We're in our last couple months of the active phase of our love affair with Lost. We'll be watching the island-castaway show forever, but right now we're still experiencing the thrill of discovery. So here's why we love Lost.
We've criticized some aspects of Lost lately — especially those "flash-sideways," where the plane landed safely but the plot hasn't quite landed yet. But we mostly take jabs at this show because we love it and are obsessed with it. Also, because it's the last season and we've been hurt before by final seasons of shows we've loved. But even with our questions and doubts, we have to take the time to express our love this show. Here are the ways.
1) It's a show about characters, not clues.
We have faith that the show's big questions — including "what is the island?" — will be answered, and we're not going to be left scratching our heads. But this show rightly focuses on the characters, not on the endless clues.
I have a confession to make here — I'm not one of those people who gives a shit about clues. I'm interested in story-telling, and little easter eggs, to me, aren't a crucial element of story. At best, they're a treat for obsessive fans, and at worst, they're a distraction. And often, they're not even real — like when people obsessed about the fact that the date on Claire's medical file in the recent season opener was different from the date of Oceanic 815 in the "original" timeline. (The producers explained that it was Claire's due date.)
The producers of Lost have mostly resisted the urge to cater to the mythos-obsessed and the clue-seekers. The easter eggs are brief enough, and inconsequential enough, that they feel throw-away most of the time.)
Instead, they have created a web of rich, fascinating characters, many of whom manage to be both iconic and complex. Take Sawyer — he's instantly memorable as "the surly con-man," and you get this larger-than-life idea of him the very first time you see him. But he's got layers, and by now we've seen enough different sides to him, including the steady, dependable leader he became in the 1977 Dharma Initiative and the dark, grief-stricken version we're seeing now. It's a stroke of genius that Sawyer, not Jack, is the reader among the castaways. And the relationships and rivalries between these people have continued to amaze us with their complexity, year in and year out.
I've never been able to sit through an entire episode of The X-Files — sorry, Smoking Gunmen fans — because the mythos was too mythos-y. I couldn't bring myself to care about the mysteries. If I'd been alive when the Beatles were a band, I wouldn't have cared who was wearing the inside-out epaulettes on that album cover, or which Beatle's name is said backwards seven times. But Lost, I care about.
2) It's stylistically inventive in a way that moves television forward. For reals.
Even in a decade that's seen television take major leaps toward becoming an Art Form — The Shield, The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and Torchwood: Children Of Earth come to mind — Lost has innovated since day one.
Take the opening sequence of season two's first episode, "Man Of Science, Man Of Faith," with the bewildering close-ups of random objects including the "Execute" key and the turntable, without showing us Desmond's face. Directed — of course — by Lost MVP Jack Bender, this sequence follows weird, eccentric paths around its maze of familiar items, and shows us the strangeness in everyday life. Even beyond the mind-fuck of "Is this a flash-back or something happening on the island?", this elevates the contrast with the scruffy survivors peering down the hatch, and heightens the overall dissociation and paranoia of going into the mad-science lair. The show repeated this motif with season three's opener (Juliet and the muffins) and season five's (Pierre Chang in Dharmaville) but managed to keep it fresh.
Also, the show's trademark "flashes" have been a lot more inventive than I gave them credit for at the start. The device of showing the characters' lives before they were on the island seemed, at first, like a way of filling time and varying the show's settings, while illuminating the occasional character moment. But from early on, the flashbacks were not as simple as they appeared. I rewatched a lot of the first few seasons during the past six months or so, and you can see different episodes using the flashbacks differently — in some cases, you can tell the character is meant to be thinking of this past experience as he or she faces a dilemma in the past. In others, it's a thematic counterpoint or grace-note to what's happening in the main plot. Things that jump out at me now: The episode, early on, where Jack is trying to save Charlie and (in his flashback) he's blaming his dad for the death of a woman on the operating table. (Written by Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach!) The episode where Kate wakes up handcuffed to Juliet in the jungle, and meanwhile we see a flashback to Kate's foray into con-woman-hood with Sawyer's ex-girlfriend/victim. The flashbacks aren't always what the characters are recalling as they face some situation; sometimes they're a weird contrast that the characters themselves would never think of in a million years.
The "flashes," and their relationship with the on-island continuity, have gotten more challenging and strange as the show has gone on. Obviously, the change to "flash-forwards" and now "flash-sideways" has been a huge leap into the unknown. But they've also gone beyond just a device, into being a major element of the show's unique stylistic and narrative vision. Like the footnotes in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, the "flashes" don't just tell part of the story — they change how we read the rest of the story.
The divided, interpolated story-telling has become a signature element of the show, as much as Michael Giacchino's raucously jarring music and Bender's cinematic lensing.
A few episodes, in particular, have pushed the "flashes" as far as they can go — the Desmond-centric episodes "Flashes Before Your Eyes" and "The Constant," and the Jin/Sun-centric "Ji Yeon." These episodes, and a number of others, managed to tell stories that felt like they spanned years and had real weight to them, within the confines of a 41-minute television episode.
3) It does reward repeat viewings.
We don't watch the show for the Easter eggs, but we do notice new stuff when we watch some of the episodes a second or third time. For one thing, the minor characters who pop up when you least expect them are positively Dickensian, and the web of coincidences that causes random people to meet over and over again only starts to make sense when you delve into the show a few times. The fact that Sawyer's ex Cassidy befriends Kate, and Kate's "dad" captures Sayid in Iraq, and so on, is more than just a funny set of coincidences — it's part of what makes the show — for lack of a less pretentious term — literary.
You also pick up new subtleties, at least in some of the performances. This show has some of the best actors working in television, including Michael Emerson, Terry O'Quinn, Elizabeth Mitchell and Jorge Garcia. And they pack a lot into their performances, which you might not pick up on the first time around but which speaks to you when you're re-watching an episode. Matthew Fox sometimes manages to convey a lot of stuff (beyond the always-foregrounded guilt and grumpiness) going on inside Jack's head.
