Friday, May 21, 2010

Is LOST Complex or Just a Mess?

I just read this article railing against the TV Series Lost.  I have to say, I feel quite relieved. I have only watched the first three episodes of Lost in full (I catch bits of other episodes when my roommates watch) but that was all it took to develop a deal-breaking suspicion that the show was creating a false mystique, generating a million questions about mysterious island forces and character histories and space-time warps, but rarely offering any insights, or tie-ins or answers, not because that's "the point" of the show, but because they had no good answers to give.

The alleged grounding in philosophy and mythology and the supplemental material online just makes it seem all the more like bullshit to me, smokescreen to mask poor plot development. It seems less like an intellectual show than it merely poses as one.  A good story should not tie up nicely like a bow, but it must have a worthwhile resolution or resolutions of some kind.  The resolution may be inspiring, tragic or ambivalent as long as its relevant, and to some degree unexpected. That's why writing endings to stories is often the hardest part. The resolution fulfills the contract between reader and author, a promise that if you continue reading (or watching) I will resolve, in some fashion, the conflicts I have proposed here.

I recall giving up on the show (and tearing up that contract) after the first few episodes because they introduced so many mysteries and dilemmas in rapid succession that they started feeling unconnected and arbitrary.  Instead of weaving a plot, they appeared to be spinning a wheel to see what crazy new circumstances would befall the gang this week -- they stumble on to an ancient sculpture of a mantis-like god, and then the hull of a spacecraft, and then a book of dark magic, and then a crash survivor who turns out to be a high-maintenance schizophrenic off his meds (but also knows something others don't about the island), and then a man-eating palm tree...

At what point can the reader or viewer safely decide there is no method, that all these questions and conflicts are just one big stall on the way toward a grossly unsatisfying, slipshod ending?  If there was a method -- some vision guiding the show's creators, ensuring that all new plot developments were not arbitrary but in fact served to move the story and characters toward realizing that vision (however imperfectly formed) -- I wasn't convinced as such after three episodes.

Perhaps I'd have been willing to wait it out longer, to let the show convince me there was a vision after all, were I only enticed by character development in the meantime.  But there's another problem, because the characters on Lost are so numerous and archetypal there was no way I was going to identify with them after three episodes.  Observe now, the dashing doc, the tough and edgy hot girl, the drug addict, the mystic, the noble and unassuming ugly guy, and so much more!  The show's attempt to be all-inclusive from the get go, rather than adequately developing one or two and letting the others come in time, made the show feel jumpy, scattered and shallow.  Perhaps character depth improved as the show progressed, but again, how long am I supposed to wait?

A fan can legitimately and easily refute my criticism of Lost, based as it is on just a few early impressions.  But this wouldn't be the first time a TV show was so preoccupied with twists!, twists!, twists! that it quickly obliterated any chance for a meaningful and resolved story arc.  The second season of 24 comes to mind (I stopped watching halfway through), though at least there at least some clumsy attempt to connect the dots.  An essential appeal of Lost seems predicated on mystery, and the notion that "all will be revealed" in the end.  For mysteries, the resolution must include one or more revelations, but I suspect that in many cases the twist or mystery preceded the source (if there ends up being one).  In other words, the strategy was, add sensational details to the plot (a new trait of the invisible monster, a dark episode from a character's past, etc) and reveal them in drips and drabs (especially at the end of an episode) to hook the audience, and work out some explanation for why these details are relevant and connected long after the fact. There's no rule against building a plot in this way, but it's a huge gamble, and you'd better be able to pay up when the time comes -- pay with connections and revelations tantamount to the mysteries themselves, or else the ending, and by extension the whole story, feels "cheap."

Given the show's popularity I feel a strong compulsion to watch the whole damn thing just so I can confirm my suspicions that the show is *not* complex but is, as Adams claims in his rant, simply "a mess."  Hopefully if that time ever comes I will either finally "get it" and become an indoctrinated fan (which I doubt) or I'll be able to criticize it more openly, . For now, I'll rest a little easier knowing this dude who has watched the whole thing seems to feel the way I do.

*Image (but not cartoon thought bubble) from

Addendum: I'm not typically inclined to make such bold criticisms based on so little evidence or experience, but it was a decent excuse to talk about the virtues of good plot development, even if I am entirely wrong about Lost. I also don't take contrarian viewpoints often enough, probably because I'm scared of exposing any ignorance whatsoever, so you might equate this ill-informed appraisal to holding my hand over the flame to see just how much I can tolerate, in order that I may begin risking even bolder claims.

Having conceded all that, I will also say that I trust my instincts that the show is highly overrated. I don't deny there's a chance if I simply watched more of the show I'd be evangelized, nor am I above pulling such a 180 -- I relish such moments. But I'll bet 100 dollars I'd feel exactly the same way that I do now, whether I watched a full season or the full series. The only change would be that I'd have specific examples to cite for why I think it's a weak show, and . There's a lot you can tell about a TV show's potential from a single episode, let alone three.

