Save the date: Sunday May 23rd 2010 isn’t just the day that Lost ends, it’ll also mark an end of a larger era: The era of successful serialized mysteries on network television. And Lost deserves a lot of credit for making that happen.
When Daniel Dae Kim says, somewhat self-congratulatory, “I don’t think you can have a conversation about television in the 21st century without mentioning Lost,” it’s not just hyperbole: That show, along with Battlestar Galactica, managed to set a new bar for long-running dramas that (in theory, at least) told one mystery story from start to finish without insulting audiences but requiring them to think for themselves, pay attention and offer up their own interpretation… and, just as importantly, then proceeded to fall at the final hurdle. Yes, it still has one more (supersized) episode to go, but with fans already complaining about last week’s mythology download and a lot of questions looking as if they’re going to remain unanswered by the end of Sunday’s two-and-a-half hour “The End,” I’m ready to call Lost exhibit A in the case against longform network TV storytelling. Here’re some reasons why:
There Is Never A Plan
Lost may have been based around one giant mystery (Essentially, why are these people on the island?), but it took a lot of detours and introduced a lot of red herrings along the way towards an explanation (For example: Hey, remember Charlotte? What was her story?), and as we approach the final episode, it’s become clear that a lot of Lost was made up as it went along and didn’t necessarily have the answers to those questions when they asked them (To be fair, showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have been talking about this very recently and, while I agree that never deviating from an initial plan is very conceited, I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to hope the creators know roughly where they’re going in the first place. YMMV, as they say). Battlestar Galactica had the same problem, and even though I’m down with the idea of letting the story and characters guide the writers and let everything grow organically*, the problem with doing that on a television show over a number of years is that, when you realize you’re going down Path D instead of Paths A, B or C like you thought you were, you’ve created all these expectations and questions for your audience that you’re not really interested in addressing anymore, leading audiences to the dual conclusions that (a) You don’t know what you’re doing, or (b) You’re the writing equivalent of, in the polite words of John Lennon, a big teaser. Neither of those are good things.
(More on Techland: All of LOST Told In 108 Seconds)
(* If nothing else, that process gave us both Ben and Desmond, two of Lost‘s more interesting, important and by this point, most inconsistent, characters. I can imagine a Lost without both, sure, but it’d be a much more boring show.)