A Disappointed Fan Is Still a Fan
How the creators of Lost seduced and betrayed their viewers.
Just over a week ago, as the Lost finale loomed, the faithful made preparations. We baked “smoke monster” cakes; we watched cats on YouTube explain the plot. But mainly, we read interviews with the creative team of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof (affectionately known to the online horde as Cuselof or Darlton), the show-runners who had, under creator J. J. Abrams, overseen one of the most interactive TV hits in history, a show designed to be mob-solved, scavenged for symbolism, and adored.
They were preparing us. In each interview, with a mix of humility and defensiveness, they repeated that they had “done the best they could.” They had focused on the characters. And we, the viewers, shouldn’t expect answers to everything—some we’d learn on DVD, others would never be resolved. So please stop asking about the four-toed statue. Let it go.
This kind of expectation management is, by now, a baseline responsibility of anyone steering a major TV sensation, and it’s no easy task. Some (Aaron Sorkin) are driven crazy and write entire television series in response to audience critiques; others (David Chase) push back, brilliantly. But like a lot of genre writers, the Lost creators had always been more-forthcoming figures, warm and reassuring, regularly urging the audience that we, as fans, should trust them, and that we should be patient, that while there was no time to explain right now, if we hung on, all would finally be revealed.
Yet as the seasons passed, Darlton were also clearly unnerved by their most passionate devotees, who were busily compiling databases, freezing images for hints and clues, and generally acting like a particularly deranged, faintly Aspergian breed of forensic detectives. In 2007, Lindelof argued that “the really good critics” were fans at heart. “I find there is a very rare instance where your fan brain is having one reaction and your critical brain is having another. The level at which questions are asked of us is polarizing. You can tell it’s personal. If they don’t like it, it’s like they’re offended in a way.”
Real fan-hood, in other words, is, at its purest level, love. As in Corinthians, fan-hood is patient, kind, not rude, etc. (It is also not easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs.) The Fan of Faith is superior to the Fan of Science, and while it’s natural to have questions, the ideal viewer should behave less like a nagging critic and more like a soul mate, supportive and committed even when doubts creep in.
At one point, during a New York Times panel on the Thursday night before the finale, Lindelof made this romantic-relationship metaphor explicit. In response to a question about fan disappointment, he described a first date that begins with the wrongheaded question “Are you going to disappoint me?” “Just see how it works out!” said Lindelof, in the voice of the show-slash-date. “If you’re going to fall in love with somebody, you have to put aside that fear of disappointment.”
Then again, if you build a show to be loved, heartbreak is always a risk. I’m a serious Lost fan—I watched every episode, I recapped the show online for years, I’m one of the fools who combed Egyptology sites to determine whether that damned statue was Tawaret or Subek—and yet I’m also someone who now thinks of the show as a failure. That fact doesn’t erase the pleasure I got from Locke’s orange-peel grin, but it does change the context. Because like so many, I hung on long after I had doubts: through cage sex, through the successful (but in retrospect nonsensical) time-travel gambit, through those great sequences among the Dharma hippies and into the drippy realm of the last season’s alternative-reality time line (a.k.a. the Sideways Universe), in which the characters learned and grew. This wasn’t a first date, after all; it was a six-year marriage. You don’t just give up.
In the run-up to the finale, Lindelof posted to Twitter, expressing his love for the fans. But he also sent out a message directed at some online video artists I had never heard of: “But Fine Brothers? You shat on the show and that is not cool. I hereby revoke your status as ‘fans.’ ”Lindelof’s followers offered support, but there was also this: “I’m as big of a fan as you can be, and I think Fine Brothers couldn’t have put it better. A disappointed fan is still a fan.”
I spent the afternoon watching the Fine Brothers videos, of course. They were, as it turns out, hilarious: sharp, prickly satires “acted” out by action figures. In each one, characters from Heroes, Twilight, Battlestar Galactica, and other genre hits invaded the Lost universe to make rattled critiques. (In one, Spock simply started screaming, “I refuse to live in a place without logic!”) With their South Park–style brass, a few of the satires were more fun to watch than the Season 6 Lost episodes, many of which boil down in my memory to bathetic baseball monologues and such camp lines as “I don’t like the way English tastes on my tongue.”
To Lindelof, the Fine Brothers weren’t fans anymore. To me, their clear agitation and radical engagement with every element of the story meant that they were the most dedicated kind of fans: They cared enough to be pissed off. And who was to blame for that?
What made Lost fail? It’s possible Cuselof’s story was simply so Byzantine no one in the creative team could connect the dots, even with a two-year head start. It definitely didn’t help that the show shifted from a diverse cast to the repeated tableaux of white guys bickering about fate while the female characters were either shot or (worse) congealed into bland love interests. But to me, one central problem—which we had hints of early on, back when the show was still pulling off one masterful structural coup after another—was that the series had become obsessed, in both overt and unconscious ways, with manipulating its own relationship with its fans, alternately evading and reflecting their critiques, and then finally satisfying them in the most condescending possible way, with sentimental sleight-of-hand.
Built as it was from video-game aesthetics, comic-book plots, and science fiction, Lost had always included witty internal acknowledgments of its own geek appeal, including characters who acted as stand-ins for Lost fans. Hurley began the series as an actual character, but he quickly became our avatar: the sci-fi geek, full of Star Wars references, loyal and positive, like Cuselof’s ideal. In contrast, Arzt, the wicked fan, was a science teacher full of gripes, but he hilariously blew to bits in season one. Later, we got snarky Miles and Frank Lapidus, an outsider who made bemused remarks about the melodramas around him.
