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“Lost” and the Rules of Television : Guest Blogger Penpusher

May 28, 2010

[Today we welcome Dean “Penpusher” Anderson, who we’ve been reading for years over at his livejournal and, full disclosure, he’s a godfather to IFMiB.  Our favorite Spaceager recently broke down the LOST finale so well, we asked him to map out the television universe for us more.]

To really, fully, completely and totally comprehend the ending of the ABC television series “Lost?” Well, okay. We can’t do that. But, understanding some things about television, and networks and writing? That we can do, and we should do, because when you invest your time, your energy, your interest in a TV series, there are a lot of points that need to be made.

Now, to grasp what happened at the end of this “Lost” series, we need to go all the way back to the beginning, or really before the beginning. JJ Abrams first came into the public consciousness with his show The WB’s “Felicity,” which, in its way, was the first network series of its kind, about a woman who was, for all intents and purposes, a female stalker who traveled from California to New York to enroll at the same college as her quarry. Somehow, people bought into this concept and loved the show in its first season, but then, titular star Keri Russell clipped her long luxurious curls and the program never really recovered.

A bit player on “Felicity” named Jennifer Garner was given the lead in JJ’s Next Big Thing, the ABC action/adventure “Alias.” And it is with “Alias” we can really begin to see the roots of what was to become “Lost.” Abrams dared to ask, “What if ‘Felicity’ were a cool spy?” Garner played a double agent working both for and against the US government, depending on what season it was, traveling all over the globe and tracking artifacts created by a legendary man named Rambaldi, a dude who seemed to be a cross between Leonardo DaVinci and Nostradamus. The program was very intriguing, with each new artifact seeming to bring us closer and closer to… something. But what?

After awhile, there were so many artifacts, so many dead ends, so many twists and surprises and family members/daddy issues that most of the audience tuned out. But we discovered something important about JJ Abrams. He loves mystery. In fact, he values mystery possibly more than storyline. He even stated that fact, more or less, in a “lecture” he gave for (which you can see here ), where he displayed a box of magic tricks he got as a bargain as a child that is still unopened to this day. A big question mark adorned the exterior of the box, as if to say, you’ll never know what’s in this container, and finding out will probably disappoint you.

And that brings us back to “Lost.” This is the natural follow to “Alias,” as the show begins in Sydney (which was the name of Jennifer Garner’s character in that previous drama) and a strange group of people board a flight to Los Angeles. As any Lostie can tell you, the plane crashes on an island where the survivors make a camp, find water, select a leader, and try to make sense of where they are, even as none of it makes any sense, because this island is inhabited by a whole lot of odd people and things.

But JJ Abrams ended his involvement with “Lost” relatively early into the run and two writers: Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof took up the reins. They seemed to love mystery as well, but they managed to not let the mysteries overshadow the characters, and that is where “Lost” succeeded when “Alias” didn’t. The characters were very well drawn, and there were characters of interest for nearly every interest.

Of course as the series began, the top liners were Matthew Fox, who people still remembered from the Fox Network series, “Party of Five,” and Dominic Monaghan, well known for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but most of the other actors were relatively unknown to US audiences.

On “Alias,” we never really got very deeply into the psychology of the characters. We saw them act and react to situations and we may have understood why they did what they did, but we never got a real sense of their motivations most of the time. “Lost” improved on this by giving us flashbacks into the lives of these crash survivors. We got to see, know and care about each one as we went, and that was the hallmark of the program. Each character was beautiful and flawed, and we could see how their past lives led them to react to the current events on this mysterious island.

So, let’s point out a Television Rule: Characters are the most important element of any TV series. Setting is nice, scripts are important, but characters are everything. “Lost” gave us some great, great characters, worthy of any television series in history. Jack, Locke, Kate, Sawyer, Michael & Walt, Sun & Jin, Hurley! And on and on. “Lost” was populated with some very interesting folks with some really intriguing back stories. And it’s very rare for a television series to have the time and the ability to display the back stories for so many of its players, which was what made “Lost” even more unique and special.

