TV's Best of the Decade: No. 9 - 'Lost'
Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse and J.J. Abrams were behind the decade's most involving mystery
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You can spot the good ones coming from a-ways off.
Because I do news coverage in addition to writing reviews and features, I spend most of the spring writing casting notices on pilots and it's hard not to get invested in some of the shows without seeing a second of footage.
Sometimes it's a writer you trust. With "Chuck," I was ready for that show months early because I was ready to see how Josh Schwartz would follow up "The O.C."
Sometimes it's a premise that intrigues you. When "Wonderfalls" was being mentioned in the trades, one of them summed up the plot as "Touched by a Crazy Person" (i.e. "Touched by an Angel" only with a possible lunatic). Sold!
Sometimes it's a cast. With Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, Simon Baker, Jonny Lee Miller, Amy Smart, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Chris Bauer, I still don't get why "Smith" wasn't a breakout hit for CBS.
With "Lost," it was everything. New pilot from "Felicity" and "Alias" creator J.J. Abrams? Yes, please. A scripted version of "Survivor," with refugees from a plane crash braving the element on a mysterious island? Sure. And the cast began to fill out in intriguing ways: a "Party of Five" veteran, a hobbit, the bomb guy from "The English Patient," the scary dude from "Stepfather" and the guy from "Smoke"? Absolutely.
One thing that was evident from the trade reports was that nobody had a clue what "Lost" actually was. There was speculation just days before the upfront that ABC was thinking of ordering "Lost" as a miniseries. It sounded amazing, but how were Abrams and Damon Lindelof (who I'd never heard of before) going to pull it off? We watched clips of the show at the ABC upfront and they looked amazing, but you couldn't shake the feeling: How are they going to pull it off? The screener for the pilot arrived and I watched it twice almost immediately. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before on TV, but you couldn't shake the feeling: How are they going to pull it off? The show was an immediate smash and new episodes started to air, mostly fulfilling the promise of the pilot, but the question never faded: How are they going pull it off?
"How are they going to pull it off?" has been the central on-and-off screen question for the duration of the show's run, which included five seasons in the Aughts and a climactic sixth season in the yet-to-be-officially-named '10s.
For my purposes, the answer to that question is "Well enough to stand at No. 9 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade."
[More after the break...]
If you want to tell me that "Lost" is too low, I can't argue with you. Well, I *could* argue with you, but I won't. At least not too vociferously. There will be people calling "Lost" the best show of the decade and I'll strongly disagree, but if you want to tell me it's No. 2? I won't fight. I'll smile and say, "You may be right."
Over its five seasons, "Lost" has evolved and spun itself into a show where viewers can get out of it exactly as much as they put into it. That's remarkable to me and I acknowledge that it isn't the case with several of the shows I've ranked higher on my list. With some of them, there's simply a finite amount of appreciation you can get. You watch the shows and the takeaway is the entertainment you get or maybe the added depth you can find on a second or third viewing. That's not bad, but it's not "Lost."
When "Lost" premiered, I was a casual obsessive. I watched episodes multiple times and I read blog postings and comments and I tried to unwrap the various mysteries, though those mysteries were decidedly pedestrian. I pondered the lighter philosophical questions posed by the leadership styles of Matthew Fox's Jack and Terry O'Quinn's Locke. I wondered what the monster in the jungle was. I scratched my head at the polar bear. I tried to make sense of the radio signal and the crazy French Woman. I wasn't sure what to make of The Others, who initially seemed to have superpowers, but apparently didn't. I compiled a laundry list in my head and I played the game.
Then we spent a whole season with Tailies and worrying about what was happening inside The Hatch. It was around this time that my relationship with "Lost" changed. I never ceased to watch the show and, in its best episodes, I never ceased to love the show. What I stopped doing was obsessing. As "Lost" progressed, the show itself became only a small facet of the mythology, which began to include website puzzles, companion books and labyrinthine games. "Lost" became more than a show. It became a complicated immersion in a wide variety of media resources. It mobilized its core fanbase into a unit so passionate that even as casual viewers fled the ship, the existing audience became more invested. The level of engagement that "Lost" has drawn out of its audience will likely be an idealized model for all niche shows in the decades to come. I can't give enough credit to Lindelof and Carlton Cuse for finding new and creative ways to make "Lost" viewership and its ancillary tie-in satellites a value-added proposition. The ownership that passionate viewers feel for the evolving text of "Lost" is unparalleled this side of "Star Trek."
I marvel at the way that HitFix's Drew McWeeny views "Lost," the depth of his curiosity and interrogation into every mystery and every intertwining interaction between characters. My mind actually explodes a little when I try following the work that Ryan McGee (also a HitFix favorite) does on the show over at Zap2it. There are many shows that people around the Internet put a lot of effort into unravelling and some of those labors simply aren't going to be rewarded. Like if you're sitting at home trying to unpack the deeper meaning of "FlashForward" right now? I suspect you'd be better served picking up a good book and just reading for a couple hours, or maybe acquiring the DVD sets for several of the shows on this Best of the Decade list, because as much as I don't want to use the words "wasting your time," you're wasting your time. Not every show on TV has been crafted with any kind of attention to detail, but "Lost" has, right down to the smallest points, even if those smallest points just end up being red herrings or lose the meaning they once had.
