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Faith, Free Will, and Smoke Monsters: The Legacy of Lost

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor


ImageWith the series finale of Lost less than a week away, it’s hard not to think about its future legacy.  Here’s my prediction: years from now, when critics are examining the history of television, I believe that Lost is going to be ranking among the best and most influential shows ever made.

That’s not to say that Lost hasn’t had its missteps.  (Nikki/Paulo and the episode devoted to how Jack got his tattoos come immediately to mind.)  But even at its worst, Lost was better than 90 percent of television on the air.  At its best, Lost was transcendent, a character-driven drama with an overarching mythology that seamlessly incorporated elements of philosophy, mythology, religion, and science fiction.  It was a show that worked on many different levels, never failing to challenge its audience.  It was a show that made you think and demanded to be watched over and over again.

But in order to examine Lost’s legacy, we have to go back to the beginning.
I didn’t watch Lost’s much-heralded series premiere on September 22, 2004.  I heard about it, of course—it was one of the most talked-about pilots of the 2004 season.  But when I heard the concept—survivors of a plane crash end up stranded together on a tropical island—I thought, “Oh, just what television needs: another Gilligan’s Island.”  But in December, during an otherwise barren month of reruns and holiday specials, ABC reran the episode.  And I was hooked.  Here were these people stranded on this strange island, with polar bears and pilot-killing monsters and a radio message from a strange French lady playing in a loop for 16 years.

Most of the questions posed by the show in that first episode have been answered.  But there’s one big exception: the one asked by washed-up rocker Charlie Pace at the end of the episode: Where are we?  And I suspect that even after the finale is over, it’s still going to be up for debate.  Because Lost has never been the kind of program to give us easy answers.  No, Lost has always been more interactive than that, a show that makes us think and debate rather than one that just washes over us as easy entertainment.

Lost’s extensive mythology has tackled a lot of the big issues: good vs. evil, fate vs. free will, the possibility of redemption.  But Lost, at its core, has always been about its characters.  In the beginning, many of the characters seemed almost archetypical: the good doctor, the roguish con man, the funny fat guy, the domineering Asian husband and his meek wife, the drug-addicted former rock star.  But as we got to know the characters—both through their flashbacks and through their interactions on the island—we started to understand that they were much more than they initially appeared.  We’ve seen these characters grow and evolve over the course of six years, to the point where they’ve all become very real and three-dimensional.

And quite frankly, those characters usually know a helluva lot less about what’s going on, the big picture, than we do.  They are merely pawns in the grand scheme of things.  They’re not contemplating how their life on the island relates to existentialism or nihilism or any other “ism” because they’re on their own journeys: trying to figure out how to survive, trying to reconcile themselves to their own paths, and trying to attain redemption in their own ways.  Our Lostaways may be pawns of the island and its mysterious supernatural forces, but when the show ends on Sunday, “answers” won’t be the main thing I’m concerned with.  Rather, I want to know what happens to Jack, Kate, Hurley, and company.  The mystery and the mythology may have made Lost unique in the television landscape, but all along, it has been the characters that have grounded it, kept it from getting too twisted up with obscure philosophy and meta-narrativeness.

And whatever else you can say about the show, Lost certainly has been unique.  By introducing an overarching story that spanned the course of the show, it has ensured that nearly every episode has an important place within the tapestry of the show.  By setting the end date for the series three years in advance, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse—the show’s executive producers and its driving creative force—ensured that they could tell the entire story in their own way and their own time.  By using flashback and flash-forward narration to tell its stories, the show allowed us to know the characters in a deeper way than we could have if they’d stuck solely to the island.  And by slowly building up the science fiction and mythological aspects of the story rather than introducing them fully in the first season, Lost has managed to increase our suspension of disbelief: if the island had started jumping through time in season 1, no one would have bought it.  By season 5, though, it seemed a natural extension of everything else that had come before.  And by doing all of the above, Lost has managed to become a show where viewers care passionately about both its characters and its overarching mythology.  And to me, that is Lost’s greatest achievements.

That’s not to say that everyone will be satisfied with the ending.  Come Monday morning, I’m sure a lot of people will be crying foul.  (Hell, I may be one of them!)  But Lost has never aimed to be populist.  Instead, it aimed for greatness.

Which brings me back to my original point: when television critics look back on this, I think they will say that Lost has succeeded.  It is a show that will (and already has) influenced many others, and it will also leave its own totally unique footprint on the television landscape.

But for all this talk about Lost’s legacy, this Sunday will still be bittersweet for me.  Sure, we’ll (theoretically) have the answers that we’ve been waiting for all along.  But no matter how it ends, Lost has always been about the journey.  And no matter what happens in the finale, this journey, sadly, is over. 

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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