Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Lost" and the High Narrative Price of WTF

The great TV show Lost may already have begun fading a bit from the cultural waters after its much-discussed finale, but it's been on my mind a lot lately. I thought I'd take a slight detour from our normal topics into the world of television and culture. (Spoilers below and all that, but seriously, you've had enough time now.)

The first season of Lost in 2004 was a tour de force - it combined the chills and thrills of classic suspense and sci-fi television with the promise of deeper characters with relevant and complex backstories. While HBO had been experimenting with more intelligent TV and the DVD/Tivo era was affording more narrative possibilities for serial shows, Lost was really unlike anything that had been attempted on network television.

In case you have never seen the show, it revolved around castaways who crashed on an extremely mysterious tropical island with a strange smoke monster.

I loved the Walt!!! out of this show. The elements that elevated it above X-Files meets Gilligan's Island were twofold:

1. The flashbacks, which interwove the events on the island with the mysteriously intertwined back-stories of the characters.
2. The mysteries, which layered upon further layers and folded back on each other like a Matryoshka doll wrapped in a seashell buried in quicksand on a planet where EVERYTHING IS MINDBENDING. There is a massive website devoted to keeping it all straight.

But if there was one signature element of the show, above all else it was the WTF moments: strange, unexpected, thrilling, out-of-nowhere moments that added to the mystery and blew our minds. Whether it was the discovery of a hatch on the island, then a light coming through the hatch, other people on the island.... all the way to time travel and immortality, these WTF moments were the show's fuel. But not all of the mysteries ended up being solved.

The High Price of WTF

Introducing a shocking mystery in a TV show (or any story) is kind of like borrowing from the future - the viewer gets a jolt of excitement in the short term with the expectation that they're going to be repaid with an explanation down the line. When a polar bear comes running through the forest on a tropical island, you naturally think, "WTF!! How did that get there!!" And then you keep watching/reading until you're told how it got there.

Thus, the price of a WTF moment is that the storyteller owes you an explanation. They've borrowed, narratively, from the future.

But throughout the entire run of Lost, just when it looked like the characters were on the cusp of figuring out something meaningful and giving the viewers some answers, BOOM, the writers hit the audience with another mystery. Jacob! Time travel! Russian with an eyepatch! Walt is soaking wet! Ben is good! Evil! Good! Evil! Good! Meek! Giant statue with four toes! OMG the island is at the bottom of the ocean!

The writers spun mysteries upon mysteries upon mysteries, all the while maintaining the illusion that there was a master plan, that they had everything under control, that there was an explanation for it all, and the mystery would be solved in the end. Pretty soon the number of mysteries had exploded and snowballed to the point that I was tuning in just to see how in the world they were going to explain it all.

And when the debt came due in the final season, rather than spend the precious final episodes tying things together and giving the viewers the explanations they had been craving for six years, what did they do? Introduced further mysteries!!! The "flash sideways", and a light at the center of the island with a giant stone cork.

In the end of the show: sure, there were some nominal explanations involving beams of light and chosen ones and saving the world and all the rest, but at the very end the characters were literally left in church, staring at a white light, waiting to escape purgatory via multi-faith divine intervention.

Basically: throughout the show, the writers kept borrowing against the future. When in doubt they introduced another mystery. And when the bill came due and it was time to give the viewers all of the explanations they expected? Well, the writers couldn't quite pay, as this College Humor video demonstrates all too well.

Not that I needed to know who built the four-toed statue in order to still love the show. (Okay, it kind of would have been nice to know who built the four-toed statue.)

A Show for Our Times?

And in that sense, what show better encapsulated the aughts, the decade when we overspent and overextended ourselves, and when the bill came due found ourselves hoping for a miracle? And ya know, at the close of this decade does it not feel a bit like Purgatory, what with a lingering recession and a bunch of oil in the Gulf of Mexico?

Smoke monster? Meet the Great Recession.

Lost encapsulated the aughts: a great deal of running around with the sense that something ominous was lurking in the forest until it all caught up with us and we ended up hoping for a miracle. It was the decade when America, individually and collectively, lived for the present at the expense of the future and is now left hoping for divine intervention, which unfortunately hasn't yet arrived. (Still waiting, Chuck Norris! I thought you had this under control!!!).

People, we are all Oceanic Flight 815.

Now if I could just get this polar bear out of my office...






120 comments:

Locusts and Wild Honey said...

When the final season began to air and they were STILL introducing new mysteries and NOT wrapping things up, I KNEW that very soon the Lost house was going to be foreclosed on because of missing its payments.

If only they could have passed a Lost Bailout and the writers were given another season to EXPLAIN THEMSELVES.

I must say, it was a great show for a long time and then, in my mind, it was one of the biggest disappointments of all time. So sad.

Love, this post.

Seleste said...

LOVED this.

I loved LOST all the way up to the end, holding out for answers and closure. As much as I wanted to love the ending, I was left really meh.

But you are completely right, it was the perfect show for the decade in which it aired. Sad but true.

JD said...

Yes, I felt very cheated with the final season of Lost. They didn't explain much at all, and when they did, it felt a little too forced, as though it was simply the best explanation at the time rather than something that made logical, long-term sense. I don't think that any of the answers really caught me by surprise anyway. It was a great show to watch, but I'm glad we can put it to rest now.

Also, I wanted to share this infographic I came across today, about books vs. e-books. There's not a ton to it, but it's interesting. I thought you might want to see it, if you hadn't already. This is the link:

http://www.newsweek.com/2010/08/03/back-story-books-vs-e-books.html

Mesmerix said...

Nathan: Brilliant post. "Smoke monster? Meet the Great Recession." How apropos.

Anonymous said...

Wow.










(you wouldn't believe my word verfication. "vomet")

Shelli said...

Brilliant analogy. I did feel let down by the finale, for exactly the reason you mentioned. No, I didn't need an explanation for everything, but why the heck bring in all that physics crap if it was meaningless? I was a true fan, but Lost finally lost me with the finale.

A.C. Tidwell said...

My problem with Lost is that it had absolutely no follow through. There are some insane pieces watchers are expected to take; a few lengthy leaps. I just recently started watching the series and can tell you I ran out of steam at season 5. I just wasn't being rewarded for my labor. When I say labor I mean "WTF, are you seriously trying to get me to buy this?"

dandellion said...

I love your parallel of the show and the last decade of the real life. Indeed, it's all borrowing from the future and not thinking much about what will happen when the debts are due.

Though, after the finale, it seamed to me that something changed the planned development of the show in the middle of the last season. Things were developing in one way and then, out of nothing (or better, from something behind the scenes) everything changes and cheesy "purgatory" ending comes.

Robin L said...

BRILLIANT analysis. Especially the tie in to the aughts.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I'm gonna have polar bears run through all my stories.

Anonymous said...

Why can't I see the polar bear???

word verification: cogit

Dave F. said...

I wasn't a LOST fan. For some reason I didn't see the opening episodes and never took the time to catch up. However, I did watch a large portion of the final show and realized just how "unsubstantial" and "vaporous" the ending was.

Stories have three parts - beginning, middle and end. LOST gave the viewers parts one and two but not three. That's poor storytelling.

LOST will be remembered not as a great story but as a story with an asterisk -- the lack of satisfying ending.

We have seen TV shows with great endings and final episodes that satisfy and delight the viewer. LOST does not have that.

ryan field said...

I used to wonder if the writers just sat around laughing about what they were going to do next while we tried to analyze and make sense of it (wtf?).

But whatever the case, the concept was brilliant...and so was your analogy.

Yamile said...

I love this post. I confess I only watched the 1st season--which I loved--and I have yet to catch up. But during the Lost years I had 4 kids! So, now, I'm finally finding myself and catching up.
I love this kind of spoilers! You know why? Because when I'm actually watching the show, I'll go, "AAHHHH, That's what Nathan meant by 4 toed statue..."

