I recently listed J. J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof’s Lost as one of the few television shows to really strive for greatness. Watching the third season now on DVD, I’m more convinced of this than ever.
I recently read an article about cranky critic Harold Bloom, who among other things has excoriated the National Book Awards for giving Stephen King a lifetime achievement award, complaining that King was an author of “penny dreadfuls” and that the literary critics involved were “idiots.” On the other hand, Bloom has singled out a few icons of “literary” fiction — Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon — as, essentially, keeping literature alive in an era of public moronism.
Bloom is, of course, famous for lionizing, almost deifying, Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare myself, but there’s something unseemly about the way Bloom wants to promote his favorite playwright to some kind of separate, superior species. (Conversely, there’s something a little refreshing about the way the acid literature professor in Margaret Edson’s Wit dismisses him as juvenile compared to Donne.) It’s important that we not be too in awe of the past — something Bloom knows quite well, since the other thing he’s famous for is writing of the “anxiety of influence,” the fear writers have that they can’t produce original work, but are only mimicking the great writers who came before them. How strange, then, that he’s unable to see out of the shadows of the giants of past ages, to see the good and great work being done all around him.
I bring Bloom up because I think it’s easy not to see the entertainments of our own age as the revered classics of the future. Lost is, before anything, an amazing spectacle, on the order of the greatest tall tale ever told, a nonstop act of invention that just keeps topping itself, layering whopper onto astounding whopper, keeping us laughing with delight at its endless novelty, the sheer bravado of its impossibly complex plotting.
But all that manic plate-juggling serves a purpose beyond the sheer wonder of it. The constant switchbacks in Lost, the reversals of polarity in relationships between characters, the undermining of previous givens, the seemingly limitless reassignment of meaning to events, phrases, symbols, and objects, the expansion into every corner of experience — past, present, and future — of an ever more finely meshed web of interconnection — these are not mere rococo elaborations of a straightforward plot. They serve to create in the viewer all the hallmarks of paranoia — a sense that the common reality can’t be trusted, that people can never be fully known, that whatever “reality” you think you’ve discovered is at best a contingent one, to be undermined by the next set of connections and unmaskings.
Abrams toyed with this in his previous series, Alias: Sydney Bristow was always uncovering another secret society, another traitor who had infiltrated her inner circle, another mysterious connection between her family and the mystic Rimbaldi. But, for me, these connections never added up to anything substantial — they were MacGuffins, objects to be pursued, mysteries (in the boring, technical sense) to be unfolded. There was a lot of melodrama in Alias, a lot of betrayal, and Ron Rifkin’s Arvin Sloane was a cold, slippery pleasure in every episode. But with the possible exception of Sloane, no one on the show was complex enough or irreducible enough to be interesting (Sydney and Michael, in particular, were uniformly bland and heroic), and more importantly none of the show’s labyrinthine meanderings added up to much of philosophical import.
Lost, then, corrects these two flaws, becoming a proper work of (let’s say)literature, and all that technical prowess in story construction starts to serve a real purpose. I’ve written before about the show’s surprisingly rich characterization. But its tendency to induce paranoia in its viewers and, to a lesser extent, its characters has a peculiar and astounding effect. It’s a common and cynical observation that paranoia and religious belief have something in common — that both the paranoid and the believer tend to see connections between events where none exist (for example, a believer may feel that an unfortunate occurrence is God’s punishment for some past sin, although there is no causal relationship) and, more generally, both believe that someone is in control of everything that happens. This show, then, unbalances us in a way that potentially makes us receptive to the idea of non-randomness in the universe.
The carefully cultivated backstories of Lost‘s central characters are all about failure and guilt, their need for redemption, but also the need for punishment. The island tantalizingly offers both — Mr. Eko’s fate, in particular, suggests that redemption for some will only come through punishment — but to achieve any sort of release from their sins, the characters must be driven to an extreme state of mental dislocation by the island. It acts as a koan, a riddle that cannot be solved, whose paradox drives us to abandon our self-protecting rationality.
