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…