Lost: What was going on with the numbers?

Shane Murray 9 February 2010

Shane Murray wonders if Lost’s final season can resolve the show’s numerous, ludicrous plots

Over the past decade, television has changed massively. The eruption of the rash of reality shows and their subsequent popularity has forced broadcasters and production companies to alter their approach to serialised dramas, formerly the bread and butter of most channels.

The realisation that reality television can be cheaply produced and is hugely popular has meant that drama has had to become better in order to attract audiences and to continue to receive funding from the networks. The arrival of reality television has created two new strands of drama: the “maturing” version of television, such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, etc., which aims for a conspicuously different audience to Big Brother’s; and the re-invention of the serialised, pulp mystery as must-see TV.

Lost all but created this second genre, as its hugely successful publicity campaign and intriguing first few episodes immediately hooked a mass audience. Since then, we’ve had a glut of knock-offs (Heroes, Fringe, FlashForward), all aping Lost’s pulpy story-telling style, complex mythology, and wild, extravagant plot twists. Lost, however, has remained the most successful and the best of the genre.

As its sixth season starts tomorrow night in the UK, Lost stands as something of a flag-bearer for its genre and it remains to be seen if the structure and story-telling style the genre has been so indebted to can actually work. The epic, literary style of the “grown-up” shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire have been vindicated not only by these shows’ commercial success (in DVD box-set sales), but also by their ability to tie together blockbuster stand-alone episodes with an overall, slow-burning, but ultimately satisfying narrative.

Lost’s show-runners, Damien Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, face the challenge to achieve the same thing with their final season. Although Lost has arguably produced some great stand-alone episodes, so far its narrative arc is not secure. This is largely because of the way the show has been structured, with the writers piling mystery upon mystery, twist upon twist, deception upon deception. The creators have always claimed to have had the entire structure of the show mapped out (this has often been difficult to believe), but have written themselves into a corner where they have to clear everything up in the final season.

Can it be done? Maybe. However, what is more important than answering all of the questions and solving all of the mysteries is providing a satisfying narrative finish. It’s worth noting, for example, that in Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel The Big Sleep, the murder of one character was left unsolved. However, the story was still so coherent that even Chandler forgot about it until Howard Hawks asked him about it while making the 1946 adaptation. Lindelof and Cuse therefore don’t need to worry about the mystery so much as the story.

Luckily for those of us who have stuck with Lost (a dwindling number after the tortuous lack of progress in Seasons 2 and 3), the signs are good that the writers can tie up the story. The past two seasons have featured far more character development, while showing a willingness to kill off (or remove) characters who have filled their narrative purpose. While deepening and sort of explaining the mythology, the writers have managed to set up a battle of wills between some of the show’s most interesting characters – Locke and Benjamin Linus, and, in a surprisingly entertaining way, Sawyer and Jack. Whether the plot strands will successfully come together is unknown, but the Lost finale will be must-see television. It’ll either be a brilliant success, tieing together well over 100 hours of television, or it’ll be a glorious, massively entertaining failure.

Shane Murray