That issues of faith — often an explicitly Christian faith — are a paramount concern in Lost is beyond question. The island heals people miraculously. Kate has all the names of the Catholic saints memorized. Desmond is a former monk. Mr. Eko is a faux priest who is indirectly killed a real priest while trying to sell fake icons of faith (statues of the Virgin which actually house bags of heroin, which might as well be the devil for Charlie). Season Two’s plotline involving a button that may or may not prevent the end of the world is all about belief without proof. One episode is actually called “Man of Science, Man of Faith.” The shadow-figure behind most of what goes on the island is Jacob, whose name is first invoked in a deliberately Biblical fashion (“God loves you as he loved Jacob”). And the third season plays with the possibility that the “survivors” are actually dead and living in the afterlife (though whichever way you read it, they were already dead to the world of the living).
But Lost isn’t trying to teach us religious lessons — at least not in any Sunday-school sense. On the one hand, the show’s writers takes for granted that we know the difference between right and wrong — no neon sign comes on to highlight the characters’ sins. On the other hand, they treat both human evil and human virtue with utter, steely unsentimentality verging on cynicism. There is no moment — and this is another aspect of the ever-shifting nature of the show — where we are ever allowed to feel the easy satisfaction of a righteous conclusion. When two characters who’ve had an obvious chemistry finally get together, they inadvertantly decapitate the precarious social structure of the island community. When children (Kate, John) are re-united with their estranged parents, the reunion ends up being far worse than the separation. Torture is a recurring event on the show, and it almost always turns out to be the wrong move — and yet the victims of torture are frequently quite deserving, in possession of vital information, and willing to torture others in their turn. The terrifying kidnappings early in the series turn out to be, in a sense, an act of mercy — and yet even when we discover this there’s no sense that they were right or justified.
Evil and good lie side-by-side, their limbs entangled, in each human heart, and the show never attempts to warp our perception of this fact, never attempts to justify the evil on the basis of the good. It simply accepts and evaluates each independently. Eko ultimately rejects any judgement of his actions as wrong — yet he still seems willing to accept the punishment that comes to him. This is perhaps as close as the show comes to directly articulating its moral stance — that all our sins are necessary and perfectly justified, and yet there will be a reckoning for them.
Lost also seems perfectly willing to maintain some genuine mysteries. On the superficial level, I am sure that some of the more bizarre or supernatural-seeming aspects of life on the island will be explained. I find it hard to believe that the producers could bring the show to a conclusion without explaining the “Monster,” for example, or a good deal more about the Dharma Initiative’s experiments. But I think they could finish up without “explaining” why Desmond was transported back to his old life for one episode, or the existence of the giant statue on the beach, or where the polar bears came from. Indeed, I hope they do.
On a deeper level, although God is obviously a character in this show (existing at least, as mentioned above, as a principle of non-randomness), I think the writers will do well to steer away from that shore, to let God stay in the background. The show does as well as it does in exploring moral and philosophical difficulties precisely because, despite the fantastical trappings, heaven is no more a part of these characters’ lives than it is in the lives of real people — which is to say, it’s there if you want it, it can have a profound impact, and occasionally it seems to manifest itself in unexplainable phenomena, but it never tilts its hand, never forces us to accept its presence, its aid, or its judgement of our deeds. There is judgement, and the entire structure of the show leans towards the implication that our past deeds will catch up with us. But how this happens is, at present, dimly understood, just as it is in real life. The show accomplishes its purpose simply by getting us to consider the possibility of interconnectedness, causality, and divine justice in our lives, and it would be a mistake, I think, to to draw the lines any more clearly or simply.
It’s not certain, yet, that Abrams, Lindelof, and their writers will be able to maintain either the show’s narrative integrity or its philosophical mystery for a full six seasons — the demands of one may at some point undermine the other. But the attempt itself is so thrilling that one can’t look away.