We can learn a lot about our society from watching “Lost.” This isn’t because “Lost” is some sort of deep, philosophical work. On the contrary, “Lost” is ridiculously shallow. It’s also ridiculously entertaining, and its shallowness is at least part of the reason.
When “Lost” first came on the air, a lot of critics were fooled into pegging it as a character-driven drama. It’s not. Every character on the show is a pulp fiction archetype. There’s the hero with inner demons. There’s the rebellious Southern con man. There’s the leading lady who’s supposed to be tough and kind of feminist, but is in fact whiny and has done everything in her life in response to various men. There’s the drug-addicted musician. There’s the conflicted Arab who used to torture people during the war. There’s the fat, crazy guy who acts as comic relief. There’s the evil, manipulative mastermind. There’s the second evil, manipulative mastermind who might be even more evil and manipulative than the first. There’s the loser who kind of wants to be an evil, manipulative mastermind. These are one-line characters. Everything you need know about them you now know. They’re entertaining, but they’re not well-rounded.
What tricked those early critics into thinking these characters would be interesting twists on the archetypes, rather than just the straight archetypes they turned out to be, was the innovative structure of the show. As nearly everyone who’s still reading this probably knows, each episode was split between present-day life on the island and a flashback to a single character’s life before the plane crash. Spending so much time with the characters created the impression that they must be interesting. Except that they’re not. Thus, the flashbacks got redundant about halfway through the first season.
Sensing, finally, that the fans were sick of the flashbacks, the writers changed the formula. The flashbacks became flash-forwards. Instead of seeing what happened before, we see what will happen later. The writers’ gamble worked, and that part of the show is interesting again. And it just might stay that way. But it’s still just a structural Band-Aid. All the time shifting is fairly innovative for a television show, sure, but it lacks any real purpose beyond being useful for the liberal planting of plot devices.
But then, plot is where “Lost” really excels. The show is essentially a mystery, or a series of mysteries, filled with an endless parade of clues and red herrings. Fans pay close attention so as not to miss anything that may fill them in on what happens next. These same fans then complain ceaselessly when what happens next doesn’t happen fast enough. But they keep watching anyway, because the writers are so adept at pulling them in with twists and cliffhangers at the end of virtually every act break.
Because of the density of the plot, people often claim that “Lost” has a complex mythology. This conflation of plot and myth is problematic, however. I wrote a couple months ago that a good definition of myth is “story.” But I’m going to revise that. A better definition of myth is “story that defines.” In other words, it’s a narrative that says something about a person, or a place, or a culture, or an object. Plot is an element of narrative, but it’s strictly the “what happens” part. The real power of myth lies in metaphor: What does the story have to say about our world?
“Lost,” for all the involved back story, has nothing of importance to say. It has a couple heavy-handed themes and obvious metaphors, mostly about parent-child relationships, and that’s about it. If it can be said to be about anything at all, then “Lost” is almost entirely about what happens next. It’s plot for the sake of plot. As such, the mythology contained within the show is not at all complex; it is, in fact, barely there at all.
While the mythology in the show is as shallow as a kiddie pool, the mythology of the show as a piece of popular culture is more interesting. This is to say, what does the existence and popularity of the show say about the mind-set and culture of the society that watches it? It says, obviously, that we still respond to pulpy archetypes, that we have accepted the postmodern device of nonchronological storytelling and that we are entertained by serialized fiction. Books could be written on each of those items, but I’m more interested, for now, in the way we respond to the plot’s mystery aspect.
All myths have at their center a mystery. Paul referred to the mystery of the Resurrection many times in his epistles. Catholics still practice a traditional Communion, wherein the bread and wine are said to become flesh and blood. These are not mysteries that can be solved. There are no clues in the Bible as to how, exactly, this Jesus fellow rose from the dead or as to how, exactly, he transforms himself into food and drink. That’s not the point. Readers of these stories are supposed to analyze the metaphors around the mystery, to suss out the significance of the story to their own lives.
“Lost” represents a certain cultural bait and switch. Where once there was myth, there’s now plot. Fans spend hours poring over individual episodes, trying to find clues so that they can solve the central mystery of the show. In other words, they’re analyzing clues, not metaphors, to understand the plot, not their lives. They’re seeking answers instead of meaning. But when they find the answers, it won’t have gained them anything. It won’t have any impact on their lives at all. They’ll just move on to the next mystery, clamoring yet again for clues and answers, no meaning to be found.
This speaks to our cultural understanding of the world. Life, the universe and everything are mysteries. But we think that they can be solved, if only we can analyze the scientific clues to form the correct unified theory. We believe that the universe is all about history and science, what has happened and how it works. It’s what we happily call the truth about existence.
Likewise, many Christians have come to understand the Bible as nothing more than a big mystery novel, a really old episode of “Lost,” a collection of clues and facts that if read correctly solve the mystery of existence and explain scientific phenomena.
As we have become ever more obsessive about the plot of the universe, we have lost touch with the search for the meaning of the universe, often denying that it has any meaning at all or insisting that it has one obvious one. Even as we search for factual clues in our quest for truth, we scoff at metaphors and call them lies. Even as we try to solve all the mysteries of existence, we’ve lost all respect for the mysteries of existence. And we believe that this makes us enlightened, superior to all those before us who were too busy searching for meaning to figure out the plot.
Except that, literarily speaking, plot comprehension is for elementary school. Metaphor is the more advanced narrative element. Which is why “Lost” is an entertaining show, but not necessarily an intellectually stimulating one. It would be nice to think that life, the universe and everything have a bit more to offer.
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at email@example.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.