This was fun in the early seasons, when Darlton felt like they were in communion with their audience, but as the show began its final slide, these characters increasingly operated more as venting devices for fan frustrations—a way for the writers to let us know they heard us, but also to joke about logic problems or clichés instead of addressing them. The snarky chorus stood in contrast to the main ensemble, which, with a few exceptions, devolved from archetypal (but layered) characters into action figures, their aims narrowing, like video-game heroes, to a single goal: Find Sun, find Jin, find Claire, return to the island, get off the island.
Then, in the run-up to the final season, Cuselof suddenly inserted a shocking new framing device, a tactic that radically simplified their entire series: the twin dei ex machina of Jacob and the Man in Black. We’d gotten hints of Jacob’s existence earlier (who was that man in the cabin? Who??), but Cuselof’s reveal went beyond exposing the wizard. It redefined everything we’d watched as a game played by manipulative gods. Jacob smirked and wore Jesus robes. His brother, the Man in Black, was the evil Smoke Monster. While the pair were not named Cuse and Lindelof, it was hard to ignore the resemblance, since Lost’s characters—like its fans—had been revealed as the pawns of narrative overseers who spoke in riddles, were hard to trust, and continually reassured them to be patient, the end was near.
Within that endgame, Cuselof introduced the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins: a glowing pool of embarrassing special effects, unexplainable because, as we learned in another meta line, “every question will just lead to another question.”
The peculiar thing about all this was that throughout its seasons, one of Lost’s most appealing ambiguities had been that, for all those debates about science versus faith, the show had never been in the camp of credulous trust. It was an island full of con men and women, after all, emotional seducers (from Sawyer to Ben to Nikki and Paolo) who fleeced those who believed in them. John Locke, the show’s Man of Faith and its most original character, was wrong again and again, and, in the end, died confused and despairing. His was an uncompromising plot within a show that increasingly pulled its punches, giving once-complex characters sacrificial and heroic outcomes. Jacob himself turned out to be in thrall to a lying, manipulative parent. On Lost, saying “trust me” was a red flag.
And yet, we had to trust Cuselof: That’s what a good fan does.
Then came the finale, which amounted to a moving, luminous, tear-inducing, near-total bait-and-switch.
Now, I realize many people enjoyed the finale. The episode was visually lyrical. It was audacious, in its way. It was almost radically crowd-pleasing, designed to be viewed with the fan brain, not the critic brain. With its witty structure, it allowed the creators to download fusillades of old clips: montages that in the literal sense stood in for each character’s memories, but which also worked as sentimental flashbacks for fans, reminding us of how much fun it had been to watch Lost itself. Meanwhile, on the island, we endured a series of thrilling but nonsensical unpluggings and then pluggings of a Freudian sinkhole. When the plot and the island stopped shaking, Hurley, the Good Fan, was handed the keys to the donkey wheel, as if he were being trusted to protect the legacy of the show itself.
I don’t have a heart of stone: The acting in the otherwise terrible finale was so good that in several cases (the reunion of Sawyer and Juliet) it made the endless romantic pairings desperately poignant instead of numbing. (Although not with Charlotte and Daniel: Lose the skinny tie, dude.)
But when those warm feelings wore off, it was hard to ignore the unsettling message we’d received, which was that nothing in the series had actually mattered. That mysterious island? The one we’d obsessed over for six years? We should remember it, as through a happy mist, as the place where our characters learned to love one another.
As for the Sideways Universe—featuring tweaked variations on each character’s story—that was also not important, at least not in any detail. It was a mystical way station, like weak fan fiction with a therapeutic kick. Most of the Sideways stories boiled the survivors’ stories down to morals like “Love your family” and “Believe you are a good person,” and if we wanted to enjoy the show, we needed to accept these truisms as closure for story arcs rather than Oprah-tinged parodies of them.
Finally, in the last fifteen minutes, the writers—in an emotionally powerful and also mawkishly manipulative turn—gathered our characters in an interfaith church, the antechamber to heaven. There Jack’s father, now a loving guide (rather than an abusive drunk), told him, and us, to let go. No wonder it was touching: It was grief therapy directed at us as fans.
The sad thing, really, is that this wave of nostalgia, however powerful it was in the moment, sunk the show it was meant to mourn. Once upon a time, Lost faced outward, toward the world. In its early seasons, it wasn’t just dumb, feel-good fun; for all the fantasy trappings, it had resonant, adult themes, ones set in the context of a global community traumatized after a plane crash. Post-9/11, the show spoke, for a while, more thoughtfully (or at least less angrily) than 24 to the moral questions that unsettled many Americans: Why does everyone consider themselves the “good guys”? Is it ever okay to torture? How do we choose, and should we trust, our leaders?
But by the end of its run, Lost, for all its dorm-room chatter about good and evil, had become something different: It was a hit series about the difficulties of finding an ending to a hit series. Cuselof had a deadline for years, which should have allowed them to pace out their puzzle’s solutions. Instead, we got cheesy temple vamping and a bereavement Holodeck. It became a show about placating, even sedating, fans, convincing them that, in the absence of anything coherent or challenging, love was enough.
The day after the finale, Lindelof tweeted again, in the soothing cadences of a preacher: “Remember. Let go. Move on.” Hey, Lindelof: Done.