4) The Island is a character, and it actually works.
You know, when people used to talk about the island, and what it wants, and how it feels about stuff, I used to roll my eyes a bit. It seemed a bit too woo-woo and New Age. But I've come around to seeing the island as one of the show's main characters — and seeing that as a good thing.
It's a cliché to talk about character as setting. Creating a place that's vivid enough to count as a major character in the story is something every writer aspires to. But it's really true for Lost — the island has gone beyond being just the confusing home of a thousand secrets, and become an actor on the show. The benign-looking tropical paradise, which at first glance seems like a nice place to hang out, has managed to look threatening, sinister, oppressive and enchanted at various moments of the show's run. The island has acted its heart out.
When we finally do learn the nature and purpose (?) of the island, it'll feel no different, in a way, than learning the backstory of Ben or Richard Alpert. The island has its own odd personality, and its many odd landmarks are like personal quirks. The castaways' beach, Dharmaville, the many Dharma stations, the statue, the temple... they're like aspects of the island's being, and the island's capricious behavior feels like a trait. One of the dramatis personae we'll miss on the island is the island itself.
5) It's a comedy!
A lot of drama shows do funny episodes or comic moments, occasionally, but few juggle comedy and drama as well as Lost does. The cast has impeccable comic timing, and manages to make the smallest things funny, like Hurley sharing his candy bar with Ben:
Or Hurley throwing a hot pocket at Ben:
Or Hurley explaining the show's backstory:
Or pretty much any scene featuring Hurley and Miles:
But even though Hurley is definitely the funniest character on the show — as well as the soul of the show, honestly — other characters get to have some great moments of comedy. Ben is frequently hilarious, in an ultra-dark, twisted way. His funeral service for Locke was both terribly sad (I think Ben really is sorry he killed the guy) and side-splitting.
And Charlie's final Driveshaft concert, when he's trying to fake out the Others, is pretty hilarious too:
Plus Sawyer's weird snark and paranoia (snarkanoia) is often one of the show's comic highlights. Even the dour Jack and Locke occasionally manage moments of comic brilliance.
6) It's a love story, if you ignore Kate (and we mostly do.)
Once you look past the Kate/Sawyer/Jack thing — which all right-thinking people do, with a shrug and a "grow green again, tender little parasite" — then there are loads of other love stories in Lost that do capture your heart.
Where Kate's relationships tend to be sort of turgid, the Penny/Desmond saga has been one of the show's mainstays ever since we first learned of their star-crossed affair. And the fate of Penny and Desmond is at least as important to us as whatever happens with Jacob and the Smoke Monster — and probably way more so. If episodes like "The Constant" haven't turned you into an obsessive Penny/Desmond shipper, then you have no heart, and I'm not even sure why you're watching this show. It's got everything — the mean dad standing in their way, the Hand Of Fate, the troubled guy and the woman who almost gives up on him but never quite does — everything! And honestly, this show works so hard to dramatize its themes of fate vs. free will in so many different ways, but Miss Hawking's claim that Desmond is fated to come to the island, even though it drives him away from Penny, is so simple and yet so powerful that it crystalizes the whole concept.
But Desmond and Penny are just one of the pairings that this show has given us, that we've become invested in over the past five-years-and-change. There's also:
- Sun and Jin. Actually, separating those two for such a long time has driven us to care about their fate much, much more. But we were already pretty wound up in watching their journey from the traditional marriage of a fisherman's son-turned-legbreaker and a rebellious woman, to more of a real partnership.
- Hurley and Libby. We still want more closure on these two. They were in the Santa Rosa mental institution together! They were just starting to build something real — and then Michael ruined it. There will be rioting in the streets if we don't get more Hurley/Libby closure
- Sawyer and Juliet. This was the biggest surprise of last season. We got more invested in Sawyer and Juliet, over a handful of episodes, than we ever were in either of their previous relationships. They had a real, meaningful bond and felt like a real married couple. And now that Juliet is dead, their relationship remains one of the most gripping, because we're seeing Sawyer in the throes of grief for her.
- Rose and Bernard. I'm sort of hoping we don't see these two on the island again. They already had the perfect love story — they found each other, she was dying, he tried to save her and failed, and then they were separated by the plane crash. Finally, they were brought together again, but Bernard kept trying to be a hero, and Rose kept being fatalistic. At last, they compromised and moved to a house in the middle of the jungle in 1977. Let's hope they're still there, living happily ever after.
- Charlie and Claire. Another love affair that ended tragically, but we're willing to bet the final chapter of their story isn't written yet. And as annoying as Claire could be on occasion, Charlie's attempts to prove himself worthy of her were moving — plus how much does it suck that Charlie sacrificed himself to get Claire off the island, and then she never made it off?
7) It shows that no man (or woman) is an island.
We already mentioned the synchronicity thing, where characters are constantly meeting each other in new and weird contexts, and the whole supporting cast turns out to have hitherto unsuspected connections. The connections between people seems to be a major theme of the show, and put that together with Jack's famous line, "Live together, die alone" and you've got a bit of a message.
Obviously, people stranded on an island together have to work together to survive, and that's a common theme of these sorts of narratives — as is the idea that people create a new society, in microcosm, under the pressure of survival in an extreme environment. But Jack's quote seems to go beyond just that basic idea — as much as fate vs. free will, the idea that nobody survives alone, and no life has meaning without other people, seems to be a basic message of the show. And even though the show is amazingly dark and does work in so many ways to dissociate us, as viewers, from what's going on, it still feels life-affirming because of that message.
Lost is a show about people living together, and we're happy to be on that journey with it.