Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The Legacy of ‘Lost’

By  · Published on May 25th, 2010

Like all of you, I have my own emotional and intellectual response to the Lost finale: its meaning, its significance, and whether or not it was satisfactory. But since Sunday the Interwebs have run the gamut of all possible responses to the show’s farewell night, so my response to Lost instead is a look at what its run may mean for the future of televisual storytelling.

Part 1: The Legacy of Lost

As I wrote a few months ago in a post about the 3rd Golden Age of Television, Lost has become the go-to example signifying a sea change in how we watch television and how stories are told through the medium. As Lost chooses to leave the airways, a slew of other network shows are looking to fill the void, offering similarly complex and enigmatic plots aiming to inspire its viewers to watch religiously and engage in endless Internet debate, from NBC’s very expensive, much hyped fall offering The Event to new-ish shows of continuing and even slowly rising popularity like Fringe, to cheap imitators like FlashForward. Network television content works like Hollywood films do. You find a formula that gets a following and keep churning out similar-but-slightly-different output until something else comes along, which explains the post-Who Wants to be a Millionaire gameshow resurgence in the late 90s and the post-Survivor influx of reality television in the early 00s. But imitating and reproducing the mystery and question-laden type of content made popular with Lost is far more complex than making a new game show or reality TV show.

Lost’s legacy brings both promising and potentially negative implications for the future of network television. On the good side, As expressed in my 3rd Golden Age post, television content across the board has become remarkably complex and even cinematic (with enigma-free but similarly engrossing shows like Mad Men) in the last half-decade or so, and the increased complexity of plot has brought with it a more attentive and discerning viewer. Television can no longer be background noise, but a full and enveloping sensorial and narrative experience. The simultaneous popularity of TV on DVD has manifested in concurrence with this new attentive, immersive practice of television spectatorship, one that leaks out through the cultural zeitgeist within the many forums for fan discourse. With the more discerning viewer met with the more complex forms of storytelling, there are greater requirements and a higher bar raised for similar subsequent dramas, so this trend potentially forces writers to move against repetitive structures of storytelling that have defined most of television history. This requires creative teams to possess definite talent and originality.

The last episode of Lost occurring in close proximity with the announced end of Law & Order illuminates the very different roles each (brand of) show has played. L&O, and its spinoffs and imitators, gave us a mystery-a-week brand of television, one in which each episode was mostly self-contained without need of the context of episodes aired immediately before. There was some character development and through-line narratives between episodes, yes, but the great success of L&O and shows like it exhibits how little context and devotion is needed to understand and enjoy each episode, thus working in line with the previously dominant passive method television-viewing. Lost, by contrast, requires a strict attention to detail lest one, exhausted pun intended, become lost by how much extraneous work outside each individual episode is required by the series. TV on DVD, then, with its potential fort control and detailed re-watching by its viewer, works more appropriately as the equivalent of syndication for a new generation of television viewing methods.

On the negative side is where I see the relevance of the concurrent cancellation of shows like Heroes and 24. On one hand, shows like these require a network commitment to finality. These programs often develop some kind of fan base (though rarely as ravenous as Lostfiles) who will inevitably be pissed off if the show is curtailed before all its questions can be answered or its mysterious solved. Twin Peaks, a notable pre-Internet forum example of enabling the discerning network viewer, wasn’t able to play out as planned, and HBO cancelled the 6-season trajectory of Carnivale after its second season. Heroes is another show that will face interruption before its revelations are exhausted, so the enigmas introduced and the audience’s commitment can become wasted on questions never answered and closure never achieved. On the other hand, shows like this force networks to constantly be in search for new content, for these sprawling narratives have to have a limited endpoint from the outset lest they descend into the ridiculous (each subsequent season of 24, Prison Break after characters have successfully broken out of prison, or Twin Peaks trying to figure out its destination after revealing its maguffin). A network can’t rely on something like Lost to stretch out to twenty years, unlike the enduring formula of a Law & Order. But the stakes with a sprawling mystery like Lost are clearly much higher than with the self-contained episodic mysteries of Law and Order. The latter show may have had a longer stamp in network television history, but nobody is expecting it to deliver the earth-shattering revelations that were anticipated season-to-season in Lost.

Part 2: Navigating Expectations and Responses

In many ways, by its finale, Lost became a victim of the audience it enabled – the monster ultimately attacked its creator. To the emotional satisfaction of some fans and infuriation of others, Lost’s fanbase reacted to the finale either by sharing a love for the characters that the producers and writers so obviously possess or pounding their fists against the wall for not having spent the past six years watching some different show. Any venture on Twitter in the past 48 hours shows the vast disparity of critical responses to the episode, a response distinctly different from past debate on the show, as little of it has to do with competing interpretations of its mysteries (the show’s last episode seems to have met an accepted interpretation) and centers more on competing definitions of what the show is (character study or sci-fi mystery mosaic, supposing the two are mutually exclusive in this case).

And it is this conversation itself that reveals where the strength and weakness of shows like this lies: its relationship with its audience. Even the final episode’s biggest detractors would be hesitant to call Lost a poorly-written show: if nothing else, it is the unprecedented quality of its network television writing (or, at least, plotting) that makes Lost, whatever people may take from its finale, such a remarkable event in television history. But it constructing a show that works only in tandem with escalating expectations and mystery while inspiring fan discourse, the following that Lost needs in order to survive is also the one it cannot fully satisfy. An increasingly discerning viewership whose opinions are readily available (and studied) by the show’s producers in order to mine, subvert, and challenge expectations inevitably also provides a barrier from ever satisfying those expectations. Yes, there are flaws with what Lost ultimately tried to do on its own terms in its final days, but it needs to be seriously considered that – with a fanbase inspired to deconstruct, question, and debate over the show’s every moment – if a satisfactory response is ultimately even possible in this case.

Many of Lost’s detractors, fans, and apologists often refer back to the show’s first season as being its best, but I think this view is tweaked by a lack of objectivity, as expectations from the first season came from ground level, the possible answers to its introductory mysteries seemed endless, and only the show’s initial surprises could really feel surprising. Exposition and answers always came with an aura of, not necessarily disappointment, but, at its core, undesired finality – we think we want to know the answers to these questions, but really its always more fun to debate over it, so answers are always a little sad not because of what the answer is, but because an answer exists in the first place. Shows like this require an objective toward finality, but the catch-22 is that major finality is almost always disappointing when given a realm of debated alternative answers and endless possibilities. From the Smoke Monster to the hatch to the Dharma Initiative to the glowing cave, Lost is a series that could only function through answering an enigma by revealing another enigma, and so on down the rabbit hole. Thus, the show ended appropriately with an enigma quite literally at its core (the mysterious, unanswered cork), a symbol of the questions inevitably and immediately raised by any answers given throughout the series.

It is in this respect that I don’t see what may be lacking in Lost’s finale to be the fall of Icarus. Rather, as a viewer I see myself, and most of Lost’s fanbase whether they intended to be or not, as John Locke early in the first season, peering endlessly into the mysterious hatch only to be greeted with yet another mystery as a light suddenly turns on inside. When I was introduced to Lost in 2006, I was also introduced to the idea that network television can be serious, authoritative, and deserving of my undivided attention. Even if Lost ultimately didn’t step up to the plate within what Locke and us were searching for in answers to its infinite questions, the contemporary landscape of network television is better off for the stakes having been raised at all.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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