Aimee said...

I loved LOST so much that I am still in denial that it is over.

When the sixth season started, I figured they had decided on one way to solve all the mysteries with one big answer. I was half right. They hardly answered any questions, but they literally told the audience to "let go" and accept what they couldn't change. I totally got it and loved it.

Culturally, LOST was pretty important. It paralleled what was going on in the world, economically, spiritually, politically, or at least it did from my perspective. And I believe the message of the show is something that everyone needs to learn: just love and let go.

I don't even watch TV anymore. I read a lot though. And my writing really is inspired by LOST.

Wow. I am incredibly obsessed.

Anonymous said...

Nothing annoyed me more than that College Humor video. Almost every question it asked was either irrelevant or answered.

Lost tied up almost every single loose thread. There are only 2 or 3 important questions that remain unrevealed. And half of those are going to be answered in the short epilogue added to the DVD set.

This annoys me to no end.

gsfields said...

Hated it.

Loved the first season, but their explanations of the WTF moments became just plain silly and disappointing.

I felt the writers of the show pulled explanations from a giant BINGO hopper.

patlaff said...

Nathan,

Did you ever watch Twin Peaks? WTF moments from beginning to end. Just thought I'd bring it up because it was on network television a dozen years prior to Lost.

Peter Dudley said...

My wife and I are probably the only people in the lower 48 that haven't seen a single episode of LOST.

But now that I know I've been living it the past ten years, I don't have to see it. Thanks for the liberation.

Sommer Leigh said...

I actually loved the way Lost ended and I didn't need them to lay out all the explinations of what happened. I could put two and two together with most of the big stuff. I was fine with not getting a blow by blow account of the statue or the smoke monster or the physics of it all. Sometimes there are just awesome, mind bending mysteries in the world.

That being said, this post was brilliant and beautiful and I am happy to have read it. Thanks Nathan!

John Ross Harvey said...

This is the only show I had to watch. Not since Airwolf in the 80's was I obsessed with a primetime show. Mostly I watch reality type shows, DWTS, Amazing Race, Celeb. Apprentice, Survivor. Family had a LOST-ish show with HSM's Corben Bleu called Flight 29 Down. Not as complex, less characters, less seasons. To me LOST created the best character on TV, LOCKE. Not Jack, I still could care less about Jack, yeah the eye thing, I get it, he never really mattered to me. Locke was a parapalgic, caused by his estranged father, could walk and lead on the island, whereas at home he was mostly a failure. He understood the island as a place to start over. No the island was not purgatory, that was after the island. Was he possessed by the Man in Black the whole time? Maybe? But I don't think so.
Why did Richard tell him he had to die? Why did Ben kill him? Why did Man in Black never have a name, fans I conversed with always called him Esau. If he was favoured by the adoptive mom, why didn't she give him a name?
Hurley being the next Jacob was satisfying, as he had more connection to the island than Jack, Jack was a always a temporary fix. Desmond was always pivotal, Daniel was underused, and I wanted Eko back. Christain Sheppard was the eventual purgatory guide noted standing by the multi-denominational window.
He was a drunken neurosurgeon.
Everyone changes.
I wanted the real Sawyer aka Locke's dad Anthony Cooper to have a better role than to be killed by James "Sawyer" Ford.
We could never be sure which was more evil, Ben or Charles Widmore.
I've never liked and hated one character more often then Ben.
Were the people MIB helped build the donkeywheel, the original others? Was Richard initiated into them?

Another show ABC pulled the plug on too early was Sports Night, an Aaron Sorkin masterpiece. Watch the episode with current Housewife's real husband William H. Macy discussing executives vs. show producers. A classic story about the invention of television.

LOST may have needed another season
and at first I hated the finale, but I've come to accept it. Eventually I'll get the box dvd set, but not yet.

Nathan Bransford said...

patlaff-

That's true about Twin Peaks, shouldn't have said unlike "anything" that had been attempted.

Rowenna said...

LOL@ Walt. Anyone else ever play the "My Boy" drinking game? You watch Lost and take a drink every time Michael says "my boy" in reference to Walt? Ok, maybe that was just me and my roommates...and it wasn't fun after the first couple seasons.

I love this explanation--mysteries and twists are borrowing against the future. Such a perfect way of explaining exactly what I'm having trouble balancing and smoothing out in the freshest draft I'm working on.

I guess I'll just give in and throw in a polar bear.

Madeleine said...

(Now I need to collect the seasons of LOST and watch them.)

What a great post, and it's a fascinating way of viewing things. I actually RTed this twice.

John said...

Nathan, I agree with you 100%. I was an avid follower of Lost, and can honestly say I was frustrated with the final season.

Here's why.

Several of the mysteries introduced over the first five years were never fully explained. Time Travel, the Dharma Initiative, Walt's specialness, etc. And the flash sideways, while an interesting experiment, in no way connected to the previous seasons. In a way, the sixth season was a stand alone story. That was a mistake, because people watched this season for closure.

And what bothered me the most about this was how Darlton (creators Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof) said in an interview that they didn't feel they owed their audience any answers, beyond the flash sideways. For the record, yes, they did owe us.

As storytellers, they, and we, set up certain expectations that the audience wants fulfilled by the end. Like Chekov said, if there's a gun in the first act, it'd better go off in the last act.

Lost was vastly entertaining a lot of the time, and kept me coming back every week. But its ultimate lack of an interconnecting through line fragmented the overall story and diluted its potency.

So it seems like the lesson here is the importance of a story having a strong spine. Every plot or character introduced needs to connect naturally to each other.

The best stories seem to be shaped like an unbroken circle, the end always calling back to what came before. One too many elements added, or one too few, and it falls apart.

Almost like a palindrome.

Jet Harrington said...

I've never even watched LOST and I love this post. I saw the analogy coming, and couldn't agree more. Also, I think it is an important thing to be mindful of in our own narrative - it's okay to leave a few red herrings out there, but if we bring up a smoke monster or a polar bear in our story, we should give our reader the satisfaction of knowing WHY it is there.

Sue Campbell said...

I don't think it was quite that deep Nathan. What it was a great run for a bunch of people who got to work in Hawaii for six seasons.

Keep the mysteries going, keep the hype going, stay on the air, get paid for living and working in Hawaii! Such a deal. I loved the show; never missed it. What was most fascinating to me was the whole fan community and interaction that going on. All their protestations to the contrary I don't believe for a minute that the writers (Cuse and Lindleloff) had any farking clue where they were going with it, and that they were definitely mining the message boards for directions. That why it kept veering off in new and charted territory. What we saw was a highly collaborative work—and possibly why fan based stories almost never work. They couldn't possibly pay off all the debt they incurred and if they had actually tried the ending would have been worse that it was.

Not to say it wasn't fun. But it really wasn't an allegory for our times.

Joann Swanson said...

Wow - incredible post. Really, really incredible. On the Lost side, we stopped watching mid-season in the third year after one of the characters receives a mysterious phone call that made absolutely no sense. Hubby: "If they can't even tell us who's on the other end of the *** phone, they're not going to tell us anything..." (nice version with less swearing)

Fast forward from that episode to the finale. I LOVED the finale. Loved, loved, loved it, but only because we essentially went from season 2, when the characters and storyline still felt accessible, to a beautiful wrap-up that actually made sense. I was completely blown away.

Now...if only we could approach The Great Recession in the same way. :)

John said...

P.S. the word verification for my previous post was lessism. Seems like that's a concept Lost could've implemented. :-)

Jacqueline said...

Ah, but now they've left room for a big-screen movie.

And its sequel.

And the next sequel.

:)

maine character said...

