Revisiting: ‘Lost’

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 2:00pm



Revisiting is a series where TV writers watch, or re-watch, popular TV shows they missed when airing in their prime. Writers will retrospectively review these shows and determine if they still live up to their hype years after their peak success.

How should we remember “Lost”? For the way it began: with one of the best TV episodes of all time, an electrifying, expensive pilot that introduced us to a dozen compelling characters stranded on an island? Or for the way it ended: with a strange, sweet, frustrating finale crushed under its own weight, the mysteries of the island still (mostly) unanswered?

Maybe it’s wrong to think about “Lost” in terms of beginnings and endings at all. Those seem like awfully neat, linear ways to describe a show that never really wanted to tell its stories in neat, linear ways. Instead, “Lost” zigged and zagged, flashed backward, forward and sideways, zapped its characters into the ’70s for an episode before zapping them into the ’50s for the next.

So there’s our answer. If the essence of “Lost” can’t be captured through any one chapter in the saga — it is too sprawling a gestalt for that — we can remember “Lost” for its ambition. Better shows than “Lost” exist today, undoubtedly. But it’s difficult to name one that shares the same eagerness to flout narrative conventions, the flirtation with the metaphysical and the insistence that, no matter what, people were going to have a lot of fun watching it.

How people watched and understood “Lost” when it aired in the mid-2000s merits its own study. The streaming age was still a little ways away at this point, but we were very much living in a booming internet age. Established critics and amateurs alike raced to recap an episode after its conclusion, fans scoured their screens for little details and clues to compile into exhaustive Wikipedia-like databases. Even showrunners found themselves caught up in the chaotic online discussions. Some responded in agreement, killing off characters or axing storylines unpopular on the message boards; others didn’t, writing episodes that compared fansite dwellers to characters in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (OK, only Aaron Sorkin did this). When I began to revisit “Lost,” I realized quickly that if I wanted to experience the largeness of the show, I had to watch “Lost” as a fan might have a decade ago: the recaps, the commenter conspiracy theories, Lostpedia, all of it.

And ironically, a show so well-suited for that kind of obsessive viewing still ended on an ambiguous note that infuriated nearly everyone trying to make sense of it. The “Lost” finale is a lesson in what happens when a TV show is so awash in mystery and anticipation that any resolution feels like a disappointment. It’s a warning that watching serialized television is like a game of “Wheel of Fortune,” and that desperately searching for the vowel that will click everything into place is a futile exercise in the end. Sometimes there isn’t an easy grand design. Sometimes things will be left unexplained. “Art is supposed to turn the question back on you,” said Evangeline Lilly (“Ant-Man”), who played headstrong fugitive Kate, in a recent interview where she defended the finale. “It’s the ultimate question being posed to you, not the ultimate answer being handed to you.”

From the beginning, “Lost” let us know that it was dealing in unanswerable questions. In the first season it set up the show’s defining power clash: the one between the man of science and the man of faith. The empiricist, Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox, “Party of Five”), is a spinal surgeon who struggles to wrap his head around the island’s peculiarities. The believer, John Locke (Terry O’Quinn, “Millennium”), paralyzed from the waist down, can suddenly walk again when Oceanic 815 crashes. He is immediately enamored with the mystery of the island and embraces its powers unquestioningly.

It’s now a cliché in discussing film and TV to say things like “the city itself is a character,” but on “Lost,” the island really is a character in its own right. It is imbued with the supernatural, acts on its motivations and desires and makes inexplicable things happen. It’s both shocking and totally unsurprising to viewers that Jack, years after he and a few others have finally left the island, insists in the third season finale that they have to go back; the island doesn’t let go of people that easily. Much of “Lost,” especially the later seasons, was about our individual attachments to places and people and beliefs, both the rational bonds rooted in our lived experiences and the intense, primal ones that defy logic.

It’s as much the story of the “Lost” characters as it is the one of the “Lost” fans. How would we come to terms with the mystique of the island? Could we ever stop clinging to our desire for reason and order? In the end, being a “Lost” fan meant having to be content when the search for answers came up short. And whether that’s possible depends on our own allegiance: Are we fans of science or fans of faith?

“Walkabout” Season 1, Episode 4

Until “The Walkabout,” we’re convinced that John Locke is some sort of ex-military officer or experienced outdoorsman. He’s the one who leads the Losties through the forest to forage for food, quickly taking to his role as a frontiersman. But “Walkabout” flashes back to reveal that in Locke’s life back home, he was a paper pusher at a box company and was — here’s the first big reveal of “Lost” — actually paralyzed before regaining feeling when the plane crashed onto the island. Creator Damon Lindelof had realized that the only way to keep “Lost” on the island would be to fill it with characters who had no desire to return to their old lives, and this came to be a central connection between “Lost” characters: The island offered them the chance to start over, shed their baggage and reinvent themselves.

“Through the Looking Glass” Season 3, Episodes 22 & 23

The third season of “Lost” was a slog initially. It was clear that the desire of the “Lost” writers was in conflict with the network convention that a drama fill nearly two dozen hour-long episodes each season. By the end of this season, though, “Lost” no longer felt out of ideas. “Through the Looking Glass” was everything a season finale should be: emotionally satisfying, high-stakes and teary, replete with a jaw-dropping twist that nicely set up a triumphant fourth season.

“The Constant” Season 4, Episode 5

The Ringer recently named this the best TV episode of the 21st century — high praise, but there’s a strong case to be made for it. “The Constant” focuses on star-crossed lover Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick, “Scandal”), who was stuck on the island pre-crash. His consciousness begins to hurtle backward and forward, jumping between 1996 and 2004. This marks one of the first times (officially, anyway) that “Lost” deals directly with time. 

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