Even including the disappointing series finale, I believe Lost is the finest drama in network television history. No series before or since has exhibited such bravery, inventiveness, or attention to character. Lost was and remains a true outlier in the wilderness of network programming. It stretched the limits of the televisual medium in ways no other series, including those on cable, ever had before. It stands with The Wire as one of the only shows to remain truly unique. There’s a direct link from The Sopranos to Mad Men and Breaking Bad; there’s nothing that comes close to resembling the approach and sociological exactness of The Wire. Similarly, there is nothing approaching the narrative method and attention to character in the fashion of Lost.
The brilliance of Lost begins with the stunning “Pilot” episode and does so in more ways than one. As an episode in itself, the Lost pilot is utterly unforgettable and completely compelling, the likes of which are unparalleled in television. More importantly, it introduced us to a cast of characters that would come to infect the psyche of an audience like a virus, bringing completely multidimensional human beings to the forefront of the viewers’ mind. Jack is not so much a lead character as he is a conduit to the ensemble. Jack is the viewers’ way-in to the universe of the show. The opening image is that of his eyes opening, just as the audience’s eyes open at the exact same time to the world of the series.
The pilot episode itself is the best pilot I’ve ever seen. It’s even better than the Twin Peaks pilot in my opinion. It looks better, moves better, and works more effectively than any other pilot I had seen to that point. It’s a perfect introduction to the series. We don’t get to know every major character in depth in the pilot, but we do meet them all. Its an amazing accomplishment; a feature-length installment laying the foundation for an incredible series.
What followed was simply stunning and utterly addictive. I fell in love with the characters; I cared about their lives, their feelings, and I wanted them to find redemption. I bought in completely. It helped that the the devices and methods used to tell their stories were so engaging. I loved the flashbacks and the way that individual characters would get feature episodes focused on them and their backstories.
That the series took its time to develop and cultivate the narrative arcs of its characters is paramount. The care and amount of detail the creators took to accomplish this is remarkable. The narrative brilliance of the show rests on the distinct feeling one gets that one knows the characters inside and out, yet are continually compelled by their unfolding stories and the revelations of new information. Lost was always first and foremost about its characters, never about the concept or cliffhangers for their own sake. The cliffhangers, secrets, and mysteries mattered because they affected the characters. The setting of the island functioned as something of a blank slate to explore the characters, to get them out of a familiar setting and reconcile their traits and their demons in a setting removed enough from their lives to be able to reflect on the past, but urgent and immediate enough to bring out their most prominent tendencies and put them in even sharper relief. Lost may have hooked people with the concept, but those who stuck with the show stayed around for the characters.
As a series, Lost was a complete experience. It worked on every level; it had you coming back week after week, thinking about the last episode and what might be in store for your favorite characters. You missed the feeling of getting regular installments during its long hiatuses (at least I did). Coming up with theories and arguing with your friends about them was such a huge part of the experience it really can’t be overstated. There’s something unique to watching it unfold over time as opposed to watching it now in marathon form.
Part of the reason I was so dissatisfied with the finale was that I actually enjoyed not getting answers to questions posed throughout the series. It was rewarding and stimulating for me to speculate about the meaning of certain things and the possible origins of some of the mysterious aspects. There are some things that don’t require an explanation.
I can quite honestly say that watching Lost (multiple times now) was one of the most rewarding viewing experiences I’ve ever had. It stands as a unique moment in television and science fiction history. It’s a shame there aren’t more shows like it but I doubt anyone could ever really replicate what Lost brought to the table.