What’s Wrong with Lost?

Here’s the thing.
I loved this show. If you’d told me two years ago that mere weeks before the series finale, I’d be completely uninvested in Lost, I’d have kicked you in the shin.
But this show is broken, and I imagine lots of once-diehard fans will agree with me.
So while I take no joy in the exercise, here are my thoughts on where Lost has gone wrong, from a writer’s point of view.
The Absence of the Unknown
Lost has always been driven by mysteries. The Island was so fascinating because so much of it was unknown. The show’s most successful arcs are stories of exploration, journeys through the wilderness that compliment the characters’ journeys through their own hearts.
And in retrospect, each season has arguably been centered on this idea of discovery: whether it was discovering the characters’ pasts in Season 1, the Island’s mythology in Season 2, the Others’ society in Season 3, etc.
But in Season 6 (and for most of Season 5), the survivors have been revisiting familiar sites from seasons past, going in circles on an Island-wide Lazy Susan. Characters have been forming, breaking, and reforming alliances and rethinking their objectives so often that it’s impossible to keep up with who’s going where with whom.
Granted, building new set-pieces is expensive. And this season did start off with several fascinating new locations: the Temple, the Lighthouse, and the Cave. But since then, the Island has felt like a much smaller place. All the blank spaces on Rousseau’s map have been filled in, and there are no more unknown threats lurking in the jungle.
And with all of these attempts to leave the Island, as well as the seemingly inevitable transition to an Islandless timeline, it feels like the writers have forgotten what made the story so magical in its infancy.
Too Much of a Good Thing
In an interview with Stephen King several years ago, the creators of Lost explained their plan to execute the show for “4 or 5 seasons,” with a total of around “100 episodes.” But Lost has run 6 seasons, and will hit 123 episodes before it’s over.
That means the story, when finished, will be twenty hours longer than they originally intended.
And it shows. Did anything significant happen between the destruction of the Temple in “Sundown” and the deaths in this week’s episode, “The Candidate”? We’ve spent two months listening to people talk about what to do next.
And even going back to last season, did we need to watch Jack and Company stand around in 1977 Dharmaville for ten hours? I had other issues with that arc: it took all of the intrigue and mystery away from the Dharma Initiative, and literally turned them into a joke about sideburns and Volkswagons.
I absolutely appreciate the difficulty of writing an engaging forty minutes of television every week, as well as the pressure from a major network to squeeze every last drop from a hit series. But if you’ve got 123 hours to fill, why not give flashback episodes to some secondary characters to make them more than expendable plot devices?
I would have loved to see Dogen, Lennon, Cindy, Ilana, Charlotte, Frank, Mikhail, or Rousseau get flashbacks instead of quick deaths, assuming their pasts were relevant (unlike, say, Rose and Bernard’s). Surely they could’ve shed light on other periods in the Island’s history, which would’ve been more entertaining than watching alternate versions of the survivors in Los Angeles ooh and aah over how weird it is that they were all on the same flight.
Not to mention, the existence of another timeline makes the events on the Island feel meaningless. Who cares if Sayid sacrifices himself, or if the Man in Black kills Sun and Jin? They’re doing just fine in LA.
Careful What You Wish For
Finally, I don’t completely blame Lost‘s downward spiral over the past couple years on the writers, because the fans (and the media) are probably equally culpable. When the writers were churning out their very best character-driven episodes in the early, more mysterious seasons, viewers were already getting impatient and started demanding answers.
They weren’t accustomed to long-term, serialized narratives on television, and many fans may have entirely missed the point. Definitive answers aren’t satisfying. Ambiguity is okay. We are smart enough to come to our own conclusions.

Flash-forward to the last couple seasons, and the writers have seemingly caved. For one, the narrative is no longer driven by organically motivated characters; instead, they’ve become catchphrase-laden plot devices, mainly used to move the cast from one recycled location to another, to blow something up (again), mount an escape attempt (again), or trigger an omnipotent white flash (again), but more than anything, characters now exist solely to blatantly answer our questions.

Secondly, in an attempt to prove to the world that “they had it all planned out from day one,” the writers are locked into a specific endpoint. The problem with a pre-determined ending is that it can feel forced.

That’s why so many episodes this season have felt like prologues for the finale instead of stories in their own right. It’s why our characters’ motivations have stopped being believable, and started being transparent techniques to simply get the plot going in a specific direction.

But good writing doesn’t happen that way. You don’t lock yourself into a final chapter six years in advance. It prevents you from writing organically, listening to your characters and seeing where the story takes you, instead of the other way around.
Good writing is like jazz. Take the polar bear in the pilot, for instance. That wasn’t originally inserted as part of a long-term plan. Apparently, JJ Abrams was just riding around Hawaii scouting locations when he saw something white by the side of the road and thought, “How bizarre would it be to find a polar bear in the jungle?”
You can figure out the logistics later, but forcing a story in any direction–or caving in to demands for simplistic answers–changes the dynamic between writers and viewers.
In early seasons, it was the authorial intelligence that got me hooked, the feeling that these writers were always twelve steps ahead of us.
Do any of us still feel that way now?
Hopefully, Lost will redeem itself over the next three weeks and make this post moot. No one would be happier than me!
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3 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Lost?

  1. Great post, Adam. I think the relationship between a known endpoint and the writing is a really interesting thing to talk about. At what point does a show with that sort of structure have to start moving from exploring to just tying every loose end up? It's an intriguing thought process.

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  2. Thanks, buddy. I think it's a weird balance, especially in television, which is so different from every other narrative form. You have to maintain a sense of purpose, but at the same time, leave your writing open to organic development. It seems like the Lost writers were really open to that in earlier seasons, when they were so impressed by Michael Emerson that they changed his three-ep part into a series regular. When you strike gold, in the script or on the screen, you run with it. Who cares if they make it up as they go along, as long as it's good!

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