Good point about borrowing from the future, but I feel LOST pulled it off. After all, some shows don’t even try to resolve anything, and I feel the creators of LOST did the best they could’ve done. Nothing can fully be explained, anymore than the world outside your window can be fully explained. But there’s sure a bunch of stuff to keep us guessing and finding level on level of meaning the more we look.

They could’ve kept the show going for five more seasons, but chose to wrap it up rather than lead us on and on just to rake in the bucks. Unfortunately, they didn’t give themselves a lot of time to do that, and I felt they wasted an episode with the story of the twins growing up on the island, but as for a laundry list of questions, in the end the show came down to the characters, and that’s what they focused on. (And weren't the polar bears more cool when you didn't know where they came from?)

Anyone who’d like to read how the show’s writers tried to work with these issues will find good insights in these NYT interviews, in which they go into some depth of the problems they faced and how they set to resolve them.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/arts/television/16weblost.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/arts/television/18manl.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/arts/television/31lost.html?_r=1&fta=y

Tahereh said...

lost is like inception. THE TOP NEVER STOPS SPINNING, DOES IT?






please tell me you saw inception.

Sarah Allen said...

This is so great! Ben Linus I think is one of the greatest television characters of all time, and its so true that he totally goes from evil to good to evil to good and somewhere in between all the time. I think this show in its entirety was genius, and I know the finale was controversial, but I'm glad they left us with a more ambiguous, softer, philosophical ending then the easier, action oriented route. Anyway, thanks for this! Lovely to reminisce.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Amy Lundebrek said...

Wow! Great connection to make the show relevent! I gave up around the middle of the second season, dubbed it a "fractal show," and moved on. My friends ignored me and kept believing there'd be some answers.

MJR said...

I never watched LOST, but I do get annoyed with lost threads. Maybe it's the result of too many writers working on a show? I'm a huge MAD MEN fan, but I always wonder what happened to Peggy's baby and didn't she tell Peter she had his baby at the end of one season? Some threads in that show peter out... maybe all those writers need to get together and talk sometimes....

Anonymous said...

They did the same thing with Alias. And when Abrams and his bunch couldn't wrap that up neatly they started Lost.

It's a soap opera on steroids designed only to get you to watch the next episode. Imagine trying to wrap up Days of Our Lives. You can't. That's the point of soap operas. They go on forever. But you're right because in a way they are like the Ponzi schemes of the aughts: when they end everyone is disappointed.

BTW, "high price" is relative. In this case, I think it's like charging Bill Gates fifty bucks for a Big Mac.

stra778 said...

"Lost" was really unlike anything that had been attempted on network television.

Ha.

Sorry, but HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Have you ever watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Even the exec producers of Lost credit it as an influence for boundry-pushing and genre-defying televiion. There's a great article in NY mag about how Buffy, The Wire (and a little bit The Sopranos) were the pioneer shows of the late 90s/early 2000s that redifined the television show. Lost came after, borrowed from a lot of places.

Reena Jacobs said...

I think the final episode of Lost would have been way better if they'd faded to the Double Rainbow Song at the end. "What does it mean?"

Mira said...

Lol, Bryan.

Great post, Nathan. I loved the concept of borrowing narratively from the future. I've never heard of that before, but it feels absolutely right.

I agree the show reflected the decade, but my interpretation is darker than yours. I think it reflected the growing lack of corporate responsibility and increased manipulation of consumers.

I'm sure the writers of Lost would have loved to write a true story. I think the networks and producers were telling the writers to write to audience reaction and for ratings.

You can always tell when a show is being controlled by the network executives because the writers will just give the audience what they want. A true writer writes to the story, not the audience.

Honestly, if the Wizard of Oz was a T.V. program today, the call from the networks would have been that the viewers love the Wicked Witch of the West, and don't kill her, because she's getting her own spin-off. Which destroys the story, because Dorothy needs to melt the Wicked Witch, a metaphor for melting away her own fears.

So Lost is an example of a story being used to manipulate people into continuing to watch it - in order to gain advertising dollars. There's no actual accountability to give the audience what was promised.

And the ending was just as manipulative as the rest of it.

If there is one thing that defines the 'oughts, it's corporate irresponsiblity and greed running rampant, and extraordinarily destructive, up to and including their power in Washington.

Nathan Bransford said...

stra778-

HahahahahahahaWhyAreWeLaughinghahaha

Different elements of the show had been done, but I'd still argue that the combination of the high budget (most expensive pilot in TV history), WTF-ness, complex storyline, etc. etc. hadn't been attempted. There had been WTF-ness ("Twin Peaks"), there had been genre-bending ("Buffy"), there had been we-expect-that-you've-seen-every-episode ("The Sopranos"), there had been high budgets ("Alias"), but all in combination?

I still think it was a pretty groundbreaking show even if I could have phrased the post better or included a dozen caveats.

Livia said...

TV shows often have this problem, where the later portion doesn't resolve the WTF moments. I think this is because most series are written as they go. If you need a demonstration of the dangers inherent in "pantsing" the plot, just tune into network TV. I've seen too many shows that introduce awesome mysteries only to cop out at the end or just plain veer of into the twilight zone. La Femme Nikita, "24", even Battlestar Galactica wasn't all that satisfying.

Carol Riggs said...

Great post, and I loved the Walt! and College Video vids, having watched Lost all the way thru to the disappointing end. Stories for stark entertainment value without a good plot (or answers) is NOT good entertainment, in the long run. The same goes for books. They're just junk food. (I still enjoyed watching Lost, however; those Doritos taste incredible!)

I agree with Ben being fascinating, with his morphing from good to bad to good, etc. I mean, totally the opposite of a stereotypical villain, right? We can use this when we write our novels--the bad guys aren't ever 100% evil and the good guys are never 100% good. They're much more REAL that way. And more interesting!

D.G. Hudson said...

I saw one or two episodes of LOST and even that was confusing. Interesting premise, but. . .

I'm not a big fan of TV shows, and seldom watch anything on a regular basis. IMO, TV is only good for movies, and specials--music concerts, old mystery serials, or VOD. I will always prefer to read than to be tied to watching a weekly serial.

As to the WTF effect, one must ensure that the road one weaves does actually end somewhere, and avoid the temptation to keep upping the ante.

Kim Batchelor said...

I would add that it was a perfect show for the aughts as many of us felt very untethered from reality: two wars, our democracy unraveling, and Ben as president with crazy Claire and her gun as the VP.

Mira said...

Actually, the metaphor is that Dorothy discovers that problems, when faced directly, will melt away.

Let's get our metaphors right.

Wonderful discussion.

I just love your blog, Nathan. It's been a blast this week. So intelligent. It's great fun to really dig into a topic.

lodjohnson said...

I agree with Tahereh. Inception is the ultimate WTF just happened. It does in a little over 2 hours what Lost took 6 seasons to accomplish.

We scratch our heads and ponder, but in the end we still have no clue what just happened.

Brilliant! Nathan, you have to see Inception. I'd love to hear your take on WTF.

Sara said...

I also never watched Lost. When I started hearing people talk about the mystery factor, I knew I couldn't watch it. I don't have the patience for long, drawn-out, mystery-upon-mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma plots. ESPECIALLY with no pay-off.

I recently saw "Inception" and had some of the same frustration. There were a few things that were never fully explained, and some that just defied explanation. When I invest however much time, money, and energy into reading/watching something, I want the pay-off. I want the full explanation and nothing less.

I know, I know. I'm a tough customer. :)

Joseph L. Selby said...

Hopefully we take the lessons from lost that we should have been taking from the Great Recession: never charge what you won't be able to pay off.

Whether you tell the reader or not, when you the author introduce a mystery, know the answer to it. Don't just say you'll figure it out later. The edges will fray and people will tell the difference and, like Lost, you may not be able to cover the check when it comes due. Then you have to wash the dishes.

Rick Daley said...

