Recently a friend of mine asked, “So what’s the deal with ‘Lost’?” Two hours later, we reached a comfortable end point.
By this, I do not mean I’d managed to explain the show in total. I mean we’d reached a point where I felt she now had a good base of knowledge.
(Seriously – no hyperbole. Two hours. As a friend, yes. I can be quite cruel.)
As a summer project, I’m watching “Lost” from the beginning. “Lost” is what can be referred to as “novelistic” television – a show that can and should be viewed, per episode, as a chapter in a larger story.
(The best example of this format is HBO’s “The Wire.” If you were to watch one episode from, say, the middle of the second season, it would mean nothing to you as a casual viewer. But watching it as a middle-chapter of a bigger story…whoa mama.)
While very much in this mold, “Lost” also has the unfortunate compliment of being a hugely successful show on network TV, meaning it’s got to be at least somewhat accessible to a casual viewer. So I was very curious to see how, taking the long view, the series has managed to build itself as a TV-novel, without enjoying the built-in benefits of an HBO series: wholly-plotted 13-episode season arcs, contracts for recurring actors who aren’t series regulars, and built-in end-points.
So, taking it from the top, Season 1:
The first thing to strike me about Season 1 is how slowly paced it is. More to the point, what surprised me is how slowly paced it is, while somehow keeping viewers. To this day, I’m really blown away that people got behind this show as enthusiastically as they did.
My theory is that the producers snuck this big fat epic story past viewers by making them focus on two things: the characters, and the day-to-day drama of surviving on an island when there’s no hope for rescue. No Dharama Initiative, no Others, no Jacob.
It’s not that this was crap they came up with later (there are a lot of vague allusions to it all, and there’s even a lot of visual motifs that show up as early as the pilot). It’s just that the focus was so squarely on immediate concerns to the characters – shelter, water, building a raft – that The Weird Shit (polar bears, visions of dead people, etc.) was mostly background noise then.
By design, “Lost” is probably the most character-based show on television. Its early episodes were almost entirely about getting to know the people on the island.
And boy, did they have a wealth of characters to deal with. At the outset, “Lost” had a massive cast, and watching it now, four seasons in, it’s clear to see the logic of the producers, as their story progressed and they got to see which characters had legs and which didn’t (and also when they write themselves into corners – I maintain that step-siblings Boon and Shannon were dead the moment the writers finished the episode where they, y’know…did it – gah, still weird, still weird!).
There was a remarkable sense of balance in the first season, too. Each episode moved the story along a little bit (as far as we understood it, anyway), while offering showcases for multiple castaways each episode. If anything’s been lost as the Big Story’s moved on, it’s that ability to service multiple character-arcs in a given episode.
(For instance: Did you know Michael, Walt, Sun and Jin used to have major stories? I know, it’s shocking, but in that first season, their very human dramas were center-stage.
Contrast that with, say, Season 2 character Desmond. Now, everyone loves Desmond - I blame the Scottish accent - but outside of his flashbacks, find me an epsiode where he’s not primarily standing around in the background looking confused.)
But eventually, we find ourselves at the end of the first season. Both the slave-ship The Black Rock and the first Dharma station found by Locke have been introduced. The last few episodes of the first season tell the viewers: “There’s no turning back now: We’re getting into The Big Story.”
And if I were someone just watching the first season for the first time, those two big portents would be a signal to me: Hop off the ride now, or hang on till the end.
I made my choice to hang on to the end pretty much from the pilot. Problem is, a lot of people didn’t realize they wanted to hop off until midway through the second season, and man were they pissed off as a result.
We'll deal with that very shortly.
Next Week: Season 2 (Or: Maybe It Was The Dharma Station, Maybe It Was Ana-Lucia, But Boy, Were People Pissed About Season 2.)