The big surprise for viewers was that one of the characters was the island itself. The setting was a living, breathing entity and was clearly something that could kill you if you didn’t know what you were doing! That gave every moment a subtle sense of danger to our little castaways. Season One of the series was as epic as any freshman show ever was. Perhaps only the first season of Fox’s “24” could rival the thrills and shocks of the first season of “Lost.” But then in Season Two, we met the “tailies,” a group from the tail section who survived the plane crash but ended up in the jungle and had a very different experience from the original group we met the year before, and a much more sinister one, at that.

The problem here was just rehashing the 40 days we experienced with the cast we already knew and liked with people we didn’t know and didn’t particularly like! The less said about this mistake the better, but I will say that setting up the storyline with “The Others,” the mysterious group that were already on the island prior to the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, was what took this series up a notch.

Maybe we should amend that “character” rule. To make a great television series, the characters need to be relatable but it would be best if they were not perfect. There were fatal flaws galore, at least one for every person that had a speaking role on screen during the run of “Lost,” and there’s nothing more endearing than a hero (or even better, a villain) with feet of clay.

The other element of the series that captured our collective imaginations were the aforementioned “mysteries” that were sprinkled, and occasionally dumped, on viewers while we watched. A series of numbers: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42. A Hatch. A cable. A rescue signal sent from the island itself for years. A leg of a statue with four toes. A guy who apparently doesn’t age. There were so many mysteries that just listing them all would be a novella. But the point is just when we started getting intrigued about why pregnant women on the island all died, we had to concern ourselves with The Purge of the Dharma Initiative. Or why a Black Horse randomly turned up in the jungle. Or how dead fathers, from Jack’s to Locke’s turned up on the island, or what was so important about a toy plane that you would kill to get it. Or why pushing a button every one hundred and eight minutes was crucial to life on the planet.

We started comparing notes. We had online discussions and watched the show together, each grasping at theories about what these things meant and where the story and our characters were going. We were obsessed.

And let’s not forget the other element that “Lost” had that most episodic shows do not: it was literate. The use of philosophy and the use of great works of brilliant authors set this series apart from others. From Mark Twain to Charles Dickens to L. Frank Baum to Stephen King, “Lost” utilized material from a host of great writers and incorporated their works into the storylines of the program. Clearly, “Lost” was setting a higher bar for prime time TV, and that, in itself, is worthy of kudos.

There were also a series of thematic elements that were a part of the program as well. Black and White was a visual theme, like the two stones that “Adam & Eve,” the skeletons found near the water source, were holding. Secrets were another ongoing theme, as every character had at least one. There were a whole series of such themes that provided constant threads that both connected the characters to each other and pulled the audience closer into the web of the story.

But let’s get to that ending. We had flashbacks that told the histories of the survivors. We later had flash forwards that gave us a look ahead to the lives of the people who got off the island. But in this final season, we had what were billed as “flash sideways” and they were giving a view of what would have happened if the island never existed, or, to be more precise, what would have happened if our Lost group decided to set off a nuclear bomb back in the 1970s, deep sixing the island.

Personally, I thought the writers were giving a hint about what kind of an idea blowing up a nuke to prevent Flight 815’s crash was by labeling the H Bomb “Jughead.” Still, Jack, widely considered one of the more intelligent members of our group, decided that this was the thing to do. Suddenly everyone agreed and Season 5 ended with Juliet’s hand striking the device with a stone and the screen going to white as it exploded.

And when Season 6 began, we discovered that the bomb theory didn’t work, that our group was still on the island, only back to their proper 21st Century time line from their disco days, and even Juliet survived the blast, despite being arm’s length from the charge! However, the theory apparently did work, as we saw Flight 815 pass over the airspace where the island once was and land safely at LAX. Thus we were introduced to the “Flash Sideways” of these characters, all of them still there, but in somewhat different configurations.

