In the 1970’s, I always made sure I made time to watch The Prisoner, a British series that appeared on “public television” and which was an unofficial sequel to another British import, Secret Agent Man. Both starred the then incomparably debonair and deadly Patrick McGoohan. In terms of subject matter, casting, dialogue, plots, and overall style, nothing else on television could match The Prisoner. Only the last two episodes of the series were disappointing. They were bizarre, pointless and resoundingly off-putting.
As it progressed to its conclusion, it became more and more deterministic and existentialist in theme and tone. Perhaps if British broadcasting rules were not so egalitarian in nature – a successful, popular series at that time was not permitted to extend itself beyond a set number of episodes – The Prisoner might have concluded on a more satisfying note. I learned later there were production problems and internal conflicts that contributed to the series’ eclectic denouement, but I judge it was chiefly because the writers and producers did not know how to end the series.
Another series I have watched recently, less from enthusiasm and more from professional curiosity, is ABC’s Lost. Since my time is more or less budgeted, it was a choice between spending it to watch that or Fox’s 24. The latter I gave up on when the series lost both its moral and story-telling focus. That left Lost.
The two-hour finale of Lost’s third season aired the evening of May 23rd. On the basis of that finale, I do not plan, even from professional curiosity, to watch any of the fourth season in the fall. I would caution the reader here about plot spoilers to follow, but there is no plot to spoil.
Lost, according to ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson in May 2007, will end its run in its sixth season in 2009-2010. Its executive producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, stated that they had “always envisioned Lost as a show with a beginning, middle and end.” The implication is that the series has a plot.
But a beginning, middle and end are not the defining attributes of a plot. They are a consequence of any literary effort that attempts to tell a story, whether it is finely crafted or a random regurgitation of emotions. Any naturalist, modernist or Romantic novel or play can boast those attributes, from the unintelligible, stream-of-consciousness compendia of James Joyce to the plays of Terence Rattigan or Victor Hugo’s novels or the Mike Hammer novels of Mickey Spillane. A plot, as defined by Ayn Rand, is “a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.”
As a writer who has labored to produce fifteen plotted novels, and who knows how difficult a task it is to write an integrated, no-loose-ends detective or suspense novel (never mind a six-volume historical epic), it is my assessment that the writers and directors of Lost are simply making up the story from season to season, tailoring each episode and season to what they think the public likes, expects or demands, and combining it with their own whimsical predilections and fancies. While the producers promise that the sixth and final season finale will be a “shocker,” it is likely that they will be as much surprised by it as will be viewers.
In short, I doubt they or their writers know how to end the series.
So, there are no logical connections between any of the series’ episodes. Ergo, there is no plot.
Lost’s basic story is that some forty-odd passengers, flying from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles, survive a plane crash somewhere in the South Pacific and are marooned on an island. The series mixes elements of “realism” with elements of the magical or fantastic. The “realism” is represented mostly in the flashbacks of the principal characters’ lives before the plane crash. These are mostly naturalistic, anecdotal snippets, and the characters are burdened with some form of guilt that governs their actions on the island and their relationships with other survivors.
There are some shreds of plot in these conflicts, much like snatches of identifiable entities in a canvas of slashes and gashes. I suppose the writers will attempt to iron out a handful of these by series end. But, perhaps not.
The survivors’ first big conflict is with the island itself. They are immediately confronted with mysterious phenomena, such as a polar bear, a wild stallion, and the impossibility of radio contact with the outside world.
Characters who died earlier in the series or who were simply dropped from it appear and disappear before some of the living characters like the Virgin Mary to Bernadette at Lourdes. The island performs other miracles. One survivor of the crash, wheelchair bound because of his paralyzed legs, can suddenly walk. Minor injuries and wounds heal in a fraction of the normal time.
However, it is suggested in the third season that the island itself somehow caused Oceanic Flight 815 to break up in midair and crash into the surf.
In the original episodes, the survivors are menaced by a roaring unseen force manifested only by the path it takes through the jungle in the trees and plants it brushes aside. I suppose that later the writers decided it needed an identity. I half expected them to introduce a T-Rex, but the next time the force appeared, it was in the form of a roaring, predatory, volitional tornado or cloud.
The survivors’ other nemesis is a group called the “Others,” who may or may not be connected with evidence that the island was the site of a socio-scientific experiment managed by an organization, called the Dharma Initiative, which may or may not be a government operation. The “Others” raid the survivors’ beach camp for women and children and are generally and unaccountably inhospitable. While the “Others” are hostile to the survivors and make it clear they are not welcome on the island, they also act to prevent their rescue. It is revealed that women who become pregnant on the island die, but that the procreation potential in men soars.
