Remembering ‘Lost’: A writer’s perspective

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I was late to remember that today is “Lost Day”, a very special date in the calendar of all hardcore fans of ABC’s hit drama Lost.  This article from USA Today sums up the relevance of today’s date (4/8/15), so give it a read if you never watched the long-running mystery-fest and don’t know why “the numbers” make today so cool.

I recently had the pleasure of re-watching the six seasons of Lost (for the third or fourth time).  Being already familiar with its myriad twists and turns, and having the luxury of watching out for early clues to important events in the final season, I could really have fun and marvel at the sheer brilliance of its writing team.

Lost was infamous for taking about three years to set up achingly potent mysteries and holding off for another three years before answering them (I stopped just short of making notes to make sure there were no loose ends), and even though some fans insist that there are unanswered questions, the ones that remain are so minor that I have difficulty believing that the writers ever set them up deliberately – they clearly didn’t have any major importance to the canon of the show.  Debate in the comments section, people.

Lost has been complete for several years now and it’s still one of the best examples of a long-running narrative to date.  It was short enough to not lose too much of its focus (I’m looking at you, Season 3) and long enough to provide not only an intimidatingly strong ensemble cast of characters, but an all-encompassing mythos that covered everything from everyday coincidences to the quintessential battle of good versus evil on a cosmological scale.

I could write a whole book on Lost‘s glorious successes and irritating flaws, but I’ll restrict myself to these few paragraphs.  I’d like to present some of the things that Lost did so well through the eyes of a writer, to further glorify an awesome show that you should all go and watch again right now.

1. Taking an idea and running with it – all the way
Lost did this so, so well.  We know that the writing team had a full overview of the concept from day one (despite clearly padding out the middle of the show with a few extras). Forearmed with a few years’ worth of key plot points those guys clearly had the room and talent to get the most mileage out of every drop of potential.

Every character on that show was fully realized and strongly defined.  Even the ‘bland’ characters (i.e. those who weren’t fugitives, murderers or psychics) were memorable.  Everybody remembers the high school science teacher with a Napoleon complex, and the single father who would do anything for his boy.

Every storyline was explored to its full potential.  In retrospect, the whole idea of black versus white, good versus evil etc. seems to have been embedded in the show from the very first episode (and indeed it was – see pic) but it was very late in the day that all these threads are pulled together into the complex tapestry of the show’s final three seasons.  The past, present and future are laid bare, as are the two sides of an aeons-long conflict viewers knew nothing about until late in the game.

Locke Lost

Take for example the concept of “the numbers”, to which several whole episodes are devoted, and which expands from one character’s delusion that his winning lottery ticket numbers were cursed, to all of the following:

  • A mysterious signal that has been sent out from the island via radio for 17 years (branching further into sub-plots about historical visitors to the island, warped personal family dramas and crushing insight into one of the show’s main “villains”)
  • A buried, hermetically-sealed “hatch” which functions as a valve for the island’s unique explosive electromagnetic properties (branching further into narratives relating to fate, some deep psychology, and time travel, which itself becomes a lynchpin of the show’s later seasons)
  • A form of insanity that spreads like a disease from the island’s inhabitants 30+ years ago, to unlucky passing aircraft, and to sanitariums that housed at least two of the show’s pivotal characters.
  • A major theme of fate and individual purpose, in the form of numbered “candidates” to replace the timeless protector/s of the island

Way to explore every possibility, guys.

The time travel aspect of Season 4 onwards is much bemoaned by some fans, and that season became a threshold for those who would persevere and those who decided they had better things to do with their time (ironically). But love it or hate it, it’s a perfect example of a basic concept introduced in the first or second season and expounded upon until it becomes a narrative device for linking several storylines and characters in one of the neatest twists ever.

