Monday, May 24, 2010

Farewell to Lost

It has finally come to an end – and while I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it, I feel like I need to put in my two cents on Lost and it’s place in TV history as a way to “let go.” Also, I’m a little frustrated with the buzz going on around about the finale not providing “answers,” the failures of season six, and the hatred surrounding the series. I’m not going to delve into issues with the smoke monster or polar bears, but there will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, you’d best stop reading now. So as not to repeat much of what you can find elsewhere on the Internet, I’m going to stick to a couple main points and then offer some critical analysis that bugged me enough last night that after sleeping on it, I still want to talk about it.

First off, to all those who thought that Lost would give them answers to all the mysteries it set up – what were you thinking?? I understand that a lot of people watch television in a narrative contained vacuum, meaning, we attach to specific series and programs and follow the narrative, searching for some sort of narrative consistency. What many people seem to have forgotten is that Lost was the brainchild of J. J. Abrams. If you expected narrative consistency, you hitched your star to the wrong wagon. Let me count the ways:

Anyone remember Felicity? Brilliant set up about a girl who goes to college following her high school crush, then four years of narrative convolution to make sure they ended up together in the finale. Of course, this was as a result of Noel’s sacrifice of realizing Felicity would never love him like she loved Ben. Lesson? College is a consistent struggle, a journey to find yourself (which almost always includes massive changes to your hair if you're a woman), and really, at the end you already knew where you should be.

Or perhaps Alias is more your speed? Secret double-agent spy spends five years chasing random fringe organizations, culminating in defeating the ultimate bad guy/mastermind. The main romance between Sydney and Vaughn underscores the action (and is even impacted by a time shift!) and they end up together in the end with two kids, retired from their time in the CIA. Oh, yeah, and there’s a big show down between Jack (Sydney’s father) and Sloane (the big bad) where Jack traps Sloane in a cave after he becomes immortal.

Over on Fringe, in case you haven’t been watching, we have a narrative quite similar to the X-Files with alternate universes and a budding romance between Olivia and Peter destined to be screwed up by his alternate reality origins. And again, the pairing of two halves of male counterparts – Walter and Bell…of course, Bell (Leonard Nimoy) sacrificed himself at the end of the second season in order to send people back to their universes (and because he publicly announced his retirement from acting, so look for there to be some kind of replacement big bad here in future seasons).

Is it any wonder that Lost went down the way it went down? The similarities are uncanny and show the same narrative preferences – Abrams creates a general world, one where romance and relationships are key, and then fumbles around with general narrative confusion ala Pulp Fiction for as many years as the television networks that sign his series will let him. AND in each of those cases, the final seasons of those series suffered when his creative attention was diverted to other outlets (the final season of Felicity was panned almost unilaterally, the last two seasons of Alias were woefully sub-par once he started working on Lost, and now Lost is catching flack for a lackluster sixth season while Fringe is getting all kinds of props for kicking up their second season). If you went into Lost looking for answers, you were duped. Abrams’ narratives are all about the journey, the underlying message that relational connectedness is what makes us human, even in the face of the most inhumane, random, odd occurrences.

So, Lost ended the only way it COULD end – with a montage of narrative connection, illustrating that each of these characters was ultimately “lost” when they arrived at the island – none of them trusted anyone, they were generally shrouded in secrets, and all of them were fundamentally flawed. Their journey was what they needed in order to truly connect and trust others, ultimately saying that without human connection and trust, the soul will never be whole. I dig it. I honestly don’t care all that much about picking apart the narrative for inconsistencies – because doing so in a J. J. Abrams series is sure to give you a migraine, and honestly, think about it. As someone who writes for a living, I can’t tell you what I wrote word for word five years ago – and half the writers working on the series probably don’t even remember some of the narrative arcs they started at that point. On one hand, you could argue it’s their job to know, on the other, have you ever tried to kick out scripts for a series that needs 20-24 new episodes in a year on a timetable fast enough to shoot it (especially with Lost being on location in Hawaii and the scenic elements of the series) over a six year period? 