For me, the disappointment is that I don't trust Damon Lindelof or Carlton Cuse to deliver on a good story. I'm not sure what they have planned for their next ventures, but I'll be hard pressed to watch, whatever it is.

For me, they borrowed so hard from the future that they bankrupted their next project.

Jenny said...

I LOVED Lost. I loved the end, I thought it was perfect. Especially when I considered that Jack was always the main character. His arch was complete--Man of Science to Man of Faith. In many ways the writers are asking the viewers to take those WTF mysteries on faith, demanding as much from the viewers as they demanded from their main character. And in the end, the viewer has to make up his/her own mind. In that way, I thought it was beyond perfect--genius even.(Whether the arch is preachy, overdone, or whatever is up for a whole other discussion.)

Whenever the writers tried to explain the WTF, I thought it felt forced--throughout the entire series, not just at the end.

Part of that sense of WTF and mysteries left unanswered is the fact that the writers, when writing a big ol' chunk in the middle, had to fill some space because they didn't know how long they had to tell the story. This was about season 3ish. After that big awkward season they set up that they would finish in 2010. Some of the mysteries that are brought up between season 2 and season 4 and some of weirdness (like Kate being married to Nathan Fillion's cop-what was that?) are the result of filler. You can see the narrative shift when they established the endgame. It got a lot more cohesive--time travel or not.

Had it gone on any longer without an end in mind, I can't imagine how unwieldy that would have been. So the question seems to be more about "The Narrative Price of a Network Schedule".

Michael Pickett said...

Wow. Can I be Jack? He's always been my favorite. Although, I actually want to end up with Kate, not just get a final "I love you," before I go off to die.

bryan allain said...

So what would you rather have, a hundred WTF! moments with many of them not being resolved, or a handful or WTF! moments that find their resolution?

Even if LOST didn't find the resolution you were expecting, you can't say it wasn't a great ride.

And if another show ever came along with as many WTF! moments, you KNOW you'd watch, because it makes for great entertainment.

Serenity said...

Just the title of this post is golden. And I managed to not feel completely disappointed by the finale. I notice that I've practically forgotten to care about the Losties, though, and I think if there had been more answers I'd still think of them. I like the idea of not owing my readers this much when I write The End.

Scott said...

Very insightful. I love the first comment, too: "if only they could have passed a Lost Bailout". This really is the era of coming to grips with the mess we've made.

This is one of the things that annoys me most in fiction. IF YOU CAN'T BACK IT UP, STOP TRYING TO BE SO CLEVER. Ergh.

Arthur Conan Doyle came up with mind-bender after mind-bender, and ever time there was a devious, intricate solution that gave the reader a thrill at the end when they found out how it all REALLY went down.

Lost is what happens when some punk kid from the MTV generation decides he can do that too... well he CAN'T. Go do your homework, go get an education, go figure out what it all really MEANS, and THEN write the story.

Lilly said...

Yes, Lost is a fine metaphor for the decade. How I loved the mystery and freshness of the first two seasons. I had trust, then, that all would eventually be revealed and was willing to settle in for a long thrilling ride.

Then, somewhere, I got an impression that that there was no master plan. In fact no plan at all. Sensationalism -- yes, that's what the writers were after. Keep the buzz going, any way possible, no matter who/what had to appear, disappear, die or return from the dead.

The sudden demise of Mr. Eko, after a wonderful story of his life, a story that made me care for the character, angered me so much I ended my romance with Lost.

How aptly named this show was -- this viewer spent much time lost and needed to come out of the wilderness.

Didn't miss it, either.

I did tape the grand finale for old time's sake. May even watch it one day.

fairyhedgehog said...

It's why I gave up watching long, long before the end.

You need to redeem some promises part way through a story or your viewer/reader will start to believe that you don't know what you're doing.

That's what this viewer started believing, anyway, and it looks like I was right.

Lily Cate said...

Of course there was no master plan. Not in the beginning, at least.
If the entire show had been set up with a set number of seasons from episode one, it would have been a different story.

LOST was written as a serial, like nearly every TV show ever written. For the first three seasons, the writers were just trying to tell one hour of entertaining story at a time, and keep the viewers coming back as long as they could, possibly for years. They were stretching out a story, not writing to an end point. They also can't go back and edit earlier episodes when something falls (or doesn't) fall into place later in the series.

Was LOST perfect? No. It was experimental, and might open the door to a future show that will be better designed as a complete story from the beginning.
It was also the last scripted show I've had any interest in watching.

Joe G said...

I've always felt the comparable cultural event to LOST was Harry Potter, another long running series with a cast of thousands and seemingly endless offerings of mystery after conundrum after puzzlement.

The difference between the two was that Rowling was quite open about couching Harry Potter in the traditional hero's journey, whereas the LOST authors were so enamored with the "never quite seen that before, have you?" vibe of the show that they sought out any and every occasion to subvert our expectations.

As a result, they had to resort to pablum for an ending they didn't really earn. LOST was always at its best when it was just telling the story, but the story they ended up telling wasn't a satisfying payoff to what had come before, whereas in Harry Potter, you really felt like you'd been taken from A to B to C.

But perhaps in 10 years that's what people will remember about LOST. That it never conformed to our expectations of what a story should do and followed its own star. I'm just not sure this sort of open-endedness is satisfying in science fiction/fantasy...

Bonnie said...

Never seen Lost but some Jodi Picoult books, for example, give you a WTF moment right at the end. A friend of mine said she threw a recent Picoult book across the room in anger when she read the unrealistic twist at the end.

So, in novels you lead the reader toward a certain expectation. You'd better deliver it at the end.

reader said...

The high price of WTF?

Gawd, you crack me up.

Great post.

Kate said...

Awesome post, especially since I just watch episode 1 of Season 2 (thank you instant streaming from Netflix!) I like jumping on the bandwagon late. My hubs and I just watched the Sopranos from start to finish. I'm enjoying the show, but some things just aren't working for me. I think I've been watching too much HBO. The symbolism is a little heavy-handed for my taste and I'm sensitive to that. I could never get into Jodi Picoult for that very reason. Lost takes itself a little too seriously.

However, I think the character back stories are incredible. They're almost more interesting than the "real time" narrative.

I love that you found a subtext within the subtext. I've always loved the idea that stories and characters have a life and meaning of their own long after the creator sets them free. Forget what the author intended--what does it actually mean?

I think the fact that you're still thinking about it and people are still talking about it proves the writers accomplished something great. Good or bad, perfect or not, the story touched a lot of people.

Stephanie Barr said...

Never watched "Lost" and now I'm glad I didn't. I hate having a complex series of interesting things built up without tying them off. One reason The Count of Monte Cristo is my "plot example" book is his incredible ability to tie his many diversive strings into a cohesive whole.

I love tidy. I don't mind having a few unanswered questions. I don't mind a few little mysteries, especially if I know follow-ons will be coming, but I want to feel the end of a book or movie or series is finished, that I feel sated.

What you describe, however successful it has been, is cheating to me. I don't like to be cheated and sure don't want my readers to feel that way.

Suzan Harden said...

Nathan, you scare me. Your analysis makes a hell of a lot more sense the series ever did.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Too many questions and not nearly enough payout for this viewer. Plus I couldn't care about the characters. I gave up on it years ago.

swampfox said...

Every time I watched Lost, it actually made me angry! Here's one thing they made clear at the end - the writers were just winging it the whole way!

Kelly Wittmann said...

Excellent post, Nathan. It was indeed an extremely frustrating show.

Mark T said...

I'm going with Nathan on the never-been-done-before-on-TV. Twin Peaks was great as was Buffy, but they bore little resemblance to Lost. They both did things that hadn't been done on TV before.

