Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"We Have to Go Back!:" "Lost" Ten Years Later

History is usually written in hindsight, long after the "important" event has passed. That's not unreasonable: there's no telling what the ripple effect of any given moment will be, so something seemingly insignificant at the present can later be considered a crucial turning point (and vice versa). In television, there's no way to really tell what programs will be hugely influential. Certainly, there was no indication that I Love Lucy, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or The Twilight Zone would still be so influential decades after their original airings. Shows that never became big hits - Star Trek, for example - saw the landscape remade in their image without really getting to benefit from it.

All of this is to say that before September 22, 2004, nobody would have assumed that Lost - which aired the first part of its pilot that night - would become one of the most talked-about, acclaimed, influential, and divisive dramas of the young 21st century. If anything, it seemed like a boondoggle. The pilot cost $14 million - a record at the time - and before it even aired, then-ABC president Lloyd Braun had been fired, much in part to his insistence on developing the show (he also came up with the original pitch of "Cast Away meets Survivor"). The show's ostensible lead, Jack Shepard, was played by Matthew Fox, at the time best known for Party of Five. Evangeline Lily, who played female lead Kate Austen, had no previous credits to her name. Arguably, the most famous members of the cast at the time were Dominic Monaghan, who played heroin-addict rock star Charlie, and Terry O'Quinn, playing the mysterious John Locke; the former had a minor role in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, while the latter was best known for the 1987 slasher flick The Stepfather (and a number of other  "that guy" roles). Just about everything about this show was a risk.

Yet if there's anything that defines the show's legacy, it's exactly that: risk. No other broadcast-network  show in the past decade has taken the kinds of risks that Lost did.

More after the jump.

Over the course of six seasons, Lost challenged viewer expectations by daring to be unlike anything else on television at the moment. Even the pilot was a highly unusual production by today's standards. There's very little hand-holding, opening on Jack's eye as he regains consciousness. He runs toward the sound of danger, and we first see the crash wreckage as he does. What's truly remarkable is that in all of this, we're only properly introduced to a few of the show's multitudinous characters: Jack, Kate, and Charlie are the only ones with meaningful introductions. Compare that to today's pilots, in which characters seem to go out of their way to inform the audience of everything they need to know about who they are (Gotham is a particularly egregious offender from the current season).

That's to say nothing of the various other developments that unfolded over the show's run, including but not limited to: polar bears, time travel, the Others, a washed-up slave ship, a three-toed statue, the Dharma Initiative, the Smoke Monster (Ol' Smokey), an eternal man, skeletons in a cave, flashbacks, flash forwards, flash-sideways, and that time John Hawkes was in a temple. There was no shortage of wacky sci-fi indulgences that Lost wouldn't try out, tossing around ideas in a flurry, many of them red herrings. The Island was established as a highly unusual place, a world untethered from reality, bursting with mysteries ready to be explored. Who were the Others? What was the purpose of the Dharma Initiative? Who were Jacob (Mark Pellinger) and the Man in Black (Titus Welliver), and why were they fighting for the fate of the Island (and possibly all of humanity)?

For a few years, the show did seem to get lost in the haze of its mysteries, far more interested in plot twists and new elements than it was in investing in its characters. The characters and the show's interest in their humanity were always the show's strongest assets, as well as the reasons that the show was successful as it was. Though not every character was handled equally well - Sayid (Naveen Andrews), for example, was dealt a bad hand in later seasons, and though Kate was a fine character, she never really grew into the heroine she seemed poised to become - there were a number of indelible creations. In particular, John Locke and Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) stand tall as the show's crowning accomplishments, the former believing in the Island's redemptive power and doing anything to protect it, the latter a master manipulator who will stop at nothing to defend his semblance of power. Their relationship proved to be the most fascinating, building on two terrific performances that anchored the show throughout its run.

And those are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of characterization. As the show progressed, it introduced a number of characters, and with only a few glaring exceptions, each of them carried some weight within the world of the show. Think about this for a second: one of the show's most acclaimed episodes, season four's "The Constant," had the following main characters: Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick), Sayid, Jack, Penny (Sonya Wagnar), Frank Lapidus (Jeff Fahey), Minkowski (Fisher Stevens), and Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies). Only two of those characters were in the entirety of the show's first season, and only Jack had meaningful screen time in the pilot. Yet the show had developed these characters - especially Desmond and Penny - to the point where we could spend an entire hour with them and be enthralled.

In the years since the show wrapped up with its extremely polarizing finale, the show's audience has basically divided into two factions: those who hoped for answers to every single question, and those who hoped for a resolution that made the characters' personal journeys rewarding. And chances are, you were disappointed regardless of which camp you fell in (I maintain that the finale was good, and I applaud the creators for sticking with the ending they wanted). This division of the show's fandom makes a fascinating extratextual extension of the show's core conflict: Jack's "man of science" versus Locke's "man of faith." There were those who, like Jack, needed rational, logical answers to what was happening on the Island and wouldn't be satisfied until every apparition, every statue, and every fish biscuit was explained. And there were those who, like Locke, were willing to let the show reveal itself to them, believing in the redemption of each character and that their time in the Island's purgatory would better them.

