The Show I Hate to Love

Is Lost an elaborately plotted action mystery or just flimsy trash? Depends on who you ask.

The pleasure centers of my brain tell me Lost is one of the most effervescent, enjoyable series on TV right now. The analytic half of my cerebellum tells me it's flimsy trash, with only the top-notch acting and big-budget visuals elevating it above Sci Fi Channel filler. One side of "us" must be right and the other wrong, right?

Listen in on the internal Lost debate.

Fans compareLost toX Files. ButX Files created a world in each episode with its own aberrant logic, and the characters had to deal with that context. InLost, there's always some new wacko supernatural element added. The writers seem to think that viewers' credulity is infinitely flexible and we'll just accept whatever new twist they throw in. I mean, that island is getting to be pretty overcrowded—you can't take a leak in the jungle without bumping into people-eating monsters or spectral apparitions or some new bunch of crash survivors.

Matthew Fox (right) as Jack Shephard
photo: Mario Perez
Matthew Fox (right) as Jack Shephard

I'll admit that when I reviewed the debut episode, I said the show's rickety logic made my head hurt. It seemed unlikely that Lost could maintain its speed freak momentum over one whole season—never mind two—and I wondered how much character development one could expect with a cast the size of a small army. Then there was the matter of that beast in the jungle—monsters are a potential deal breaker for me, an instant TV turnoff. But the writers overcame these hurdles by playing off my skepticism. They built up a complex, unreliable mythology in which the ground was constantly, deliberately shifting. During the course of the first season, the existence of the monster was called into doubt. Perhaps it was just an oversized wild boar? Then attention shifted to the rumored presence of "the others"—malevolent residents of the island's dense, unexplored sectors. There's always the possibility that some supernatural force lurks in the woods, messing with the characters' minds and causing them to hallucinate—an idea reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, in which a sentient planet conjures humans' deepest desires into realistic form.

For me, the glory of Lost is the way the plotline grows ever more labyrinthine while maintaining a fanciful grip on my attention. Like this new idea that the survivors may be subjects of a giant psychological experiment gone awry. Looking for shelter, they discover a research lab hidden inside a hatch. The lab's fabulously retro "orientation" film explains that it's part of "the Dharma Initiative," a project started by post-hippie utopian academics who dreamed of a freethinking research commune. But the sole responsibility for the current hatch-dweller appears to be pressing a mysterious button every 108 minutes to prevent the island's auto-destruction. Which makes some of the brighter survivors question whether it's all just a mindfuck experiment in how humans deal with stress and sleep deprivation. Or could the island be a living laboratory of Hobbesian survivalism? It's the kind of paranoid, twisted vision that places Lost within the TV tradition of The Prisoner.

That comparison doesLost no favors.The Prisoner's apparent absurdity cloaks a harrowing struggle between the individual and a faceless bureaucracy. It's like the TV equivalent of Kafka or Harold Pinter, a product of the era of existentialism and totalitarianism. WhereasLost is closer toThe Matrix orDonnie Darko—empty conundrums with expensive special effects.

There's no denying that Lost is a thriller at heart. It was co-created by the man responsible for Alias, a showcase for Jennifer Garner's lips and stunt double. But the series doesn't stint on ideas. Take the timely theme of the struggle between faith and reason: Lost pits the hunky, ultra-rational surgeon Jack Shephard against true believer John Locke. (How impish is that, naming him after the father of empiricist rationality!) Last season, Locke challenged Jack to admit the crash was more than an accident: "We were brought here for a purpose, for a reason." Now he urges the doc to take a leap of faith and push the hatch's mysterious button, tethering Jack to the island's cryptic belief system.

Count me in with Jack and the logic-based community. I don't know how anyone can lap up the show's endless string of preposterous coincidences and portents. It's like feeding time for geeks!

Yeah, the Internet is buzzing with decryption nerds delving for hidden meanings and veiled clues. There's even a new online journal of "Lost studies," suggesting that the series appeals to academics suffering from post- Buffy malaise. I do worry that the writers will pander to this crowd by indiscriminately inserting synchronicities. The producers have begun dropping hints—or red herrings—in the media, pointing to the fleeting appearances of books like Madeleine L'Engle's time travel novel A Wrinkle in Time and Flann O'Brien's fabulist tale The Third Policeman. But how can I complain that a prime-time TV show is sending viewers on a quest to read great fiction? It's better than Oprah.

If onlyLost were as good as the books in question. I mean, how is it possible that there were no ordinary people on the plane? Everyone has some dark secret, and being stranded somehow enables them all to resolve a deep character flaw and thrive in this post-cataclysmic environment.

Lost has developed its core characters remarkably well, allowing backstories to slowly seep out. And plenty of "ordinary people" survived the crash; they just don't get lines. In one of last season's funniest scenes, a background character named Arzt stepped out of the shadows to express resentment of the clique that dominates their burgeoning society. "I'm sorry that I'm not cool enough to be part of your merry little band of adventurers," he whined. Shortly thereafter, he got blown to smithereens.

Lost can take itself so seriously because it isn't afraid to mock its genre elements—very Buffy, really. Like when Hurley reminds Jack that "life's not so bad" on the desert island. "I mean, sure, 'the others' are coming to eat us all and every so often someone blows up all over you—but you do get to sleep late every morning!"

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