What makes Lost so good? The question arises while watching the DVD of Nowhere Man, a one-season UPN show from 1995 about a photojournalist (Bruce Greenwood) who photographs a secret execution and is subsequently made to “disappear” from society and its records by a sinister, shadowy organization that… well, you know what sinister shadowy organizations are like. This is your basic man-on-the-lam plot grafted to your standard-issue conspiracy paranoia trip — The Net plus The Fugitive plus The X-Files. If you like things summarized as a producer’s pitch.
In fact the show is both more and less interesting than its premise — more, because it has the courage to go weird, and do it often, and less, because all too often it misses its opportunities, jumping too easily at the obvious and failing to dig deeply into the interesting possibilities of its storylines. “Paradise on Your Doorstep,” an episode in which victims of the sinister, shadowy organization create a small town in which to hide, for example, quickly loses steam when it becomes a cloddish allegory about freedom and the penalties of yielding liberty to secure safety. In a post-9/11, post-Patriot Act, post-NSA-wiretapping America, there is something satisfying about hearing the star of a primetime action melodrama stand up for individual rights against a snooping, controlling government, but this show was made in 1995, and it’s just bad. Its sentiments are right, but its plots are so thuddingly obvious because they are so often in service of “big ideas.”
Another episode, “A Rough Whimper of Insanity,” treats on the subject of people who spend too much time with computers and not enough time with people. Important, to be sure, and timely, too. But the subject itself is a little bogus, or at least it would make better comedy than anguished melodrama, and the filmmakers here display so little familiarity with the capabilities and appearance of computers — even computers as they have been portrayed in other films — that you wonder if they were maybe the last people in Hollywood still cutting real film for television. Certainly they can’t have come within a stone’s throw of an Avid suite. And I’m pretty sure if they saw one, they would throw stones at it. (The title, by the way, is an anagram of “Information Superhighway.” Clever.)
The show’s producer, Joel Surnow, is a well-known conservative (he famously hosted Rush Limbaugh at a cast party for 24), and one can feel a certain anti-collectivist, anti-government philosophy struggling to break free of the wet paper bag that is the show’s writing. But this philosophy is so clumsily articulated that it becomes embarrassing — Joss Whedon’s Firefly expresses similar notions of the worth of the individual and the oppressiveness of government, but it’s also fun, largely because it’s got more going on than just its David-and-Goliath plotlines. (More on this in a moment.)
Nowhere Man benefits from some decent direction by Tobe Hooper on several episodes (I wonder if it was his idea to open the pilot with a collage of images and dissociated sounds), a few bursts of rough television poetry in the narration that opens each episode, and some very fine acting by guest stars like Ted Levine, Richard Kind, Maria Bello, Mike Starr faking a Southern accent, a truly wacko Dean Stockwell, and Carrie-Anne Moss, who, for the duration of her episode, actually brings a sense of credible human reality to the ridiculous situation. Which is exactly what’s required. At some point the outlandish plots would probably have to be woven together and made sensible, but even if they weren’t, a little bit of genuine human observation would probably have carried it a long way.
Which brings us to Lost. The show is, let us grant, a spoiled child, with every possible advantage — spectacular photography, gorgeous Hawaiian locations and an equally gorgeous cast, smart research, a handsome effects budget, and the stewardship of J.J. Abrams, whose stylish, paranoid Alias suggests what Nowhere Man could have been — an overwrought melodrama of alienation and the loss of identity mixed with a deliciously exaggerated spy game. Doubtless Abrams’ previous success bought the show a great deal of license, and that must have helped, too.
But none of those elements explains Lost‘s artistic success, except the presence of Abrams and his writers. Because what really makes Lost work, raising it above not only B-sides like Nowhere Man but also Alias and X-Files and pretty much every other paranoia-mongering show out there, is its beautifully calibrated balance between three separate narrative weights. The most obvious one is the stuck-on-an-island survival rut, but equally important to the show (and given roughly equal treatment) are the pre-crash lives of the survivors and the odd, unexplained phenomena that haunt the island and suggest that some deliberate force has brought these people to the island.
Too many shows of this kind rely too intently on the mystery to keep viewers engaged (X-Files was especially guilty of this), making them ultimately the television equivalent of Agatha Christie novels — interesting until you find out who the bad guy is, and then completely disposable. In television, of course, since there’s really no “end,” it’s possible to keep spinning this out indefinitely, teasing viewers along with clues every episode but never bringing the main problem to a resolution. That works for a while, but eventually the library of evidence becomes either overwhelming (and exclusive for anyone trying to jump into the show a season or two late) or self-contradictory and dumb.
Other shows try to make the moment-to-moment lives of the characters interesting, giving them strong single-episode arcs. Nowhere Man‘s creator Lawrence Hertzog, according to this article, wanted to make the show more of an anthology, like The Fugitive, and included the longer arcs only reluctantly. But I would submit that Hertzog was on the wrong track — an anthology show, in the long run, weakens the main character and makes him more generic, because he will inevitably have to bend and flow with the needs of the weekly stories. It plays to serial television’s strengths far more to have episodes flow from the ongoing development of the character and his relationships. For the record, I don’t care much for the original Fugitive either, and for the same reasons. (On the other hand, a real anthology, like The Twilight Zone, can be quite effective, but it must be understood as a set of short films with a common theme, not a singular “show”. Stephen King has said, with some justice, that only about 1/3 of the episodes of that show really lived up to the hype — but that was enough to keep viewers coming back, because they knew that every week they were getting a completely fresh show.)
Still other shows, including Alias, focus on the effects of the conspiracy (or whatever) on the lives of the people involved. This is better, perhaps, but it does beg the question: are these characters really interesting, or has their predicament made them interesting? Certainly it’s hard to imagine a show based around Thomas Veil as a photojournalist and devoted husband, or Fox and Mulder cracking check fraud cases, and while Abrams and Jennifer Garner could probably have made a decent show out of Sydney Bristow, college student… well, you see what I mean.
Lost, on the other hand, not only examines the scenario at hand and its effects on the characters, but it gives us at least half a dozen backstories that would make good shows in their own right — a former interrogator in Saddam’s Republican Guard looking for the woman he helped to escape years ago, a wheelchair-bound office flunky with dreams of military adventure, a handsome, slippery grifter whose childhood had been destroyed by a grifter, a cheerful kid who wins lottery money that bring him nothing but misery, and so on. We proceed with these characters confident that we’d be interested in them even if they had never been brought to the island, because we’ve seen them off the island, dealing with everyday life in its petty and its grand moments.
It’s tempting simply to put these three threads — the characters’ backstories, the challenges of surviving on the island, and the gradual unfolding of the island’s dreadful mystery — down as simply past, present and the anticipation of the future, the basic blocks of storytelling. But the show works very hard to make the flashbacks and foreshadowing more than simple suspense-generating devices. The three strands are, instead, made co-present, acting on one another, remaining relevant to one another, forming a coherent whole, yet each providing narrative relief from the other two. I’ve only watched season 1, so I can’t say how this holds up in the 2nd season or beyond. But so far, Lost, with its smart sense of the everyday and its patient exploration of character, looks to be the best long-run mystery ever put on television.