In terms of the haters, I get it. You probably dislike narratives that don’t wrap up neatly. You are probably fans of more serial series scripted by CBS (aka anything that Jerry Bruckheimer touches). And that’s okay. But allow us tortured souls to enjoy our convoluted romps in peace.

That being said, my only problems with the way everything ended were problems I had very early on in the series. I’ve actually started to see these as specific patterns in Abrams’ work, so I’m not surprised, but it’s still disappointing.

1) I’ve actually commented academically about my malaise surrounding the “internationalism” Lost became acclaimed for – when in reality, the “international” characters simply serve as postcolonial templates (though a bit more interesting than have appeared in the past), and ultimately are the characters that all die so that the white people can escape. While I loved the beauty of the moment between Sun and Jin, it was more heart-wrenching that they ultimately sacrificed themselves so that Jack and Sawyer could live. And with all the awesomeness of Sayid, the fact that he got taken out by a bomb trying to save everyone was really unfulfilling given his development over the past several seasons (besides, wasn't he already dead?). Plus, the other black characters were killed/written off long ago (sans Rose, but she's always been more of a sage/wisewoman archetype, so see below). Now, I get that in the end, they're all dead. Fine. But the narrative consistently sacrifices characters of color at the expense of furthering the white characters' personal growth/journey. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised here – in Alias and Fringe, the black characters pretty much serve similar functions that support the white persons’ quest for the “truth.”

2) While Abrams is often lauded for creating interesting female characters, his work is always about the relationship between two men. The role of women, though more prominent than in perhaps other sci-fi narratives, leaves much to be desired, relegating fans to interpreting the narrative in ways that bolster the women’s images. (Aside: I commented here on how fans of Alias tried to reclaim the narrative power of the series from the predetermined romantic arc with Vaughn through fan fiction.) The main struggles are between Noel and Ben, Jack and Sloane, Jack and Locke, or Walter and Bell. The only thing Lost did was mix it up a bit because sometimes in the middle of the series, it made itself about Jack and Sawyer. The women are almost entirely reduced to their romantic attachments, and ultimately their roles as mothers. I actually sort of screamed at my television when Jacob told Kate she was crossed off the wall because she became a mother! She can’t take a job saving the world because she had a kid? Seriously!? And why is it that Juliet is the mother of Jack’s kid in alternate land? Is that because she was the only main female character NOT to have one (as a result of her being unable to have kids, if I remember correctly)? It’s amazing to me how much of a six year narrative on an island where women apparently can’t give birth revolves around ways for them to get around it so that they can have children and ultimately become mothers. The only one who doesn't fall into this trap is Rose, and that's because she fulfills the wise old woman/sage role, and is clearly past the age of childbearing.

So, farewell Lost. I enjoyed you immensely. I fell in love with your characters and appreciated the ride.


  1. I really enjoyed the narrative conclusion of lost but hated the plot conclusion. Up until season 6 I loved the balance of science and characters, but it feels like all of the physics got thrown out in the last season and everything is magic now.

    They created a parallel universe with a paradox with the hydrogen bomb, but that universe winds up just being a purgatory that they can "leave" at will? Makes no sense in the context of the established physics.

    That said, the narrative work was amazing and I felt like that was the best way to say goodbye to these characters.

  2. Just an FYI - Abrams hasn't been involved in the show since the first few eps of season 1. While there are certainly continuities between the shows that have his name on them, he's really not an authorial force beyond the first season.

  3. @withak - agreed, but a lot of sci-fi series have the same problem, so I guess that didn't bother me all that much.

  4. @Jason - That may be true – but Abrams still gets writing credits for 114 episodes of the series and is still the primary executive producer. It’s also no accident that Jack Bender (who also directed on Alias and Felicity) has the most number of directorial credits, or that Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis (who also wrote on Felicity) have a significant number of writing credits. Plus, even if Abrams wasn’t around much, Damon Lindelof was, and his vision with Abrams aligns (especially given their work on Star Trek). I guess if you want to dig deeper, perhaps Jeffrey Lieber’s involvement in Miami Medical split his attention to this season. Long version I guess to say, though I say "Abrams" and it sounds like just him, a creator comes with creative followers, who tend to produce similar kinds of narratives.