LOST at 10: Still Lost after All These Years

Ten years ago this fall, Lost debuted on ABC. It was groundbreaking drama with a premiere that smashed records and garnered a a rabidly devoted fan base.

Six years later, Lost ended as a letdown for many of its most faithful fans. Why did the show draw such attention? And why did it prove ultimately unsatisfying for so many viewers?

How Lost Drew Us In

Lost was at the forefront of “the binge-watching era,” a phrase used to describe the immediate consumption of entertainment through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Because previous seasons of Lost were available on DVD and later online, viewers could start at the beginning whenever they wished and “catch up” on the show before joining the rest of the country for the new episodes.

And make no mistake, watching the show on television mattered. Audience participation was as vital to the experience as viewing the show itself. Coworkers discussed the show in the office the next day. Fans took to websites and blogs to share their theories, revel in the mysteries, and critique other people’s ideas.

The producers of Lost didn’t talk down to us. They expected us to catch the show’s philosophical bent. They wanted us to look up the famous thinkers Lost’s characters were named after – Rousseau, Locke, Faraday, Charlotte Staples Lewis, etc. They infused the show with religious imagery, ancient myths, and a mix of scientific and political theories.

As a result, Lost raised the bar for TV watching. The show was savvy and smart, with interesting characters and a gripping storyline. In our world today, people are closer than ever in public spaces of multicultural display (i.e. the airplane), and yet we are farther apart in our failure to know and understand the people around us. Lost created a microcosm of human society, a group of individuals united by tragedy, yet utterly divided in their opinions of how they can best battle the elements, resist their evil impulses, and discover the purpose for their lives.

Lost also captured the inner angst of our secular age – the desire to discover something beyond our own lives. The show depicted a world haunted by the echoes of transcendence. That’s why a common theme in the early seasons was the showdown between the “Man of Science” (Jack) versus “Man of Faith” (Locke). There was never any doubt that Lost would end up squarely on the Faith side of the equation, because the island was charged with cosmic grandeur. Even so, the man of faith would come with wrestle with doubt, and the man of science would be drawn to the island’s magic.

At every turn, the writers reinforced the idea that humans are part of a larger narrative, a grand scheme. The crossing of our paths is not accidental. A divine purpose ripples through creation and surprises us in ways the analytical mind cannot fully grasp.

Meanwhile, the sociological part of the show provided the greatest opportunities for character development. A disparate group of people from different cultures and backgrounds inhabit a deserted island. We watch them as they seek to create a society on an island full of ruins of failed experiments and dashed utopian dreams. Lost was gripping because it introduced us to characters we cared about and wanted to survive.

How Lost Lost Us

In Lost‘s later years, fans wondered if the show could answer all its mysteries. We began to doubt the overarching narrative. In order to continue to maintain the audience, the producers had to simultaneously resolve old mysteries and introduce new ones. As the mysterious elements began to pile up, the show began to slide toward chaos. The science fiction elements began to dominate the plot, often at the expense of character development.

In the first season, the island was a backdrop for the characters. Over time, the island’s unique attributes began to upstage the uniqueness of Lost‘s characters.

Then, after six years of promises, the show concluded with a widely watched finale that angered and disappointed the majority of viewers who’d come along for the ride. Lost premiered with a bang and went out with a whimper, a confusing amalgam of spiritual symbols that left viewers scratching their heads.

It turned out that Lost‘s biggest strength proved to be its biggest weakness. Its ambitiousness in creating characters whose lives intersected according to a cosmic purpose couldn’t keep pace with itself. The reason we watched Lost was its bold promise that everything will soon make sense. The reason we were let down was that the “sense-making” turned increasingly inward; the haunting transcendence of the island was reduced to the psychological deliverance of the characters.

The finale shouldn’t detract from Lost‘s many enjoyable moments. We imagined ourselves on the island with Lost‘s colorful cast of characters because we also inhabit a world of individual stories that are connected to a cosmic narrative that makes sense of reality. Lost drew us in because it reflected our own attempts to find meaning and love in a culture caught between science and faith.

But Lost let us down because all it could do was point ever so faintly toward the grand finale we long for in the deepest part of our souls – the last chapter of this present world when all wrongs will be righted, all injustices will cease, and we will finally understand purpose and pain.

Maybe that’s the best takeaway from Lost. Its contribution was to awaken people to the mysteries of the world around us. And with its thirst for transcendence, Lost still points beyond itself in the human search for answers to life’s greatest questions.

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