Well, that’s six years of my life I’ll never get back.
Was it as bad as that? No, not exactly. But it wasn’t much good either. On the subject of the Lost finale — and the final season in general — I think Ross Douthat has the right idea (although, as usual, he’s more generous than the show deserves). It was mostly successful in the ways that the series was usually successful — as a vehicle for a syrupy but frequently gripping mix of pulp and soap set against a spooky island background. But even by that standard, it wasn’t a knockout.
So was I disappointed? Yes. But not too disappointed, because I was fairly sure that this was where the series was headed all along.
By the middle of the first season, it was fairly clear (at least to me) that the writers never intended to answer any of the major questions about the island and its mysteries that they raised. I scratched my head at the end of every season finale when I heard people talk about payoffs, about what we learned. What payoffs? The big “reveals” were almost always to questions we never knew we had (What physical mechanism caused the plane to crash? Where were the Others keeping the polar bears?). Only the interpersonal storylines were ever resolved in anything close to a satisfying manner. The only difference between Lost‘s banal storylines and the ones on numerous other forgettable network dramas featuring generically pretty faces was that Lost‘s took place on an intriguingly mysterious island. The show’s implicit promise, in other words, was of an epic, interconnected narrative. But what it delivered was small-time sentimentality.
This was especially true in the final season, which discarded most of the existing mythology in exchange for generic spiritualism and cheap emotional uplift. Even as a longtime skeptic, I was shocked by the degree to which the writers shrugged off the mythological elements they’d introduced in previous seasons. I was expecting minimal, vague, and unsatisfying answers to questions about the island’s origin, nature, and properties; about the Dharma Initiative and its goals, experiments, and technology; about time travel, the nature of the smoke monster, the various characters with supernatural abilities, or any of the many, many other mysteries. What I wasn’t expecting was that the writers would more or less decline to answer these questions entirely.
But in the end, it turns out Lost‘s writers had exactly one shtick: pile up the big mysteries to keep people hooked, but only ever resolve the banal, domestic conflicts. The series wasn’t a story. It was a gimmick, repeated over and over for six increasingly frustrating years.
So why did I keep watching? Curiosity, for one thing. A tough-to-suppress desire to “keep up” with pop culture for another. And because, for all its faults, the show could be remarkably gripping in its shallow, teasing way. It’s hard to string millions of people along for as long and as intensely as Lost did, a challenge to keep audiences coming back for answers while steadfastly refusing to deliver them. But it did, and if there was a way in which the show “worked,” it was that, on a scene-by-scene basis, it was textbook dramatic screenwriting. Each scene focused intensely on the immediate conflict at hand, gave the characters solid, playable goals, and never failed to raise the stakes and erect new obstacles whenever possible. So even when the show was at its most ludicrous and incoherent, it was almost impossible to look away.
The sad thing is that the show’s writers had the opportunity to deliver a far better resolution than they did. In particular, by negotiating a set end date three years out, they could have built towards a more satisfying, deservingly complex conclusion rather than the simplistic (and entirely beside the point) spiritual mumbo-jumbo they went with. During the show’s run, there was a lot of talk about the show’s depth and complexity, but it turns out this was mostly just a pose; the series served up an dizzying array of tantalizing plot points, implicitly promising to eventually connect them. But it never did.
If there was real complexity to be found, it was on the fan-run analysis sites and Internet forums where dedicated obsessives with philosophy books and screen grabs tried, in vain, to put together all the pieces. These folks were ready (and, in many cases, desperate) for a twisted, complicated, even difficult-to-follow answer — something, anything that would make all their effort and anxiety worth it. But the writers opted for easy sentimentality instead. Given the demands of network TV drama, that may be all anyone ever should or could have expected. But after six years of watching and waiting, even skeptically, I suspect I’m not the only one who is pretty sure it wasn’t worth it.