In the limited circles I travel, I’m known as the Lost guy. Most people might think this is kind of a negative thing, as if I don’t have anything else to bring to the table other than an obsession with a television show. However, I used to be known as the "prematurely balding" guy and/or the "pays you back in nickels" guy, so honestly, this is a step up for me.
Being the Lost guy in my particular neck of society, I often encounter a lot of people who state some variation of, "You know, I tried watching it once or twice. There’s an island, right? And everyone’s fairly pretty, but they seem sad, and what’s up with that guy who used to be in the wheelchair?" So I try and catch them up a bit, and within possibly thirty seconds, I’ve lost (pun intended) them completely.
Because here’s the thing: the show’s evolved so far beyond not only its initial premise, but its initial scope, that trying to summarize the action since "Walkabout" only serves to make the teller (in this case, moi) appreciate the sheer scope of the show that much more. It doesn’t do a whole lot to sell newbies on Lost, which is all well and fine, since programs like this are meant to be experienced, not related.
But the gap between their experience and that of people who have followed the show since the beginning shows not only how far the show itself has come, but also just how radically the show’s narrative has evolved as well. I’ve often referred to the structure of Lost as postmodern. That’s hardly a novel interpretation, but often I’ve meant this in terms of the delivery of narrative. Actions are not shown in a linear fashion, but as a collection of related moments from different times and different perspectives to add up to a more powerful experience for the viewer. But there’s another way in which the show is postmodern: in its narrative perspective.
In analyzing the gap between the show Lost during its pilot and the show Lost during the most recent episode, "The Shape of All Things," one cannot help but recognize that what the show’s attempted all along is nothing short of remarkable. In a sense, Lost has chosen to narratively follow a group of individuals that, when viewed against the über-story of the show, are in fact secondary, perhaps even tertiary characters. To put it another way: for the majority of the time that Lost has been on the air, they have focused on the "wrong" people.
Now, "wrong" is a relative word here, so let me explain. If we’re to look at the show, as a whole, given the final scene in "Shape," then EVERYTHING we’ve seen since Day One on the show is a by-product of a long-simmering war between Charles Widmore and Benjamin Linus. And yet, neither of these characters weren’t introduced until well into the second season, with Ben’s importance only revealed in Season 3, Widmore’s even later, and the nature of their conflict only truly spelled out in the latest episode. So, essentially, what Lost consciously chose to do is build a show around those people unwittingly caught in the crosshairs of these two terrible tyrants.
Does this render the show meaningless, our empathy and engagement with the Lostaways fruitless? Of course not. The time and energy on both sides of the television have not been in vain. But this is a striking narrative tactic all the same, and one that, in my estimation, only serves to vault the show even higher in my estimation. In doing so, the writers of the show have placed both audience and protagonists in media res. The mysteries of the Island are equally fresh to both us and them. The Others, the monster, the hatch…these are all things with which each party stands on equal, unsure ground.
And if this were all, that would be well and fine, but in the establishment of a literal worldwide war between Linus and Widmore, the show’s taken that empathetic relationship between the audience and the Lostaways and tapped into a zeitgeist not unique to this cultural moment but felt keenly all the same: that we are but pawns in plans we don’t understand governed by forces we cannot see. (I’ve tried to examine this here and here as well.) The use of the game Risk in "Shape" only solidified the notion that the Lostaways (and plenty others) are viewed simply as pieces on a game board seen only by Linus and Widmore.
To see how crazy this narrative switch is, think of the progression between Season 1 and Season 4 as if looking through a camera at the scope of the narrative. We start as the show does: with a close-up of Jack’s eye opening quickly. About as small a scope as one could imagine short of a CGI shot of his entwined DNA strains. From that point on, the camera’s essentially panned back….back…back, revealing an enormous canvas upon which the Lostaways, once so central to the story, look as tiny as…well, soldiers in Risk.
All this suggests that while we’ve been watching the Lostaways, we haven’t really been watching their story. The story of Lost sits well above and beyond their current ability to understand it. What we’ve seen is simply them trying to understand their part in someone else’s story, and watching their own sense of personal worth devolve into uncertainty is akin to watching an actor get onstage unsure of the play he/she is to perform. They started off in Season 1 confident in their overall autonomy and are a few episodes away from screaming, "Line!" while tearing at their hair.
Can you think of another show that’s done this? Imagine if, five years into Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it turned out the whole show was really about the Watcher’s Council. Or if the real focus of Angel had been the inter-dimensional law firm Wolfram and Hart. That’s what we’re talking about here. No matter how crazy or inter-dimensional the problems got in the Whedonverse, the protagonists still stood ultimately at the center of the conflicts on display. In Lost, you can’t be sure that the two puppet masters even know the names of those on the front lines getting slaughtered.
But, as I said before, the narrative shift has not hurt Lost, but emboldened it, perhaps even ennobled it. Because rather than focus on WORLD WAR LINUS (admittedly cool), the show’s decided instead to focus on ordinary people trying to make sense of senselessness. While the former makes for good television, the latter makes for GREAT television. And in combining those two, Lost currently stands alone in television.
Ryan also posts every 108 minutes over at Boob Tube Dude.