Lost-Timeline-Infographic-lost-16650617-2560-1656

2. At last: balanced dialogue
One of the reasons I can’t stand being in the room when there’s a soap opera on is the dialogue.  Dialogue in soaps is just fucking awful, and it’s one of the reasons that I can’t take any soap fan seriously.  Exposition is so clumsily handled that  literally roll my eyes during every scene I have the misfortune to watch.  The rest is casual in the extreme, designed to amuse simpletons with paper-thin, clown-like characters who say funny things in unrealistic ways before side-stepping for the next block of tedious exposition.  When it comes to actually being serious, the writers are incapable of making their characters speak like human beings.

A specific example is Two and Half Men, which thankfully concluded a couple of months ago with the biggest train-wreck of a finale the likes of which I have never seen, nor probably (read hopefully) will ever see again.  Formulaic and laced with predictable non-jokes from beginning to end, the writers never managed bother themselves with actual characterisation, believing that it’s enough to simply bluntly state the same character trait over and over again for tired (canned) laughs.  Comedies such as the late Friends and Frasier trod a fine balance between the farcical and the dramatic without a word ever sounding out of place (although some credit must go to the talent of the actors).  Other shows, like the phenomenal Breaking Bad, elevated dialogue to the point that it was almost Shakespearean, again without the audience ever sitting back and going “No-one would ever say it like that”, even though they would have been correct.

Lost deserves a similar accolade.  Just watch any of the episodes (perhaps bar the Pilot, which was always going to be a hard sell) with your “dialogue ears” on and you’ll be amazed at how everything from exposition to quips, banter to confrontation or romantic exchanges are perfectly tuned.  There were a few exceptions – Dominic Monaghan often couldn’t wrap his mouth around Charlie’s acerbic dialogue, and Fionnula Flanagan (in one of TV’s most grated performances) either had shockingly written lines or simply wasn’t a match for their high-faluting nature) – but I don’t believe I’ll often see the likes of Lost‘s dialogue in terms of practical brevity, dramatic charge and sheer entertainment value.

3. Giving the finger
The Lost writers had no qualms about stretching their concept to the maximum.  They clearly knew that there was enough talent on board (and enough of a fan base) to go as far in any direction as they wished.  Fancy a bit of time travel?  Why not.  How about gods and monsters?  Let’s do it!  Despite teasing fans with the possibility of a thoroughly modern scientific explanation for everything that takes place on that island, when the writers wanted to go mystical, or even full-blown Saturday morning cartoon, they didn’t hesitate, despite what Hollywood snobs were no doubt thinking.  If we are afraid of putting off some of our audience, we will only ever play it tame – and nobody gets excited about tame.

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4. True equality
I shouldn’t have to point out how righteous ABC was in deliberately choosing a true international cast for its multitudinous characters.  The good news is that the show pulled it off without making much of a fuss about it, even though years later I came across some amazed-sounding early reviews, primarily from the States, where they should be embarrassed and ashamed for even noticing.

Over the course of its six year run, Lost featured characters/actors from America (including African Americans), Australia, England, Scotland, France, Russia, Iraq (a character was Iraqi, the actor of Indian descent), Africa, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Italy, Korea, Canada, New Zealand, and China – and that’s just off the top of my head.  Actually it was amazing that this didn’t reek of a set up, but the concept allowed it to work naturally and it was beautiful.

This wasn’t all surface, either.  One of the show’s gimmicks (and I’m not besotted enough to be blind to Lost‘s many gimmicks) was flashbacks to flesh out the character’s (often secret) lives pre-castaway, and it was clear that the writers and producers worked hard to understand how these cultures sculpted (not defined) their characters.

Why is this worthy of mention?  Because too many films, books and TV series are crammed with white American or British characters, many conspicuously so, and real life just isn’t like that – at least, not where I come from.  But then, Sheffield, England is a very cosmopolitan city.  And no, tossing in an fundamentally white character disguised as a token black or Chinese guy doesn’t count.

There’s a lot that writers can take away from Lost, and just because it’s over doesn’t mean it should be forgotten.  Rewatch, if only for Sawyer’s nicknames.

—db

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