Anyhow, I'd argue that the Lost ending's problems were more structural, not so much a WTF-debt problem. As others have noted, there weren't many questions they didn't answer. And having read some compelling essays on what Cuse & Lindelof intended to get across with the ending, it makes intellectual sense. It just didn't feel like an adequate ending. Emotionally, it resolved Jack, but not so much the others. It also felt like it tied up the issues of the last season, but not so much the other seasons (though I'd argue that most issues were addressed, it just didn't feel satisfying).

Other Lisa said...

I, uh, missed the boat on LOST. I've never seen an entire episode!

I've recommended this before, but for a show that captures the post-Aught "Bills are DUE NOW!" gestalt, I suggest AMC's "BREAKING BAD." Only three seasons in, so easy to catch up. Try to watch it in order.

The second season is maybe not as spectacular as the first, but it's still great. The third season was absolutely amazing.

Kate said...

@other lisa on Breaking Bad: that show is excellent. AMC has the best programming on network TV for my money.

Jeff Abbott said...

My wife and I loved Lost. The first season was one of the best ever in television history. We watched the first five seasons straight through on DVD, which was really the way to do it.

I felt sure they wouldn't answer every mystery, but I got invested in the characters in a way I don't normally do in a television drama. There were very big themes at work in Lost, and I think I was more interested in seeing how those played out instead of whether every mystery was solved. Faith vs reason, good vs evil, sacrifice vs self-interest. In Lost, these themes played out on a huge, sprawling canvas in a way you don't see on typical dramas.

llburk said...

What was your favorite episode??

John Jack said...

I'm looking for the comments about how Lost and the narrative price of eyeblink spectacle and surprise coincidence what the's influence and reflect existence in this prospecting for post Postmodern chaos aftermath outcomes era. Hmm.

Lost, for me, makes a commentary challenging creative perceptions and expectations. Pits tradition and convention against questioning authority and challenging absolutes, tests predertimation againts free will and vice versa, and, like Postmodernism, raises more questions than it answers.

I did expect a finale that left a lot of major-minor complications hanging, but the main story arc complication is answered. Who will or won't survive the island.

Alex said...

I thought Lost was basically garbage after the first few episodes, and gave up during the first season. It was clear that the writers had no real plan and were pulling the early-seasons-X-Files approach of "Do weird stuff, do more weird stuff."

Unfortunately, if you stripped out the incoherent weird stuff, the rest of the show was Survivor.

Clearly, my opinion and all that, but I was almost immediately disappointed by a show that took a pretty nifty high concept and some fun elements of execution (the flashbacks especially) and trashed it all right away.

Or, to go with the language Nathan's original post, it seemed to me that the writers weren't even borrowing against the future - they were just forging checks using a photocopier.

(Which is also too bad, as there were a lot of writers I like working on that show.)

Steppe said...

Awesome post Dude.
I was focusing on the same issues in the tighter confines of The Sopranos ending.People still want the writers verdict on whether Tony got blasted in the head at the "Fade To Black" moment.
Those two 2000 Something shows are true time capsules of our culture because in the end we decide which ending is the true ending. I liked the way you tied all the social currents together in that post.
In Sopranos there was the musical selections in the final episode that were a mini sub script encapsulating the ending. Plus a man possible assassin in a "Members Only" jacket; a troop leader with three "Cub Scouts" two black youths (infinite circuit symbol); a trucker with a USA cap on and finally the statements that influence the viewers decision. Tony says, "It was Carlo, he's going to testify." and Carmelo says "Meadow...(near infinity futures) went to the Doctor to get some new birth control." So it all depends on whether Carlo testified and Meadow got her new birth control whether the show closed as just another day in the life of a gangster playing out the roles of god and the devil to suit his circumstances or whether his dream came crashing down in one final "Fade To Black" moment. LOST was the antithesis a "Fade To White" moment with Desmond playing the role of god and devil to suit his circumstances letting go of all the connections he could. I'm with Ben at this point who says, "I still have things to take care of here." Great Post! Keeping it in my style box folder as succinct overarching commentary.

Steppe said...

Awesome post Dude.
I was focusing on the same issues in the tighter confines of The Sopranos ending.People still want the writers verdict on whether Tony got blasted in the head at the "Fade To Black" moment.
Those two 2000 Something shows are true time capsules of our culture because in the end we decide which ending is the true ending. I liked the way you tied all the social currents together in that post.
In Sopranos there was the musical selections in the final episode that were a mini sub script encapsulating the ending. Plus a man possible assassin in a "Members Only" jacket; a troop leader with three "Cub Scouts" two black youths (infinite circuit symbol); a trucker with a USA cap on and finally the statements that influence the viewers decision. Tony says, "It was Carlo, he's going to testify." and Carmelo says "Meadow...(near infinity futures) went to the Doctor to get some new birth control." So it all depends on whether Carlo testified and Meadow got her new birth control whether the show closed as just another day in the life of a gangster playing out the roles of god and the devil to suit his circumstances or whether his dream came crashing down in one final "Fade To Black" moment. LOST was the antithesis a "Fade To White" moment with Desmond playing the role of god and devil to suit his circumstances letting go of all the connections he could. I'm with Ben at this point who says, "I still have things to take care of here." Great Post! Keeping it in my style box folder as succinct overarching commentary.

Steppe said...

google jammed me please delete duplicate

Dara said...

I am glad I never really got into the show. I get irritated when things aren't really explained. But that's just me :P

Kristin Laughtin said...

I love that people are still talking about Lost! I had a great deal of fun blogging about what I thought worked and didn't work after the finale, and I think you hit it on the head with Lost borrowing from the future (and to turn it into an economic metaphor? Genius!). I thought the main problem was that the creators had the beginning mapped out and an idea for the end, but didn't know how long the middle would be. As a result, they kept adding things in to keep the viewers interested and up the sense of mystery that addicted so many of us, and then at the end had too many loose ends to tie up. They were left scrambling. (However, I do think they answered more than most people give them credit for doing, but some of the explanations are just heavily implied rather than directly stated.) The good thing for us writers is that most of us don't publish stories in serial format, so we can plot out and make sure to tie everything up beforehand.

Bane of Anubis said...

Yeah, my wife was sure the writers had everything planned from the get go and would tie things up.... I laughed and told her they didn't have a freakin' clue (maybe some big pic things, but otherwise they're just writing one scene at a time). Great show for suspense/mystery, but almost impossible not to be letdown in some regard.

Regan Leigh said...

Did you watch Alias? It prepped me for greatness, minus answers. :D

Anne R. Allen said...

Brilliant analysis, Mr. B!! The financial world calls it "the lost decade" for entirely different reasons--most investments ended up with growth at zero--but you've shown how "Lost" embodied the decade in all its aspects.

"Mysteries are borrowing from the future." Superb line.

Anonymous said...

I think the best "WTF moments" are those that have been foreshadowed so they make sense as they occur and yet still manage to be shocking anyway.

In this way I guarantee you that HBO's A Game Of Thrones will be far superior to Lost. Guarantee it.

June G said...

Oh it's been way more than a decade that America has been borrowing against its future. I remember clearly, back in the day, in the 80's when Walter Mondale was preaching about this during the election and sounding the alarm. You see what happened to him. He's probably sitting somewhere saying "I tried to warn you people."

As for Lost, I never watched the show and I'm glad I didn't. It's kind of funny how the writers essentially screwed the audience over. They pretty much played everyone for suckers and wrote such convoluted, nonsensical plot lines, that they gave up and knew all along they were going to leave people hanging.

It's really not funny though. They knew that by the time everyone found out they'd been had, the show would be canceled and they'd get away unscathed...sounds like another group we all know...familiar with Wall Street?...It just never ends.

Josin L. McQuein said...

There must be something in the air or water because this topic seems to be popping up all over the place lately, even on fanboards for TV shows that are nothing like LOST at all.