Cuse and Lindelof, our intrepid authors, really painted themselves into a corner. How could they explain all of the mysteries of all of these characters in one final season? The answer was very simple, indeed. Don’t. There was no way to explain most of the stuff that got introduced throughout the six seasons of the program, so just ignore it and make it about something BIGGER. So, at the very end, we got a little bit of weepy sentimentality, a touch of redemption, and a “Mary Tyler Moore” group hug as our characters stepped out into the light. The only thing missing was “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” as they exited.

On the “Jimmy Kimmel Live – Aloha to Lost” special that aired after the final episode of the series, I felt one of the telling things was simply Matthew Fox’s body language during his interview. Arms crossed, not looking at the host, it seemed as if he either personally felt the end of the series wasn’t good, or that he presumed a lot of people would not like it, and I found that very interesting. Maybe it was both.

Really, I feel the entire situation was created by some of the suits at the Alphabet Network, some years before. The program was introducing mystery after mystery and resolving none of them as they went. So I suspect that someone in the Disney Corporate Office wanted to force the writers to reveal the answers, and put them on a strict timetable: three seasons and the show is over.

I don’t think I had heard of a series before “Lost” that was given such a deadline (primarily because you couldn’t be sure if a show would still have viewers three seasons later!) but I will always wonder if there was no deadline and the show was permitted to move naturally to its conclusion instead of being rushed there, how it would have gone.

But one final point about television: TV is, first, last and always, an Advertising Delivery Service. If the show you are watching is entertaining, intelligent, worthwhile, that’s all very well. But the point is to sell products. So often choices are made, actors are cast, stories are told that will lure the largest number of people possible to tune in, which brings the highest ratings, which gets translated into advertising revenue that the network can charge its sponsors to run their commercials. That is all that matters. Despite the thoughtful and sometimes inspiring plots of “Lost,” we’re really just selling you a smoke detector from Target.

Oh, and guess what? Apparently “Alias” is going to get a revamp, and possibly return?

Another important rule of TV: if it works, don’t kill it… dig it back up and serve it again! This could mean we haven’t seen the end of “Lost,” after all.

Dean Anderson has been a library clerk, a retail sales manager, a clown, an actor, an official for the Macy’s Parade, a nightclub and radio disc jockey, and author.  His short pop-culture critiqué The Isolation Generation can probably be read in its entirety on the website by clicking the “Look Inside” button enough times.  Dean currently lives in New York City and continues to look for the next interesting thing.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2010 11:35 pm

    But one final point about television: TV is, first, last and always, an Advertising Delivery Service. If the show you are watching is entertaining, intelligent, worthwhile, that’s all very well.

    I wonder if this plays into the whole reasoning behind the Christian conversion of Lost during its final episode? Or was some element of that framework always there?

  2. May 31, 2010 11:53 pm

    I think that Cuse and Lindelof had to at least ape the motions of revealing “The Answer,” so they needed Christian to give a kind of Dead Guy Ex Machina that explained the inner workings. If there were no explanation at all, there would have been a massive riot, the likes of which would have rivaled the ones we’ll see during the World Cup Tournament, starting in a couple of weeks.

    Of course, there are still a ton of holes in the plot you could drive a polar bear through, even if, as they claimed, everything on the island “actually happened” and only the “flash sideways” scenes were “purgatory.” It still doesn’t explain Richard Alpert, or, perhaps more strangely, that the Man in Black died when Jacob slid him over the glowing light waterfall, but had to be killed again by our 815ers.

