By Bob Clark
When you get right down to it, good episodic-drama has very little to do with storytelling as an ends to itself. The best long-form multi-part narratives all certainly manage to tell satisfying tales with their own beginnings, middles and ends, surely enough, but simply telling those tales is never really the raison d’artre for the most compelling case histories of the medium. Episodic narrative has less to do with traditional storytelling, and more to do with providing variations on a theme, and the best examples tend to be the ones which provide the widest possible array of different variations on their particular premise while also wrapping them up in some kind of emotionally rewarding framework. Whether it be Boccaccio and Chaucer (who provided countless variations upon the themes of medieval, baudy love within the storytelling frame-tales of The Decameron and the Canterbury Tales), filmmaker George Lucas (whose repetition of visuals, dialogue and set-pieces throughout the Star Wars series turned those films into a space-opera full of its own cinematic leit-motifs) or cartoonist Chuck Jones (who provided Wile E. Coyote countless of Rube Goldberg-esque methods for how not to catch a Road Runner) storytellers depend upon patterns and variation to keep their enterprises fresh and engaging.
As such, it’s no surprise that television, as a domestic object with regularly scheduled programming, is perhaps the ideal place this narrative method, and where some of the best serial-dramas have been produced. From Roy Huggins’ The Fugitive to Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, the best tv-dramas have tended to be the ones which rely not upon adhering solely to a single, serialized narrative strand (as is the case in most soap-operas) or upon a succession of different, mutually exclusive stories on a regular basis (as has been the case in various anthology-series), but instead upon a kind of combination of the two. Sometimes this amounts to creating a compelling umbrella story under which as many other peripheral, stand-alone stories can fit, such as Twin Peaks’ mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder, while at other times it can merely mean coming up with a simple enough narrative premise to allow for as many different directions as possible without even considering much in the way of continuity. Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner is something of a classic in this regard—thanks to the self-enclosed nature of each episode, fans are still arguing over the correct order in which they should be viewed, underlining the importance of its central premise rather than the larger narrative framework it lives in. Like all good stories, you can say it has a beginning, middle and end, but thanks to the strength of its core-concept—a nameless spy trapped by anonymous powers-that-be—the order in which they arrive is more or less beside the point.
Created in 2004 by director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Damon Lindelof, Lost shares much in common with McGoohan’s seminal existential adventure while at the same time inserting itself into the fabric of mainstream television with far more nuance and finesse. Their story was a mix of old-hat borrowings and new-fangled imagination, owing much to Cast Away in its story of the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 fighting to survive after crashing on an uncharted island. Week by week, though, that simple premise opened the doors to an almost endless range of possibilities for variation, providing opportunities to explore any number of different storytelling genres, aesthetic disciplines and creative experiments. Like The Prisoner, it would balance a fresh spirit of white-knuckle adventure with wide-eyed pop-surrealism, though broadening its focus from a lone “free man” to a diverse ensemble of international everymen. Intentionally designed to be rewarding both on a weekly and one-time basis, especially in its first season, Lost captured worldwide attention and reinvigorated network interest in serialized storytelling after a long dearth of procedural shows with little in the way of committed continuity. It was a golden mean to cast an audience the width of which hadn’t been seen since Twin Peaks—just the right balance of fringe and mainstream to keep everybody curious.
And though the show would soon enough begin a perilous, intrepid descent into purebred sci-fi adventure and mysticism, that balance was exactly what kept it alive in the Nielson ratings before the idea of its success on DVD and internet downloads gained any traction with the network or sponsors. It’s worth noting that Lost was produced on ABC, the very same channel that had thrown Twin Peaks under the bus after the first stage of its rocketfire popularity ran out of fuel, and would later shut the door on the pilot for Mulholland Drive. It’s tempting to imagine what Abrams & Lindelof might’ve made of their own pilot had it been turned down, and they’d been given the chance to salvage their footage into an elliptical question-mark of a feature as Lynch did. There was enough quality in those first ninety-minutes to provide ample ground for a foray into big-screen mysteries—those evocative, nearly wordless first moments in the serenity of a bamboo forest and the slow reveal of the beachside crash site, like Peter Weir’s Fearless shot in the heart with an adrenaline chaser; the mysterious roars and mechanical chatterings of the Island’s monster, seen only as shaking trees, shadows and bloodspray, all cinematic smoke-and-mirrors before the hint of smoke even entered the frame; the various choose-your-own adventure sub-plots of the polar bear and the French transmission, or the rogue’s gallery of questionable characters.
