What makes Lost the most important show of the decade? The impossibility of the task it has set for itself.
While reading this discussion between TV critics Maureen Ryan, Alan Sepinwall, and James Poniewozik, I was reminded of the thought I had while mainlining the fifth season of Lost this weekend.
As I've gone back and given Lost a full viewing after dipping in and out over the first three seasons or so, one thing has impressed me more than any other, which is that, as comes up in the linked discussion, there is absolutely no way for Lost to be entirely successful. This goes beyond the nitpickiness of viewers, I think; it goes beyond the fact that some people are never satisfied; it goes beyond the dissecting culture of Internet television fanaticism. It's not that it can't be perceived as entirely successful — though that's certainly true. It's that it can't be actually entirely successful in wrapping up the sprawling, complicated, decades-spanning mystery it's created.
And credit for the impossibility of the task goes, really, to the scope of the ambition of the show's primary thinkers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (and, to a lesser extent, J.J. Abrams, who created it but hasn't really stayed involved), and of the rest of its writers. The reach of this show will inevitably exceed its grasp; that's often how ambition goes, and here it is, happening on network television on a show that has been, at times, very, very popular.
We're going to talk about what's happened so far, after the jump, so don't be upset.
Consider the blend that Lost incorporates of much more science-ish science fiction and things that seem like they are, even within the show's universe, supernatural. On one hand, there is an extensive history here of things that are scientifically explicable — at least as Lost understands and portrays science. The Swan is atop a pocket of measurable, physically existing energy. There's time travel, but the guy who understands and explains it is a physicist. There are magnets; there is radiation; there are vaccines. There are physical signs of weirdness: polar bears where they should not be, bloody noses. Oh, and how do you destroy something? Well, with a hydrogen bomb.
At the same time, there is a temple, and there is a monster, and there is a statue that suggests ancient origins. There is an island that seems to have a "will," and there is an epic battle between mortal enemies who, you sort of suspect, are not operating on the same sort of birth-death cycle as the rest of us, strictly speaking. The themes are unapologetically grand: life and death, fertility, sacrifice, that kind of thing.
Sometimes, Lost is a more X-Files-like examination of shadowy figures performing wicked experiments where most things have scientific explanations even if the science is fictional (see? That's where the name comes from!); sometimes, it's rooted in a highly literal belief in destiny and monsters and unearthly manifestations of earthly things, and oh, yes, it will make your head explode.
There are 18 hours left, during which there is no possibility that all of this can be brought to a conclusion that's not going to make it pretty obvious that some threads were dropped because they didn't work, and that some things were red herrings, and that while there has always been a plan, there has never been a perfect plan. They've clearly understood the story and where it was ultimately going — that's why it was so important to get an end date so they didn't have to find ways to tread water. Still, it's a network television show that has schedules and production demands, and that suffered a writers' strike. You can't close all the loops of a time-travel story, no matter how hard you try, and that's only one of the challenges.
And honestly, wrapping up all that stuff perfectly isn't where they're going to put most of their energy, because as ambitious and wild and inventive and oh yes totally freaking weird this show has been, if they have 18 hours left, you can count on the fact that they're going to spend most of it on characters, just as they always do. Because in addition to having created the most intricate and detailed mythology I can remember ever seeing in prime time, Lost has created some of television's most specifically drawn and compelling people.
Some of them are delightful twists on often-seen types: Sawyer, the scruffy bad boy; Jack, the self-righteous, burdened, annoyingly perfect doctor; Kate, the woman with a dark past. But many are utterly individual: Locke and Ben, Charlie, Desmond, Daniel Faraday (whom I miss already). They're not always likable, and not every story they get involved in has worked (one advantage to mainlining a show like this is that the slow parts are over much more quickly). But they're particular to this story.
It's been masterfully done, even though there were slow sections, to be sure (looking back, are we going to feel like all that time with the Tailies was well-spent? and I think we all agree that Jack's tattoo is the Least Essential Ink Of The Decade). It's been done with love and attention and the evident and ceaseless passion of true, red-blooded nerds, and in the end, it's going to leave holes, because it has to, because what they bit off is just that big.
And that's why, for me, in spite of how much I cringe at best-ofs, I will tell you that I think Lost is the most important TV series of the decade. Not best (though it's close), but most important. You have to remember, this show was a hit. It was weird, and it didn't explain everything, and it was fiercely devoted to character development, and it has a lot of very strong acting and writing, and it was a hit on a network. Not permanently, but for a while.
There have been solidly executed hits before — ER and Cheers and M*A*S*H, it's a long list. But I can't think of any that were as daring. No, Lost hasn't been as high in consistent quality as, say, The Wire, but in fairness, they do share some DNA. Both built such persuasively whole universes that they could afford to allow things to pay off seasons after they happened. If you saw a payoff seasons later on ER, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they would have somehow made sure someone on screen explained the context to make sure you didn't miss it. ER was a good show, but not a show that left you to figure out a lot for yourself. If TV shows are compared to toys, Lost had the big sticker that said "ALMOST ALL ASSEMBLY REQUIRED."
One example: When Jin and Michael were working to keep the freighter from exploding (with the freezy gas, remember?), there was no specific mention of the complicated friendship they had developed long, long before, when they were working on a raft together. But when they saw each other, the scene was shot through with all of their old debts and their tricky history, and nobody explained it. The idea of a network show with a tremendously intricate story almost entirely dispensing with overt exposition (except in the form of all those explanatory hour-long specials and the science talks from Faraday) is practically revolutionary.
And, as those three critics point out in that conversation where we started, other shows have indeed tried to follow. How great is it that this is the formula they're trying to match — great show, great characters, complicated and absorbing story? Granted, there are still mostly misfires: too much back story, not enough back story, boring characters, bad pacing. FlashForward, ABC's latest attempt at an heir to the throne, lost me early.
But that doesn't mean creating that model hasn't done us all a lot of good. Going forward with a show, raising question after question after question, asking people to be patient about a monster for five-plus seasons, knowing that it's all going to get you a kick in the teeth from your own adoring fans someday because you have taken on more than you will ever be able to really explain? That's audacious. And network television absolutely has to be much, much more audacious in order to survive. Audacity isn't so hard to find on cable to varying degrees, but against the network drama backdrop of doctor/lawyer/cop shows, it is to be treasured.
Pieces of all this will not make sense in the end. Some will seem like mysteries left mysterious intentionally, and some will feel like dropped stitches. So much has been attempted that there will be plenty of flaws in the final, six-season series as it ultimately stands. The alternative, of course, is to try very hard to make sure you do only those things that you know are in reach, which is how we wound up with about 50 failed attempts to replicate Friends — most of which, of course, failed. Ironic!
So here's to Lost, my most important show of the decade, for being crazy ambitious and totally confusing. The sixth season (starting February 2), I will be taking in one episode at a time, along with the rest of the eager and appreciative.