Oh well.

I was planning to live-blog the series opener of Lost this Sunday, pretty much aping the Guardian’s patented minute-by-minute update style.


I was really quite taken with this idea.

However it turns out I’m going to see Sebastien Tellier on Sunday evening instead of sitting in front of the TV, as a gig that was originally supposed to take place tonight has been rearranged.

I can’t complain too much about that as either way my Sunday evening will be awesome- but it does throw a spanner into my electronic-publishing plan of works somewhat.


Sebastian Tellier: spanner?

As a result, I decided to replace my liveblog idea with a series of posts that will try to capture some of the thoughts I’ve had about Lost over the years: why I think it is such a landmark piece of television programming (and much more besides) and why I have asserted confidently that it is the TV show that will be remembered most readily in future decades as defining it’s era.

There are four reasons for my plaudits, and as I’m going to go into each at some length, I’ve decided to make this post part 1 of a four-part series. I will try to post the other 3 reasons before Sunday’s premiere so I can add to the build-up of excitement in my own insignificant way.

The first reason I think Lost has significance other than simply being great telly lies in the way it tells a story.

Following the argument that Steven Johnson so memorably made in ”Everything Bad is Good for You“,  Lost is an important (if not the definitive) example of  popular culture’s evolutionary algorithm: mass-market TV shows will start to swell with characters, plotlines and sub-plotlines, story arcs, disassembled narratives and countless hours of ‘overspill’ content  in other in other types of media (webisodes, fan-generated content and references, homages and parodies) as audiences become  more culturally adapted to ‘reading’ the medium and therefore demand more complex experiences from it (eventually, Johnson argues, driving increased intelligence on a mass-scale as witnessed in the flynn effect).

Lost is undeniably complex, but what sets it’s particular brand of complexity apart from other celebrated TV shows like The Wire or 24 is it’s vagueness.

Vague complexity might sound a little oxymoronic, but an essential part of the experience of watching Lost is the sense (shared by the characters inthe show) that you have no idea what is going to happen next – not because the writers are deliberately attempting to out-fox the most committed plot-guessers in the way that a season of 24 does- but rather because what might happen next is simply not deducible from the what has happened previously.

Like the survivors themselves, the viewer lacks agency and insight: the most significant events in Lost‘s world happen to you, not because of you. It’s futile attempting to figure out what may actually be going on because the centre of the puzzle, the island itself, remains obscure; obfuscated in plain view.

This is not a dramatic device designed to keep audiences on the edge of their seat (the flow of a season of Lost is not nearly as frenetic as that) but rather a central part of how Lost‘s narrative world functions.

The Wikipedia entry for the show states that an influence on Lost‘s creators was the celebrated Macintosh computer game Myst, and the connection between the two worlds runs deeper than the obvious analogue of the mysterious island.


Myst became renowned because it was a computer game experience which subverted many of the norms of computer games- for example, there is no set time frame in which you must act, there are no enemies to kill or avoid, and there is precious little context other than what the player discovers through their interaction with the world. Discovering the conceit of the game is what the game is actually about.

This is also true of Lost– the storytelling paradigm is not one of an unfolding dramatic narrative- a grand story being revealed piece by piece- but rather one of exploration, investigation and extrapolation. So much of what is revealed is unconnected, seemingly random and with precious little indication of it’s relative importance versus everything else that the viewer’s response has to be to catalogue and file these story ‘bits’, attempting to delineate a ‘big picture’  through a process of connecting them. It’s actually a lot closer to an alternate reality game than a typical TV script, only without explicit viewer/player input.

I suspect that many of the questions Lost raises won’t be answered ever by the writers of the show- previous form would suggest it’s probably foolish to expect anything else.

I think that this is the reason why many people find the show (some even the idea of the show) so annoying- it feels like there is no grand plan and so therefore it cannot be worthy of the investment of time. Moreover, it probably doesn’t qualify as literary in the way that The Wire does, because this sort of ‘make it up as you go along’ schtick is simply not very writerly. Also, some people seem to hate it because it’s not Twin Peaks.

In a way, all these objections are true- but they miss the point for me because they are judging the show with the wrong set of expectations. The thrill of watching Lost does not lie in seeing an intricate plot device click satisfactorily into place- it doesn’t reward viewers in that way.

In fact, rather than making the viewer feel clued in, rewarded and powerful, the pleasure one derives from Lost is revelling in your utter powerlessness. Giving yourself over to the spectacle of it. Realising that everything you think you know is probably wrong.

The prototypical exclamation from a satisfied Lost viewer is not ‘aha!‘ but ‘wtf?

The shift at the end of season 3 and into season 4 from flash-backs to flash-forwards is a great example of this. We all believed that the story of Lost was the struggle to get off the island, and the role of the ubiquitous flashbacks was to give us all-important clues as to why the survivors were destined or fated to be stuck there: the flashbacks pointed us to the island, to the present- tantalisisng us with the promise of revelation.

To then be confronted by the sight of a future Jack, grizzled and troubled, far from the clean-cut leader of men we had become accustomed to and desperate to get back to the island moved more than the goalposts – it shifted the whole centre of gravity of the narrative, it knocked the wind out of us.

It was brilliant.

The complex yet deliberately vague way Lost tells us it’s stories is something worthy of celebration- if you approach with the right expectations. However, whilst the way the story is told is a key element of the Lost phenomenon, it is arguably not as groundbreaking as the way the story is written.

Tune in for more on this tomorrow 🙂