It’s that last point that would’ve made the transition to a theatrical movie unlikely, but perfect fodder for the open-ended fabric of television, where each and every passenger, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, would have their moment to stand in the center stage of a flashback’s focus (even if it only arrived just in time for them to die). As the series expanded beyond the hints of its pilot, we began to see just how well the creators integrated their story with the diverse make-up of their ensemble cast. From runaway fugitives, doomed lotto-winners and genuine Iraqi torturers to warrior-priests, pitiable masterminds and button-pressing time-travelers, Lost’s scope of characters was at once dauntingly vast yet intimately down-to-earth, and almost never superfluous in its wide reach of dissimilar souls. One of the things which made the series’ narrative work, especially as a vehicle for exercising variations on a core set of philosophical themes, was the way in which every figure on the stage was given a specific, concrete job to do in service of the overall plot, whether it be to know enough Latin to tell when somebody was using it to cover-up a lie, or merely to remember the tune to “Good Vibrations” and to keep a Sharpie handy for a few last words. Though many of them proved to be expendable in the long run (some before they’d even been given much to do besides pose in the spotlight and cast some false foreshadowing), we almost always spent enough time with them to feel a sense of loss when they passed, and to believe they’d contributed something worthwhile to the story’s ultimate goal, whatever it was that would turn out to be. But if there ever were two central figures in the tapestry of Lost, it could only be the man of science and the man of faith—Matthew Fox’s Jack Shephard and Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke.
Originally conceived as a one-episode celebrity guest-star character to be killed off right in the pilot, Jack lived up to his name in tending to his flock of survivors throughout the series, patching up their wounds as resident doctor and serving as leader during the frequent times of danger from enemies without and within. While he spent three seasons standing up to the mysterious threat of the Island’s native inhabitants, known only as “The Others”, he would ultimately find himself spending more time in an escalating contest of wills and ideals with Locke, the one-time wheelchair-bound loser who found himself healed and reinvigorated by the Island’s power. With a knife in his grip and a glint in his eye, he stood as a massively compelling conflation of cultural heroes, seemingly at odds with one another—part Ernest Hemingway-esque manly man, the great white hunter at play in the fields of the jungle; part Marlon Brando look-a-like, smiling with a Corlene orange in his mouth and leading vagabond armies through the heart of darkness in a mad, Kurtz-like quest; finally, part Anakin Skywalker, bald-headed and eye-scarred, looking for adventure and excitement, strong with the Force, but not strong enough to resist the call of the Dark Side. For six seasons, these two competing figures would stage their conflict on all manner of grounds—practically, pitting the needs of survival against the questions surrounding the mysterious hatch and the button within; philosophically, matching secular free-will with the faith-based initiative of fate in their series-long conflict of whether to escape back to the mainland or remain and fulfill their destiny; and ultimately even physically, in their final duel of fists and blade upon volcanically formed cliffs above the rocky shoreline in a battle in which the fate of the Island, the world, and perhaps all of time and space itself hung in the balance.
By then, however, Jack was no longer the man of science he once was, but finally a full-fledged man of faith; and Locke was no longer even a man at all, but had instead become the series’ defining image of sci-fi imagination and question-raising adventure incarnate—the Smoke Monster. For a long time we felt its presence without actually seeing it—hearing its roar, watching the trees shake in its wake, witnessing victims pulled into bloody death. The creators knew the value of keeping their biggest mysteries off-screen when visual information was at a premium—even when Locke famously encountered the beast in “Walkabout”, all we ever got was the suggestion of a POV shot. When it first appeared on-screen, it was hard to tell exactly what it was, merely a handful of fleeting glimpses of wispy trails in the jungle and a thick plume of black smog whisking itself away far faster than the wind could carry it. In time, however, we had plenty more occasions to witness it up close and personal, with time enough to watch its cloudy body writhe, shapeshift and flash its way across the screen and to learn its ultimate, sinister goals in the passion-play of the Oceanic survivors. The most positively surrealist thing seen on television since the likes of McGoohan’s weather-balloon Rover from The Prisoner or David Lynch’s trips through the red-curtained waiting rooms of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, it might just be what truly put Lost on the map as the decade’s crowning piece of escapist entertainment, full of sights and sounds that not only hadn’t been seen before in film or television (the closest relatives might be the water-tentacle from The Abyss, or the shadowy smoke-enemies from the video-game Ico), but were at times difficult to even put into words (one wonders if the writers settled on adopting the fan nick-name “Smoke Monster” because they were unable to think of a better description themselves).
