Did you ever hear the one about the 100 hour funeral?
Lost has always worked like a well-formed joke. At its centre, amongst all the stuff it catches flak for – the dips into melodrama, the mess of sci-fi ideas and apparently unconnected weirdness – has been an understanding of how a joke, that most basic shape of narrative, works. You set up some expectations, hold them for as long as you can, then knock them down.
If you don’t want to know the punchline, stop reading now. Go and watch all of Lost and then come back. I won’t be diving too deeply into spoiler territory, but avoiding discussion of important moments would rob this post-mortem of any actual insight.
Faith. Misdirection. These were the meat, the themes of Lost, and of the experience of watching it. The audience were the survivors on the Island, splitting into those with faith (those who stuck around till the end) and those without. The writers were the mischievous spirits behind the curtain slowly feeding us the mystery.
The thing about Lost is, as it pulled back that curtain – as it did repeatedly, in circles of slowly increasing size – we saw that whoever it was that appeared to have all the answers, was only slightly less clueless than we currently were. In the end, even God doesn’t really know what’s going on, is just trying to do his job.
And that’s the issue with the finale, where the writers stand naked before us and say, weakly, ta-da! There were no answers, really. Well, there were answers, here and there, and one Big Answer to one of those Big Life Questions, but that’s not what we queued and paid our admission for. That’s the thing about a joke. It all depends on pay-off: traditionally speaking, the journey doesn’t matter as much as that punchline. And you laugh. Or you don’t.
As a storyteller, Lost was one of those rambly comedians, strolling around the stage and trying to tell you about everything. And it’s too much and it’s ill-paced and you laugh here and there but it seems a bit messy. Except, afterwards, sitting in a bar with your friends you realise that that mess was crafted and honed, was on purpose.
…I’ve written and deleted several deviations from the theme now, on how Lost was like one of those escape-the-room puzzle games (each little clue opens up a new wealth of possibilities), or how it’s ironic that a show that opens with a plane-crash ended up being more about the journey than the destination, or how Lost was like an astronaut (it comes back but it’s never the same). It’s probably telling that I’m struggling to stick to one metaphor explaining how I felt about Lost. It’s a leviathan, a huge creaking rattling monster. Which, I guess, is natural for anything stretching over so many hours, so many years of my life, the work of so many different people.
I’ll allow myself one deviation: Lost worked a little like pop music. It’s silly, and it’s the kind of thing people look funny at me for loving. But, at its best, it delivered a shock of basal-emotion that bypassed all the correct channels. Or it worked by bending a familiar form: whether soap-opera or sci-fi. The Lady Gaga of TV, if you will, meshing weird ideas and strong iconography into something that bent back on its ancestry. The earnest stuff didn’t always work so well: in the same way I don’t tend to respond to pop ballads as well as clever-clever-post-modernism-you-can-dance-to*.
At times Lost stepped out of itself a bit and said, look, you don’t know if we know what we’re doing. And we don’t, in the way you think. And that was what a lot of the series itself was about. But then, in other ways, they knew perfectly what they were doing: how to wait the perfect amount of time before pulling the trigger and unleashing that trap door underneath your brain, most notably. How to tell a story visually, too. How to be funny. When they broke those rules, it was painful because you’d developed so much faith in this deified storyteller… This hasn’t ended up anywhere near where it began, and I think that’s fitting.