Monday, May 25, 2009

Why Does It Work: Lost?

As I've mentioned before, I didn't start watching the TV show Lost until recently. Kristi had been wanting me to watch so I could discuss it with her but I figured I had missed too much to jump in late. I knew enough about the show to know that the plot is very complicated.

Then Kristi played dirty. She gave me season one for Christmas, knowing I would be hooked. And I was. When I reached the cliffhanger ending of that season, I had to rush out and find the next, and so on until I was caught up with everyone else and able to watch last week's season five finale along with the rest of the world.

In fact, since Kristi's now in a time zone three hours earlier than me, I saw the finale before she did! A friend said I should text her and tease her by saying I was going to tell the ending and spoil it for her--but make up something really outrageous instead of telling the truth. Trouble is, you can't make up anything more outrageous than the show itself. That story just gets weirder and wilder as it goes.

So why do so many ordinary people seem to love it, to be totally addicted to it? As a writer, I really want to figure this out. Here are just some of the puzzling, writing-rule-breaking characteristics of the show.

Anyone who's been writing long enough to get their first critique knows that flashbacks are a no-no. I've heard them called the instant mark of amateur writing, because they break into the flow of the action and take you out of the story. Yet, not only is Lost built around flashbacks, but those flashes at times seem to intentionally jerk you out of an exciting, climactic moment.

If you haven't watched the show, you probably at least know it's about a group of survivors of a plane that crashed onto a mysterious island. Each week, the episode flashes back to one character's earlier life in brief episodes that punctuate the events taking place on the island.

The island is fraught with intrigue and dangers--from mysterious forces, wild animals, other people who were already on the island. One of our protagonists might be attacked by someone with a knife, and in the middle of that action we'll be jerked back to his previous life as he sits calmly on the couch having a conversation with his mother.

And then there are the flash forwards. At some point, the brief scenes of the characters' previous lives give way to episodes from the future, about their lives after the island. When this first starts happening, you aren't necessarily aware whether it's future or past. In one of the most bizarre turns I've ever seen, during the action on the island, there are flashes about two of the characters, a married couple. The woman is in the hospital giving birth and her husband is rushing around, trying to get to the hospital, so you of course think this is all the same event--flashing forward to their having a child after the island. At the end of the show you discover that they were in two totally different time periods. The husband's scenes were a flashback and the wife's a flash forward!

Descent into Geekery!
Then there's the fact that we started out with a story that seemed a little mysterious, but was going to be about a group of survivors, their relationships, and their attempts to get back to civilization, right? We've all seen it before, from Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe to Cast Away with Tom Hanks.

Turns out that's not what the show is like at all, and in the last couple of seasons it took a turn into what I have heard called "sci-fi geekery," complete with time travel and strange magnetic field "incidents" and the like. I'm particularly interested in these developments because an agent at a conference told me that one of my books wouldn't work because of a similar development. He said that readers can't start off feeling they're reading about suspense or even about ghosts or the supernatural and then be taken off into science fiction developments. And yet, Lost is one of the most popular things out there. Are TV audiences more flexible than readers? Was the agent wrong? Or are people giving up on Lost after these developments, too?

This brings me back to my original question. Why does this show work?

I have several humble theories. One is that people love a mystery, and I'm not speaking here of the who-dun-it kind, like who killed Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench. I'm talking about the big, eternal kind of mysteries. What lies beyond our ordinary sight? Do we have free will or are we doomed to fate? Is there some sort of battle between good and evil that we're caught up in, whether we can see it or not?

I think that's why the flashbacks--and forwards--fly. It's generally in those scenes that you make a sudden realization about some of those questions. Where something completely unexpected is revealed about the characters' connections, or decisions that led them to the island, or events that make it appear they're all being manipulated by an unseen hand. So in some ways, that calm flashback may be more exciting than the knife fight it interrupts.

The amazing season finale last week felt almost Biblical. We discovered that two entities have been warring over the island, and whether people can be allowed to live there, for centuries. One seems to be benevolent and good and on the side of the humans. The other is jealous of the good one and longs to overthrow him, and we discover he's been deceiving and using the people on the island in this attempt. In fact, he has sometimes pretended to be the good one when he appears to them and gives them instructions. Sound vaguely familiar?

The fact that the developments, and even the story-telling techniques, are so unusual makes everything fresh and surprising. It's like a ride on a roller coaster, where any minute you may be jerked around a corner or feel the bottom drop out of your stomach as you slowly crest a hill and then plunge. You hang onto every conversation, every development with a smile on your face because you know that any minute something totally unexpected will occur.

Also, oddly enough, I think it's important that we know there's a definite ending coming. There is an actual story and a plan and a purpose, which will be revealed. I can't stand those shows where people wander around in search of a goal (like getting off the island) year after year with no end in sight, and have totally unconnected episodes and adventures.

My pastor even mentioned this in a sermon a few months ago--the fact that Lost's ratings had started to sag but when it was announced that they would definitely finish up the story and end the show at a certain time, the ratings went back up. My pastor was connecting this to the fact that people grow weary and discouraged when there appears to be no purpose, no goal. But we know the end of our story, of God's story, so we should be encouraged.

So what about all of you? Do you watch it? Love it? Hate it? Did you give up on it when it seemed to change direction? Did you see the season five finale? I'd love to hear what you think.


  1. As the accused instigator here, I'd like to quote Entertainment Weekly's Letters to the Editor section from the Feb 27, 2009 issue:

    Letter 1: "Your cover story on Lost ("Lost in Time") has really whetted my appetite for its final two seasons. This show has consistently made me cry, laugh, and gasp out loud at its amazing plot twists and imagination. That the show is taking weird turns is part of its charm, and no, I'm not a 24-year-old-geek.

    Laura E. Kelly
    Mount Kisco, N.Y."

    Letter 2: "Thanks to ABC and the producers of Lost for proving that smart can be fun, sexy, and %$@* entertaining. This is oneof the best shows in the history of television.

    Michael Raffeld
    Winnetka, Calif."

    Letter 3: "Lost's rebound this season proves what I have always said about this show: 'Tis better to have loved Lost and lost than never to have loved Lost at all.

    Steve Bailey
    Jacksonville Beach, Fla."

    Usually, EW includes negative and positive letters about their articles, but here they didn't. I think that the minority geek factor, or perhaps just the ones that enjoy great writing whatever form it comes in, is a lot bigger than publishers and editors, and agents for that matter, think!

  2. Love Lost and it works for me. In fact, that it's unpredictable makes me love it. You never know what to expect.