Pulling Over and Asking for Directions

All told, I think I did a pretty good job of ignoring “Lost” for years, in spite of all the raves and recommendations from friends. Mostly, it was out of self-interest; I couldn’t afford the time investment that another hugely complicated television series would require, especially one that seemed to inspire such obsessive fandom. But now, living with a “Lost” devotee as I do, I find I can no longer willfully ignore the persistent phenomenon that is J.J. Abrams’ labyrinthine television saga. I started watching a handful of episodes here and there last season, and when the show’s sixth season debuted on Tuesday evening I joined Laura on the couch to take in its latest two hours.

Here’s my assessment so far: it’s a superbly crafted entertainment but it executes itself haphazardly. I find myself easily drawn into its fundamentally strong storytelling tactics, but even after watching the best episodes, the momentum of the series inspires no real confidence that the next installment will be any good.

And, frankly, I don’t really get what’s happening. What is this show about? A time shifting island? A fractious fraternity of metaphysically-challenged losers? A just-in-time catalog of bogus belief systems? I have no idea, really, but to the show’s credit it’s all good enough to keep me thinking about it. Herewith, then, are some random notes from a Viewer New to “Lost”

All Stick, No Carrot

Granted, I’ve logged only a meager number of hours in the “Lost” universe but already it seems apparent to me that the pleasure that the show evokes has very little to do with unraveling its many mysteries. Rather it’s about the state of being mystified, bewildered and maybe a little bit frustrated too. Which is to say that, if you ask me, most of its devoted fans secretly don’t really want to understand what’s happening at all.

They watch each episode under the pretense that the narrative is moving towards some sort of resolution and that they’re participating in that resolution. But in fact they really tune in so that they can have their expectations and assumptions confounded, cut-off, detoured and further confused. In this, “Lost” obliges profusely and frequently, usually when the writers seemed confused or at a loss for purpose themselves.

(To that end, I have to say that the show also has to be one of the most appropriately named television shows I can think of, exceeded in aptness only by “Cops.”)

Secret Asian Men

Can I just say how terrific it is that this is a show that makes honest, straightforward distinctions between Asians of different origins? It’s kind of shocking to me to see, finally, television that’s discerning enough to recognize that Chinese American and Korean characters should be portrayed differently and according to their own narrative maps. I can’t think of another show that even acknowledges that Asians are anything other than homogenous and monolithic. Big thumbs up here for this.

Do They Have to Draw Us a Diagram?

If you could diagram the plot lines of “Lost,” I bet the resulting visualization would be quite marvelous. The show’s intricate mesh of time shifting, reversals, and now duplicative story arcs has got to make for a graphically fascinating chart. The problem of course is concretizing what amounts to an incredibly ambiguous structure, finding a way to translate a bizarre narrative jumble into lines, boxes, arrows. I’d wager that the show’s writers have something like this on a white board locked away in a room somewhere. My guess is that it’s also a mess.

Great Expectations

“Lost” brings to mind at least a few television series that also followed ambitious narrative arcs, like “The X-Files,” “Heroes,” “Battlestar Galactica” and even “The Sopranos.” One thing I learned from these kinds of shows, to my disappointment, is that they never really deliver on what they repeatedly promise.

Their very nature is that they’re structured to bring viewers back, week after week. They use plot twists, new characters, new groups of characters, new themes and good old fashioned cliff-hangers to sustain ratings — and they use them cleverly and expertly enough to create impossible expectations for thunderbolt-style resolutions that never materialize. In my view, it was only “The Wire” that as a series ever truly delivered on the promise of its episodes — and that show also happened to be the best-written show ever, if not the best show of all time, period. Frankly, “Lost” doesn’t seem like it’s in the same class as “The Wire,” at least not to me and not at this point. So I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that a lot of viewers will be disappointed when the series concludes. They’ll be sorely disappointed, actually, by how little will ultimately get explained in any convincing way. In case you don’t believe me, let me rest my case on just two words: smoke monster.

