Ten years ago today, a man in a suit woke up in a bamboo forest on a strange island in the Pacific ocean, walked out onto a beach, and ran into a scene of pure chaos.
The first scene of LOST, with this man running between pieces of plane wreckage, shouting orders and saving lives while people panic and scream and plane wreckage explodes, is one of the most memorable first scenes of any show in television history. From the very start, it was clear that the show was something different, something special. The beautiful Hawaiian scenery makes it stand out, as does the impressive set piece that opens the series.
The first episode is movie-like in its scale, its cinematography and its budget. Famously, it was the most expensive pilot (hehe) ever made at the time, and the chairman of ABC got fired for pitching and commissioning the show because of its enormous cost – but he got the last laugh. LOST became a massive, unprecedented hit in America and internationally.
Millions of people all over the world waited eagerly for another weekly fix of island mystery, character drama, emotional flashbacks and shocking cliffhangers. Each episode arrived with an enormous amount of hype. Each episode felt like an event. It was appointment television that you had to watch, or you’d miss out on what everyone else was talking about the next day, in real life and online. There hasn’t really been anything like it since, though Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones have come close.
Other networks tried to copy LOST‘s success by producing shows with a similar formula: big cast + expensive pilot + high-concept mystery + sci-fi bits + flashbacks = Success. Flashforward and The Event were two such shows, hyped up by networks as the next big thing, but both were cancelled after one season and poor-to-mediocre reviews.
In their desperation to hook the viewer in with a big WTF moment, expensive spectacle and clever use of flashbacks (and forwards), these shows missed what made LOST so great.
Yes, people tuned in for the mysteries and the craziness and the endless twists and turns and big cliffhanger-endings that left viewers with their jaws hanging open and their mind reeling from what they just saw. But what got the audience really invested in the show, especially during the first season, was finding out who these plane crash survivors were.
Each week, we got an extended look at one character’s pre-crash life through flashbacks. These were crucial to making us care about what happened to these people for the rest of the series. If we didn’t care about them, then we didn’t care about anything. All the weird dangers they faced would be meaningless if we didn’t care about whether they survived whatever the island threw at them.
Exploring their daddy issues or failing marriages or inner demons also helped to ground the drama in some sort of realism, even as the show’s plot became increasingly complex, convoluted and downright mad. A polar bear on a Pacific island was just the start. Over time, the show’s sci-fi elements became increasingly prominent and the character drama sometimes suffered because of it. However, when the show’s expansive mythology and sci-fi stuff was expertly mixed with its character drama, it created enthralling and extraordinary television. The episode I mention in my Favourite Christmas episodes post (warning: spoilers) is a great example of that.
In the derivative copycats that followed LOST, mystery was prioritised over character, so when The Event‘s promotional campaign asked insistently ‘What is THE EVENT?’, the audience replied with a resounding ‘Who gives a shit?’.
The mysteries of who the characters were, what they did in the past, and what’s going to happen to them next were often more interesting and emotionally engaging than the mysteries of the island. When the show began to run out of things to reveal about our castaways, when it began to focus more on the island’s mystery, it was still gripping – for example, season five’s story was jam-packed with revelations about the island’s history, and it was fantastic – but the cracks began to show and things began to fall apart a little.
A lot of people – or maybe it’s just a vocal minority, on the internet, it’s difficult to tell – hated LOST’s ending with a passion. Questions were left unanswered, and the answers that were given were deemed to be not good enough by many.
I disagree, but I can understand why it inspires such passionate vitriol. Without spoiling anything, the reason given for the island’s special-ness is extremely vague and a little nonsensical, and the final season was easily the worst season of the show.
The plot dragged, characters who could answer everything stubbornly refused to do so, a couple of episodes featured everyone literally sitting around and waiting for something to happen, and a big mythology-heavy episode that people hoped would reveal more about the island’s ancient past did so in a way that was rather disappointing and raised even more questions. It was so disappointing that that episode is now almost-universally hailed as the worst episode of the series, with the possible exception of the episode about the fascinating origin of Jack’s tattoos.
And yet, a lot of people who disliked the final season were still moved by the last episode, which mostly ignored the mysteries and focused heavily on what happens to the characters, because we cared about them, because the characters were well-written and because the cast gave extraordinary and memorable performances. Some won awards for their work on this show, and deservedly so.
While we’re on the subject, the ending was extremely polarising. There was a whole spectrum of reactions, from people who loved it, flaws and all, to people who despised it and hated the show for wasting six years of their life (apparently, for some people a bad ending automatically and irreparably negates any joy, excitement or fun memories that they had watching the rest of the series. I do not understand these people).
I have heard several criticisms of the finale, many of them perfectly reasonable and valid. Initially, I loved it and overlooked its issues, but now I’ve cooled on it slightly. I still like it, but not quite as much, and while I think that many of the finale’s problems are due to the underwhelming sixth season that preceded it rather than the episode itself, I can totally understand why people were angry and upset, even though I wasn’t.
However, there are some people who I completely disagree with, because these people have managed to spread a baffling misconception that is not only objectively wrong and factually inaccurate, but puts off other people from watching LOST, which is infuriating because they are spreading misinformation to people who might enjoy this show. LOST is a lot of fun. It’s gripping, it’s exciting, it’s moving, it’s tense, it’s baffling, it’s bloody nuts. Say what you will about the ending, but the rest of the show ranges from great to excellent.
