Part of a continuing series looking at maligned, misunderstood, and forgotten works of genre fiction and making the case for their reevaluation. If you can think of something that you believe to be badly in need of this treatment, send us a message– it may get featured!
(Warning: links may contain spoilers)
Ask an Average Person (if you can find such a mythical being) about Lost, the hit ABC series that aired from 2004 to 2010, and you’re likely to hear two things. That Person might dimly recall that it was about some castaways on an island. A few character names or the famous ‘smoke monster’ may also come up. Disappointment with the ending—a near-universal sentiment attached to the very name of the show—is another common response. The Sopranos or Game of Thrones—its successor in many ways—may edge it out now, but for a long time Lost was the byword for a show that didn’t stick the landing.
Regrettably, such hate for the finale, justified or otherwise, obscures the greatness of the previous 117 episodes. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Lost created, or at least ushered in, the blockbuster, fandom-saturated TV world we live in now. At the same time, it’s also the last great example of a zeitgeist-grabbing network TV sensation, perfectly balancing episodic and serialized storytelling, profundity and approachability. Of course it has flaws– from storylines that lead nowhere to occasionally inconsistent worldbuilding– but its many qualities and innovations more than make up for them.
Lost follows the survivors of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, which crashes on an uncharted island, leaving them stranded. They soon find this is no ordinary island; it’s home to ghosts, strange ruins, and physics-bending miracles that irrevocably change the survivors’ lives and draw them deeper into a grand, ancient mystery. That’s as much as I dare reveal, because the slow unveiling of the show’s narrative scope, from low-key survival drama to something far more mythical, is one of its greatest strengths.
Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse manage to navigate smoothly from an intriguing if hardly revolutionary premise to what— despite what the haters may say— I maintain is a satisfying and daring conclusion, juggling numerous complex character arcs and several distinct mysteries, all while weathering executive meddling, unexpected cast shakeups, and other contretemps. Lost emerges as a triumph of narrative over adversity, all the more remarkable for the profoundly unreceptive milieu it arrived in.
Consider the genre TV landscape in 2004– the last big mainstream hit was The X-Files, which had floundered two years before. Thanks to Enterprise and the film Nemesis, small-screen SF juggernaut Star Trek had been reduced to a punchline. Buffy had run its course, Firefly had its wings clipped before it could even establish itself, and Stargate SG-1 catered to a select geek audience. In short, SF/F was practically invisible to mainstream viewers (the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica revival would premiere later that year). Enter Lost, which instantly became a sensation, justifying its high production cost and generating a rabid following.
Blogs and message boards, then at their peak, became havens for feverish discussion and speculation that seized on every twist and wrung it for all it was worth— this was the birth of the online fan theorizing culture that is now practically inescapable. No wonder that TV Tropes’ term for wild plot theories is ‘Epileptic Trees’, an allusion to an infamous early theory for why the trees on the Island were always shaking. Spoiler: they weren’t having seizures.
Though Lost heralded a new era of more interconnected, intricate storytelling on TV, as well as the accompanying shift in fan discourse, it also represents the last expression of an age now past. From beginning to end, it was a high-budget network series produced in-house and aired in strict yearly seasons—essentially the same way TV had been made since the birth of the medium, despite the lavish Hawaii location shooting. Unlike the innumerable ‘twenty-hour movies’ of today, produced with movie stars and cinematic production values, Lost knew it was TV—and it was not ashamed.
The show tells a grand serialized story, but each episode still works on its own. Lost’s trademark flashback structure (counterpointing each episode’s main action with flashbacks relating a specific story from a particular character’s past) ensures that a casual viewer can get involved even without knowing every last detail about the DHARMA Initiative, Charles Widmore, or the Numbers. I’ve observed friends and family entirely unfamiliar with the show walking in on a dense Season 4 episode and finding themselves invested, despite not having the first idea why that guy was pushing that frozen donkey wheel and getting teleported to the Tunisian desert.
Another old-school TV pleasure that Lost preserves is found in its cast, which instead of A-listers, consists mostly of dependable character actors (standouts include Terry O’Quinn, Jorge Garcia, and Michael Emerson) who fully embody their roles without any movie-star persona getting in the way. Welcoming such a well-rounded, expansive group of characters into our homes on a weekly basis was once common, but with the increasing infiltration of the medium by silver screen idols—who inevitably eat up screentime, distracting from the ensemble—it’s starting to be a rare privilege.
That’s what makes the show so rewarding to this day: it gives us the complex narrative we rightly demand of high-profile genre TV nowadays, but grounds it firmly in sound emotional arcs and an extraordinary cast. As much as I love the intricate mysteries the show deliciously peels back over its run, it’s the characters that keep me coming back for rewatches. And I think that speaks to a larger truth: one of the greatest achievements a work of fiction can claim is to create characters so vividly that the audience can regard them as people in their own right– even, in the most remarkable cases, as old friends.
Which brings us back to “The End”. Many people understandably don’t want to emotionally commit to a narrative that they know won’t reward their commitment at the most crucial point— the conclusion. Let me put your fears to rest. Like many, I have my own complaints about the finale, but they’re all about choices made by the writers regarding the show’s mythology. More specifically, the episode’s latter half serves as the culmination of a major narrative decision made in the last season. These revelations recontextualize all the mysteries that came before it, a decision that may well have been misjudged. It doesn’t ‘ruin’ the mythos for me, but many prefer to disregard it, and I can certainly see where they’re coming from.
All the same, none of those quibbles affect how the finale handles its emotional stakes—the true heart of Lost. Every character beat in that episode, from the momentous climax to the many unexpected reunions peppering it to the ending that reminds us in the most moving way where it all began, is perfect and unquestionably earned. So, by all means, take the plunge—follow Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke, Hugo, Sayid, Sun, Juliet, Ben, and the others all the way to their respective ends. By the time you get there, you’ll have completed a twisting, exhilarating journey, and the destination will not disappoint. Trust me on that.
All six seasons of Lost are currently streaming on Disney+.