It was Purgatory after all

Yup I guess that was a shark in the rear view mirror.

It was clear from the start that the story could not stretch beyond a season or two without being resolved or completely rethought. Admitting that, and pitching the show as a limited series or mini-series, would have meant going to cable or working with much smaller resources, and you can’t blame the show’s creators for not wanting that. But it always made their protestations about how the show threatened to get away from them ring a little hollow.

From No Longer ‘Lost’, but Still Searching (NYTimes) — a much more sympathetic view of the conclusion to Lost than my own, which nevertheless reaches similar conclusions.

I lost patience with Lost during the horrible mess that was season three. It seemed clear at the time that the writing team suffered a creative crisis as a result of suddenly finding themselves converting a three year arc into a five-plus year arc. The resulting lost ratings then forced them to accelerate the arc, which in turn restored ratings and led the arc to get re-extended. In a sense, you can’t really blame the writers for the result, although it seems to me that they still could have done much better.

You can’t really blame the actors, either. The acting is pretty much excellent (up until the last episode, where the actors are suddenly forced to play their characters very differently in the alternate universe). Indeed, the final episode put enormous strains on almost everyone, not least among them the composer who seemed, having done nothing but “scary stuff coming” and “omg WTF?!” music for six years, to be utterly incapable of handling schmaltz. Is there a good way to score the kind of sentimental dreck that padded out the finale? Faux Jaws or Terminator riffs accompanying kiss kiss flashbacks might actually have made them less annoying. We may never know — you can’t reset your brain and watch this crap again for the first time.

I wanted to like the finale. My bar was pretty low. Remember when the creators claimed that there was a non-magical explanation for everything? I’d put that down to Fargo-esque (“based on a true story”) chutzpah… It will work better if you refuse to assume a magical explanation for as long as possible.

I would have settled for some kind of indication that the creators had a vaguely coherent idea of what was going on, versus simply slathering on incomprehensible crap over each new glaring hole. (I would describe Lost to friends as an onion where you start halfway in, and when you think they’re about to peel a layer you discover they’ve actually pulled out and are showing you a new outer layer. The simple version from a friend is “it’s a show that asks more questions than it answers”.)

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions and not answering them, or even answering them with more questions — if the questions are interesting of themselves. But Lost‘s questions aren’t deep and meaningful, they’re more along the lines of “Bear? Where the fuck did a bear come from?” Replace the world “bear” with any noun-phrase representing anything found in the show and that’s the kind of question Lost asked and never answered. Dharma Initiative. Bomb shelter. Underwater base. Submarine. Smoke monster. Glowing cave. Giant statue. Temple. Heavily armed group of people living in the woods. Village.

The one great thing about Lost, and this is no small thing, is that it added to mainstream TV a new vocabulary of acceptable narrative devices. But before Lost had completed its shark-jump, other TV shows had picked up its tools and made better (more disciplined) use of them. I’m thinking in particular of the show Damages, but you also see similar narrative games in Dexter and True Blood. Indeed, I’m sure that there are plenty of examples of, for example, multilayered flashbacks being used to build out plot and narrative that predate Lost, but Lost used it almost exclusively, and for a while it worked. Damages did the same thing, and did it better. It also layered its arcs so that it would have been perfectly satisfying as a single season show, and yet it is still surprising us with links to the first episode in season three.

It’s not like the writers of Lost ever wrote themselves into a corner from which there was no obvious way out. Lost was always pregnant with possibilities that were never narrowed down. So Lost‘s failure to make, at least, a little bit of sense is very disappointing. One thing that occurs to me, and I think many others, is that the big reveal was going to be “they’re in purgatory” (which seems really dumb and yet would be a better arc than what we got) but that so many fans guessed this they tried to make it something else, and failed.

It was purgatory after all. But for the viewers.