  1. I am a fan indeed. Got into just as the second season was about to start but was so hooked on the first disc that we went and rented the next one immediately after. I’m still not sure why but when I first watched the first few episodes, I thought of Twin Peaks.

    It’s been an interesting few years following the show. Some seasons are better than others for sure. The first two may be the best. The middle, kinda iffy. The recent ones, much better.

    This is a killer line by the way, I bust a gut. “To that end, I have to say that the show also has to be one of the most appropriately named television shows I can think of, exceeded in aptness only by “Cops.”

    I’d say, start from the beginning. The gold is there.

    There are plenty of fansites showing infographics, timelines, theories, etc. A huge collection of stuff.

    And, I’m glad this is the last season. It’s good that they knew when to end it. It’s been an up and down ride.

  2. You admit to having ‘logged only a meager number of hours in the Lost [sic]’ and yet you’re willing to ‘go out on a limb and say that a lot of viewers will be disappointed when the series concludes.’

    Come on Khoi, you’re better than that.

    When you’ve invested some real time into LOST, we can have this discussion again.

  3. Pretty accurate I’d say. I’ve been watching Lost since the beginning, but actually stopped expecting that things make sense. From a perspective of just being entertained, it’s more fun to watch.

    Have you ever watched the movie Primer? It’s the one movie that manages to pull off a crazy story like Lost has and still makes sense. Here’s a timeline that fans put together of the Primer timeline.

    I guess some people hope that Lost was put together in a similar way. Considering how precise Lost is executed as a TV show, it’s not surprising that people have these high expectations.

  4. My confidence in the show is almost entirely built on the trust I’ve developed in Executive Producers/Head Writers Damon Lindelof (who is also co-creator) and Carlton Cuse. (FYI Abrams left the show sometime in the first season. Lindelof is the real force behind everything.)

    It makes me a rabid fan, for sure, but I listen to the “Official Lost Podcast” whenever it’s on. Hearing them talk about it for the last 5 years, they really seem like they knew where they were going.

    Not to mention they convinced ABC to set an end date for the series, based on the story arc they had left to tell. That makes it stand out from your other show examples quite a bit.

    All that being said, I’m still worried it all turn out to be Nazis in the end, anyway. 🙁

  5. I can scarcely imagine what it’s like tuning into “Lost” at this point. Imagine coming into “The Wire” around the start of the last season — or beginning a novel 5/6th of the way through. “Lost” is a different animal from “The Wire”, and if I could only watch one, it would be the latter. But both are worth watching — really, must be seen — from the beginning and in order.

  6. “Rather it’s about the state of being mystified, bewildered and maybe a little bit frustrated too.”

    Very much like David Lynch movies, which I mostly can’t stand.

    I’ve watched every episode of Lost from the beginning and I feel largely the same way you do. I love the show mostly for how it’s shot and the brief moments of interesting drama in every episode. That’s enough to keep me watching every week, but it’s not enough to actually make me care about the fates of the characters… and that is the key to any *really* great show.

    Another test I have for greatness in movies and TV shows is asking how good it would have been if it were filmed 30 years ago. Lost unfortunately fails that test for me, whereas a show like Dexter easily passes it.

  7. Pretty sure there was a rather significant reveal on the smoke monster in the season premiere last Tuesday. Dont want to spoil, but it was there.

  8. I feel the same about ‘The X-files’. Although the show doesn’t air anymore in South Africa, when it did I was tremendously disappointed. The worst thing about it is that whoever puts together the promo clips that run to advertise the show must select only the most exciting parts and once you have seen that, you can pretty much not watch the episode at all. Imho it was unfullfilling.

  9. They are addressing the smoke monster thing, finally. I think you’ve summed it up well, several seasons ago I got the feeling that not all will be resolved by the time Lost finishes, that said, I’ve still enjoyed the ride.

  10. Personally, I’ve given up hope that LOST will end in a satisfying finale around the third season.

    LOST is for masochists. I love the show not for the main plot (whichever that is), I don’t care so much about secret stations, pushing buttons, time-travel and so on. This has all been done before, sometimes better. But the amount of characters and their interwoven backgrounds are a reason to continue watching.

