Story debt and Lost’s first season

Warning: This contains spoilers for the first 28 episodes of the TV series Lost, originally aired on ABC in 2004-2005. If you haven’t seen these episodes already and do not wish to know about them, you have been warned.

Initially, I’d avoided Lost. I knew from past experience that JJ Abrams, the creator and executive producer on the show, was only good for about a season and half before he jumps the shark. But over time, so many of my friends kept telling me this show was different, that weird stuff was supposed to happen on the island, that it was worth it. So when the first four seasons showed up on Netflix to watch online, I decided to give it a shot.

Three episodes into season two, I stopped. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the first season very much, and it sparked some interesting insights on writing, particularly in driving home that every one of your characters is the protagonist of his or her own story, that they should all have baggage in the background. But I stopped watching because of another observation about the show and how it has been written. It became obvious to me that the writers couldn’t pay their debts.

Every time you pose a story question in fiction, you incur a debt to the reader. Eventually, you have to pay that off by answering it in a satisfactory way or the reader, justifiably, feels cheated. The problem I had with Lost as it started up the second season, is that I didn’t like the answers I was getting, didn’t think they paid off all the teasing suspense.

Consider:

Q: Who are “The Others” Rousseau was so scared of?

A: A bunch of thugs on the other side of the island. This fell well short of the almost magical, invisible, whispering specters we were led to expect.

Q: What is the giant, unseen creature that killed the pilot?

A: A plume of black smoke accompanied by a mechanical, clockwork chattering. This is, again, very disappointing compared to the T-Rex we were all imagining. Hell, even the critter from Abrams’s “Cloverfield” would have been better.

Q: What was under the hatch?

A: A long shaft into an apartment/lab housing an athlete Jack just happened to meet years earlier. This is our introduction to the Dharma Initiative, a group founded 35 years before by a bunch of hippies to do sociological experiments. It’s not only unimpressive, but doesn’t really even have a hint of sinister.

Now, I know from friends that there are a lot more twists and turns in store and that not everything is what it seems. But in a sense, that’s the problem.

Serial storytelling has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. For a long time, TV, comics and other serials were episodic in nature. Episodes were largely self-contained, and it didn’t matter much what order you saw them in. This is because each episode looped back to end where it began. The episode started with a disruption to the status quo, the characters worked to resolve the issue, and the episode—or rare two-parter—ended when the status quo was restored.

In the past two decades here in the US, the trend has been to “novels for television” where we don’t restore the status quo at the end of each episode, but rather follow a longer story arc across an entire season. In some cases, like Babylon 5, the story arc may even span the entire series.

In a lot of cases, this model works just as well. For example, each season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer has a distinctive flavor and tone all its own as each season has a different villain whose ultimate defeat awaits in the season finale. But the catch is this only works if you know where you’re going when you set out.

Lost doesn’t have that. It borrows what little structure it has from a much older form of television: the soap opera. In soaps, produced daily often 52 weeks a year, there isn’t time for the writers to give a lot of thought to how they’re going to pay things off. Instead, they go for whatever plot twists they can get away with to keep people coming back. The lengths the writers inevitably have to go to in order to explain such drastic shifts in the plot while maintaining continuity with the past has become a running gag.

And ultimately, I can see that’s where Lost is headed. Early into its second season, I was already seeing connections between the characters and between the characters and their environment that stretched the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. It was getting out of hand because the writers clearly had no end in sight. They were just writing themselves deeper and deeper into corners they could never possibly find a logical, satisfying way out of. Every time they raise the bar yet higher and posit another plot twist, they are writing a check their story can’t cash.

One thought on “Story debt and Lost’s first season”

  1. I would agree with you 100% up until the beginning of the third season (approximately) where, I assume, they got called to the carpet on this and set an end date. As soon as they publicly announced that they would have 7 seasons of Lost and then it was over, the story changed dramatically. No longer were they making it up as they went along, but they had a finish line they were marching towards. I implore you to get through Season 2 as it’s the worst season. From Season 3 on it’s an amazing roller coaster ride.

    Another good example of this type of storytelling is Battlestar Galactica.

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