The end of Lost sucked. Holy fuck, did it suck. It was really, truly, completely the worst — a mushy, indefensible cop-out that failed to resolve many of the show's central mysteries and seemed to argue against reason in favor of a vaguely defined faith in … what, exactly? Did the writers themselves even know? The show's final episode—and really, its entire final season—was so bad that it has completely rewritten the popular mythology surrounding what was once TV's most popular mythology.
Maybe not everyone remembers Lost, which premiered 10 years ago next week, as a colossal failure. As Alan Sepinwall, the most influential TV critic alive, wrote in his 2012 book The Revolution Was Televised, the ABC show "was among the most thrilling, surprising, memorable dramas in the history of American network television, and at its best could go toe-to-toe with much of what was happening on cable during this period."
But the tone of the recent New York Times feature about former Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof—the one titled "Damon Lindelof Promises You His New Show Won't End Like 'Lost'"—rings truer as a bellwether of public perception. After all, Lindelof and fellow overlord Carlton Cuse were the ones who had to deal with all the angry tweets from fans who felt like they squandered the best years of their lives in a numerology cult. Wrote Times reporter Taffy Brodesser-Akner:
The show's most vocal fan contingent was not pleased. After the finale, they took to Twitter, where Lindelof was an active and lively presence, to tell him how he ruined their favorite show and wasted six years of their lives. Critics similarly decimated Lindelof and Cuse; one declared that Lost "ended in the worst way possible." George R. R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones novels and a co-executive producer on their HBO adaptation, summed up the magnitude of the disappointment when he told the New Yorker his biggest fear in ending his own series: "What if I do a Lost?"
So yes, the lingering consensus is that the show was an unmanageable tangle of bullshit upon bullshit, a compendium of once-fresh ideas that its most fanatical devotees kept consuming long after they'd turned rotten. The theory now is that because the end was awful, what preceded it was invalidated. Which is funny, because we're all going to die someday—the awfulest ending of all—but most people still consider life worth living. Wasn't Lost worth watching, too?
I'm certainly not here to defend the show's denouement, which didn't even explain where the godforsaken numbers came from. I'm here to appreciate the thrilling half-decade experience that led up to the end. It's the journey, not the destination, right? Or maybe the better cliché here is to simply call Lost a roller coaster, with those unpleasant turns in the home stretch not entirely negating the wild ride that led up to it. Watching this show was fun, damn it, and I don't regret the countless hours I spent experiencing and examining it. So let's temper the overzealous disdain, shall we?
To hate something this much, you had to really care about it; like all the best TV shows, Lost knew how to make people care, first and foremost by introducing us to a slew of great characters. Some of those only showed up in later seasons—Ben Linus, Desmond Hume, Juliet Burke, and Richard Alpert among them—but most of Lost's dominant personalities were fully formed long before the mythology was. As a core component of the pilot, the show's brain trust (then including Jeffrey Lieber and early series oracle J.J. Abrams) devised unique, complicated figures who couldn't be easily classified as good or evil. The Sopranos, The Shield, and 24 had already kicked off TV's endless antihero craze, yet Jack, Kate, Locke, and Sawyer didn't really fit that archetype, either. They were all just flawed, fragile, relatable people with their own unique charms, delighting us and driving us nuts in equal measure, just like real people do.
Lost thrust these personalities into a captivating, unnerving environment and let them bounce off each other. And by way of the flashback format (still super innovative at the time), they fleshed out even insufferable characters like Michael and Charlie to the point of sympathy. They existed within a dense mythology, but Lost was always a show about people. (Yeah, yeah, Lindelof tried to use that line to excuse the gaping holes in his story—"It was always about the characters!" was the gist of his defense in the midst of the world's immediate post-finale rage—but he wasn't wrong, exactly.)
How about that mythology, though! The hatch! The Others! The numbers! The statue! The "incident"! The DHARMA Initiative! The island's "unique magnetic properties"! The giant frozen underground time-travel crank wheel (which was where they kept the polar bears, obviously)! Jeremy Bentham! Charles Widmore! The Oceanic Six! Jacob! Jacob's cabin! Jacob's roguish good looks and frustratingly casual demeanor! The smoke monster, AKA the Man in Black, AKA Jacob's brother, AKA not-really-resurrected John Locke! Flashbacks! Flash-forwards! Flash-sideways!
OK, the flash-sideways thing was supremely dumb. But the rest of it was so much fun to parse. If the best shows make people care, the nerdiest ones make people care obsessively, and no series has ever engaged its audience better than Lost. The raging popularity of weekly episode recaps—now applied to every show on television, no matter how undeserving—can be almost entirely attributed to people like Sepinwall and Whitney Matheson of USA Today's late, great Pop Candy blog, who offered thousands of words of morning-after commentary and analysis for each episode. And no one dove into Lost's many scientific, literary, and philosophical Easter eggs with the fervor of Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen, whose Doc Jensen columns were required reading for Lost obsessives.
A lesser show would not have inspired so much freakishly devoted analysis. A lesser show would not have hipped viewers to so many other cultural and pop-cultural touchstones, from Mama Cass to Flannery O'Connor to Stephen Hawking. The extracurricular activity was inherent to the appeal. Remember when True Detective hysteria had people trawling Amazon for used copies of The King in Yellow earlier this year? Lost was like that for six years straight. Even when the plot just didn't make sense, I always relished the feeling of taking part in the world's broadest, most bonkers dorm-room bullshit session.
Lost knew how to titillate, sometimes by weaving complex webs, but often with gestures as basic as the title cards that bookended each episode—that eerie, singular "LOST" that floated across the screen at the beginning of episodes and the firmly centered logo that served as closing punctuation, often with a percussive boom. The music was genius, from pulpy strings and horn blurts to that desperately sad emotional theme that soundtracked everything from Boone's death to the series' much-maligned final scenes. Even those mimicked the opening minutes of the pilot when Jack wakes up, stumbles upon the crash scene at the beach, and rushes to save everyone in sight, which, I mean, come on: That's classic television.
It was a show that made people exclaim, "What the fuck!?" on a regular basis— sometimes in rage, sometimes in delight. And while your ratio of positive to negative exclamations may vary, the series I remember blew my mind far more often than it disappointed me. Sure, they never really explained why Walt was "special" or how exactly blowing up an atomic bomb on the island "worked." The plot sometimes stalled out for a few episodes at a time, and the characters rarely asked the questions any rational person would ask. It was not a perfect show. But it was a show whose most dumbfounding moments—like when a light suddenly flipped on in the hatch; or when Desmond placed his legendary phone call to Penny; and especially when Jack told Kate, "We have to go back!"—more than compensated for its lapses in logic. Were you not entertained?
Chris DeVille is senior writer at Stereogum. Find him on Twitter at @chrisdeville.
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