    That’s why Season 1 is so great. A whole season just to introduce the main cast and the paths that lead them to the island. As written above, start there. It’s worth it.


    The final season premier addressed a lot, most definitive being an explanation of the smoke monster, and almost spelled out in capital letters an explanation of one of the islands key inhabitants (I’m trying to go home).

    I think you are doing yourself a disservice by only picking up the show part way through last season. You’ve got no insight into Claire, who is poised to be the hub around which the entire story turns.

  12. I started watching Lost a week ago after ABC posted the entire series to Hulu (by the way: great move, but do it three months sooner so I would be caught up by now). And as a new viewer about a quarter of the way through season 2 now, I already know what my biggest problem with this show will be:

    How many times can they almost get rescued and fail?

    But from what I’ve heard over the years, the writers solve this through time travel and actually rescuing them at one point.

    I think there might be a dichotomy among television fans: people who like House more and people who like Lost more. Lost has impossibly complex plot and story lines. House has impossibly complex characters.

    The only show I’ve given up because it was too confusing was Heroes. But more importantly, Heroes didn’t even tease you with the idea it will ever be resolved, at least not through the first season and beginning of the second.

  13. I agree with you. No resolution will be as fascinating as the mystery of the unknown. Lost has built up such a fascination with unresolved mysteries that no possible reveal could match in satisfaction.

    I for one, hope there will be some mysteries left unexplained when the show ends. It’s nice to not know all of the answers.

  14. I totally agree, however I’m also in the same exact predicament. Having only watched a handful of episodes. I remember when Lost was FIRST starting and I kept seeing commercials and I was really interested. I couldn’t ever remember when it was actually going to start, what day it came on or at what time. So I missed the first couple of episodes. Then I finally came in on episode 3. I had talked to people to understand the basics of what had happened (what I had missed) still the show moved far too slow. Always promising something but NEVER delivering. So I “lost” interest. Then the next season and the next season I kept trying to get interested. I kept trying to invest myself into the show.

    But your explanation PERFECTLY describes my same feelings towards the show and why I dislike it.

  15. Smoke the reefer.

    Thats what I do instead, when my girlfriend suggests we watch a few Lost episodes.

    I totally hate it.

    I believe all US TV shows are designed to hook you up. The thing is they are not hooking you up like Bergman or Scorsese do, they just flat out play with your mind constantly. Most of the shows just mess with their own verisimilitude constantly, it is lame.

    And the acting sucks. But thats just me.

  16. “Another test I have for greatness in movies and TV shows is asking how good it would have been if it were filmed 30 years ago. Lost unfortunately fails that test for me, whereas a show like Dexter easily passes it.”

    Mike D., I’m curious how you imagine “Lost” and “Dexter” each would have been filmed in 1980. Are you thinking about technological or cultural differences?

  17. Feral: What I mean is that if you stripped out all of the production techniques that are available today (i.e. HD, special effects, etc), would it still be a great show/movie? Avatar is perhaps the prime example of this. Avatar made in 1980 would have been a giant flop. In fact, I believe 1980 is right around when James Cameron started thinking about doing it. He’s even gone on record more or less saying that the film should not have been made until the effects were ready for it. To me, this is code for the exact sort of movie I hate: one which relies on its completely on its visual interestingness to hold attention.

    Even though there’s supposedly a genius, intertwined, complicated plot in Lost, it’s not doing much for me. What’s holding my attention is merely how nicely it’s filmed (that, and the fact that Evangeline Lilly is TEH HAWTNESS).

    If I imagine how Lost would have been filmed in 1980, I imagine most of that visual interestingness to be gone.

    With a show like Dexter, however, it’s really all about the plot. Yet, it’s crisply shot, but there’s nothing they do in that show that wouldn’t be just as impressive with 1980s cinematography. In other words, it’s the storyline that takes the center stage.

  18. Mike D: I certainly agree that what sets “Dexter” apart is NOT new production technology, whereas that’s about the only thing that makes “Avatar” anything more than a decent amusement park ride.