I do agree though that there's an increasing complexity within television in general, that in fact we're in the Golden Age of television, not only because there seems to be a greater tolerance for shows that break the mold, but also because shows are allowed to end, instead of just fizzle out. So many times in the last ten years I have watched a show for the first time and after 15 minutes knew I was going to fall in love with it.

Truly, I had that hope for Lost when I started Season One, lo those many years ago, but... ugh, I just found it so frustrating, and eventually, lame. I saw no indications of brilliant, progressive thinking or writing, the kind of evidence that would have compelled me to leave aside the aspects I didn't connect with right away, at least for a while. I did not sense bold experimentation in a new medium, as you put it, but a smattering of cheap sensational tricks guided by no great vision in particular so much as a need to hook, hook, hook the audience at the end of forty minutes each week.

Perhaps they did have answers to their "big questions" before posing them in the unfolding story, but as a viewer I didn't find myself remotely interested in the answers because there was so little that was compelling about the story and it's early questions in the first place, be it a character or an unexpected (if minor) connection or revelation, something that earns my interest, emotional resonance, and trust.

I had a clinical psych professor who pointed out that, in therapy, deep healing and lasting change may take years of work and slow progress, and so patience is a virtue. But, he said, as a therapist you should aspire to "give them something" by the end of the first session, an insight that earns some of their trust, their respect, and their belief that maybe you can do something for them they cannot do on their own. Otherwise, why would they come back? It's hard enough for most people to make the first step into therapy. How long are they supposed to wait for a sign that some magic might happen for them in your care?

By the same token, it's an investment of time and mental energy to read the first pages of a book, or the first episode of a show, and as the writer of the story, it is your responsibility to forge some sort of early bond, if only enough so that the viewer or reader will follow you for another couple of steps. And to forge that bond, you have to do *something* remarkable.

The only remarkable thing I can remember about the early episodes of Lost was some dude in the opening minutes surviving the catalytic plane crash only to get yanked by a rush of air into the still-churning jet engine like an ant into a vacuum tube (I admit that was pretty intense).

I'm sure that even in Picasso's earliest works within his new medium there were traces of unrefined brilliance. Regardless, there is a canyon of difference between experimenting in a medium and a show that's worthy of broadcast in the first place finding its stride several episodes in. Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Arrested Development, The Office, Dexter, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Sports Night, West Wing, most of my favorite shows broke the mold to some degree, and they all got better as they went on (at least for a while, before some of them got worse). But if I go back to the first three episodes of any of these I can find much that is valuable, much that make the episodes worth watching in and of themselves, but also make watching the next episode a no-brainer investment.

I'm not the one to be making the argument that the complexity of Lost is a sham, but there are clearly people out there who have watched the whole show and feel exactly that way, for example the writer of the article I referenced and one of the commenters (besides me). They are a slim minority perhaps, but it appears to be a legitimate position.

I also hated the Lord of the Rings trilogy though, so… what the hell do I know?


Chrissy (The New Me) said...

Having been a faithful LOST fan from the beginning, I want to have faith that the ending will do the series (which has had it's high points and it's low points) justice. Without giving anything away, the mysteries do not stop coming, not even in this last season. For every answer, you get two new questions. It's frustrating and it might end up being terribly disappointing, but I'm in this to win this! I'm looking forward to the end, because I want to know what happens (and what happened!) but I also just want to do be done. I'll let you know how I feel next week. ;)

Jim C. said...

In all sincerity Chrissy, I shall keep my fingers crossed for you! In fact, if you end up satisfied and even a little inspired by the end, perhaps that's the reassurance I'll need to give the show another go. Keep me posted!

Em said...

Oh, but the character development keeps getting better and better. Jack and Kate are meh, but you are missing out if you haven't gotten to know Sun and Jin, and Hurley, and Locke, and Desmond. And BEN, for the love of god, BEN!!! And so many others. Some mysteries are explained along the way, some not quite, some in a way that feels ex post facto, and we'll see how the finale goes, but either way I'm not sorry I've watched. There has been some really fun suspense and mindfucking, and some very memorable characters.

hanna said...

I agree that LOST lacks the elegance of the pared down plotline. Indeed, it is more like a Chinese food menu that goes on for pages with slightly modified combinations of the same ingredients than a prix fixe (pricier, but perfect). Unfortunately I also agree with your preemptive self-critique-- that, having only watched 3 episodes, you are ill-equipped to evaluate even the effectiveness of the beginning shows (!)
In times like this I look to my friend Pablo Picasso for analogies. Just imagine that guy: capable (gifted) from a very young age to capture realistic likenesses. He chose, as a has-been master of traditional portraiture, to go abstract.
Like Picasso, shouldn't we fully understand (master?) our medium before we choose to critique?

JDS said...

Another faithful LOST fan here. As far as TV shows go, I believe the show has done better than most at characterization. The mysteries are part of the appeal. But I'll agree that it might have dug itself into a bit of a hole by having so MANY mysteries. However, we shouldn't let that distract from overall solid nature of the show. On Monday I will be posting a 6-Season retrospective of the show on my blog. I'm going to try to be as objective as possible, although I know my bias is sure to show through.

Jim C. said...

I have posted an addendum (which may just be more of the same).