The show courted both of these camps and played to their desires, but in the end, there was no way the finale could have ever been completely satisfying because it had to end. Another key distinction that Lost has held in the television landscape is that it is one of the most spiritual dramas to air on a broadcast network. Lost was a show about the systems of beliefs that people create in order to explain the world around them; it was about how religions are born from the same circumstances and how they both compliment and antagonize each other. This is present in Jack's desire for rational explanation and Locke's belief in the Island as a deity, but also in Kate's attempts to leave her past behind, Hurley's (Jorge Garcia) fear of his "cursed" numbers, Sawyer's (Josh Holloway) sense of self-preservation, Ben's devotion to protecting the society he built.

As stated above, this extended to the show's audience as well. If you came looking for a sci-fi mystery with a complicated mythology, then the show was more than happy to provide that. If you came to see how the survivors would come together and attempt to stay alive and find rescue, all while building a makeshift community, then there was plenty to be found here. If you came to see a rip-roaring adventure serial with some surrealist touches, the show could do that for you too. No matter what you were watching the show for, you weren't wrong. There was no right or wrong way to watch the show. It was always about what you, the audience, was pulling from it. Which, again, is why the finale was doomed to be a disappointment. It was never going to be all things to all people. It had to provide some sort of ending, an explanation for everything that had happened. After all, it was a television show.

Yet to focus solely on the ending is to miss the journey. Lost was a show that could not have existed at any other time, and it was a revolution in how people viewed television. The advent of TiVo and other DVR systems allowed fans to go back and look for things they may have missed or discover hidden Easter eggs in every episode. The show spawned a number of online chat rooms and forums, building a community of fans that came together to theorize about what it all meant. The show's many literary and philosophical references had many fans learning information they may never have broached otherwise. It was a major influence in the growth of critics doing episode recaps, with Hitflix's Alan Sepinwall and Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen leading the way on that charge. Lost developed a cultish following, but it was never limited to being a cult hit. It took all of these disparate elements and combined them to become one of the unlikeliest zeitgeist hits in television history.

In the show's wake, there have been many imitators - RIP Flashforward, Surface, Invasion, Threshold, The Event, The River, Zero Hour, and many more - but very few true successors. FOX's Fringe shared executive producer J.J. Abrams, but the show had more in common with The X-Files than Lost and never became the cultural force of either of those two shows. In the current television landscape, FOX's Sleepy Hollow seems to most closely approximate the show's gonzo sense of storytelling, barreling through ridiculous story after ridiculous story with devil-may-care conviction. ABC's Once Upon a Time - which hails from Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, two former Lost writers - has the sprawling cast and supernatural locations, but functions more as an adventure-laced soap opera designed for maximum Disney-approved corporate synergy (don't let that throw you off, though; it's really entertaining).

Then there are the two shows that the show's former showrunners are now involved in. Carlton Cuse co-created FX's The Strain with Guillermo del Toro, and the vampire horror series has performed well enough to earn another season (and another round of grotesque advertisements, presumably). However, I have not personally seen the show. Damon Lindelof, on the other hand, co-created HBO's The Leftovers with author Tom Perrotta (Little Children), and transformed the show into a mediation on grief and depression with the sudden disappearance of 2% of the world's population as the impetus. The Leftovers is one of the best new shows of the year, and though it has a supernatural element in its premise, the show could not be less interested in providing answers for how and why "the Departed" vanished. This show is fully invested in the human side of the story.

(It's interesting to compare criticisms of each show. The Leftovers is focused solely on character and not plot-driving mystery, while The Strain has been taken to task for being too plot-heavy with little meaningful character development. It makes a strong case that Cuse and Lindelof were equally responsible for what Lost became, but for different reasons.)

Ten years later, the show remains one of my personal all-time favorites. There are very few other shows that I can say that I developed a close relationship with, and Lost remains the only one that I watched almost every episode on its first airing. The show got me through both good times and bad: the entirety of my high school years, plus my first two years at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was instrumental to my understand of television, and as a burgeoning cinephile, it helped me better understand film theory as well. As silly as it sounds, the characters were more than just fictional people on a screen: they were a part of my life, and I was invested in their lives as well. Regardless of how it ended and the numerous assertions that the entire show was a disaster just because of the last ten minutes, I've held it close to me. One day I'll revisit the Island, and rediscover its secrets and get reacquainted with the characters. I can't wait to go back.

As for the show's lasting impact, it's doubtful that we'll ever see a show quite like Lost again. The risks it took are unmatched among today's networks, especially among the Big Four (CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX), who have never appeared more risk-averse. The show's legacy will likely remain tethered to its finale for years to come (though the end of How I Met Your Mother may have replaced it in terms of "most disappointing finale ever"). But it shouldn't be forgotten just how big, bold, and flat-out weird Lost dared to be. Not every audience wants to be shown the same, familiar things. Sometimes, we just want to get a little lost in something new.

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