I'm not so sure there are as many questions left open as people think there are. Most of the show was based on assumptions that turned out to be half-truths at best, and I think that was the point. Everyone was so certain they knew THE truth. Each character put his/her faith in something. All those somethings proved fallible.

Jacob's psycho foster mom believed he was the "special" one, to the detriment of MIB; she was wrong.

Richard believed that Jacob had all the answers and an almost omnipotent purpose; he was wrong. He was also wrong about John Locke.

The DI believed that the island was the key to hippie happiness in a jungle commune; they were wrong.

Locke believed his destiny was to follow the will of the island to some great end; he was wrong.

Desmond believed that his jumping into the EM field would save the universe and get him to his happily ever after with Penny; he was wrong.

Sayid and Sawyer believed themselves beyond redemption; they were wrong.

Claire believed she'd followed her father; she was wrong.

The Others believed they were the good guys and everything they did was justified by the end; they were wrong.

Hurley believed bad things wouldn't happen to good people just on principle of it being out of balance; he was wrong.

Kate and Jack were often wrong about many things.

Even the audience put their faith in the assumption that the questions would all be answered, and they were - IF you don't mind taking "there are no correct answers, only the answers that are correct for you" as an answer.

Tiffany said...

Yesterday you posted a question about literary fiction's place in the world, and I think it sort of applies to LOST. LOST by far is the most "literary" television show I have ever come across. The narrative strategies used in this series alone could give a narratologist plenty to ponder. I wrote a paper in my capstone class about Ricouer's theory of time in literature and how it plays out in the show.

Did it answer everything? Of course not. That's what makes it so damn great. That's what makes it "literary". It has become a narrative that can be analyzed and analyzed---what does this show say about media narratives? what does this show say about story time and discourse time? what does this show say about us as readers/viewers.

Was it ambiguous in its ending? sure. that's my fav part. My favorite books play with similar ideas of ambiguity and the uncanny.

and I doubt we'll see another show like this for a long time.

Erin said...

Bravo! Standing ovation! I still love it.

Lia Keyes said...

The movie INCEPTION is another case in point. Nice post, Master Bransford!

Anonymous said...

This blog, it seems to me, is directly related to the blog from the day before.

This business of creating suspense for the sake of creating suspense is something that's virtually non-existent in literary fiction.

I don't think it's a coincidence that as literary fiction declines in popularity, writers are resorting to using one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Did Hemingway, or Conrad, or Fitzgerald, ever stoop so low as to create suspense for the sake of creating suspense - no they did not.

Arguably, this is all that Dan Brown ever does. Almost every chapter of his will end in false suspense. The characters will be breaking into a museum, or something, in the middle of the night, and suddenly a shadow will appear on the wall, forcing the characters to duck into cover. A primitive part of you will want to know what the shadow is all about, but Brown, instead of quenching your thirst, so to speak, will shift the plot in the next chapter so that you'll momentarily forget about the shadow on the wall.

He'll end this new chapter with more suspense, and then, in the next chapter, return to the previous characters and the shadow on the wall.

By this time, you're more focused on the new suspense he's created - therefore when you learn that the shadow on the wall belongs to the night custodian you're less inclined to feel cheated.

But actually, this is what happens when you allow literary agents to have so much power in publishing. When the bottom line is ALWAYS about money... money, money, money... then it's highly likely that the only books that will ever get published will be the ones that appeal to the masses. The simple fact is that the vast majority of people just can't read. If all that the people in publishing care about is making money then the rest of us, I'm afraid to say, are going to end up living in a Dan Brown world, whether we want to or not.

Consequently, there will be no more Hemingways, or Conrads, or Fitzgeralds, of Forsters.

That, my friends, is the result of allowing the literary agents to take over the world.

Sorry, but you're either a part of the problem or you're part of the solution.

authorsoundsbetterthanwriter said...

the show was called Lost. Why did anyone think the writers would know where they were going?

J. T. Shea said...

Your use of the Royal Prerogative is interesting, Nathan, and uncharacteristic. The decade when we overspent and overextended ourselves? Who's 'we'? Certainly not me!

And you always sound so level-headed. Do you have a wildly extravagant secret lifestyle we haven't heard about yet? Do tell!

I can't criticize the LOST polar bears, because my WIP has giant Yetis in an equatorial jungle. Seriously. I'm not joking. Really. Though I DO have an explanation for them.

Madeleine, Anton Chekov is PIROUETTING in his grave! I am nearing the end of my aforementioned WIP and therefore firing the last of the guns I put on the wall in Act One, and taking down a few I've decided not to fire. Now all I have to do is avoid shooting myself in the foot.

Jules said...

What a great analysis.

I once read an interview during season 1 or 2 where the LOST writers stated they had no idea where the show was going or what they would write from episode to episode. They joked about taking inspiration from the hardcore fansites and viewers who saw symbols and clues interspersed during a show, of which there were none. (Supposedly.)

So to answer a question from a previous commenter: yes, that's what they would have us believe.

Nancy said...

Absolutely brilliant post, Nathan. Glad you shared your frustrations. But I do like the polar bear mayhem finale, a la flight 815 downed in our living rooms.

The day after Lost's last show my son paced the house, seriously demented and pulling at his hair. "How could they do that? Those people shouldn't be allowed to write screenplays. They can't do that. It's not fair!"

"Boo-hoo," I told him. "If you're a producer and you know the show is ending you can let the writers slop gobbledy gook on the screen because you know well over a million-plus people will be watching (= advertising dollars) no matter what and you don't have to explain a thing since there will be no more Lost fans to answer to." [pant-pant]

"I don't care," he wailed. "It's not right--the last show should have answered SOMETHING."

"Something?"

"Yeah, like all the mysteries."

And so in the end I did sympathize with him. In my writing circles we called it the Blue Sweater factor, or WTF in your vernacular, Nathan. You can't throw a Blue Sweater off the roof and never explain that to a reader. It ain't kosher, not fair, nope, nuh-uh. Human beings should maintain ethical standards of writing if they really want to be regarded as superb storytellers. And leaving readers in the dark, not explaining a blue sweater flying off the roof of a house, just ain't ethical. That's like bailing on a work day and neglecting to call and explain to your paycheck toting boss why you aren't producing anything today.

And WTF moments in entertainment just ain't ethical, either, unless you're into theatrical torture of your audience.

Moyrid said...

Love it!

A Rose by any other name... said...

Someone important once say if you introduce a gun in the first act, you had better use it before the end ot the third act.

LOST left lots of unresolved clues behind. WTF is good, but endings always come due.

rose

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I admit I watched LOST. Until I felt the writers got lost.

A problem with WTF is that it's related to "jumping the shark," in that after too many or too often seeing a WTF event in an episode, I began to find myself laughing at--as I believe Mira so aptly put it--the blatant manipulation of viewers, especially with every season premier and season end.

In the beginning, I suspected there was a definite plan, a definite plot, a modern-day televised allegory related to perhaps the possibility of rebirth, karma, and opportunity to undo past wrongs, to relive as a contributing member of society.
I got very excited.

At a time when we were still reeling from 9/11, from the Washington snipers, from the anthrax mailings, the invasion of Afghanistan, of Iraq, and all the other elements of the "oughts," here was a brave television show, and writers, willing to suggest that the idea of "redemption" might in fact be more widespread than just the Christian faith.

You had Walt, who couldn't walk before. You had the Haitian (?) priest, returning to God after making is escape. You had Claire and all the others, dropped out of the sky, alive, onto an apparent purgatory. And "Doc," who'd had it with apparently his father's world.

We didn't need "The Monster," which basically disappeared for a number of seasons--except when needed for WTF or Shark Jumping excitement.