But in the end, even that iconic figure was only one element of the show’s winning aesthetic sensibilities, which helped it become perhaps the most visually arresting and original cinematic effort of the past ten years. At first glance, one might mistake much of the show’s mis-en-scene as a strictly by-the-book affair, at times little more than standard patterns of epic long-shots and shaky close-ups, with jungle-swept steadicams and camp-bound over-the-shoulder two-shots in between. But the visual style coined by Abrams and developed in full throughout the course of the series by MVP director Jack Bender offers more than that, especially in the full 1.78:1 aspect-ratio as presented in HD broadcasts and DVD releases, where the uncut and generously lensed widescreen compositions can be appreciated in full. Much of the sheer visual brilliance of Lost is owed to the production’s reliance upon the natural and manmade locales of Oahu, Hawaii, where all but a handful of the series’ scenes were shot. With redressed cities standing in for locations around the world for the various flashes to mainland life and a seemingly endless supply of tropical beauty for lushly photographed terrains, Abrams & Bender set a style that married visual splendor with strict cinematic economy, allowing the dynamic environments to dictate the image wherever possible, choreographing edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger set-pieces around the contours of pre-existing landscapes in a manner as holistic as the Island’s servants themselves.
Standing out amongst the thick greenery and authentic city hustle-bustle of the show’s real-life locations, however, were the constructs of its set-design, which cannily aimed not to blend in with the Hawaiian surroundings but instead to provide a stark, oftentimes jarring relief to them. Modern sites like the 70’s era Dharma stations with their Buckminster Fuller-inspired architecture and the suburban barracks of “New Otherton” helped establish a striking visual contrast in the out-of-this-world imaginings, and older locales like the various Egyptian-styled ruins and the explosively shipwrecked “Black Rock” galleon put that contrast into a context that remained both historical and mythic. So many of the Island’s landmarks were just as out-of-place as the polar bears, the Smoke Monster, or even the Oceanic castaways themselves, with the wreckage from their plane serving as constant reminders of the sublime and palpable absurdity of their predicament. As much as anything, Lost was a show about things and people who had to make due where they didn’t belong, and visually this theme found itself expressed most frequently in exactly this kind of location-based conflict between naturalism and what people leave behind in them, the ruinous litter of so many civilizations. Occasionally, truly alien sights like dead-men walking, billowing pillars of strobe-lit smoke and the sky turning purple underlined this disconnect into a language of sci-fi surrealism just grounded enough in real-life plausibility to give pause. But perhaps the strongest form of the show’s illustrations of disconnect came in its supple dramatics, matching a strict adherence to visually supported storytelling and some of the most adventurous experiments with narrative formula seen on network television.
In the first case there were the Island’s default mode of day-to-day conflicts, sometimes centered around basic survival (hunting for boar, searching for water), sometimes around seeking rescue and escape (triangulating transmission signals, piecing together salvageable electronics) and sometimes around the various local mysteries directly, whether they be in the ruins of abandoned stations (blasting open the hatch, pressing the button) or amidst the shadowy society of the Others. Sure, there were also plenty of the usual television ups and downs of love-triangles, personality clashes and troubled pasts aplenty, but most of the time the show’s writers found ways of articulating those dilemmas into the concrete machinations of the on-Island plot, and always made sure those physical, tangible conflicts were prominently displayed onscreen, rather than merely being glazed over in expository dialogue. Characters did more than just talk about their adventures to summarize them for the audience—we were always given ample opportunity to watch as Sayid fixed transceivers, Jack stitched together a patient, or Locke hunted boar and shared a close encounter with the smoky kind. Unlike so many other showrunners of the past decade, Abrams, Lindelof and Carlton Cuse knew the value of keeping visuals as their show’s lingua franca, instead of relying upon overwritten scripts where all of the action remained exclusively in the spoken word. Good television must be seen as well as heard, and whenever Lost was on, it made the screen positively adhesive to the human eye.
