For six years on ABC, the passengers of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 survived polar bears, crazed gunmen, nuclear bombs, smoke monsters, and a child-stealing clan they dubbed “the Others.” They jumped through dimensions, swapped romantic partners, and carried terrible secrets. They endured time travel, betrayal, hippie utopians, and the stress of living on an isolated island with no clear possibility of rescue or escape.
And then, on May 23, 2010, the heroes of Lost faced their greatest nemesis: social media.
There are a lot of ways to look at Lost‘s legacy, but the ongoing hubbub over the show’s finale means that any conversation is probably always going to begin with a debate over whether this sci-fi/survivalist headscracther “stuck the landing.” Lost debuted 10 years ago today (September 22, 2004) with a near-perfect pilot, cutting back and forth between the aftermath of a spectacular plane crash and what the various passengers were doing before the aircraft ripped apart. The first episode teased that there was more to this seemingly random group of strangers than was immediately apparent. So just when any reasonable telephile would’ve wondered how ABC was going to eke an ongoing series out of a plane-wreck, the Oceanic 815 survivors encountered a mysterious, tree-rattling roar from the jungle just beyond the beach where they’d washed up, and found a transmission in French warning: “It killed them all.” Who are these people? Why did their plane crash? And what is the deal with this crazy island?
The question not on anyone’s mind? “I wonder what happens to these people after they die?” But that’s the story that Lost‘s head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse chose to tell, in a final season twist that saw the castaways simultaneously inhabiting the Island and some strange “sideways universe” — eventually revealed in the finale to be a kind of pre-afterlife antechamber. Contrary to popular complaint, the finale did not reveal that the Oceanic 815 passengers were “dead the whole time.” To paraphrase the show itself, whatever happened on the Island, happened; purgatory came later. But after spending 120 episodes building out a complex mythology tied to an ancient battle between good and evil — and along the way implying that the characters’ actions would have dire consequences — Lost‘s “and then they all died and went to heaven” happy ending smacked of a cop-out.
For what it’s worth, of the millions of people who watched that finale — or the even more excoriated How I Met Your Mother finale earlier this year — a good number responded to the emotional beats of what is, in and of itself, a well-crafted episode of television. Nevertheless, the battle still rages online, between those who defend Lost as a pop phenomenon of rare vision and ambition (for the record, I happen to be in that camp), and those who need the record to reflect that the show was an infuriating waste of time. Because while the internet allows people to find little communities of the like-minded, it also demands uniform opposition to certain crimes against geek culture, like the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix sequels — and a TV show about castaways that turned out to be far more philosophically complex than Gilligan’s Island.
The irony of the web’s post-finale anti-Lost turn is that not since Buffy The Vampire Slayer had a TV show done so much to foster a virtual community. The popularity of the weekly episodic review/recap owes a lot to Lindelof and Cuse’s series, because the show’s fans would drive traffic from site to site after an episode ended, picking through the various clues, coincidences, and crazy-ass theories, speculating on the meaning of every prop and ambiguous line of dialogue. As annoying as social media can be for those who have to wait a day or two to catch up on a buzz show like Mad Men, Twitter and the like have brought back the days when large groups of people watch TV live, rather than time-shifting. We have Lost to thank for fostering that habit.
The downside to all this post-game chatter is that a lot of those same fans have also gotten into the habit of looking at serialized TV shows in terms of where they’re headed. Viewers sometimes guess directions for a show that are far cooler than what the actual creators have in mind — which then makes them unreasonably resistant to the story they’re actually being told. Meanwhile, the obsession with the endgame means that a show can produce a well-written, artfully directed, beautifully acted stand-alone episode, and still get pilloried because it didn’t “move the plot forward.”
This is where the legacy of Lost is most often misinterpreted — even by people who make television, who should know better. After that brilliant pilot, Lindelof and his writers made the equally smart move of building each first-season episode around a single character’s flashback, which let viewers get to know Jack the doctor, Kate the fugitive, Sawyer the con man, Sayid the torturer, Locke the paraplegic true-believer, Hurley the jinx, and the rest. When the flashback structure started wearing thin by the end of Season Three, the show abruptly shifted to flash-forwards, showing what some characters would do once they got off the Island; by season six, it had moved on to “flash-sideways.” But whatever the gimmick, the structure always allowed the writers to leave central tropical locale each week and hop around the globe, telling stories that ranged from comedy to romance to action-adventure. Each week brought something different and unexpected — and each episode had the potential to be a new TV classic, like “Walkabout,” “Live Together, Die Alone,” “The Man Behind The Curtain,” “The Constant,” “LaFleur,” or “Ab Aeterno.”
The creators of today’s serialized shows may boast that they’ve “learned the lessons of Lost” by planning better where a story is going and cutting back on unanswered questions. But what made the show great was that it apportioned its sweeping narrative into episodes that had their own mini-plots and themes, strong enough that fans still remember their titles, years later. (It’s telling that best episodes of Lindelof’s excellent new HBO show The Leftovers have arguably been the stand-alones.)
Lindelof and Cuse’s insistence on giving each episode its own emotional oomph and “whoa, what the hell” moments is part of what got them into trouble, because they kept introducing new characters, new subplots, and so much new weirdness that they couldn’t possibly pay it all off. But is that so bad, really, to be over-generous with ideas? For all the disgruntlement over how Lost failed as one long epic tale, it did leave behind the Hatch, the Dharma Initiative, the Numbers, Drive Shaft, the Man In Black, Jacob, “Not Penny’s Boat,” “Waaaaalt!” and much more. It’s inspired songs and video game levels, and has been nodded to by other TV shows (including an upcoming Lost-themed episode of the Disney Channel cartoon Phineas & Ferb).
A decade ago, ABC started airing a series that from week to week inspired debates about destiny and free will, and invited fans into a world where canned goods and countdown clocks had their own totemic power — making even the real world outside the show seem more filled with wonder. And then six years after that, Lost ended, with an episode that seemed to acknowledge that this was only ever a TV show, meant to be a diversion, not an epic statement on human existence. Its failings could be seen as a cautionary tale for any television creator who thinks big. But it’s better to take a lesson from the show itself and appreciate the past rather than trying to “course-correct.” Whatever happened, happened. We still keep going back.