In defense of ‘Lost’

I’ve hesitated to post about Lost because it’s such an insanely popular phenomenon, and it’s easy to get, well, lost in the frustration of unanswered questions, or in the masturbatory game of speculating about their answers.  I can empathize with Thumbu Sammy’s declaration of “bullshit” yesterday, but I’ve also watched the show pretty faithfully since it debuted, during my second year of grad school.  So, for one week only, I’ll reluctantly assume the mantle of a doctrinaire Lost apologist.

The show’s primary source of value lies in its escapism.  For reasons of personal psychopathology, the fantasy of crash landing on a mysterious tropical island with an ethnically diverse group of potential sexual partners holds massive appeal for me.  Last month, though, Lost was awarded a Peabody for “rewriting the rules of television fiction.”  The bizarre implications of “rewriting the rules” of fictional narrative give me pause, but I do think the award was well-deserved, especially if we qualify its justification to refer more specifically to prime time network television.  If we can ignore some of its more infuriating devices — most notoriously the Misdirective Cutaway, the Overly Literal Cutaway, and the characters’ wholesale refusal ever to respond straightforwardly to even the simplest of questions — we should be able to appreciate that Lost has indeed accomplished narrative feats that no other network series has ever dreamed of.

(Spoilers ahoy, for anyone who’s not entirely caught up.)

I’ll make my case by way of a double analogy.  When I describe The wire to the uninitiated, I often echo an observation that a friend of mine once made about the show: it manages to turn televisual seriality into a means of achieving what Victorian novelists set out to do back in the day; namely, to represent the modern polis in its totality, from the bottom up.  In order to do so, its purview broadens with each season: while season one focuses on the politics of a single long-term police investigation into an exceptionally well-organized drug racket, the scope of season two also includes the chain of supply.  Season three implicates the city- and state-level politics that oversee said supply; season four analyzes the inability of the inner city public school system to respond to the pyramidal, generational structure of drug distribution; and season five indicts the print media’s complicity in these processes.

Lost operates by an analogous narrative logic (to much different ends, obviously).  Each season imposes a paradigm shift, and these shifts have effectively re-landscaped even the most fundamental premises of the show.  Season one posited a relatively limited set of narrative conflicts: the survivors of Oceanic 815 had to get off the island without starving to death, and without getting killed by a shadowy monster or the island’s mysterious indigenous population of Others.  If they could get some action while they were waiting to be rescued, all the better.  While season two opens a dialog of sorts between the various survivors of Oceanic 815 and the indigenous Others, season three radically shifts perspectives to show us some of what has been going with those Others during the timeline of the first two seasons, thereby complicating our assumptions about where our sympathies should lie.  At the end of season three, in a brilliant twist on the show’s characteristic flashbacks, we learn (via the now much-abused flashforward) that our heroes do indeed get safely off the island.  Resolving the inaugural conflict of a series halfway through its run takes brass balls.

If we imagine this progress in cartographic terms, it’s clear how Lost‘s scale broadens with each successive season.  A map of season one would be confined principally to the island’s beach and the caves.  Season two includes “the hatch,” the other survivors’ camp, and a select few other points on the island. Season three brings us to the Others’ settlement; and season four to the rest of the world.  The only possible territory into which the show’s empire could continue expanding by season five, then, is time.  As difficult as it was for me to swallow the newly undeniable science fiction elements of seasons four and five, I had to concede that this was another brass balls move: Lost‘s own diegetic logic has been totally overhauled.

J.J. steals a page from Links book.
J.J. steals a page from Link's book.

Halfway through season five, I do think the decision is paying off.  The entertainment value of time travel has unhinged the series from any social-critical prerogative.  I’m dubious, though, of what season six might have in store.  The primary conflict of the show now seems to revolve around the restoration of linear time; if said conflict is resolved by the end of the season (which I’m assuming will be the case, thanks to 2009’s amendments to the Televisual Laws of Payoff* — amendments prompted in no small part by Lost itself), what lies in store for the series?  If it already includes the 3+1 dimensions of spacetime, where can season six logically go?

*Explanatory post forthcoming.

— J.C. Freñán

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