Does Lost Owe Us Anything?
By Richard Lawson
As the bigtime Lost finale approaches (Sunday, 9pm), folks are getting concerned that the show won't end satisfyingly. Well, concerned might be too gentle. Some people are preemptively angry. We're wondering today: Do they have a right to be?
It's sort of that age-old (well, TV age old at least) question of what, if any, contract have the creators of a serial television show signed with the audience. In a perfect world, or a vacuum, television writers would be able to write the episodes and seasons they wanted and the fans, grateful for the free(ish) entertainment, would lap it up all the same. Some small disappointments, some favorite episodes, but mostly everything would be the same mid-high level of enjoyment. Sometimes that does happen with easier-to-swallow series like NCIS or Two and a Half Men, but for more complex shows, the ones that really suck viewers in, a sense of the proprietary begins to emerge. Ownership of the show's content is transferred from the minds behind the story to those gobbling it up and demanding more far faster than the creative folks can produce.
New York Times TV critic Mike Hale touches on this point today, looking at how the balance of power in the Lost story has shifted over the years:Certainly we have always expected the satisfaction of resolution and revelation in our fictional narratives, but we had to let creators provide it on their own terms and then judge the overall result. "Lost" is a sign that that's not so true anymore, at least with regard to television. Now that the public conversation about how a work should play out can be louder, and have greater impact, than the work itself, the conversation will inevitably begin to shape the work in ways that earlier television producers - or, say, Charles Dickens - never had to reckon with.
And he's right. Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have themselves admitted to curating a balance between what they wanted to do and — in a more workmanlike, episode-to-episode, little details kind of way — what the audience was clamoring for. "You hate Nikki and Paulo? Fine, here, they're dead," they seemed to say (in their biggest and most unfortunate mea culpa). It was an interesting thing to watch, nerdy fanboys who make the product conversing with the nerdy fanboys who consume it. It was kind of charming, a friendly back-and-forth about a great mind-bending adventure. Neither side seemed to be terribly irked by the other, and the dialogue between lord and serf progressed mostly civilly.
But at some point that relationship kind of soured, didn't it? At some point this season or last, things got a little more urgent. And as episode after episode failed to answer this riddle or that mystery, rancor grew and grew. Now you have beleaguered cast and crew trying to hold strong against the backlash—they made the show they wanted to make, and fans will have to deal with it one way or the other. What happened happened. Which, OK, holding firm on artistic principle is all well and good. We can get behind that.
And yet they then announce that the Season Six DVD package will contain answers to additional mysteries. So wait a tic. They had answers to things but didn't put them in the show? Why, did they run out of time? Do they not care about creating the perfect bow-topped present for us? And this here is where the anger comes in.
While walking home with a friend from a viewing party on Tuesday night, I sighed and said words I never thought I'd say. "I feel like they lied to us, I feel cheated, all the time travel and Dharma stuff and everything that happened up until we met Jacob and MIB was filler." I felt sincerely disappointed with the penultimate episode (and the one before it...) and, more strangely, I felt genuine anger toward Cuse and Lindelof. I was mad that they'd created this beautiful mystery box (where's that box from Season 3 anyway?) and then filled it with, what, hokum about the light inside us all and the struggle between faith and curiosity? All of this is just about the age-old and well-worn debate between the heart and the mind? This was not the creepy hatch-beeping, number-pushing, mechanical smoke dinosaur ride I'd signed up for six rainy years ago. And they knew. They knew it wasn't going to be, but they kept stringing us along. They kept acting coy at interviews, promising us that they'd wrap things up properly, that most of these strings (the bigger ones at least) were all leading to one common, perfect knot. And yet so far this season has felt so rushed and vague, such a severe left turn from the previous five years of narrative. By the time my friend and I reached Bowery, I was a bit whipped up, mad that I'd ever let myself love again after the slow march toward disappointment that was the whole X-Files mythology.
Look at something like The Sopranos. That show was capital-A Art, and its unsatisfying ending (to some, not me!) mostly came to be accepted as a confusing but artistically justifiable maestro's stroke. Why can't Lost be the same? Well, because while The Sopranos certainly had its share of unanswered questions — where's the Russian from the Pine Barrens?? — creator David Chase was typically fairly tight-lipped and determined about where the show was heading. He never indulged the audience in the same way that Lindelof and Cuse, whether by mandate of ABC or by their own ego, certainly did. They stuffed us full of mysteries like Se7en gluttons and promised, promised, us that if we just held on for three more seasons, we'd be happy. Or mostly happy. At least content. But now the time's come and the final episodes have felt a bit like diversionary farts. Isn't it sad that Sun and Jin died? Yes, it is, but not enough to make us stop wondering about Walt and Why Aaron Is Special and Egyptian Hatch Symbols. All those questions. You promised guys. You really did. And now we just have to eat the thin soup it really feels like you're going to give us on Sunday. And that sucks. Basically, I went to sleep angry on Tuesday night.
But then the next day I woke up and felt silly. I'm just watching a free TV show that has provided many hours of viewing entertainment and countless more of theorizing with friends and wasting work days reading Doc Jensen and The Tail Section. If the show's mythology does come down to a rudimentary rumination on faith, well... so be it. I'll still have loved the entire first season, I'll still have covered my eyes when barefooted Others first walked by, still marveled at Elizabeth Mitchell's coolly brilliant acting. Lost was a great show! And it's still a pretty good one. Plus it's not even over yet, I could yet be satisfied. Why be so mad? What do they—Them, the Lost powers that be, the true Others — really owe me, or any of us, anyway?
We invested lots of time, they invested countless dollars and man hours and creative energy. We propped up the show with our eyeballs, our blog posts, our participation in those agonizing summertime internet Easter egg hunts. They created the whole thing, out of nothing. Is that really equal work done? Not really. They did all the heavy lifting. Let them end it their way. We should just be grateful for the fun. That's the best way to think about it.
But then I think about every forgotten question and I'm mad again. And then I'm not. I catch myself. This is silly. Is it silly? Are we all being silly about a TV show, or do we deserve something grander, more wholly definitive than it feels like we're gonna get?