May 8, 2010

Why "Lost" may be the best TV show ever

Sadly, Blog, in a mere couple of weeks we must say farewell to the Island and its beloved residents after six seasons of gripping stories. And with only four hours and some minutes left, I am inspired to join hundreds/thousands of other people who are reflecting upon the experience of watching this unique TV series.

My comments are made from the point of view of what I am: a storyteller. As such I tend to look for, above all, good plots and character development. And in those categories I am hard pressed to come up with a show that exceeds the levels achieved by Lost. I could name you twenty shows I’ve possibly enjoyed as much, entertainment-wise, over the years. But Lost stands above the rest simply because no other show has tried to do what this one did.

What do I mean? Well, let’s start with the fact that with the series finale only two episodes away, not only do I not have the slightest clue how the show will end, I don’t even know what sort of ending it will be. Typically the end of a story comes down to a couple possibilities. Will the protagonist survive/win true love/achieve his goal/save the day? Normally the question is yes or no, with some suspense as to just how the yes or no will come about.

But Lost is not like any story told on television before. While the survival of the characters is indeed a key question, just as much at issue is the very meaning of everything that has happened to them. The story to date has posed immense philosophical questions about good and evil, fate and free will, life and death. These are not simple issues and, in my opinion, the questions cannot be answered in a clean, factual, standard fashion. The answers are metaphysical ones, undoubtedly best addressed symbolically or mythically, in the manner of Greek philosophy, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell. And I’m quite confident that’s how they will be presented, whatever answers they turn out to be.

Since when does TV attempt to be so ambitious? Hasn’t it always been true that the “Boob Tube” goes for the lowest common denominator, especially when seeking broad appeal? If you were in program management at ABC, would you greenlight a show that explores the deepest secrets of the universe using elements like allegory, secret code, storylines that play havoc with the space/time continuum, concepts from quantum physics, and the complex details of the entire lives of a couple dozen characters?

Nevertheless, that is exactly what Lost has done, and in the process it has become wildly popular and the object of cultish devotion the likes of which we haven’t seen since “Twin Peaks.” It arrived on the scene at the perfect time, just when the idea was catching on that you could supplement TV programming with online enhancements, and just when social media took the place of the office water cooler. The “Lost viewing experience” became a multi-faceted form of entertainment that engaged the imagination like nothing before.

Well, Blog, I say all this is well and good, but to me it’s still all about storytelling. And that to me is this show’s long suit and the bottom-line reason why it will never be forgotten. From the very first episode, which I and many people expected to be “X-Files” meets “Castaway,” the excitement driven by paranormal phenomena and the challenge of survival, Lost quickly proved to be another animal entirely. Its innovative flashbacks focused on telling the individual stories of very large stable of main characters, and each character was unique and fascinating. The mysteries of the Island unfolded bit by bit, but meanwhile we spent an amazing amount of time off the Island, dabbling in the far-flung lives of this intriguing bunch.

The writers of the show did a consistently good job of avoiding clichés. The characters were archetypal (Jack, the group’s shepherd, Sawyer, the scoundrel with good heart, etc.), which is always helpful to meaningful storytelling, but they were never predictable. Best case in point is my favorite character, Ben Linus, who has managed throughout the show’s history to walk a fine line between uber-villain and antihero. How is it possible that we are rooting for a man who committed genocide? And yet he has served as a Good Guy many times and the story of his childhood was painfully poignant. To me he is easily among television’s most complex and compelling characters.

And a case could be likewise made for so many of Lost’s alumni: John Locke, Kate, Sayid, Jack, Sawyer, Hurley, Claire, Charlie, Desmond, and the list goes on. Meanwhile, few shows can boast of such an arsenal of secondary (and even tertiary) characters who truly won our hearts: people like Juliet, Penny, Richard, Daniel, Libby, Miles, Jacob, Dogen, Lapidus, and of course Rose and Bernard. The importance of even the most short-lived character to the viewers is demonstrated by the delight we've experienced as each of them reappeared in the “Sideways” timeline.

And speaking of timelines, how improbable is it that a TV show could succeed with concurrent and sometimes intersecting timelines in present day, the 70s, and an alternate present day? Viewers were certainly confused at times, but not so much that we didn’t enjoy the complexity. Because yet another brilliant talent of the writers was to make this story interesting whether you picked it up halfway through, didn’t follow half the symbolisms and internal references, or put in the effort to figure out every little detail.

