Tonight is the two-hour premiere of the fifth season of Lost, as you know if you ever watch ABC or have much of a collection of Facebook friends. (There are nearly 263,000 people signed up on Facebook as officially booked viewers of tonight's premiere.)
When I read one of the recent interviews with the show's creators, I was struck by this passage:
There's been a steady attrition over the years, because the show demands that you watch every episode. And Lord knows, I wish there was a way we could do the show where the casual viewer could come along, but once you start writing for those people, the long-term fans will (bleeping) kill you, as well they should. We always thought it would be a cult show, and that's the show we've been writing.
I don't mean to doubt a creator's view of his own story, but I'm here to tell you that you do not have to watch every episode, and you can be a casual viewer. I know, because I've been one, and I still very much enjoyed the two hours you're going to see tonight.
How is this possible? HOW? After the jump...
Here's the thing: I didn't get into Lost when it started. I got into it a while later, watched some episodes, and lost interest. And then I became interested in it again. And lost interest again, and came back again. They say you can't do it, but you can. It requires a little reading and cheating, but you can.
Don't get me wrong — I'm absolutely confident that, because my knowledge is incomplete, I miss things. I miss nuances and I miss moments that resonate more deeply with other people because they've seen things I haven't. From time to time, it's confusing, to say the least. And no, I don't recommend jumping in with the Season 5 premiere with no background knowledge at all.
But the good news is that the premiere is terrific, whether you've watched every single episode or not. In truth, once the creators got a final end date for the series (which is next year, after the sixth season) and the story began to progress, the show became more linear in one sense, even as it became more logistically convoluted. Compare this to a show like The X-Files, which ultimately alienated a lot of people who gradually came to believe that there was no plan. There was no end game; no way that all the pieces logically fit together in the minds of the people making the show. When you don't know whether you're filling one more season or six more, that's what happens.
But with Lost, once they set the schedule, it became clearer that they had a story to complete by a date certain, and things began to happen. Yes, it's all very mystifying with the bending of time and space, but they are going somewhere with all of it, and that's perfectly evident as you watch. The path you're on as a viewer is foggy and sometimes seems to double back or abruptly change direction, but you can tell it's been laid down for miles in front of you and is not being improvised. What doesn't work with tricky sci-fi shows is the feeling you get that up ahead and just out of sight, there are two guys with shovels and cheap paving stones who are desperately trying to get the path laid down before you get there. Lost has really righted the ship in that regard.
The show also does a good job of feeling fair, even when some traditionally unfair storytelling devices are being used. There are certain tropes — time travel, cloning, a dead guy coming out of the shower because his death was only a dream — that present a grave risk of breaking faith with the audience. That's not because they're inherently flawed as much as it's because having the pieces of a puzzle fall into place is only satisfying if those pieces follow rules you already know or are learning. A story like this can't reveal the answers and the rules at the same time, or it seems self-serving.
Even though it contains shades of similar story devices, what Lost has learned to do so well is reveal the underlying mechanics of its universe in a way that makes the answers seem more, not less, interesting. Over four seasons, it's explained the basics — here's who lives on the island; here's what's behind this closed door; here's why this seemingly incomprehensible thing happened — without bleeding the life out of its own narrative.
It's easy to forget how this show started: plane crash, survivors marooned. Yes, there were hints of the mysterious, but it was nothing like this. A little counterintuitively, as more disquieting complexities have come to light, it's gotten easier to follow. The two-hour premiere, if you essentially understand the show up to this point, isn't all that confusing, which is more than I can say for some of the past pivotal episodes.
Perhaps the show is aimed only at its own cult; perhaps you're meant to need to watch every episode. But you don't; not really. At least not to enjoy this particular two-hour kickoff, which sucked me right in despite the gaping holes in my Lost background. I'm sure I'll go back someday and pick it all up on Netflix, but it makes an awfully satisfying drama in the meantime.