But when "the island" MOVED, that was it for me. Enough. I can believe someone or something placed essentially the mechanism for the world to keep turning, time to keep going, people to have a chance at a "do-over." I can believe in religion, faith, even "mysteries." I have a hard time believing an island can be moved with enough people turning it. Or that they want to. Or why.

So, I agree with Locusts and Wild Honey. Except I don't think in the end even a bailout would have worked. It was beyond episodic. It was "what should we have them do today?" Little logic. Little real reason for character development. Pure power. Pure manipulation. Even the "finale."

I lost the time I spent watching lost. I got it back when I stopped watching...

But I thoroughly enjoyed thinking about it, particularly as an emblem, as well as a product, of its times. Like "The Prisoner"? Which was unquestionably the sequel to "Secret Agent Man"?

("They're giving you a number, and taking away your name....")
("I am not a number! I am a free man!")

:)

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I admit I watched LOST. Until I felt the writers got lost.

A problem with WTF is that it's related to "jumping the shark," in that after too many or too often seeing a WTF event in an episode, I began to find myself laughing at--as I believe Mira so aptly put it--the blatant manipulation of viewers, especially with every season premier and season end.

In the beginning, I suspected there was a definite plan, a definite plot, a modern-day televised allegory related to perhaps the possibility of rebirth, karma, and opportunity to undo past wrongs, to relive as a contributing member of society.
I got very excited.

At a time when we were still reeling from 9/11, from the Washington snipers, from the anthrax mailings, the invasion of Afghanistan, of Iraq, and all the other elements of the "oughts," here was a brave television show, and writers, willing to suggest that the idea of "redemption" might in fact be more widespread than just the Christian faith.

You had Walt, who couldn't walk before. You had the Haitian (?) priest, returning to God after making is escape. You had Claire and all the others, dropped out of the sky, alive, onto an apparent purgatory. And "Doc," who'd had it with apparently his father's world.

We didn't need "The Monster," which basically disappeared for a number of seasons--except when needed for WTF or Shark Jumping excitement.

But when "the island" MOVED, that was it for me. Enough. I can believe someone or something placed essentially the mechanism for the world to keep turning, time to keep going, people to have a chance at a "do-over." I can believe in religion, faith, even "mysteries." I have a hard time believing an island can be moved with enough people turning it. Or that they want to. Or why.

So, I agree with Locusts and Wild Honey. Except I don't think in the end even a bailout would have worked. It was beyond episodic. It was "what should we have them do today?" Little logic. Little real reason for character development. Pure power. Pure manipulation. Even the "finale."

I lost the time I spent watching lost. I got it back when I stopped watching...

But I thoroughly enjoyed thinking about it, particularly as an emblem, as well as a product, of its times. Like "The Prisoner"? Which was unquestionably the sequel to "Secret Agent Man"?

("They're giving you a number, and taking away your name....")
("I am not a number! I am a free man!")

:)

jjdebenedictis said...

On a related note, I think there's a cost when a writer kills off a character whose story had been developing.

Specifically, in the Song of Ice and Fire books (which are awesome, regardless), George R. R. Martin develops these amazing characters with super-intriguing story arcs--and then kills them off.

I always feel like I've been suckered. I cared for that character, and was paid back with zero resolution.

Joe Words said...

It was fascinating how the writers developed an alternate world without explicitly telling its audience. They created a "Treasure Island" which was not really an "Island", a "wonderland" which we were not sure was Alice's territory and a land of good and evil like William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" which we were not sure really existed. The constant guessing allowed the audience to become part of the plot; the detective that solved the mystery. Now we are in the post "Lost" era does that mean we have been found?

Whirlochre said...

Right from the start, I figured Lost was going to be dreadful and never made it to episode two.

But if your theory is right, that somehow this series caught the mood of the aughts (and I do wonder why we bought it), what's looking like a seller in this new decade of enforced austerity? Will we want grim reflections of What Is — tales of family breakups against a backdrop of debt and riots; aliens invading, then promptly buggering off because there's sod all wealth to plunder and the population is too miserable even to enslave — or plunges into ridiculous depths as yet undiscovered: new genres to whisk us away?

Nancy said...

Wow--I didn't expect you to end with that kind of philosophical thought, but you're absolutely right. Our society spent years borrowing against the future, and finally the future caught up to us... which is a nice little time travel trick, when you think about it.

Lost also suffered from a recurring bout of JJ Abrams. As a longtime fan of his shows, I have been beaten up enough times to understand that he really only enjoys those WTF moments. Sometimes he has a plan to explain them, but mostly he likes writing them, he likes shooting them, and he likes thinking about all of us sitting at home with our eyes bugging out. Think back to the first season of Alias, when every single episode ended with a cliffhanger, and usually had one in the middle of the hour as well. He kept us glued to the screen for an entire year, right from Shirt and Glasses pulling Syd's teeth at the beginning of the pilot to "Mom?"

At first, he did have a plan and I'm sure there was a vague plan for Lost as well. However, he got bored with the show, with the concept, with constantly having to actually... you know... explain things. He moved on from Alias to Lost and the quality of writing on the first went downhill. Lost went from one shocker to another, and before he A) got bored with it, or B) came up with an explanation for everything/anything, he moved on to Star Trek, which, thank God, is only two hours long and thus did not allow for the convoluted styling he'd inflicted on two fandoms.

Bitter much? Yes, a little. However, I hope it is because I am doing what you suggested, and examining what he did well as a storyteller, and what his weaknesses are. My plan is to be a fiscally conservative writer, borrowing from the future only when necessary and paying off the debt as soon as I possibly can.

Jezza Hardin said...

Very good post. Possibly my favourite. Starts out with some good discussion about writing those WTF moments, and then all of a sudden we're talking about Lost as a metaphor for life, and maybe a generation.

Well done, Nathan.

Sheila Cull said...

Television show writers, what a sweet job. Less than a year ago I got asked by a (big) movie producer to turn a manuscript into screenwriting format. After jumping up and down for two days, I learned that style, re submitted and ultimately got rejected. As a writer I guess there are a million things to learn from television script writers. Those really fortunate people.

Jason said...

The concept that suspense is borrowing from the future is brilliant...I never thought of it that way...

Debbie said...

Great post, Nathan. I've been a faithful Lost fan and until now hadn't made the connection and drawn parallels you've just done to our times. You're spot on.

I think what I love most about Lost is the incredibly rich characters. We were given intimate glimpses into their lives. They surprised us, and made us laugh or cry. The ones we hated, we loved to hate. It's the same thing I love in a well-written book.

April said...

Very cool post. I've never thought of it like that, but I like it. I never was a Lost fan, but I heard that the ending was a letdown.

Anonymous said...

Lost was like media chemtrails. Didn't it always leave you a little agitated and edgy, feeling like something was undone or off kilter? Always at the moment of truth but the truth never comes. That is aughts for me.

MaryAnn said...

I never watched the show. I felt like I already had to many shows that I watched. Now I'm glad I didn't. From what I've read, I would have been really annoyed to have been left hanging like that.

Amy said...

LOVE this post! Thanks for taking the detour.

Robert Michael said...

Wow. Bring up LOST and look what happens. But, I love the application to our craft.

Dan said...

The structural mysteries of something like "Lost" can never be brought to a satisfying catharsis; the question is always more fun than any possible answer.

However, the ensemble-cast structure and the shifting paradigm allows it to deliver constant surprises. A show like this is one of few kinds of narrative constructs where anything can happen. There are enough major characters that a protagonist-level cast member like Locke can reach an extremely bleak resolution that would be too unpalatable in a narrative with fewer protagonists. Well-developed characters like Shannon can die unceremoniously without derailing the momentum of the narrative.

Comedy and tragedy bounce off each other; and characters like Hugo or Desmond or Charlie can shift among them. Simpler narratives have a way of becoming predictable; once you understand structurally how a twist can get set up, you can predict it. "Lost" creates a story where unknown things can come in from outside the story without feeling like cheats, and that means "Lost" can surprise you.

