It’s an unfortunate side effect of overly-coy titling that critics of the show “Lost” can frequently point to its mere name as at once cause and symptom of the utter bafflement that fans of the series so willfully find themselves in, week after week. The water cooler talk that abounds after any given episode, to these eyes and ears, is just a way to forever parade viewers in front of further and further commercials, and amounts, in a series with unlimited questions and few proper answers, to a kind of narrative masochism.
Last night’s premiere, the first episode of the final season, promised to be the beginning of the end – where all our questions will be answered, claimed the trailers in paraphrase – and yet it seems as though even the show’s supporters have found themselves more confused than ever, or, put less delicately, outright pissed. I’ll confess that I too am among these ranks, and while it has become common practice at times like these (cf, “The Sopranos,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost on Mars”), to declaim the writers and producers of a program for “betraying the viewer’s trust,” my irritation, my sheer wonderment, doesn’t fall along these lines. Where the producers – and I’ll continue to use the general form for now, for if nothing else the show is a produced, collaborative effort, regardless of who wields creative celebrity – have lost me is not in their violation of my trust, of their characters, or even their own story, but in their betrayal of fundamental principles of narrative sanity.
It wasn’t always this way – or actually, it kind of was. The first several seasons of the show, while lauded for their originality, demonstrated an unusual capacity to irk people by refusing to directly answer any of its escalating mysteries.
Why is there a polar bear on the island?
Because that kid summoned it from a comic book.
How can he do that?
Don’t pay any attention to that – look, those lottery numbers are also on a buried hatch!
(The Wizard of Oz-like effect here should be obvious.)
Yet in announcing, mid-way through the third season, that the series had a definitive end – the sixth season, 2010, now – and in changing its very organizing principle from a series of flashbacks to a series of flashforwards, the producers demonstrated a commitment to closure. Anyone, given enough characters, can find unlimited way to suture together people’s backstories in compelling ways, but the mere fact that encounters have taken place outside of the frame narrative offers little commentary on why these particular events are uniquely compelling, why these characters are now on an island (with a capital “I”) in the middle of the Pacific. One can see why so many were tempted by the now-debunked theory that the Island was an allegory for the Afterlife. Transitioning to flashforwards is a different matter altogether, however, because it forces the narrative of the present towards some specified point. The events in the future now need to be a direct consequence of what is occurring in the present, rather than just an additional lacquer of explanation: basically, from season three til the very end, the producers need to have not only some clue as to what the fuck they’re doing, but a fine-tuned sense of the narrative’s shape.
Thus the best episodes are those that flaunt this sense of precise consequentiality, as in the episode where Desmond, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time, or when the simultaneous rendition of Sun’s delivery and Jin’s scramble to buy gifts for the baby is revealed to be at once a flashforward and a flashback, a trick of clever editing to exaggerate the reveal that Jin really is dead, or at least thought dead, in the not-too-distant future (which, come to think of it, yet further becomes a kind of metacommentary on just how inconsequential the flashback sequences really are, since it’s Jin’s backstory that has no real purchase on the events of the story itself).
So where did last night’s premier fall flat? In offering partial solutions to some questions – yes, Juliet is dead, and not in the “Sayid is dead” or the “Jin is dead” sense, but in the “Miles is able to commune with her from beyond the grave” sense – while yet further obfuscating others. Rather than establishing some preliminary traction to the Jacob-Adversary feud, or at least refining how this pair affects the continuing (well, now aborted) struggle between the Dharma Initiative and the Others, this episode of “Lost” presents us with new Others that we’ve never seen before, Others who, despite their inclusion of the stewardess from the original flight, and zoo-like witness to Jack’s captivity, seem so fundamentally divorced from the figures we already know – Richard, Ben, or even Jacob – that they might as well be a new species entirely. Despite it’s too-obvious betrayal of the reporter’s politics, the WSJ’s live-blog of the event actually settles on perhaps the easiest label for this new batch of cronies: one part “hippy,” one part Golden Triangle “drug dealer.” My bet is that by dressing this newest batch of Others as though they’d just left Burning Man (and having them, like Jacob, walk around the most hazardous place on Earth barefoot), the producers hope to remystify what has already been domesticated: no sooner had Tom, the mouthpiece of the first batch of Others who kidnapped Walt, removed his fake beard, than we were actually whisked away, literally, to the suburbs (a place that Lindelof and Cuse – dammit, there, I did it – uncutely refer to as “New Otherton”).
