As the end of “Lost” approaches — an extravaganza that will stretch from Sunday night into Monday morning on ABC — the natural urge is to join in the final frenzy of speculation. Who will live, who will die, and what did it all mean?
Since “Lost” itself favors oracular pronouncements, here’s one more: The show had one good season, its first. It was very, very good — as good as anything on television at the time — but none of the seasons since have approached that level, and the current sixth season, rushed, muddled and dull, has been the weakest.
That’s a typical television trajectory, especially for shows set up as closed-end mysteries. The difference now is that as “Lost” has hit a new creative low, the attention paid to it (if not its ratings) has hit a new high. But that makes sense: there’s an organic connection between the show’s decline and the particular brand of obsessive interest it inspires.
Back in Season 1, as the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 explored the island, “Lost” was a beautifully functioning machine. The mystery was intriguing and had an internal logic (the questions were smart enough that the answers weren’t immediately important); the action was well directed; the actors were attractive; the locations gorgeous; the production values high.
But that model wasn’t sustainable. The elaborate mystery on which the show depended couldn’t be maintained at the same level, and the characters and their relationships had been conceived entirely in terms of that mystery; they had back stories rather than lives. (Television history held some lessons: “The Prisoner” called it quits after 17 episodes; “Twin Peaks” was essentially done after one season. “The X-Files,” an entirely different style of show that in its early years emphasized character development and chemistry in its many free-standing episodes, squeezed out four or five good seasons of its nine.)
To keep the story going, the producers of “Lost” resorted to inflation, adding more plot points and more characters at the cost of coherence. A spooky tale about plane crash survivors on a strange island increasingly became a labored allegory about free will and destiny, individualism and solidarity. Mystery began to give way to mythology.
As “Lost” bogged down and its audience shrank — its ratings in recent weeks have been about two-thirds of what they were in the early seasons — an interesting thing happened: a core of viewers emerged for whom the endless complications, which were ruinous in any traditional dramatic sense, were the basis of a new sort of fandom.
In this sideways universe, making sense of the show became the responsibility, and even the privilege, of the viewers rather than the producers. The compromises and continuity lapses and narrative backing and filling that characterize all broadcast network series became fodder for a kind of populist biblical commentary, and the logical gymnastics performed to read authorial intention into every word and image and in-joke began to feel religious in nature.
And this new proprietary “Lost” obsession grew symbiotically with things like mainstream entertainment blogs (and their comments sections) and Twitter, until now there is a vast body of shared commentary and speculation that often seems to overshadow the show itself. Why bother writing fan fiction when you can feel as if you had a hand in the real thing?
It’s clear that the rise of “Lost” geekdom has encouraged fans, and critics who should know better, to celebrate the mythology — the least important element of the show, from a dramatic standpoint — while glossing over things like pacing, structure, camerawork and acting. (With a few exceptions, notably Terry O’Quinn, as Locke, and Henry Ian Cusick, as Desmond, the performances have been undistinguished since the first season, which may have as much to do with the conception of the characters as with the actors themselves.)
And while we can’t know what’s in the minds of the executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, they’ve devoted a lot of screen time in Season 6 to providing the fans with answers (when they haven’t been introducing new questions). Some fans, though, might have been happy to make do with fewer answers if it meant they could have a simpler, easier to follow, more exciting final season.
Among the best evidence that something new is happening with “Lost” is the fact that so many people, if their online comments are true, will be willing to change their judgment of the entire series based solely on how well the final two-and-a-half-hour episode satisfies their need for answers. Forget the first 119 hours — if you don’t tell me what happened to Walt, none of it will have mattered.
“Lost” has turned fans into critics and critics, including this one, into semiprofessional fans, and in both cases you can sense that some exhaustion has set in. The mood among many of the show’s followers as they confront Sunday’s finale seems to be a mixture of regret and relief. Whatever happens to Jack and Kate and Sawyer on Sunday night, we’re getting off the island.
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