  3. June 1, 2010 9:54 am

    I read an interview with Cuse and Lindeloff once that said that the original story was only supposed to last two seasons. Four at the most. You can kinda see natural stopping points coming at the end of both those seasons which then get wild new mysteries or twists to extend it.
    I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that two is my favorite season (The Others really were a great mystery that was revealed slowly and with plenty of delicious tension!) as it had a much more natural flow and less forced “OMG SOME CRAZY SHIZ JUST HAPPENED!!!” There was a little too much shock for shock’s sake in the last 2 seasons for me. Too many, “Oh no they didn’t!” moments and not enough of the interesting characters.

    I’m not one of those people who wants every single thread tied up nicely and cross-stiched into a nice little saying to hang on the wall, but having mysteries solved is a good way to “end” things. After all, if Angela Lansbury just went around chasing mysteries and then going, “Oh well, I’ve got my mates, time for a nice cuppa and a scone.” 80% of the time, that would have been a bore to watch. A little more graceful reveal would have been nice. If suits tell you that you’ve got 3 seasons, it’s time to get the Mr. Coffee plugged in and start arranging index cards on a big damn corkboard or something.

    That said, it really was a FUN adventure and the characters were a joy to follow.

  4. raymondj permalink
    June 1, 2010 10:11 am

    LOST has always been about redemption in a sense, though not explicitly Christian. I feel like the ending was more about the writers wants to address the afterlife in a show for american audiences that are primarily christian or christian heritage, something that would be vague and watery, so as not to alienate those viewers, but also to be sort of familiar and comforting. That’s what I think sort of bugged me about the last part of LOST is that it started to fall in to familiar hasty wrap-up resolution territory, after taking it’s time so nicely in the beginning, like Spoon pointed out. It’s much harder to not fall back onto familiar cultural tropes when you have tight commercial deadlines, perhaps.

  5. June 1, 2010 1:25 pm

    If suits tell you that you’ve got 3 seasons, it’s time to get the Mr. Coffee plugged in and start arranging index cards on a big damn corkboard or something.

    Or talk to David Chase. People were so pissed at him re: The Sopranos, but a couple of years out it’s looking like the best TV ending in recent history. Sometimes things just end and that’s valuable, even if American audiences get angry and seek to interpret meaning that isn’t present.

    And Six Feet Under’s ending – glorious.

  6. raymondj permalink
    June 1, 2010 1:30 pm

    so true. I would have probably been more happy if they were just stuck on the island FOREVER. but not in a cheesy purgatory way.

  7. June 1, 2010 10:32 pm

    Poplife: I think JJ Abrams only had enough story concepts to get to season two, and maybe that was what Cuse and Lindelof were referencing? I know that’s about the time he bailed out, so that would make sense. I would have liked season two a whole lot more if they had just stuck with the beach survivors rather than shift everything to the jungle survivors (all of whom – except Bernard – wound up on the wrong end of the flash sideways anyhow)!

    raymondj: I totally agree that the ending selected was really for convenience sake. It had to be pseudo-religious without seeming “preachy,” and designed to make everyone feel good. Yeah, they’re all dead, but they’re together and hugging! How can you not like that? For a show that seemed so focused on making some pretty serious statements about relationships and humanitythroughout its run, it was almost juvenile it its conclusion.

    Snarky’s Machine: Here’s another point. HBO doesn’t have to please/respond to any sponsors to get its shows on air. Is it a coincidence that they always, ALWAYS take home the lion’s share of Emmys, every single solitary year? I will stand by this point, however: if there is a “final” episode of a television series, it will more than likely suck. And I probably should just write an essay about that point. I would agree that HBO’s finales have been better than many (Sex and The City not withstanding), and to me, Chase’s ending of “The Sopranos” made perfect sense: the show got wacked!

  8. June 2, 2010 12:15 am

    Dean, I didn’t mind SATC ending, since it was a given it was merely setting up a possible run at the big screen. I tend to find it satisfying and hey it actually did solve its enduring mystery!

    Big’s name = John.

    That’s more than you can say about Lost, but your point about its effectiveness is well taken.

  9. June 2, 2010 12:47 pm

    It’s time to bust out the 6FU boxset again I think….

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