None of this is explained, and I have not touched on a fraction of the strange phenomena that occur in the series. Now, from a story-telling perspective, it is appropriate to introduce the attributes of intrigue, suspense and mystery. But these must have a rational, logical basis and at some point in a story point to a rational explanation. Lost boasts an avalanche of intrigue, suspense and mystery, but none of it points to anything but the supernatural or the occult or the metaphysically impossible.
I must not forget the role of numerology in this series, as well. Numbers somehow possess magical powers to influence events and actions, usually for the worse. Also, one character, Desmond, has occasional “visions” of what will happen to other characters in the near future. He is not able to explain why he has these visions. They just happen.
Evidence of the series’ anti-reason theme can be found in the development of some of the better characters, who turn out to be straw men. For example, the formerly wheelchair-bound character, Locke, initially displayed an admirable, unapologetic virtue of self-sufficiency, exploring the island and even hunting wild boar. But his character was slowly chipped away, so that by the third season he mystically “bonds” with the island and becomes an unbalanced threat to the rest of the survivors on some mysterious mission of his own.
In the finale, he murders someone who was helping to rescue the survivors. He commits this action after having been fatally shot and left for dead in a pit atop a pile of decomposed corpses, his legs paralyzed again. One of the written off characters appears at the edge of the pit and orders him to climb out. Somehow, we do not see him actually climbing out, but presumably he rises like Christ from the dead, and, not knowing beforehand where the survivors are or what they are doing, emerges from the jungle, and finds them to commit the murder.
The next most appealing character is Sayid, a former Iraqi Republican Guard officer and expert in interrogation. Incredibly, he is the most consistently rational character in the series, offering correct assessments of crises and proposing proper courses of action. But, since the series’ writers hold a specific animus for rationality – aside from their playing fast and loose with viewers’ metaphysics and epistemology – I fully expect them to turn him mad, as well.
Wikipedia, in its long entry on Lost, reports on one of the producers’ and writers’ goals, which is to create a “mythology”:
“In parallel to its character development, episodes of Lost include a number of mysterious elements which have been ascribed to science fiction or supernatural phenomena. The creators of the series refer to these elements as composing the mythology of the series, and they form the basis of fan speculation.”
I do not think the use of the term mythology is accidental or arbitrary. Myths are usually founded on the actions of supernatural or imaginary beings from another realm who treat mortals as pawns or playthings for their own incomprehensible reasons. However, it is doubtful that Lost's writers are borrowing from Greek or Roman mythology to justify the hocus pocus events in Lost. Its aim is to treat existence or reality itself as a “myth.” Perhaps a better term would be hallucination. That puts it in the modernist, Kant-Hegel axis. It is the modus operandi character of the entire series.
Under the heading “Thematic motifs,” Wikipedia notes:
“There are several recurring thematic motifs on Lost, which generally have no direct effect on the story itself, but expand the show’s literary and philosophical subtext….There are also many allusions to philosophy, demonstrated most clearly in the distinct naming of certain characters after famous historical thinkers, such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, David Hume, Mikhail Bakunin and Richard Price.”
On the contrary, the thematic motifs are governed by Kant and Hegel. Things are not what they appear to be to the survivors’ epistemology, which is incapable of allowing them to see the “true” reality of their predicament. And the island itself is in a state of becoming “something else.” The historical names of Locke et al. are simply red herrings intended to decoy viewers from the con being played on their minds.
That, briefly, is Lost. The series won an Emmy in 2005 and numerous other television awards over the years. An otherwise fine cast lends some substance to the careening, haphazard story. The series has millions of fans worldwide and has produced cults and numerous spin-off games, “fanzines,” special websites, tie-in novels, and even “action figures.”
(It would require a separate commentary to speculate on why the series is so popular, and to perhaps delve into the psychology of cults and those who are drawn to them.)
To date, Lost has a core cast of about twenty, and a “guest” cast of over two hundred. A platoon of writers is responsible for the scripts, which are handed over to one or more of nine directors listed on the TV Guide website for the series. Doubtless the directors have the freedom to contribute their own little twists of “creativity” to the series.
Given this evaluation, I contend that neither the producers, nor the directors, nor the writers of Lost can say with any certainty how the series will end. If certainty is what they wish to destroy, they can hardly claim they “know” what they will do in the future, or even what they are doing now. Collectively, the series character they most resemble in philosophical and literary terms is Ben, the sadistic, “intellectual” leader of the “Others,” who refuses to tell the survivors what it is all about. That is because it is likely he does not know himself.
Why dwell on the esthetic and philosophical pitfalls of Lost? Because the series is a perfect mirror of the state of all the arts today. It has exhausted my professional curiosity.
When a program practically poses the question every five minutes – “What’s reality got to do with anything?” – that is when I tune out.