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.
In the flash-forwards, the camera acts like an unreliable narrator. Not in the Wayne Booth sense, in which a first-person narrator deceives his audience by relaying false information. Lost isn't The Usual Suspects. It's more like Muriel Spark's novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which uses an irregular time sequence to disorient the reader: We're told in a prolepsis that the title character has been dismissed from her job as a teacher; only much later do we learn the circumstances of her firing. In Lost, the viewer doesn't know how many years have elapsed since the Oceanic Six left the island, or what happened in the meantime. Did the other crash survivors die? Are they stuck as they were before? Or have they managed to escape off-camera? Without these vital plot points, viewers don't know whether to think of the Oceanic Six as heroes or as Judases who have somehow betrayed their comrades.
Throughout the first three seasons, Lost viewers knew more about the characters than the characters knew about one another. We knew that Jack and Claire were half-siblings; we knew that Kate was a fugitive, having torched her father's house. This season, the Lost writers have changed the game: It's unclear how much the characters have learned by the time depicted in the flash-forwards. We no longer have a leg up on the characters, or at least we're no longer sure that we do.
Take, for example, the episode "Something Nice Back Home," in which we see Jack and Kate raising Claire's baby, Aaron. During a fight, Jack snaps, "you're not even related to him!" In the past, Jack has treated the boy with relative indifference, not realizing that he is, in fact, a blood relation. Has Jack learned, at some point during the ellipsis, that he is Aaron's uncle? If so, he seems to be asserting his natural rights to the child and calling Kate's into question. If he hasn't, then it's a classic example of dramatic irony, in which the audience can find more meaning in a character's words than the character knows are there. (Only in a later episode, after weeks of uncertainty, do we learn that Jack had indeed discovered his connection to Claire and that his comment was a slight.)
Uncertainty has, of course, always been a part of Lost. From the beginning, the show's writers have masterfully deployed two conventional techniques for getting the viewer's heart rate up: surprise and suspense. A polar bear jumps out of the forest. Surprise! If Locke doesn't enter the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 into a computer every 108 minutes, the whole island might blow up. Suspense! Alfred Hitchcock thought suspense was the more effective technique, because it lasts longer. But what Lost has accomplished through its flash-forwards is even more nerve-racking. Instead of waiting for a bomb to go off or not go off, it's as if the viewers have been transported to a time after the bomb has or has not exploded—only we don't know which. Without a frame of reference, the viewers experience epistemological anxiety, doubting even their most basic assumptions about the world the characters live in.
There's a debate currently raging among Losties over whether the show's writers are making things up as they go along, like ordinary TV scribes, or have always had a master plan—a rare, more impressive feat. Perhaps the most cunning result of the flash-forwards is that they seem to support the latter argument: If the writers are showing us the future, they must have a good idea of how to get us there. But that's just an illusion. The flash-forwards work like a zoom lens, revealing a detail that doesn't make a whole lot of sense without the big picture. The writers can still fill in that big picture as they wish. Previews indicate that Thursday's finale will take a step toward connecting the present and the future. Here's hoping the writers don't get their soldering irons out too quickly—they'd be abandoning their most impressive trick yet.