But, to use the Jack/Locke parlance from the beginning of the second season of "Lost," I've become a man of faith, rather than a man of science. I came to realize that I enjoyed the show more as a viewer and fan than as a studier and interrogator. I decided that at a time when there actually didn't seem to be any percentage in believing that Lindelof and Cuse really had a clue what they were done. The second and early third seasons were mine fields of dead-end conundrums and seemingly answerless queries and every rabbit hole seemed to lead into another rabbit hole.
Then, in 2007, a remarkable thing happened: ABC ordered *three* additional seasons for "Lost" and announced that that would be it, basically an unprecedented step for a show still delivering reasonably strong ratings in only its third season. It was the best thing that could have happened for "Lost," as the sense of wheel-spinning basically came to an end. Two weeks after that announcement, "Lost" finished its third season with "Through the Looking Glass," one of the rare episodes to live up to that overused TV buzzword, "gamechanger." Since that point, "Lost" has been plowing forward with a sense of purpose that was occasionally lacking in the early seasons, where the writers had stories they wanted to tell, but only a limited understanding of the bigger picture.
Because there's no point in my writing these entries if I'm not honest, I have to say that "Lost" didn't really become the show I'd have wanted it to, based on the pilot. I'll confess that my desires for the show were less imaginative, more quaint and probably less sustainable. From the beginning, I loved the characters and the actors playing them and I was fascinated by the use of flashbacks, but the narrative I was hoping to see was one of survival. I wanted to see how Jack, Kate, Locke, Sawyer, Sayid, Claire, Hurley, Michael, Charlie and the rest of the original characters were going to survive on a deserted island. I wanted starvation fears, leadership struggles and rather hygiene-deficient romantic liaisons. And the hints of a mystery involving monsters, unkillable hill-people, mental projection and strangely marooned ships up in the mountain? That was the amount I was prepared to engage. Yeah, I wanted "Swiss Family Robinson" meets Stephen King. I wanted "Gilligan's Island" with a little dash of "Alice in Wonderland."
Instead, we got philosophy and physics, time travel and wormholes and an island capable of shifting its physical position in space. We got variables and constants and Jeremy Bentham, whose status as an actual philosopher and social reformer has been largely displaced by his status as a "Lost" gag. We stopped going merely backwards in time and started going forwards. We got off The Island and we went back to The Island, but we went back to the past to do it. We added a giant statue with four-toes that I never expected to see again and then we saw it again, but only after going even further back in time. We met crusading scientists, idealizing humanists and all manner of false prophets and would-be messiahs. We fell face-first into the kind of paradoxes that would have left Marty McFly playing a guitar one-handed and yet emerged unscathed. In short, Lindelof and Cuse delivered far more than I hoped for.
With "Lost," there's no such thing as passive viewership, but there are different levels of active participation. I no longer play along with "Lost" at home. I watch episodes. I love episodes. I skim Drew's blog posts, but then I step away, usually. I admire what the obsessives have found to obsess about, but I also admire how much the show offers for those who don't feel like playing those reindeer games.
[This isn't to imply that "Lost" doesn't inspire me. I invite you to read "Uncharted," a script I wrote in one fevered weekend in the aftermath of Season Three.]
You can be a super-fan and get more out of "Lost." No doubt. But just being a fan of good TV is all that's required to marvel at "Two for the Road" or "Flashes Before Your Eyes" or "Walkabout" or "The Man From Tallahassee" or "Through the Looking Glass" or "The Constant" or "The Shape of Things to Come" or "The Variable" or "The Man Behind the Curtain" or "The Long Con" or any number of other splendid episodes. Some of those hours were deeply ingrained in the show's mythology, but others were just character-based stories that came together in powerful ways. Heck, on an earlier blog, I even wrote a lengthy defense of "Expose," the notorious Nikki and Paolo episode, which I interpreted as being the show's equivalent of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead."
You only needed to be a fan of good TV to love almost all of the "Lost" performances, to enjoy the tortured seriousness of Matthew Fox's Jack, the swagger of Josh Holloway's Sawyer, the strength and sadness (and hotness) of Evangeline Lilly's Kate, the possibly unhinged devotion and faith of Terry O'Quinn's Locke, the surprising storytelling options opened up by Daniel Dae Kim's Jin and Yunjin Kim's Sun, the more-than-comic-relief-ness of Jorge Garcia's Hurley, the desperate need for redemption of Domic Monaghan's Charlie, the romantic earnestness of Henry Ian Cusick's Desmond, the toughness and hope of Elizabeth Mitchell's Juliet, the evil-but-maybe-not discomfort in watching Michael Emerson's Ben.
Like I said, with "Lost" you get out of it what you put in and if all you put in is making sure to watch each and every episode with a minimum of distractions and live to avoid spoilers, then what you get out of it is one of the decade's best and most involving shows. If you've invested more and, thus, gotten more out of it, you can certainly value it a higher level.
For me? "Lost" ranks at No. 9 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade and I can't wait to see where it ends next year.
Coming up tomorrow? A likable killer, turf wars and a family in The Business.