If you have been told that the show is awful and not worth your time because ‘none of it matters, they were dead the whole time, they all died in the plane crash’, then disregard it, ignore it, whoever said that is a fool. They may defend it with ‘that’s just my opinion’, but it’s not opinion, an opinion is subjective, and what they are saying is not subjective, it is Objectively. Factually. Wrong. It’s the equivalent of them saying ‘Don’t watch Breaking Bad because Jesse turns into a dolphin halfway through’, it’s utter nonsense and I have no idea how they came to that conclusion. And I will, in a brief and spoiler-free way, explain to you why this misconception is a load of bollocks. If you don’t really care, skip ahead to the image after this one.
As I’ve said, flashbacks were a key part of the show and, near the end, they’d run out of stuff to show about our characters’ pasts. In season six, the writers did something a bit different. They showed us a strange other world where the plane didn’t crash and everyone arrives in LA and gets on with their lives. This isn’t a plot spoiler, by the way, as this look at an alternate universe has literally no effect on the plot whatsoever. As it turns out, this place isn’t actually some sort of alternate universe, it’s something a bit weirder.
At the very end, it is explained to Jack that this timeline where the plane never crashed, this place that we’ve seen throughout the final season – and only the final season – is a sort of purgatorial waiting area. The characters have died – on island, off island, wherever, whenever – and end up there to meet up with the people closest to them, remember their lives, and move on together into the light and whatever comes next. It’s quite sweet, actually. I know for a fact that I am not the only one who was moved to tears by the characters meeting up and remembering each other.
The truly odd thing is that, for once, the writers went out of their way to clarify and explain this twist. Jack realises where he is and what happened to him, says “I died” and another character explains that, yes, he died and ended up here, in this purgatorial waiting area, but everything he did on the island when he was alive was real, it happened, and it mattered, and the time he spent on the island with the other plane crash survivors who became his friends was the most important part of his life.
When he was alive.
After the plane crashed.
On the island.
Viewers who think that they died in the crash must have heard Jack say “I died” and immediately switched off the TV or something.
Alternatively, they may have clung to a very popular but frequently discredited old theory that the island was purgatory and the plane crash survivors were all actually dead (the show often played with this idea, but always made it clear that this wasn’t the case). Perhaps after Jack said “I died”, they shouted ‘I KNEW IT!’, turned off the TV and did a little victory dance. Then smugly told all their friends some rubbish about everyone being dead the whole time when, if they had listened for just a minute longer, they would have been proven spectacularly wrong.
Some people were still peeved. This reveal meant that half of the final season had been spent on what was essentially a long tease, a misdirect, an extended epilogue showing the characters meeting up in the afterlife that had nothing to do with the rest of the final season, which continued the island storyline. And if that’s why you don’t like the ending, if you think that that was a waste of time then fair enough. But they weren’t dead the whole time. The show explains this. Clearly. In plain English. If you think they all died in the plane crash, then you are wrong. Accept it. Move on.
Anyway, if you’ve never seen LOST before and you’re still reading this, and you’re still not entirely convinced that it’s worth a watch, then I’ll wrap up this post with a couple more reasons why it was such an incredibly fun show to watch week-to-week. I’ve spent a fair chunk of this post on the show’s lacklustre final season and its divisive ending, but this certainly shouldn’t put you off. It’s still worth catching up on now. You’ll have missed all the theorising and ‘OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT?’ discussions and the agonisingly-long waits between episodes and seasons, but you’ll get to binge-watch the whole thing without needing to wait, you lucky so-and-so, and experience the show like one long rollercoaster ride.
I mentioned earlier that each episode was massively-hyped and anticipated, so much so that it felt like an event. Well, for each season finale, that hype increased considerably. Every pop culture website was abuzz with articles on how the season finale was the biggest event in the TV year, how everyone was looking forward to it, etc, etc. These finales were, like the pilot, movie-length.
The writers often saved their craziest moments, biggest action sequences, and most shocking developments for these feature-length episodes. And each one (except for the last one) ended on a cliffhanger that changed the course of the show forever.
One of these last-minute twists was so big, so game-changing, that adverts for the next season couldn’t actually show a single second of the new season, because it would have been considered a huge spoiler. Not a single image. The promotional photos for the next season were just cast members in front of a blank grey background, and a metaphorical ‘Last Supper’ group photo.
The soundtrack is also worth mentioning. LOST had an incredible soundtrack. Michael Giacchino’s work received widespread acclaim, and now he does equally-impressive film scores. His soundtrack is stunning and, when combined with great acting and camera-work, elevated scenes to perfection. Sorry, if you can’t already tell, I was a big fan of LOST and I’m trying to write this post without using massive amounts of fanboyish hyperbole. It’s tricky. However, in this case, the hyperbole is warranted. Giacchino’s soundtrack is excellent, and it made several moments – jungle chases, reunions, deaths, island exploration, the final minutes of the series, etc – tremendously affecting.
I could go on, but I’ve just hit two thousand words on this thing and, frankly, that’s enough for now. This has been a vague overview of the show’s impact, its success, its strengths, its weaknesses, and, of course, its controversial and irritatingly-misinterpreted ending.
It was tempting to do a far more spoilery post about my favourite characters, episodes and moments, but perhaps that can wait for another time.
Thanks for reading.