As seen in issue 56 of Closer Magazine, published on 2009-03-27 in the "Fashion" section.
When Did LOST Jump The Shark?
Mysteries Are Reviled. Audiences Are, Um, Lost.
By: Brandon K. Thorp
Easy answer: Lost jumped the shark in the first ten minutes of Season 2, when viewers finally found out what was in the hatch. It wasn’t the innards of an alien spaceship. It wasn’t a portal to another universe. It was a flaky Scot on an exercise bike.
I realize I’ve already lost any non-Losties who may reading this, but you should understand: this is what Lost does. It divides the world into initiates and tyros, and after not very long you cease even trying to make sense to the latter. Sampling even only the first two hours the series will hook you, fill your mouth with incomprehensible jargon and force you to either convert or abandon all your oldest friends. And all for nothing.
It actually seemed worth it back in Season 1, when every episode was like a sustained head rush and viewers had the giddy feeling that, somehow, this show might explain… everything.
Lost begins in the aftermath of the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, which had veered off course and fallen onto an unnamed bit of land in the Pacific. The island was full of weird critters: a polar bear, a band of primitives with white skin and American accents, and a great, noisy beast who was strong enough to rip an airline pilot through a cockpit window. What was this creature? How did a polar bear make it to the South Pacific?
And what of the strange ties shared by 815’s survivors? One’s drunken daddy once banged this one’s lonely mum; a working-class survivor was once employed at a box company owned by another, richer survivor; this one recently had a drink with another survivor’s estranged father. Add in some supernatural elements (the island apparently has certain healing properties) and some stylish filmmaking, and whammo: Lost was a deeply addicting, potentially profound megahit.
Or, in a simpler formulation: Mystery + aesthetics = commercial and artistic success. Lost’s current dwindling audiences have been partially attributed to the rise of TIVO, but I believe it’s due to the elimination, or the banalization, of these two critical elements.
The stylish filmmaking was the first to go. In Season 1 everything seemed like a portent. The producers knew they had us off balance, and they exploited it every chance they got.
There’s a moment at the end of the third episode that exemplifies the point: a major conflict has just been touchingly resolved, and the camera pans back from two reconciled friends on the beach. Tinkling guitars rise in the background, and we see that the music is
emanating from the Discman of a survivor named Hurley.
The song is Josh Purdy’s “Wash Away”: “I got troubles, ah, but not today/They’re gonna wash away/They’re gonna wash away.” A succession of quick shots show us scenes of healing. A squabbling couple is shown in a moment of tenderness; a brother and sister who usually hate each exchange a shy, sad smile. This is the first moment of the series when we sense that a community could arise; that there could be more to this show than a brutish struggle for survival.
The song ends just as the camera approaches a man from the rear. This is John Locke, a weirdo in his late 50s. A day earlier, when the survivors’ beach was pummeled by tropical rain and the other survivors ran for cover, he sat Indian- style in the sand and smiled beatifically at the sky.
In this scene, everyone is as happy as John Locke was in the rain. Yet as we circle around to the front of Locke’s balding head, the music turns sour and Locke is not smiling. His face is warped, full of calculation and a gruesome, protean intelligence mulling something unthinkable.
Is John Locke the Devil? Did he crash the plane? Into this blankness, audiences could project anything they wanted, everything they’d ever hoped to see in a novel or a movie or a show. The feeling persisted even if we didn’t know exactly what that those things were.
Unfortunately, Lost no longer deals in these smart sequences, because smart scenes like this one take their power from our ignorance. Lost is a story, and like all stories, it had to reveal itself eventually.
A central theme of Season 1 was the unopened door: Locke, stumbling through the jungle, discovers a metal hatch in the ground and spends the rest of the season trying to pry it open. Finally, he blows the lid off with dynamite — thus readying us for the debut of that damned Scotsman.
Once we get to know the Scot, he’s a good guy. But he is never as exciting as the big metallic mystery from whence he came. In Season 1 it seemed okay to believe anything about the hatch: It was the Stargate. It contained the Seven Veils of the Apocalypse. How can a poor Scotsman measure up?
After ruining this source of wonderment, producers J. J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber try to recoup: they know that mysteries are their bread and butter. Who built the hatch, anyway? And what was it designed to do?
But mysteries are subject to the same inflationary laws as money, and eventually one realizes that none of the show’s answers will ever be as profound as its questions. By Season 5, Lost had changed from a Survivor-esque drama with supernatural overtones to a timetraveling revenge opera--without ever once saying anything interesting.
The producers knew they were screwed, and they developed a strange new tic: as each scene ended, a character made some painfully obvious statement, to which the other characters responded with long, stupefied looks, as though that statement were the most shattering thing. It happened in every single episode beyond the middle of Season 2, as though the producers decided to trick us into stupefaction: Look at how stunned the survivors are! Aren’t you stunned too? It didn’t work. It was embarrassing.
Abrams, Lindelof, and Lieber are true aesthetes. They know what profundity might look like, and they gave us its appearance. But as they learned too late, six years is too long to float on appearances alone. That they can’t figure out what to put beneath Lost’s bright, shiny surfaces means only that they are better aesthetes than philosophers.