Formally, I’m actually okay with the introduction of competing factions or subfactions, so long as the endgame is achieved intelligibly; yet by expanding the overall cast of characters in the very moment they’ve “promised” to contract the storyline, the “Lost” team plays right into the hands of the show’s critics while denying fans any semblance of what they actually want. As some of today’s day after response seems to indicate, many people, even people who do this kind of thing for a living, continue to think about the show in character-based platitudes, and that’s fine, but when a show reaches a point where major characters can be killed off twice in the same episode, and yet its audience barely has time to register their indifference because they’re too wrapped up in why the hell John Lennon is living with someone from Mortal Kombat, it’s fair to say that the show’s ability to create compelling fictions has been effectively anesthetized. I don’t feel betrayed: Lindelof and Cuse owe me nothing. But it damages the integrity of my cultural memory to have three seasons of twenty-four episodes, three seasons of sixteen episodes, one hundred and twenty hours of my life rendered laughable thanks to the excesses of over-elaborate puppeteering. Soon I’ll begin to feel like all those poor people who watched “7th Heaven.”
My broader compunction has to do with the introduction of this season’s new narrative mechanism, neither flashback nor flashforward but “flashsideways.” Now the whoosh of time shifts past is gone, and we’re led to believe that detonating a hydrogen bomb atop an electromagnetic anomaly leads to the establishment of two parallel universes. From an “internal logic” standpoint, this is fine: it’s no weirder than smoke monsters, or communion with the dead. But at a narrative level, it’s troubling, if only because it allows for no subordination, no privileging, of events in one timeline against to the other. In fact, the two narrative threads are no longer even looking at one another. Whereas the universe where Flight 815 lands safely at LAX must now, perforce, now look obsessively at the show’s past, to deal with the million and one things that might now be different – no Shannon on the plane! and there’s Desmond! – the more conventional “on Island” universe must now blaze on ever forward, solving the mysteries of Jacob and hopefully, hopefully, hopefully finding some way to bring both timelines into communion. But precisely because the “safe in LA” timeline is just reexamining discrepancies in things I already know (“Hey, Bernard didn’t make it back from the bathroom before”), rather than things I don’t, it amounts largely to intellectual masturbation, and it’s difficult to imagine why I should even care.
ABC, along with the producers of “Lost,” have been quick to tell us what they’ve told us at every season premiere, that new viewers can tune in at Episode 601 and never miss a beat, and to that end, the “safe in LA” universe makes perfect commercial sense. But in order for anyone, especially stranded newcomers, to feel compelled by this part of the storyline, each segment of action needs to remain individually compelling, and for the life of me I don’t know how seeing a guy in a wheelchair console a guy in an airport accomplishes that. What the producers seem to have lost sight of, or never known to begin with, is that by divvying up its narrative between one contiguous chunk of plot (“people on island run amok”) and yet packaging each episode around one narrow conceit (“this episode focuses on the memories of this character”), “Lost” always had this kind of “newcomer appeal” to begin with. “Lost,” Seasons One through Five, belongs to the grand tradition of exquisitely overarching master narratives subdivided into more readily digestible chunks, stretching back through “Buffy’s” “monster of the week” motif and into the serialization of Victorian novels, with their uncanny ability, in final, collected form, to explicitly remind us of who characters are at unnecessary moments, but moments that would have been necessary to newer subscribers. What we’ve seen of the new season seems to take that format too much to heart, by opening itself up to even the greenest gaze, yet in neglects to touch on one other, narrower aspect of a serialized plot: the scene transitions between commercials. And if I reach a point where I’m better off muting the screen every time I don’t see sand and palm trees, it’s difficult to imagine why I should bother turning it on at all.