from episode to episode, and the maddening but thrilling sensation of the credits appearing at the most frustrating possible moment.  That mastery of storytelling, and that cruel knowledge of just how to pull our strings, is what made Lost such a massive success when it was on — and what made it so easy to forget once it stopped.

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  1. sean brodrick
    05/13/2012 at 8:10 PM

    Leonard.
    First of all, this is a great review of “Lost.”
    Second, thank you for introducing me to Harry Stephen Keeler. I’d never heard of him before, but I can see how his labyrinth plots must remind you of how “Lost” sometimes went wrong.
    Third I agree with your acting critiques with two exceptions. I thought Josh Holloway did a fine job, and I wish you’d mentioned Elizabeth Mitchell, who I thought did an excellent job.
    Finally, I’d like comment on your question, “why Jacob and the Man in Black were at each other’s throats, or what point of view either they or their minons represented.” I think what they represent is the attempt of “Lost” to give another definition or view of good and evil.
    Let me take a sidebar to say another example of this is the show “Babylon 5”, another cult favorite that had its own deep flaws. “Babylon 5” presented two races, the Vorlons and the Shadows, that at first seemed good and evil; later you realized they have different alignments – order and conflict. The fact that they couldn’t be defined easily as good or bad (at least by the final episodes) meant the viewer had to think differently about the concepts.
    Back to “Lost” and Jacob and the Man in Black. What do they line up with? Jacob accepts the status quo and acts with the best intentions. The Man in Black chooses change, exploration, and a challenging the way things are. While alive, he acts on selfish impulses, but he’s not evil – not until he is sent down the river into the cave and corrupted by whatever-the-hell-it-is, which I think symbolizes power.
    Jacob wants to preserve that power and protect its status quo. That status quo doesn’t work for the Man in Black, and he’ll try to change it.
    In the end, I think Jacob is a preservationist, or conservationist might be a better term. He wants to protect the power of the island and doesn’t want it to change. The Man-in-Black, as Smoke Monster, becomes such an agent of change that the forest literally explodes where he touches down. He sees the entire island as a deck stacked against him, AND his prison. Naturally, he hates it, and its protector, Jacob.
    Just something to think about. Thanks for the excellent review and analysis of “Lost.”

  2. John
    05/28/2012 at 12:04 AM

    One of my biggest problems with the final season of Lost is captured by this shot:

    http://images.wikia.com/lostpedia/images/4/4b/JiYeon.jpg

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