HOW TO WATCH TV: LOST AND ITS UNDESERVEDLY NOTORIOUS FINALE
While preparing to move out of New York City—don't worry, this is not a “why I left New York” thing—I started re-watching Lost on Netflix Instant. It was not a decision made in a lucid frame of mind, and it was not intended to be a whole-series re-watch; I believe the exact thought process was “why am I leaving New York [again, this is not a “why I left New York thing,” it's okay] oh my God what am I doing I should watch something okay what am I going to watch okay why don't I watch Lost until it gets boring.” My memory of the show was that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse spent three endless seasons jerking off and then finally figured out what the show was about after the writers' strike, leading to a dynamite fourth season, a giddily insane fifth season, and a sixth season full of filler episodes before the finale, which somehow out of nowhere negated the whole thing. So I started watching, figuring I'd watch the pilot and then entertain myself with more panic attacks about moving. But then a funny thing happened: I kept watching, several episodes a day when able, for the next few weeks, finishing yesterday. And I realized a couple things: first, that the "boring" initial seasons were anything but, second, that Lost has been done a great disservice in the collective memory of pop culture, and third, that the reason for the second thing is that a huge number of people who watch TV don't know how to.
This is, in addition to not being a “why I left New York” thing, also not a “good fan/bad fan” thing, like the kerfuffle that arose toward Breaking Bad's endgame over whether or not people should be rooting for Walter White. Rooting for a character to “win” in a dramatic narrative is fine, knock yourself out, just remember that the existence of that narrative is completely independent of your rooting interests, unless you happen to be the person writing it. The story is what it is, not what you as the fan wants it to be, and the writer(s) have no obligation whatsoever to cater to your desires. Vince Gilligan and his collaborators did a fairly remarkable job of satisfying the disparate demographics within their fan base; what complaints Breaking Bad's finale produced almost universally agreed that the ending was in keeping with what had come before, and were mainly centered around the skill with which it was executed. This was in stark contrast to the finale of Lost, over which people lost their minds.
Not to slight Breaking Bad, which is a thoroughly wonderful thing and does what it does better than just about anything ever has, but in terms of scale as an enterprise, and in terms of the logistics involved in shepherding (ahem) it into existence, it is dwarfed by Lost. Comparing the two shows as shows is silly, as their purpose as works of art are different in every meaningful way, but comparing their processes, in terms of how much (almost literal) sorcery it takes to bring something as unwieldy as Lost to rest at its completion, makes one sympathetic to the task at hand for Lindelof/Cuse et al. Watching the show for a second time, absent the near-hysterical investigative aspect of Lost fandom, which by the end of the last season was entirely concerned with how the show would end, the astonishing thing is how seamlessly Lost comes to its ultimate conclusion. Far from a contradiction of what had come before, or a sign that the writers had no idea what they were doing and punted, it is as graceful (and gracious) bit of metafiction as has ever been seen on television.
Lost, from the beginning, wore its literary origins on its sleeve. Characters were named after authors and philosophers, with at least tangential connection between namesakes, and when a character was shown reading, similar care was taken that the book had some significance (although perhaps not as much as message board detectives would think). Specific literary works, for the show's initial seasons, almost exclusively appeared in the form of allusions to works and incidents, but once the writers' strike halted production and, later, ABC set a date for the series finale, the form of the show shifted slightly. By the latter stages of the third season, Lost was a legitimate hit and its fanatic fan base firmly established, and its narrative shifted gears, with corresponding changes in form: as the show moved from its character-developing flashbacks to tantalizing flash-forwards, the ever-growing list of protagonists explored the deeper mysteries of the Island.
Something else started happening there, that took unmistakable, almost corporeal, form by the sixth and final season. The awareness of Lindelof, Cuse, and their writers that Lost was becoming the kind of adventure saga to its fans that had initially inspired them, as well as their (arguably too) open and candid relationship with the fans led to a reciprocal loop wherein Lost started consciously assuming the form of Your Favorite SF Story, with references to Star Wars popping up, an increase in significance and agency by the show's most “fan”-like character, Hugo “Hurley” Reyes (also, significantly, the one always yammering about Star Wars, which is to modern fandom as the Torah is to monotheism), and an array of self-reflexive dialogue that could just as well be with fans on message boards as between characters on the show.
The series finale is when the metafictional ribbon was tied around the package, with the gathering immediately before departing for the afterlife and then the characters all literally departing the scene into nothingness, following the turning over of the Island to Hugo as a symbol for turning the remaining unsolved mysteries or critical discussions to the fans. The final few minutes of the series finale, which scandalized so many fans, are in fact one of the warmest and most generous gestures by a show's creators to their fans, to say nothing of how direct it is. Lindelof and Cuse do everything but film themselves talking directly into camera saying “These past six years have been as much fun for us as they have been for you. Thanks for being there with us. Now let us bodily ascend to Heaven. Kind of. You know what we mean, not literally, just—all right, turn the camera off so we can cry.” The only problem was, they slightly misjudged the fans' generosity, and overestimated their ability to “get it.” As a result, the Lost finale, far from being properly hailed as a miraculous feat of narrative engineering, is instead dismissed as some kind of fiasco, and the reason why is that people literally did not know how to watch the show.
Perhaps one needs to have watched Lost to know how to watch Lost, but even if that is the case, that reassessment is absolutely crucial if one is to properly appraise it for what it is, as opposed to resenting it for what it was not. In order to do this—which, again, has nothing to do with having the “right” opinion about a show or finding the lead character annoying or any of that—one needs to watch the show itself and form judgments afterward, when what the show is actually doing is a matter of fact rather than speculation. If, as is the case with Lost, it becomes clear that some of the “unsolved” mysteries are in fact red herrings, be it because the actor playing Walt hit puberty at an inconvenient moment and they didn't think to write in a subplot about the Island accelerating the aging process in young males because arglebargle or otherwise, then the obsessive insistence that the finale is a failure because it didn't resolve things from two or more seasons previously is misguided. Judging it by its relative success at metafictionally presenting itself as Your Favorite Show is considerably more fair, since (even if that reading, my own, is wrong) it's at least based on something that actually happens on the show rather than something that isn't, and the judgment isn't based on a theory you and four other people on a listserv developed in 2005 that snowballed into an obsession that you expected, somehow, a team of writers (who are, somehow, now psychic) to adopt as canon five years later.
In brief, how to watch TV, and movies, is to watch what's there. Hunting for clues is fun, but letting the hunt overwhelm the experience of watching, like so many in the Lost fandom (including, in full disclosure, myself to a degree the first time around), is no one's fault but one's own. Damon Lindelof's foibles as a screenwriter are a matter for another discussion, but for Lost, at least, a number of people owe him an apology. The finale, taken as what it is rather than what it is not, is every bit the miracle as those the Island made its stock in trade. It's time to restore Lost to the status it, for lack of a better term, lost.