At the insistence of my fiancée, I recently, for the first time, watched all six seasons of “Lost” (2004-2010) from start to finish. And I liked it! Because of how polarizing the show is and remains, I wanted to give my decade-late two cents.
“Lost” has the status it does because it combines exploratory character building for a large cast along with an insatiable desire to tease maddening and addicting mysteries to its audience. But these questions were often unsolved or left by the wayside entirely, as one writer critic put, “narrative dead ends.”
The show unequivocally has massive, unnecessary bloat throughout the series, and this is most notable in the early seasons when it is more focused on developing its characters than it is delivering tangible story. A lot of this bloat is a relic of the era that it was developed in. “Lost” debuted somewhere in the latter days of the golden era of cable television when people sat down every week for episodic viewings of their favorite programming. And as the philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message.” Shows of this era of television are unavoidably written and developed in a vastly different way than not just streaming content, but really all media in the fully formed digital age.
Where this is most glaring in “Lost” is that because the show and network that hosted it at the time needed to keep viewers tuned in from week to week, each episode is written and shot as is its own episodic story, with a focus point on very specific characters and their troubles in a clear rise and fall to resolution that ties up to a conclusion (when its not teasing unyielding mystery). But there are 23 to 25 episodes in each of the first three seasons, which leaves most of these episodes feeling like unnecessary nonsense, meandering in a frustrating direction at random between forced and uncompelling character conflict. There are so little plot developments of consequence that happen in the first two seasons alone that looking back after concluding the series, it is jarring how much ground is covered in the final shorter seasons than in the earlier ones.
Another example of filler bloat is that with which dialogue is delivered. In total, untold hours of time are wasted with a character saying a line of dialogue, only to have another character asking that character to repeat that line of dialogue vis “what?” or “come again?” This often plagues any sense of urgency or critical movement throughout most of the show. Also, for some pathological reason, everyone is constantly saying each others names when speaking, which is deeply unnatural and unnecessary. Some things in any story bear repeating or direct emphasis to a person, but “Lost” rarely justifies that repetition.
When “Lost” is good (any Desmond story line, for example), it is fantastic. Even the most “controversial” elements of the final seasons with mildly complicated developments regarding time travel and “flash sideways” are at least bold and interesting and clearly working to provide some answers for what the heck is happening on the island. I’m not sure the hardcore fan base would agree, but as far as story and drama, the latter seasons are overall far stronger than the earlier ones because they intertwine the show with a sense of purpose. I know its the nature of television to make large, slow sagas rather than a two to three season run, but “Lost” truly could have been widdled down to about half its episode count and been perhaps a much more effective creation. As a frustrated New York Times critic noted after the finale, “rendered insignificant is the particulars of what they had done.” So many plots and developments turned out to just not matter except perhaps to instill a sense of attachment to the characters and their journey through sheer force of will.
The biggest remaining questions I have are not in the metaphysics or time travel or anything about the afterlife that bedeviled so many. Writers do not have the obligation, and nor should they, to explain every facet of a creation so as to render any imagination or metaphor worthless. But problems arise when we the audience should have clear answers to something that was clearly flagged as important and knowable but are deprived of any satisfying answer. Here are the biggest questions and confusions I have:
- What the heck happened with Walt? His existence was so crucial early on that his sudden removal from the show was borderline inexcusable, especially given how much attention was paid to him. I’ve read that the actor “grew up too fast” for the time line to make sense, but unless that actor had his own reservations, this seems rather weak for a show that has dozens of inexplainable phenomenon.
- What the actual hell is the temple that appears in season 6? The “Others” had this critically sacred place where a ton of people were for the entire show run without any mention? Really?
- This one is important; the hatch, aka “Swan Station,” is a critical project of the Dharma Initiative where “the incident” occurs due to the intense electromagnetic energy emitting there. When the Others kill and replace the Dharma folk, they take over every other station we see, except the hatch, where Dharma apparently still has people. Why? They clearly would have known of its existence. And given its central importance, this is a major hole. This is further complicated by the fact that when Ben Linus shows up in the hatch as a prisoner in Season 3, he messes with Locke by telling him the button the characters have been pressing for months does nothing. But if Ben Linus knew anything about the station, this would have been a potentially suicidal ploy. Why would Ben do that if he had any knowledge of what the station actually was, which he absolutely should have had?
- The Others are revealed to be unable to have children on the island, perhaps after “the incident,” but this is never explained in a satisfactory way given the amount of weight the storyline is given.
- Why were so many characters given philosopher names? (John Locke, Mikhail Bakunin, Jeremy Benthem, Edmund Burke are the ones I picked up on). As best as I can tell, none of these characters do anything remotely related to these persons or their core philosophies unless you squint really hard. These names are seemingly randomly doled out to characters, and the result is it feels forced, pretentious, and unnecessary. Internet fandom on the subject is similarly uncompelling.
- What on earth was the weird storyline of Sayid becoming an assassin to kill off people in Charles Widmore’s organization? This shadow-war was sudden and then very quickly irrelevant.
- This question feels unfair since I know the actor wanted to be written off the show, but what was up with Mr. Eko and his church? He was one of the best characters on the show, and his sudden exit only reinforces the point that a lot of *stuff* happens in “Lost,” but none of it is really all that important.
- The “whispers in the forest” were given so much mysterious teasing and then given a one line explanation in the last season. There is no question here, I just found it frustrating.
- This one is well known, but the “Cabin” that Jacob supposedly inhabits is given a tremendous amount of buildup and then suddenly burnt down. So little explanation or reason was put behind this that all of the time we spent with it feels wasted.
“Lost” is a very character driven show, titled as it is because the people on the island are in one way or another lost in their own lives. But some of these characters’ stories were better than others, and if you ended up not liking a character much, an entire hour-long story line in an episode about them dragged on. Here is my breakdown on the final values of each character:
Great characters and stories: Desmond (and Penny), Ben Linus, Locke, Sayid, Sawyer, Juliette, Rosseau, Mr. Eko, Daniel Faraday, Richard, and Charlie when the show stopped being obsessed with his drug habit.
Middling characters and mixed storylines: Jin and Sun, Hurley, Miles, Man in Black, Jacob, Charles Widmore.
Bad characters and frustrating storylines: Jack*, Kate*, Michael (least likable character on the show for writing, character decisions, and I’m sorry to say, performance), Claire (MY BABY), Boone, Shannon, Walt.
*Jack and Kate are lead characters, but they are insufferable through much of the show with capricious actions and redundant stories (Kate: “TACO TUESDAY?! I CAN’T DO THIS”). It is only in the shows final moments that these characters recover the glory they had in season 1.
Despite my gripes, “Lost” is a really good show. Although it, like any show, has flaws and dated portions of its structure and writing, it was deeply ambitious with other-worldly aims, had lots of amazing moments and reveals, and had a fair number of cast members who gave phenomenal performances. The mysteries that it loved to tease did not always pan out, but they were often tantalizing and kept the audience hungry and eager for more. It had a cult following for that reason and still garners generally high praise in the critic community. Watching “Lost” today in a binge, as I consumed it, is an inherently different viewing process than during its initial airing, and it undoubtedly overexposed much to me in a way that makes my views perhaps more critical than general audiences at the time. And yet, my gripes withstanding, “Lost” remains a cultural moment that deserves its place in the history of television glory.