Ryan Z Nock said...

In case you hadn't heard, here's the epilogue of LOST. No, seriously, it's not a parody. They actually made an extra chapter:

http://jezebel.com/5606489/

Greg Mongrain said...

Thank you for this one, Nathan. I always like to see WTF scenes answered too. And when they are not, it shows the writers were not teasing us with plot lines they controlled. Rather, it was all just a mess and they couldn't tie it together because they never really had a handle on it in the first place.

I abhor that sort of writing.

itinerantwoman said...

I think I can solve one Lost mystery. On the doomed Oceanic flight, Jack bought some vodka from a flight attendant. Aus>LA flight attendants always ask passengers if they'd like to purchase some awesome (and unavailable in the States) duty-free Bundaberg rum (I have 4 bottles of it stashed right now). Bundy's unmistakable yellow/black/red logo features (incongruously) a big white polar bear. It probably became incorporated into his last blink's journey from life into dreamtime.

itinerantwoman said...

I think I can solve one Lost mystery. On the doomed Oceanic flight, Jack bought some vodka from a flight attendant. Aus>LA flight attendants always ask passengers if they'd like to purchase some awesome (and unavailable in the States) duty-free Bundaberg rum (I have 4 bottles of it stashed right now). Bundy's unmistakable yellow/black/red logo features (incongruously) a big white polar bear. It probably became incorporated into his last blink's journey from life into dreamtime.

Karen said...

Just finished watching Lost here in the UK, and while I felt totally cheated by the ending (I'd have preferred a more scientific explanation) I still think it's the best thing I've ever seen on TV and feel quite bereft that it's over.

Great post :o)

Georgia McBride said...

What a great post. Well said. However, I cried like a baby during the finale. All the waiting, yearning and desperate hoping for resolution and it never came. I was so emotionally spent and yet glad for it to be done. As a writer, I felt cheated and a little pissed that they were allowed to get away with it. Then again, smashing rules to bit is fun when millions are tuning in each week. But what do I know?

Nathan, you are truly brilliant.

Cheers-
Georgia McBride

Anonymous said...

Excellent writeup! Thank you!

@maine character and others...

This show was about characters? Then it FAILED even worse than those who whine about not getting all the minutia answered could ever imagine. Lost trashed its once great characters in season six (though for some the erosion started much earlier) and particularly in the finale. It obliterated them!

How was Lost about Locke?
Locke not only died for an entity that turned out to be completely IRRELEVANT, he died like a pathetic loser because we went around asking the Oceanic Six to go back to the island without telling them WHY and they said hell, no!

When he finally went to The Big Characterization Dumpster in the Sky, he was all cool with that and with his faith and struggles meaning absolutely NOTHING and proceeded to go to cheesy heaven with “the most important people in their lives” like oh… Libby, or Penny. Just not with Helen.

How was Lost about Sayid?
Sayid’s characterization started out beautifully, he was a sympathetic Iraqi torturer! He suffered for Nadia, he betrayed his military oath for Nadia, he became a rootless Jason Bourne-like figure in search of Nadia, he fought to get back to Nadia and after a brief respite of happiness with Nadia, he lost her and with Nadia’s death lost his soul and became an assassin. Because of Nadia.
And when he finally went to The Big Characterization Dumpster in the Sky, he went there with the most important people in his life, ie the hot blond he once banged on an island after having known her for a grand total of 20 days. Just not with Nadia.

How was Lost about Juliet?
Juliet’s characterization showed promise because she started off as the ONLY woman on Lost with a decent plot not centered around her being a mommy and/or a girlfriend. She was an educated, mysterious, morally complex, stand on her on two feet woman who was actually involved in the plot. This being Lost, that didn’t last long. She was quickly stepfordized into a meek, insecure, basketcase jealous girlfriend. Damn irrational women blowing nukes out of jealousy (wait… Kate stole a baby because her Sawyer dumped her and broke her heart… this is small change!)
When she finally went to The Big Characterization Dumpster in the Sky, she went there as a smiley zombie who had imagined for herself some 15 years and a son conceived not with the great love of her 40 mintues of screentime in season five, but with Jack. Sure, they both promptly forgot all about the makebelieve son, but at least they went to cheesy heaven with the most important people in their lives. In Juliet case, that’s Desmond and Locke and Jin. Just not the sister and nephew she fought so hard for and was desperate to be reunited with for three years.

How was Lost about Jin and Sun?
A captivating couple with an ever shifting, interesting dynamic, we cared about them to the point of READING freaking subtitles. This character story had emotional peaks and valleys and made us CARE about these crazy kids in love who went through so much and evolved and grew together, reunited and then tragically separated again just as they were given a miracle daughter. Unfortunately, they were not Caucasian enough to have a story, any story that wasn’t a lame retreading of their separation with two dumbass lines a week and, most infuriatingly of all, decided they’d drown together and screw that miracle daughter. Hey, what’s a little extra orphanhood? Needless to say, they went to cheesy heaven without her since they didn’t care about her in life either. But at least Boone and Charlie were with them in Th Great Characterization Dumpster in the Sky!

Anonymous said...

Um... one character still counts... right?

Don’t be fooled, Lost was not about Jack either. He went to cheesy nondenominational heaven after being stripped of every trace of the wonderful character he once was so he can give lip service to “faith” in an entity who apparently was worth sacrificing young men’s lives to and transformed in a lame sheep who constantly spouts things like: “Don’t you be talkin’ trash about the great John Locke!” In The End, he was humiliated and turned into a man who went around frowning at everyone who ever gave the great John Locke a wedgie, though aside from the fact that he was under the influence of powerful drugs for a couple of weeks, his characterization never bothered to tell us WHY. Resolution with his father when it really mattered came via Sawyer telling him his dad loved him a billion episodes ago and he died after he sacrificed his life pulling a buttplug in and out of the island for some reason. He also died so the powerhungry, genocidal maniac, the formerly immortal guy who instructed the above mentioned genocidal maniac to commit genocide, the multiple killer of innocent and/or elderly guys who had surrendered and the other killer (unrepentant to the very end) and baby-stealing pathological liar could go on living wonderful lives which we mercifully didn’t get to see.

At least there’s that.

Gwen Madoc said...

I never was tempted to watch 'Lost' because to me it seemed to promise to be too much like 'Twin Peaks'. I stopped watching 'Twin Peaks' when I suddenly realised I, along with other viewers, was being taken for a ride. At best, having my leg pulled. I don't appreciate that.

Disappointing a reader is the worst thing a writer can do. Readers and viewers deserve the pay-off and if the writer can't deliver, then, well, its a fraud.

I'm sorry, but once bitten, twice shy.

Jennifer Swan said...

Thank you, Nathan Bransford, thank you. I'm grieving; not because LOST ended but because of how it could have ended. Ya know? As a writer, I had come up with a bazillion ways to creatively close the show. To have my favorite characters in a church heading toward the light... not exactly what I had in mind. Plus, the writers were asked in season one if LOST was a heaven/purgatory theme and they said "no." And the whole flash sideways thing ends up being, well, NOTHING. Can you feel my angst? The morning after the finale, I was so pissed I deleted all my saved episodes off my DVR. A co-worker, who was handling it way better than me, explained, "How you determine the ending is up to you. You're not really supposed to have all the answers." Huh? Then, about a week later, pissed that I'm still thinking about it, I wake up determined there will be a LOST feature film (ala Sex and the City). Jack will be the the new MIB - Hurly & Ben will fight him off. After all, Jack entered the "fountain of golden whatever", right? A feature film might finally ANSWER our questions. Of course, this is all just wishful thinking...

Thank you for the closure. Good post. *sigh*

- Jennifer Swan

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