In the second case, we have the various modes of off-Island intrigue, and this is where the story gets tricky. Right after the pilot returned from its first commercial break, flashbacks became one of show’s most enduring and influential attributes. Usually centering on a specific character’s pre-Island history, the writers breathed new life into this seemingly rote narrative-conceit, which hadn’t been used this effectively since Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs or Moore & Gibbons’ Watchmen comics. Here, flashbacks became a means to structure episodes around an isolated story that could be understood apart from the gradual incline of the various escalating plotlines, allowing any given hour to thrive with far more accessibility to a wider group of viewers. What made it work was how it allowed each episode to move the larger plot forward while telling a self-contained arc of its own—much of an episode like “The Man From Tallahassee” probably wouldn’t make much sense to a newcomer, but even if they couldn’t understand why Locke was running around taking hostages and blowing up submarines, at least they could finally learn how he wound up in his wheelchair. It was this pattern of parallel narratives which all of the show’s episodes provided variations upon for the first three seasons, and when the writers ran out of steam with those, they came up with another variations on-top of that by presenting flash-forwards, showing the audience the lives of castaways after their escape from the Island, and even eventually flash-sideways, portraying an alternate timeline in which Oceanic flight 815 never crashed at all. Not only could much the show’s story or setting change from week to week, but so could its genre, depending upon the character in question, allowing every episode to be half epic-serial, and half Twilight Zone-esque anthology show. Furthermore, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (frequently referred to as fans as “Darlton”, a collectivized-portmanteau that sounds perfectly in keeping with the spirit of their fictional universe) carefully structured each of their seasons with the same kind of fluidity between stand-alone storytelling and long-term continuity, allowing each year of the program to function as a unit to present a meta-variation upon their basic premise, just like any individual episode.
Viewed in sequence, it’s easy to see Lost as a novel-for-television (a title Coppola assumed for his recut Godfather cycle and Michael Mann aspired for his cheesy-fun period piece Crime Story) told in six distinct chapters– the story of the crash of Oceanic 815, and the passengers’ discovery of the Island’s various mysteries; the story of the Dharma Initiative’s Swan Station, and the world-saving button which must be pressed every 108 minutes, or else; the story of the conflict between the Oceanic survivors and the Others, led by the master-manipulator Benjamin Linus; the story of the Island’s invasion by the Freighter, and the eventual rescue of the Oceanic Six; the story of their eventual return, while the Island’s inhabitants are hurdled through time and space; and finally, the story of the Smoke Monster, and its ultimate battle with the Oceanic survivors to leave the Island, once and for all, even if it means global annihilation. Just like any individual hour of the show, a season of Lost was a mixture of escapism, adventure, hard science-fiction, existential mythmaking and end-of-the-world cliffhangers. At times it was able to capture its themes in year-long story arcs that plumbed genre depths as eloquently as the work of Richard Matheson, Kurt Vonnegut or Rod Serling– Locke and Eko’s battle of wills inside the Hatch owes much to the Pandora’s Box-allegory of “Button, Button”, and plainly outdoes it; Desmon and Faraday’s trials and tribulations at becoming unstuck in time rival Billy Pilgrim’s transcendent voyage through the temporal spheres; even Jacob and Smokey’s final-season backgammon game to determine the fate of the Candidates would’ve made for a decent bit of black-and-white morality playhouse television. In the end, Lost was able to work on a long-term basis not necessarily because it was planned out in whole from day one (like Lucas’ “Tragedy of Darth Vader”, there’s probably as much mythmaking behind the scenes in the idea of a master plan as there is in the mythologizing within the show itself), but because its creators treated each season-arc as a distinct episodic unit of its own, both independent and interdependent with its whole, and full of crucial creative variations that both set it apart from and bind it to its central themes.
Thus, the series was able to mix its overarching mythology alongside its stand-alone stories far better than Chris Carter was able to with The X-Files, attracting both mainstream and niche audiences while mixing not only past, present and future, but a whole multiverse’s worth of storytelling potentialities. That last variation depended upon one of the other highlights of Lost’s tenure on television—its gradual embrace of a surprisingly deft blend of hard sci-fi and softened New Age spirituality. Perhaps it was the only way to reconcile the show’s adherence to realistic-sounding plausibility and utterly surreal elements like the Smoke Monster, but just as their protagonists separated themselves between the lines of science and faith, so too would their eventual story of time-travel, immortality and the origin-of-all-human-life (or something) become something of a test of wills between two diametrically opposed views of the world. On the one hand, nearly everything that happened on the Island defied all manner of worldly behavior, resorting to what at times could only be charitably described as magical-realism to explain things like the mysterious Jacob, the eternally young Richard Alpert, or the ultimate divine revelations of the mystical glowing cave. At the same time, however, the writers sought to back up so many of the Island’s more outlandish elements with a handful of pseudo-scientific MacGuffins that turned out just plausible enough to string their audiences along and accept all the supernatural possibilities. Perhaps it was a happy accidental kind of writer’s wit that paired science and faith so often through the workings of electro-magnetism—after all, opposites do attract (maybe that explains all the nonsense with the polar bears, too).
