This post is, of course, rather redundant to true fans of the TV show Lost because Season 5 has been completely aired, and most people are getting excited about what’s coming in Season 6.
So maybe this can be a little note for those who’ve never watched any Lost and are wondering if it’s really as good as it’s cracked up to be.
Well, I suppose first of all – what Lost is not: it’s not a subtle character drama, in the vein of Sopranos or any similar HBO series. It’s designed for America’s ABC channel, so all content is kept at a reasonably mild level, and all characterisations are the larger-than-life type that you find in a typical disaster film. The heroic doctor, the heroic girl, the loudmouth, etc. etc.
However, where this show has won over the hearts and minds of viewers is largely in two areas: a) its originality and b) it’s cleverness. And for me, I’d add c) it’s brilliant use of the 45-minute TV episode as a storytelling medium.
A little on all three.
a) I read an article once, which I now can’t remember where, which described two guys who have developed working out movie popularity down to almost a mathematical formula. They can read a script, and based on the script, work out how popular the film is going to be. And one of the things that really makes a film or show take off is actually not the big stars – but the location.
And that has well and truly been proved with Lost. We’re so used to seeing either big American cities (in the law/medical/police dramas) or small country towns or whatever in TV shows, that a show set almost exclusively on a tropical island is quite a novelty. Just watch a couple of episodes of Lost with its lush greenery and sparkling sands, and it just doesn’t look like any show you’ve ever seen before. And because it’s a different location, different stuff happens. People run through trees being chased by things. People hide in the jungle. People discover things hidden in the jungle. (It’s just like playing those adventures games we used to play on computers in the 80s/90s all over again.)
2) The cleverness. When Lost first took off, in nearly every single episode of its 25-episode first season, it raised new questions. Just when we wanted to know more about what was going on – a new episode came out that raised completely different questions. By the end of the first season, there were so many questions that were up in the air, that the word on the street was that the guys behind the show were just making it up as they went along.
As it turns out, we were quite wrong. Slowly, bit by bit, every question is being answered. There are certainly more arising, but those who have continued to follow the show (there have been drop-offs along the way) have been rewarded with bigger and bigger answers.
3) But for me, it’s not just the cleverness of the plot that I like – it’s the structural beauty of the show. Like all good shows that we love, it has created a formula. For instance, those of us that follow House M.D. are familiar with the formula. Someone mysteriously gets sick, House solves the case over the next 45 minutes. Show over.
And Lost too developed a unique style. In any given 45-minute episode, it would pick one character, and during the episode, we would see flashbacks of a past time in that person’s life. Simple concept, but it worked beautifully.
First of all, it gave us a structure to follow and really worked to mix things up and keep it interesting. (After all, all those trees and jungle could get a bit boring.) But most importantly it worked because while the present-day island parts were raising questions in our minds, the flashbacks were answering questions. So by taking from us with one hand and feeding us with the other, the creators of the show were able to lull us into a sense of trust – trust that they would explain all the mysteries to us.
Where this worked exceptionally well is in Season 1 – probably still my favourite, even though I’m aware the action really hotted up in Season 4.
But Season 1 worked well because in the opening minutes we were simply dropped into the middle of a unique situation. A man in a business suit wakes up on his back in the jungle, looking dazed and confused. He looks around and sees a white dog. That makes him even more confused. Then he hears a noise, runs through the trees and out onto a deserted beach.
Then we see it . . . a burning wrecked plane and people scrambling around trying to escape. As the man in the suit runs around rescuing people, we find out that there are about 14 speaking parts (plus lots and lots of extras that never say a word).
At first, because we don’t know these people, we can only judge on first appearances. The guy in the suit is Jack, a doctor. He seems to be quite a hero. Then there’s the nice girl, Kate, that he meets. There’s Hurley, a larger overweight Spanish-American. There’s Michael, an African-American guy trying to connect with his young son. There’s Locke, the bald guy who carries hunting knives with him.
And at first we make snap judgements – “I like her. He’s nice. That guy’s a creep.”
But then, over the season, we start seeing flashbacks of these people’s lives. And then, one by one, we start to realise that there are reasons these people act the way they do. And so the first great mysteries of Lost that get explained are the back stories for these characters. And so every episode, we found out something new about someone which made us feel like we knew a little bit more – which temporarily made us forget that we had no idea where they were, why there was a killer monster in the forest, and polar bears running around.
And thus the saga went. This simple formula, though, had a cumulative effect. Every episode was perfectly balanced between present-day and flashback and would carry forward an episode arc. But then every episode was carrying the arc of the season forward. And every season is carrying forward the overall story arc.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all perfect. There are some episodes (especially in Season 2) that were redundant. It was like they had 18 episodes worth of ideas and they had to make 24. So you sometimes got some episodes that didn’t really carry the overall story forward or provide any memorable back story information about the characters.
But those were well and truly made up for by the episodes that did. What’s more – come the third season – the pattern that we were used to became like a piece of classical music – if you were creative enough, varying the pattern could become a memorable experience in itself. So there are some episodes that are legendary in their effect on first-time viewers, because the creators of the show played games with our perspective of what we expected to see. This is especially apparent in the opening minutes of the new seasons. The filmmakers excelled at making people wonder if they were really watching the same show they were viewing last season.
Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. I’m working my way through Season 5, and I’ll be hoping to catch up with all the internet hype I’ve missed for Season 6. The one thing about being slow is that I miss the community that has grown up around Lost as fans have swapped theories and tried to work out what is going on. So I’ve deliberately tried to avoid as much reading about Lost online as I can to preserve the delight of seeing each episode unfold without knowing what’s happening next.
To sum up – when the whole thing is finished, unless the creators well and truly run out of steam and stuff the whole thing up – it will be one of the most satisfying, and epic tales that have ever been told. It will be one of the greatest examples of serialisation ever created. The creators have used the limitations of the 45 minute TV episode and the 22 (give or take)-episode season to craft a new type of storytelling. It’s like a master novel-writer was told that they had to write a novel that could be released in a set number of small books of 15,000 words each.
What they’ve achieved is amazing. But don’t just take my word for it. I’d try it for yourself. If you can get hold of Disc 1 of the first season, watch the first four episodes. I’m especially keen to see what you think of Episode 4 (Walkabout). That was the episode that sold me on this series and, for me, is probably the defining episode of the whole series. If it sells you on it too, then you’re going to have great fun with the rest of this series.
If it’s not your thing, at least you found out early.