Lost and Found

May 28, 2010, 12:16 a.m.

Television series, especially the best of them, thrive on offering a certain, reliable appeal. You watch a show, or choose not to, because you know what you’re getting. Even narrative television programs thrive on the rhythmic richness that can emerge from playing within a defined mode. The viewers of a series may find themselves debating the relative merits of an episode, or a season, of the medium’s standout shows–but they’re usually arguing with a set of shared assumptions of what a show is and what it should be trying to do.

Lost and Found “Lost” is “Lost” precisely because it isn’t like that–and its fans, past perhaps the first season, could and did come to the show for a dizzying variety of reasons. To its credit and perhaps to its detriment, “Lost” never broke decisively toward pleasing one supporting camp or another. Like the shifting alliances and intentions of its appropriately sprawling cast, the series never settled itself into a dependable, predictable focus or approach. The show has alternately focused on characters, thrills, mystery, myth and playful genre bending, with no discernible overriding preference. Through those shifts it has carried forward, picking up new ways of unfolding its mysteries and enriching its characters–new faces, new locations, new conflicts, new storytelling structures–while never fully discarding what had come before. Those who were along for the ride, whether for favorite characters, weekly thrills, larger mythology, religious or philosophical exploration or any number of other reasons, never could find it wholly satisfying or wholly worthless, even at its highest and lowest points.

The series finale of “Lost,” then, faced a burden an order of magnitude greater than the conclusions of other shows. Most television masterpieces face the challenge of staying true to what they have meant and accomplished, providing a meaningful resolution to a story or a worldview while not cheating on embodying it. “Lost,” however, had to accomplish this task while simultaneously answering a question it has beautifully, productively avoided answering: what is “Lost,” anyway?

This question, far more interesting and far more challenging question than any of the other mysteries the show had to answer in its final two and a half hours, was the central task the show faced in its finale, called “The End.” The episode offered two answers.

One was that “Lost” is, well, what it’s always been: an indecisive, lovable mix of strands and elements. With that in mind, the finale spent its first two hours and change bringing to a close the conflicts on the Island, the arcs of all but one of its characters and the sense of dissatisfaction and unease that had dogged the characters in the “sideways” universe. In doing so, the episode, directed by the immensely capable series veteran Jack Bender, uncorked a half-dozen of the best moments in the entire series. The sequence of Jack, Hurley, Desmond and the Man in Black around the well of light found the show topping all its prior flirtations with “Indiana Jones”esque modern mythology. The fight on the cliffs between Jack and the Man in Black, and the wrenching separations that took place afterwards, was as gripping as you could want. Sawyer and Juliet reunited in a scene that actors Josh Holloway and Elizabeth Mitchell played the hell out of. Hurley became, if anything, more likable, as he finally took up the role of leader. And the show’s far-and-away two best actors, Michael Emerson as Ben and Terry O’Quinn as Locke, got one last magnificently played scene that brought both of their characters to a dignified, satisfactory endpoint.

The material, tangible conclusion of the series came off in as riveting and satisfying a fashion as any fan could have reasonably expected. “Lost” brought this all off, however, avoiding the real question. And the final sequence, which has drawn the ire from a great many fans, offered only a puzzling answer. Jack’s conversation with his dead father, and the reunion of the characters in a church, made the sideways universe a lot clearer, but it’s very hard to say it had been built up to in a clear manner.

What to make of this last sequence depends on what you’re looking for. For viewers who take it as “the answer,” the show’s thesis, the reason for it all, I can’t imagine it working well. If you take the pluralism, artificial unity and reductive explanation of the series’ last few scenes as “the point”–we’re all included, it’s all okay and this has all meant one thing–it not only didn’t work, but even if it had, it would have betrayed what had made the show so unique and captivating. Any hope that you could narrow down what “Lost” is or was vanished with a finale that suitably honored the diversity of reasons viewers found the show so compelling, prior to the last scenes; but the final sequence took away even the satisfaction of the show content to be what it was.

So if the show’s creators intended it as a thesis for the show, or if you take it that way, then it was reductive and underdeveloped in equal measure. But as I pointed to above, “Lost” fans come for different reasons. And for me, I come for the moments. And you can take that last sequence as just the final series of moments for the show–a beautifully acted, eloquently rendered spiritual close for the show’s central character, combined with a reunion of the tightly-knit cast of characters the show has built up over the years. And if it doesn’t make a great deal of sense when you think about it, if it doesn’t spring organically from what the show had built up to, if it threatens the significance of some or all of what we saw took place over six years, as a moment, it worked–and quite well. The show closed by imbuing an admission of its utter and total failure to be anything in particular–the most essential and inviolable task of any artistic work, and none more than television–by feeling good about itself and the flaws that inevitably come about from its indeterminate approach.

I submit, then, that “Lost” was as great a success as I ever could have wanted, and that I also understand why it was so profoundly dissatisfying for so many fans. In “The End,” Lost could only be true to itself by not defining itself. Whether it did or not, appropriately, depends on what you were looking for.

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