Ultimately, however, what earned the writers their free-pass through the audience’s suspension of disbelief was the amount of thought and care they put into the most outlandish elements of their work. Even when Lost seemed as though it would become impossible to follow in the sheer complexity of the narrative and genre-stylings they adopted, they nearly always found ways to make their material at once challenging and intimately relatable, finding a human connection as deep and moving as their scope was ambitious. In temporally disjointed characters like Daniel Faraday, Eloise Hawking and fan-favorite Desmond Hume (named, like so many other characters, after a footnote from a college-freshman philosophy class), we were given characters who not only yearned to conquer the scientific questions of time-and-space out of mere intellectual curiosity, but for profoundly emotional desires. Whether it be to reset the variables of history to resurrect an unrequited love; to course-correct the universe from repeating a tragic mistake; or to bridge the divide between future, past and universes by reuniting with that one essential human constant, these were people who had personal motivations that anyone could relate to, even if they couldn’t quite understand what they motivated. The fact that the science actually managed to make as much sense as it did to people who actually knew a thing or two about physics was a cherry on top of the narrative sundae—there would be no serious story-ruining lapses in logic or continuity, no terminal paradoxes to spoil all the fun.
Which is not to say, of course, that there were absolutely no loose threads, temporal or otherwise, by the series’ end—over the course of six years development, there were plenty of stories, characters and visual motifs that turned out to be disappointing dead-ends—we never learned what was so important about Walt, the Smoke Monster robbed us of Mr. Eko far too soon, and we never did get that long-promised Vincent-flashback episode (unless you count that video mini-episode shot for mobile phones). By the time its much-anticipated finale ended its last few minutes, there were still plenty of questions left unanswered, still so many conflicts unresolved, seemingly forgotten, even. Part of it was thanks to the way the writers cast their net extra-wide in the first three seasons, teasing the audience with numerable breadcrumb clues and hints they later ran out of time for when an end-date was set into motion. Too much time was wasted on detours and cul-de-sacs of irrelevant side-stories, all those scenic-route flashbacks that answered questions nobody ever bothered to ask—how Jack got his tattoos, where Locke learned to build a sweat-lodge, or why Desmond kept calling everyone “brother”. And at times, it could even be difficult to tell exactly what everyone’s motivations were, beyond the simplest explanations—yes, Jack wanted everyone to survive long enough to be rescued, and Locke thought they all had to stay on the Island long enough to find out what their destiny was, but what about all the plans-within-plans waged by the likes of Charles Widmore, Benjamin Linus and the Smoke Monster itself? One can forgive the writers themselves for making up much of their story as they go along, but when the characters themselves appear to be masterminding all their evil plans on the fly, it can become a little difficult to follow.
Yet even when they resorted to wheel-spinning, they could still rely upon the mainstays of the show—the aesthetic pleasures from expert cinematographers like Larry Fong and Michael Bonvillain and composer Michael Giacchino’s rousing score; the enlivening performances from every member of the teeming ensemble cast; and the narrative gamechangers the writers set off whenever they finally wanted to kick the story into gear. And even if they resorted to embracing all the weakest parts of their mythology towards the end—all the magical, spiritual nonsense, feeling much like a retreat back to the same open-arms confines of organized-religion that stuff like Star Wars was rebelling against way back when—the work that Abrams, Lindelof and Cuse did here remains some of the most compelling science-fiction and fantasy work of the decade. It’s more original than George Lucas’ underrated (but somewhat unnecessary) Prequel Trilogy, better planned and executed than the Wachowskis’ well-intended (but disjointed) Matrix sequels, not as silly as James Cameron’s Avatar or pretentious as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and nowhere near as boring as Peter Jackson’s plodding Lord of the Rings films. In six short years of time, Lost provided audiences with countless variations upon their core desert-island premise, spinning their content to tackle survival, mystery and existential dilemma in an always thrilling visual lexicon of adventure, excitement and pure Saturday matinee fun. As a piece of television it ranks among the very best works produced for the medium, and though it all took place on the small screen, it was arguably the cinematic event of the decade.