I’ve been picking up on the puzzlement of non-Lost viewers as to why we fans are agonizing so much over its imminent conclusion. I hear “My favorite shows have ended before, what’s the big deal with Lost fans?” I’ll attempt to address that question, Blog.

Part of the big deal is that we have been very intimately involved with the Losties, Tailies, Others, Dharma-ites, etc., and the nature of the show has made them more vivid than typical TV characters. It was hard saying goodbye to each Star Trek crew over the years, but it’s not as if we got to see glimpses of their childhoods, struggling marriages, family turmoil, and the very darkest hearts of their conflicted souls. When “Friends” packed it in we waved goodbye to some likeable people whose adventures we’d shared. But on Lost, we’ve spent these six years coming to terms with the cast’s deepest struggles and sharing in their efforts to make sense of life itself.

We’ve also been part of a complex, detailed world chock-full of mysteries and magic, meaning and revelation. Along the way we haven’t been mere observers: we’ve also asked ourselves, very seriously, the same questions the Losties have asked. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Do my choices matter? Is it worth it to side with Good? And what’s going to happen in the end?

Which leads me, Blog, to why the end of this show is such a big deal. Sure, facing TV series finales, we always ask “What’s going to happen in the end?” The thing is, this time we’re really hoping that “the end” will tell us something truly meaningful about “the real end.” Before you accuse me of making television into religion, let me complete my point. Throughout the show, the writers have drawn upon the thoughts of many wise human philosophers, clerics, and scientists. Through the story they’ve explored the key questions that have plagued our species for millennia. Whatever the ultimate answers are on Lost, they will simply be a fresh look, a new interpretation of very ancient ideas, genuine glimpses of the Truth that, in all likelihood, the human mind cannot grasp in its entirety.

All this on a weekly television drama series. Forgive me if I must compare this kind of epic storytelling to the classic works of Homer and Shakespeare. And the fact that television dared to aspire to this level is something we ought to recognize and celebrate. Lost has not been without flaw--it really ran off the rails the first half of the third season, but the writers heeded criticism and turned the remaining three and a half years into a beautifully scripted, captivating saga. Not every episode has been stellar, not every character perfectly-conceived and executed. But the aspirations of the show were so high and so often attained, it’s absolutely remarkable.

Blog, I’m taking an entire box of Kleenex with me for the finale. I’ll be weeping to say goodbye to some very dear friends, none of whom may survive the conclusion. I’ll be weeping at the loss of some of the finest entertainment I’ve enjoyed in my life. And I’ll be weeping at the possibility that it will be a very long time before this caliber of storytelling is seen on television again.

Kudos and thanks to creators Damon Lindelof, J. J. Abrams and Jeffrey Lieber, additional executive producers Bryan Burk, Jack Bender, Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Jean Higgins, Elizabeth Sarnoff and Carlton Cuse, ABC Studios, Bad Robot Productions and Grass Skirt Productions, and the incredible cast and crew of Lost. I’m quite confident your creation with never be forgotten.


  1. Whatever will I do on Tuesdays at 9:pm CST ?I heard Glee is a good show. I haven't seen it. I'm so frustrated that once hooked, these shows ( LIFE, The WIRE on HBO) will be yanked off the air.

  2. Wow. I am just not into LOST. I watched a few episodes of the first season with my best friend on a weekend together. Then I found the dvd chilling at home (it belonged to my sister's friend) and swiped it for some viewing. But I lived alone and it got too creepy for me and my wildly overactive imagination. (the numbers thing messed me up a bit.) So I stopped and have never wanted to return.

    But I do know lots of people love it and it does seem to be crazily complex. Sorry it's ending. I have loved and lost many a good t.v. show (most didn't live beyond the first year- remember "Get Real" and "Roar" on FOX? Yeah, most people don't. Or "Space: Above and Beyond"?) So I basically stopped watching t.v. cuz I'm tired of them ending my shows. I watch hockey and the occasional USA series but that's about it. I can't become emotionally invested in any more things. (I already am in love with too many fictional characters from books.. )

    I hope the end is all that you want it to be... and not too painful!

  3. Some things are scarier for some people than others, that's for sure! And living alone is a factor. Wow, you've liked some obscure shows, Sam! I do remember "Space: Above and Beyond" but only by name. Thanks for the well-wishes, I'll try my best to bear up! There's always DVD... :-)