Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Lost" is different from other kinds of stories

"Don't tell me what I can't do!"

"Lost" ends Sunday. Everyone is wondering what the "alterna-verse" is, and what secrets will be left unrevealed as the show narrows its focus and whittles its cast down toward some kind of finale.

Whatever it is, a lot of long-term fans will be disappointed. Long-running threads will be left unresolved. We probably won't find out how the Island magically heals people. We probably won't find out why women can't bring pregnancies to term on the Island. We probably won't find out who was shooting at the time-shifting Losties from the outrigger canoe in early Season 5. And the time-travel story arc is beginning to look like a sort of red herring, since its diversion to explore the Dharma Initiative didn't teach us anything about the dynamic between Jacob and Smokey that's apparently been going on for so long.

Loose ends are the consequence of a narrative form that is as distended as American series television, and every very long-run television show about mysteries ends up going off the rails, from a narrative perspective. In the first season, the show's writers are just trying to pack in more trippy stuff and more threads that tease you along to the next episode, so they won't get cancelled.

People just don't get how this works. The show feeds you clues, but they cannot really be clues. If there were "clues" that led logically to "answers," people would figure everything out. The show promises tantalizing "answers" week-to-week, but if there are no more questions, people stop watching.

Lost has been really masterful at big revelations that don't reveal anything. We're going to learn about the Others (who don't know anything). We're going to learn about the Dharma Initiative (who don't know anything). We're going to learn about Jacob (who doesn't know anything). OMG! We're gonna learn about RICHARD (HE DOESN'T KNOW ANYTHING). We're going to find out what the Smoke Monster is (Holy shit! He's a smoke monster).

If somebody could figure out from logical evidence seeded into previous episodes what the Island is, or who the Final Five Cylons are, or who killed Laura Palmer, then the answer could be deduced years in advance. Think about how you might be able to predict the third-act twist in the first twenty minutes of a movie, and imagine how crippling that would be if you could "call" a show like "Lost" in Season 2.

The answer structurally has to be something that comes in from outside the story or from new information that's introduced at the very end of the run. That's why it always ends up being ghosts or magic or angels or something. It feels like a cheat, and it is one. Anyone expecting the final episodes of a show like "Lost" to provide answers that justify years of viewing is going to be disappointed.

And Lost has been cavalier about introducing crazy new elements; the donkey wheel, time travel in S5, and Jacob and Smokey appearing as players for the first time in S6. It's always boxes within boxes; whoever seems to be running things is getting run; there's always some mysterious dude on the horizon who might reveal the answers (tune in next week).

And at the end of the day, you get an EZ-Bake hobbit hole in a mysterious waterfall that nobody has ever been to for some reason.

You just have to kind of enjoy the ride.

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