    But I don’t think the effects define or distinguish “Lost” — and I think the VIBE of those effects, being defined more by sound and what ISN’T shown on camera, could have been achieved at least 50 years ago. I mean, the monsters are mostly just smoke, layers of low tech sound effects or and trees falling down without visible cause. And the scariest behaviors are the way that humans torture one another, physically and psychologically.

    I agree with Jannis Borgers that much more than the absurdist plot complexities, it’s the character relationships that actually holds my (moderate) interest in “Lost”. “A whole season just to introduce the main cast”, indeed!

  19. I have to fundamentally disagree. I too, had never seen an episode of lost until this summer. Then I watched all 5 seasons pretty much back to back. Viewed this way, the pacing is plenty fast (we’ll see how I agonize going week to week), and there definitely seems to be forward progress. Even though things have gotten extremely bizarre, it still feels that they’ve kept the story tight and that they picked an appropriate story arc that could deliver a reasonably satisfying resolution. Remember, they announced the end of the series at exactly the midpoint. This is nothing like The Sopranos where it just goes and goes and goes like real life and then stops almost arbitrarily.

    Now obviously the experience of the show ending is going to be bittersweet and in some sense, no ending can satisfy the tremendous hype built around people’s intimate addiction to the show, but I honestly believe they’ll do a pretty good job with it and that Lost will go down in history as one of the best television narratives of all time.

  20. I really can’t imagine trying to pick up Lost now. That’s some serious devotion there.

    I think the reason you think it’s all carrot and no stick is that 90% of the small reveals will go right past you without you even noticing. It’s the little deails that tie up loose ends in earlier episodes or series that are the real joy for me. They constantly refer back and the level of detail is amazing, if you’ve only just started with Lost you’re going to miss all that goodness I’m afraid. Major plot reveals are pretty rare.

    That said I only got half way through series one of the Wire before I lost interest. Seemed a bit slow and boring to me. It’s all subjective.

  21. oh ye of little faith. To start watching Lost during the final season and still understand the story line in its entirety would be quite presumptuous. If you’ve been watching as I have, questions are already being answered. I agree with one of the other posters. Go get season 1!

    Also, I think some watchers got frustrated around season 3/4 and there was a ratings decline – so the show made a few changes to start answering a few.

  22. At the risk of redundancy, I’ve skipped most of the comments and, in fact, a lot of the post. I skimmed what seemed relevant, but was wary of spoilers. And yet I still manage to feel compelled to comment.

    I’ve heard the rave reviews and the fanaticism, fairly unilaterally, which usually is a warning sign. However, since _Dexter_ received similar praise and redefined quality TV for me last December (when my wife and I caught up on all three seasons available from Netflix), I gave _Lost_ a go. It feels very much like a conventional ABC drama, with predictably pretty people and predictably not-pretty people filling predictable rolls. The six or seven episodes I watched evinced most of the same stale plot and character mechanics that _Dexter_ almost always seems to avoid. _Lost_ feels like the straight version of something David Lynch might’ve done much better.

    Still, when time permits, I’d like to give it another chance. In the meantime, when I _do_ have time, I try to fit in an episode or two of _Jericho_. I’ll give you that CBS each practically a cheese factory, but somehow there’s a craft to the setting, the characters, and the plot that easily passes through. Which, I’ll cynically claim is the reason it was cancelled–twice.

    _Lost_ just feels like an average hame-and-turkey sandwich with spicy mustard as a last resort.

  23. It makes no sense to pick it up at this point. There are many, many things you’re missing. A quick explanation isn’t going to do it.

    I think the “reading a novel 5/6ths of the way in” is the perfect analogy.

    I can relate, because that was how I picked up Six Feet Under. The first episode I saw was a turning point in the series in the fifth and final season. Knowing what I knew definitely colored how I saw the show. In retrospect, I would rather have watched it start to finish.

  24. What kind of novel are we talking about? If the author is, say, Nabokov, yes I would say one shouldn’t pick it up 5/6th of the way through. On the other hand, if the author is, say, Danielle Steele, well I kind of think you can start anywhere. Guess which one I think “Lost” resembles more?

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