When Lost made its debut in 2004, it averaged 16 million viewers per episode. Critics routinely called it the best show on television; they lauded its "intricate" and "complex" narrative structure and its seemingly high-concept subject matter. But ratings have been declining steadily, and this year, despite ABC's massive advertising campaign, nearly 5 million people have abandoned the show. That's a shame, because only in the current season, which ends Thursday night, has Lost achieved complexity and intricacy worthy of the critical attention it's been receiving all along.
Throughout the first three seasons, the Lost writers took a "more is more" approach to thematic layering. They dabbled in postcolonial theory, pitting the attractive, tank-top-clad plane crash survivors against island natives, an unkempt group in flannel and polyester called "the Others." Allusions to social-contract theory popped up regularly. When Jack, the survivors' de facto leader, sees that his companions are reluctant to unite, he warns "If we don't live together, we're gonna die alone." And judging from names alone, you'd be excused for thinking Lost was a show about Enlightenment philosophes: There's a bald guy named John Locke and a mysterious French woman named Rousseau.
Lost was dense with allusions and knotty with themes, but none was particularly deep or meaningful. The mumbo-jumbo may have given the show a pleasing patina of sophistication, but viewers kept tuning in because they were hooked on the mystery of the island, not because they wanted a refresher course on Two Treatises of Government. Nor were the early seasons' vaunted narrative techniques actually all that innovative. Each episode followed an obvious structure reminiscent of a three-panel comic strip. The first few minutes advanced the central plot (the survivors vs. the Others). The next 30 minutes were filled with character-developing flashbacks to the survivors' pre-crash lives and with soapy romantic tension: Jack loves Kate, Kate loves Jack and Sawyer, Sawyer loves Kate. The last few minutes returned to big, arc-advancing events and introduced a new mystery, which in turn was developed in the first minutes of subsequent episodes. Consider "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues," an episode from Season 1. In the first act, Jack discovers that one of the Others has taken Claire hostage. Throughout the long middle act, Jack, while looking for Claire, has flashbacks to the day his father cut a patient's artery during surgery. In a brief final act, Locke finds a mysterious object buried in the forest …
Even from a seasonal, rather than episodic, perspective, Lost was fairly simple. Here's a breakdown of the first three years: 1) Are there other people on this island? 2) There are other people on this island. 3) Oh, my God, the other people on this island are mean!
But in the last episode of the third season, something unexpected happened. Instead of flashbacks, the show flashed forward to a time when six characters—called the Oceanic Six—have somehow managed to get off the island. The flash-forwards, which in Season 4 have largely replaced the flashbacks, may seem like more of the same—an opportunity for character development to fill the space between cliffhangers. In fact, however, the writers have shaken themselves out of the old formula—and are finally attempting a truly high-wire narrative move.